From “China in Revolt” by Eli Friedman
The Chinese working class plays a Janus-like role in the political imaginary of neoliberalism. On the one hand, it’s imagined as the competitive victor of capitalist globalization, the conquering juggernaut whose rise spells defeat for the working classes of the rich world. What hope is there for the struggles of workers in Detroit or Rennes when the Sichuanese migrant is happy to work for a fraction of the price?
At the same time, Chinese workers are depicted as the pitiable victims of globalization, the guilty conscience of First World consumers. Passive and exploited toilers, they suffer stoically for our iPhones and bathtowels. And only we can save them, by absorbing their torrent of exports, or campaigning benevolently for their humane treatment at the hands of “our” multinationals.
For parts of the rich-world left, the moral of these opposing narratives is that here, in our own societies, labor resistance is consigned to history’s dustbin. Such resistance is, first of all, perverse and decadent. What entitles pampered Northern workers, with their “First World problems,” to make material demands on a system that already offers them such abundance furnished by the wretched of the earth? And in any case, resistance against so formidable a competitive threat must surely be futile.
By depicting Chinese workers as Others – as abject subalterns or competitive antagonists – this tableau wildly miscasts the reality of labor in today’s China. Far from triumphant victors, Chinese workers are facing the same brutal competitive pressures as workers in the West, often at the hands of the same capitalists. More importantly, it is hardly their stoicism that distinguishes them from us.
Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.
More importantly,workers are winning, with many strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and, as in the United States in the 1930s, the central government has found itself forced to pass a raft of labor legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social insurance payments for the first time.