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City of Youth: Shenzhen, China

Robert Weil is a senior fellow at the Oakland Institute and author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of “Market Socialism” (Monthly Review Press, 1996). The research on Shenzhen was carried out together with Fred Engst, who also helped review notes and early drafts of parts of the material. Any remaining errors of fact or analysis, as always, rest with the author alone.

Since ancient times, people have dreamed of a City of Youth, where the population never ages, and where any outsider who comes to live there will remain forever young. They probably did not have in mind, however, the “agelessness” of today’s Shenzhen, China. Lying just over the border from Hong Kong, this “instant city” has grown in just over twenty-five years from a small fishing village to a sprawling metropolitan region approaching ten million people. As the first Special Economic Zone in China, it was a model for the capitalistic “market reforms” and “opening to the world” initiated in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. One of its most striking aspects is the low average age of its residents, which has hovered for years at around twenty-seven. This stands in ever sharper contrast to China as a whole, where the population is rapidly aging.

While some 95 percent of those who live in Shenzhen moved there from other parts of the country, its youthfulness does not result from the birth of new generations by its residents. Rather, it reflects the young age of most who come to the city—many in their early teens—and the rapid turnover of those working in its industries. In 2005, only 1.65 million of those in the city had hukou, long-term residential rights, while more than 4.32 million migrants had lived there for more than one year and more than 4 million less than one year (Shenzhen Daily, May 27, 2007, Most work for only a few years in the mainly export-oriented factories, after which they are let go as “old,” or they quickly burn out under the harsh working conditions. Some move on to seek jobs in other cities, or even return home to their villages. Many leave before they reach thirty, and few last in the plants into middle age.

The vast majority of these young migrants are from the poor rural interior. For some, it is a matter of finding bright city lights attractive after the hard life and isolation of the countryside. But their migration also reflects the transformation of farming itself. Young workers say that a new level of mechanization—small-scale tillers, pesticide and fertilizer dispensers, and processing machines—makes daily work easier on the farms now. These technological advances have increased productivity and reduced the need for labor. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2004, competition from food imports—most Chinese soybean production for example, has been undercut—has also pushed the younger generation off the farms.

Extremes of Labor and Capital

Even a short visit to the city in the summer of 2006 revealed the prevalence of very young workers, and the depths of their exploitation by large and small employers, whether mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese companies, or foreign owners. The introduction the two of us had to the harsh conditions of labor and life came quickly, after a walking tour of one of the main outlying factory districts, an hour-long ride from downtown. As we caught a bus back to our hotel at eleven that first night, among the handful of other passengers were three very young men who had just completed a 7 am to 10 pm shift at one of the plants of the largest company in the area. Despite fifteen hours on the job, they said they would only be paid for ten, including two hours overtime. With one unpaid hour for meals subtracted, they were in effect giving four “free hours” of work to the company. They complained they were totally exhausted, but were required to stay at the plant to finish a “rush job.” Young as they were, they did not stand out in this area. Three others waiting at the bus stop after their shifts looked to be only fifteen to sixteen years old.

We met many such workers, and heard similar stories of abusive conditions, like the young women at the next table in a restaurant, who had started at 7:30 am and gotten off at 8:00 that night. They told us their “official” shift ends at 3:30 pm, but the next crew is not scheduled to start until 7:30 pm, because it is so common for overtime to stretch well beyond eight hours. Something close to twelve hours is the normal shift for these young women. Similarly, a seventeen year old from Hunan province we met at a roller skating rink late at night told us he had just worked for eleven hours. The same story was repeated with only slight variations by virtually all the younger workers we met on our walks through the factory area. Many of the young people complained of the toll taken on their minds and bodies.

The brutal exploitation of these young workers is the foundation of the rapidly growing wealth of Shenzhen. Even in a country transformed in just three decades from one of the most egalitarian in the world to one having among the highest and fastest growing rates of economic polarization, the extremes found in this city are especially dramatic. In its gross domestic product, the income of enterprises accounts for over 50 percent, that of workers only 30 percent, and that of the state 15 percent—an enterprise–worker gap wider than in any other Chinese urban area (; Human Resources, no. 7 [July 1, 2006]). With its many soaring skyscrapers and shiny green glass Shenzhen Stock Exchange tower, Shenzhen is now the richest city in China. A 2004 report found that it had an average income of 23,544 yuan ($2,843), almost double that for all cities at 12,216 yuan ($1,475) (Victorinox Hong Kong Lmt.). The most relevant comparison may, however, be with the low average rural income, which in 2005 was around 2,500 yuan ($300) annually (Associated Press, September 21, 2005). It is this widening gap, along with harsh conditions on the farms, that draws millions of young migrants to the factories of Shenzhen and the other urban centers concentrated in the southern and eastern coastal regions, which produce the vast flow of Chinese exports.

The rapidly expanding wealth of these cities rests directly, therefore, on the poverty of the countryside, and its enormous reserve army of labor. With almost 1.3 billion people in China, around one in ten are now migrants. Investors come from all over the world to take advantage of this seemingly bottomless pool of workers.

iPod City

The largest enterprises in the Shenzhen region are virtually complete cities unto themselves. In the suburban area where we based our investigations, Longhua town in Baoan district, the main company is Foxconn Electronics, the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industries, Inc., of Taiwan, which at its wholly owned subsidiary Hongfujin, makes iPods for Apple and motherboards for Dell, among products for other U.S. companies. It has only been in Shenzhen since 1993, but already has 240,000 employees, with plans for up to 300,000 in the near future, and eventually as many as a half-million. As the biggest foreign operation in the area, and the largest of the Taiwanese manufacturing companies on the mainland, it exported $20.7 billion in goods in 2005 (“Foxconn Refutes UK Media Labor Allegations,”, June 1, 2006). The Longhua “mega-factory complex…is the world’s largest electronic-components work space” (San Francisco Chronicle, July 16, 2006), and its mini-city is measured in square miles, occupying a vast complex of production plants, administrative offices, and housing.

The central downtown districts of Shenzhen may gleam with newfound wealth, but one would not know this walking through the environs of Foxconn, where block after block of dormitories and private apartment buildings for workers already look shabby, though most were built within the last few years. At its factory gates, on the streets, and in area restaurants, it is easy to find many whose stories make starkly clear how the enormous wealth of the capitalistic “new” China is accumulated.

At a Foxconn dorm for women, a lower-level supervisor gave us a sense of the vastness of its “company town” environs, and the regimentation under which its hundreds of thousands of workers live and labor. This single facility houses five thousand female employees, yet it is only one of forty-eight such dorms for men and women. The workers get free housing, with a minimum of six or seven to a room, and in some cases many more, with three rows of double bunk beds—so crowded and noisy they cannot sleep properly. Most younger employees live in these dorms, and every time they pass in or out, they must slide their badges over an electronic data recorder. They are not permitted to cook, even on a hotplate, and no visitors of either sex, including family members, are allowed. The dorm rooms are not air conditioned, but since the factory floors are, this is a further stimulus to overtime and weekend work as one way to escape the intense summer heat (San Francisco Chronicle, July 16, 2006). When they are first hired, the company gives workers a brief course of what the supervisor referred to as “military training,” the purpose of which is to ready the young “recruits” for industrial discipline. Married couples and children are excluded from the dorms, and live in nearby apartment houses.

One of the young women told us she is on the job from eight to eight each working day, but is only paid for ten hours, because two hours are deducted for meals. Day and night shifts rotate every three weeks, making it hard to adjust to the grueling schedule. Most workers eat at the plant cafeteria. They are allowed to go outside for meals, but rarely do so, in part because they would have to pay for their own food. The lowest rank workers earn only around 1,000 yuan ($120) per month, including overtime pay, approximately fifty cents per hour, not counting free food and housing. A group of technicians from Taiwan we talked with confirmed that the standard working day on the plant floor is ten hours, two of which are overtime, but that if production requires, may include Saturday and even Sunday at double time without any rest. These technical employees themselves work twelve hours per day, six days a week, but do get a week off after thirty-five days, during which they are flown home to Taiwan at company expense. All those employed at Foxconn have some limited benefits. If workers get sick, they can go to a factory clinic, and in cases of major illness, they can go to a hospital, with the company paying 80 percent of the cost. For terminal conditions such as cancer, fellow employees take up a collection. If women workers become pregnant, they get three months off and can keep their jobs, though most leave after giving birth.

As activists familiar with the city explained, Shenzhen employees are entitled by law to certain benefits that are guaranteed after ten years at any one enterprise, including open-ended, rather than fixed-term, contracts and retirement plans. But workers who try actually to claim their right to insurance, medical, pension, and unemployment payments are often fired—and some even ask their employers to disregard these legal obligations, so they can keep on working. Governmental authorities collude with the enterprises in this process. When the city first announced the post-ten-year regulations, according to these labor activists, enforcement representatives from the city’s legal division advised employers to give workers one-year contracts, because if the employees do not keep copies, they cannot document their length of employment. In some cases, employees are fired after nine years or less, to avoid the ten-year benefit guarantee rule. Even technicians and higher managers are often forced out when they become “too expensive.”

‘Blood and Sweat’ Factories

We asked why, since the city undermines its own rules, it even bothers to pass such regulations as the post-ten-year benefits package. The answer was that it is one more way that authorities deceive the working class. Government and employers “wear the same pants” as the Chinese saying goes, but they pretend to act separately. City leaders may also have been pressured by national officials, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), or even NGOs that increasingly monitor and protest against abusive conditions in the plants. But with some 90 percent of the enterprises in the area foreign owned, and investment from abroad a key element in maintaining annual economic growth upward of 10 percent, local authorities are under great pressure to keep the new money flowing and owners happy. As a result, regulations are commonly ignored at the local level. It is for such reasons that Foxconn, and similar enterprises, are known as xuehan or “blood and sweat” companies, roughly equivalent to “sweatshops.”

Still it is considered one of the better places to work, requiring a high school education, along with good health and eyesight, a little English, and some technical training. At the even more high-tech electronics firm, Huawei Technologies, employees are required to have a college degree. Yet there too, abusive conditions are common. Xu Mingda, an economics professor at the local Shenzhen Association of Social Sciences, refers to the “‘mattress culture,’ in which every newcomer receives a mattress, which is put under the desk. Employees sleep on it during lunch break or whenever they work late and can’t or don’t want to return home” (English People’s Daily Online, July 5, 2006). Just a month before we visited the area, Hu Xinyu, an athletic twenty-five-year-old software engineer, who had worked at Huawei for a year, died of exhaustion. The government press reported on the case, and “everyone” talked about it on the Web, exchanging similar experiences and debating whether the excessive hours he worked were the fault of the employee or of the company, and if such practices are necessary for the rapid growth of Chinese enterprises. Other similar cases, however, go virtually unnoticed. This phenomenon, known as guolaosi, is becoming widespread, and affects intellectuals, professionals, and managers, as well as factory floor workers (, August 17, 2006; English People’s Daily Online, July 5, 2006).

But the conditions in these large electronics plants are far from the worst in the Shenzhen area. In the western sector of the city, where production of clothing, toys, and similar consumer goods prevails, the situation is generally worse, due in part to the higher ratio of women to men found there. In the electronics firms the numbers are fairly equal, and the workforce may even be majority male. In the clothing and toy factories, by contrast, many enterprises specify in recruitment ads that they only want women workers, who they consider to have superior “dexterity.” There the ratio approaches seven females to one male. Coming largely from isolated villages, where domination by men is rife, young rural women are considered more pliant and less aware of their rights than their male counterparts. Once hired, they are subject to extreme exploitation, in the form of excessive hours and poor working and living conditions, including sexual harassment, and even stricter discipline than at Foxconn and similar factories.

Outside of the large multinational enterprises, conditions may be less restrictive, but this relative “freedom” often comes at the cost of longer hours, lower wages, and less security. In a factory compound near our hotel, over twenty companies, big and small, most owned by mainland investors, surrounded a grassy courtyard—a pleasantly green refuge from the sterility of the surrounding area. In contrast to Foxconn—where one guard came outside the gate to warn us, rather threateningly, not to take photographs—here we were able to wander in and talk freely with the employees.

Workers in a print shop, lounging on the grass before their evening shift, said they have similar daily hours to those in Foxconn. Two young men from Hainan province told us they worked from 9 pm to 8 am, with a one hour meal break, leaving them hungry as well as tired. Another said he worked from 8 am to noon, and after an hour for lunch, from one to five, but after another dinner break, did overtime from six to nine—a thirteen-hour work day. But what most distinguishes these smaller factories is the lack of days off. Though they are supposed to be in the plant only twenty-five days per month, workers were often on the job thirty or thirty-one days at a time. Some had worked three hundred hours the month before, some seventy hours per week, in continuous days.

These workers live in a dorm inside the compound, twelve to a room. They do not cook, as the company provides cafeteria meals. They pay twenty to thirty yuan per month for rent, and different amounts for food. In one dorm room we visited, there were “only” seven workers, with bunk beds and minimal space for personal possessions. They generally work eight hours a day—the only workers we met who did not routinely put in overtime—but are paid just 800 yuan ($100) per month, 20 percent less than those at Foxconn.

Yet these employees are the “lucky” ones. Three very young men from Hainan province had been in the area for two months, unable to find work. The often desperate search for employment can lead to taking jobs with barely survivable wages and living conditions. Some plants pay as little as 580 yuan ($70) per month and deduct 200 yuan for food and housing, leaving 380 yuan ($45) net, too little to live on. Twice we heard, “maybe such low wages are OK for women, because they do not have to eat as much, but men need more for food, cigarettes, and to go to town to drink beer.” Employers play on such well-entrenched attitudes.

Beyond the Factory Gates

Like the young workers we spoke with at Foxconn, those in the smaller factory compound complained there is little to do with the time they do get off. The area is largely barren of entertainment. Those who work all day in electronics cannot afford the goods they produce. From early morning to late at night, many workers could be seen sitting in groups in front of television sets at small stores in back alleys or crowded on the sidewalks around larger department store window displays. Along with the occasional dingy arcade with Internet access, videos, and board games, these are among the few free or low-cost forms of entertainment for hundreds of thousands of young people. Male workers said they often just walk around and see women friends. But the conditions of work and life make it very difficult to maintain stable relationships. One low-wage worker we talked with is married—a rare exception—and has a child. But his wife works two to three hours away, and it costs ten yuan just to get there, limiting his visits. Another has a woman friend, but no money for a house, and talked about how hard it is to start a family. A thirty-four-year-old worker in the dorm room we visited has a wife and child back in his village. He seemed virtually an “old man” surrounded by the universally younger faces around him. Though he only visits his family twice a year, it would be too expensive to bring them to live with him in Shenzhen, given the high fees for education—even the least costly primary school charges a thousand yuan per semester, more than his monthly wages.

For some, life in the dorms is either not available or too restrictive. But very few of those who escape factory work experience the “glory” of getting rich. Some villagers have built apartment buildings on their “family plots” and rent rooms for 800–900 yuan a month to factory workers, becoming wealthy landlords. Others prefer to do odd jobs on the street, rather than submit to the regimen of the plants and dorms. A few have small stores or open stalls selling books, videos, and DVDs—in many cases, probably pirated. Most of these are expressions of the new values of “get rich quick” marketization and “opening to the world”: self-improvement materials, “how to succeed in business” guides, love stories, etc., including such U.S. television shows as “Desperate Housewives” and “Sex and the City,” dubbed in Chinese. We were told that most women prefer the latter, while men go for Kung Fu movies.

But for many, sexual exploitation in a world of macho fantasy is all too real. At the entrance to a large and fancy foot and back massage parlor, six very young women from rural provinces were lined up in uniforms as “greeters” at ten at night. Establishments of this kind are common in China today, and while many are legitimate operations offering music and refreshments—though almost entirely to a male clientele—others shade off into the now rampant prostitution, which also depends on a constant flow of young women from rural areas. In Shenzhen, three thousand prostitutes and karaoke hostesses, left without work after a crackdown, protested publicly until broken up by armed police (Guardian, January 21, 2006).

Spontaneous Combustion

Whether inside or outside the plants, legal protections for workers are severely limited, and frequently undermined by official favoritism and corruption. Those in a small factory compound said the bosses just tell them that they “volunteered,” and if they do not like the conditions they can leave. Their main dissatisfaction is the holding back of wages. The problem of migrants not getting paid is common across China—billions of yuan are owed them. In desperate protest, some even commit suicide, a favorite method among construction workers being to hang themselves from cranes. A migrant owed four months back pay complained and was fired. Two weeks later he used a knife to kill the boss, and was sentenced to death. A young technician said that the rich steal millions and send it abroad, while the poor steal a few thousand yuan and are quickly condemned.

In an attempt to deal with this kind of criticism, and to prevent more highly organized opposition from developing among the workers, a recent law addresses the unpaid wages problem, setting up a pay dispute resolution process. With this legal backing, local authorities have on occasion come into the smaller plants to investigate complaints. They even strung up a banner in the small compound with the slogan: “Implement and apply the labor law and wipe out back wages.” Workers can go to the labor relations office too, but its capacity to help is limited by the collusion between government and business. Without enforcement by labor unions within the plants themselves, its efforts are largely worthless. In general, therefore, workers just move on if things get too bad. Some larger Shenzhen enterprises, such as Foxconn, do have complaint procedures but if a grievance is denied, there is nothing the worker can do.

With workers lacking union protection, labor actions are largely spontaneous. There are small scale, mild protests, such as slowdowns and work stoppages, virtually every day, often triggered by relatively minor incidents which become the final straw for the abused workforce. In one case, a manager defaced a work card after a conflict, and two thousand workers walked out. Another incident, one of the largest recently, saw three thousand employees block traffic in the city for one hour, over a Hong Kong-owned electronics company paying wages below the legal minimum and holding back even these for a long time. In that case, the government intervened and forced a raise—a not infrequent outcome, as the authorities often prefer a quiet settlement to an escalation of unrest. At another company there was a strike because the workers were forced to put in endless overtime, as much as from 8 am until midnight, with only two yuan per hour extra. Some 2,100 workers out of 3,000 in twenty-one plants refused to return for a week after New Years. The company finally offered pay raises and decreased hours, but the workers still refused to return without written guarantees. In the end, the company gave new contracts, but the 2,100 who struck were fired.

Minimum Gains

Even while we were visiting the city, however, the situation had begun to change, due to growing pressures on the government, the official labor organization, and the enterprises. In part, this resulted from more and more workers “voting with their feet.” For months before our visit, there were reports of a reverse movement of labor out of the coastal regions, either to take jobs at the many factories springing up in the interior, or even to return to the villages. There, a change in national policies, including an end to the main agricultural land tax, had relieved some of the worst economic burdens, making farming once again seem more viable. Some of the coastal enterprises are themselves moving inland, both to follow the work force and to take advantage of lower pay rates and other incentives that authorities offer in the interior. Other enterprises are leaving China altogether, moving to Vietnam, among other neighboring countries, in a regional “race to the bottom” of low wages and poor working conditions. But despite numerous stories about how pay in Shenzhen and the other main export areas had been driven up as a result, the effect has been very marginal, according to those we talked with, in part because of the ability of the plants to move.

While there may be pockets of labor shortages, especially of more skilled workers, the decline in the coastal migratory force should not be exaggerated, as new laborers from the rural areas continue to stream into the city, where almost any pay level in the factories exceeds what they can earn back home. At Foxconn, as at other dominant companies in Shenzhen, crowds of young people still surround the kiosk at its gate seeking employment interviews. Many have trained specifically for these jobs, and need to quickly find work to pay for their education.

Among those we met there were twenty-five very young migrants from rural Hunan province, who had just stepped out of two minibuses that had brought them to the city. They looked to be only fifteen or sixteen years old, and some appeared even younger. Since the legal minimum age for work in the factories is sixteen, they said that they were “about that.” Their vague answers were both understandable and suspicious—it is easy to get forged papers in a country where pirated goods of all kinds, including phony documents, are everywhere. Most of these newly arrived job seekers had only one suitcase or backpack, along with a bucket of cleaning goods and other items for daily life. They had paid ten thousand yuan for two years of basic technical training at a vocational high school. There they studied computers, electronics repair, and English. They had come to Shenzhen with their principal and two assistants, who would help them to find jobs. When asked about being on their own in the city, one quoted an old saying about “traveling over lakes and mountains.” All said they missed home.

With new job seekers like these arriving every day, the upward movement of wages is relatively limited. Legal base pay rates are set by the Shenzhen government, though a few companies bid wages upward to attract and keep workers. But there is nevertheless enough growing pressure that the local authorities have more than once over the past few years raised the minimum wage—already one of the two highest on the mainland, together with Shanghai. Many companies, however, were already finding ways to avoid the effects of the higher-pay requirements. Foxconn is trying to cut back the amount of overtime work under the new minimum wage law, and according to a labor rights NGO, “even the housing benefit is in danger. Some 2,000 employees have already left the factory after learning that they would be charged for their rooms…just as the minimum wages were set to increase” (San Francisco Chronicle, July 16, 2006).

Bottom-Up Activism

Without unionization, the largely migrant workforce has no effective protection. Independent labor organizations are outlawed and must largely work “underground.” Government-sponsored unions, the only available alternative, have largely failed the migrant workforce. There are some within the ranks of the official federation who do take their responsibilities seriously. But in general, the ACFTU has been passive in the face of employer resistance, and has gone along with a top-down “company union” approach. This attitude on the part of the official unions is a remnant of their role under socialism, when they had a meaningful say in how state-owned factories were run, and served as “transmission belts” between workers and management, helping to administer a full set of lifelong and virtually free housing, health, and education benefits, and job and retirement securities—the so-called “iron rice bowl.”

Once the socialist system was dismantled, however, the unions were left, like the government itself, with monopoly power but with neither the responsibility to guarantee the security and well-being of the workforce, nor the contractual and shop floor activism typical of the bourgeois unionism model. Since the start of “market reforms” most trade union leaders have served as little more than enforcers of the new capitalistic regimen, often involving corruption and collusion with managers and local officials, especially in the privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises.

In most such cases, especially when foreign firms agree to set up in-house unions to meet official regulations, management appoints the “leaders,” or even fills such top posts themselves. ACFTU locals receive 2 percent of the total payroll, part of which goes to its leadership, and the rest supposedly to support activities for workers—a prescription, under current conditions, for payoffs, favoritism, and the siphoning-off of funds. As a result, there is widespread cynicism toward labor leaders, a view that taints even those who are honest worker representatives.

It is significant, therefore, that a second major change occurring over the past few months is the rapid spread of ACFTU unionization into leading foreign enterprises—a response to growing labor discontent, fear that independent unions will fill the vacuum, and outside pressure. With state-owned enterprises closing or privatized and the shift to unrepresented migrant labor, the official union has seen the percentage of workers that it represents rapidly fall and its influence decline. Only by organizing more seriously in the nonunion foreign sector, and among migrants, could it regain its former position. The government too pushed ACFTU to move, under pressure from exposures of poor working conditions and fear of a rise in labor protests. Though most of its recent unionizing campaign is still top down, there are also cases of bottom-up organizing that could mark the beginning of a new phase in its activism.

The breakthrough came at Wal-Mart—strange as that may seem given its virulently anti-union position. But its very stubbornness proved its undoing. Had it cooperated with the ACFTU early on, it could have set up the typical “company union.” Instead, it stalled the many attempts to organize its rapidly growing number of stores. Faced with this stubborn resistance, local ACFTU activists took the unprecedented step of going to the workers themselves and beginning to sign them up. Since legally, any twenty-five employees can form a union, which must then be officially recognized, this proved an unusually easy route to organizing Wal-Mart—the only such success in any country. On July 28, 2006, the first of its stores was unionized in Quanzhou City, Fujian province, using this bottom-up organizing method (Anita Chan, “Organizing Wal-Mart,” Japan Focus, September 8, 2006). The organization of more Wal-Mart stores—twenty-two out of sixty in just three weeks—and even its national headquarters in Shenzhen, where a twenty-seven-year-old was elected head of the union committee, followed, and the movement spread to other companies.

Among them was Foxconn, which had similarly stonewalled earlier attempts to get it to cooperate in recognizing official top-down unionization of its plants. Following the successful model at Wal-Mart, the ACFTU, encouraged by the local government, tried once again to unionize its Longhua plants. Moving atypically on a Sunday, the last day of 2006, organizers went into the factory district, quickly signed up 118 workers, and immediately announced the establishment of the union. Neither management nor the Communist Party secretary were informed—though the company may decide after all to set up its own union, raising the prospect of two competing “official” locals. A positive response from the national labor organization suggests that these recent successes have resonated among the more honest trade unionists in the federation. Such efforts have begun to alter the image of the Chinese labor movement abroad. Significantly, some top U.S. union leaders have broken with the Cold War AFL-CIO attitude of regarding the ACFTU as nothing but a government front and refusing to deal with it. In May 2007, a high-level Change to Win delegation met with the ACFTU in China.

The growing pressure for greater labor activism has been compounded by recent major scandals. First was the exposure of the use of virtual slave workers in the brick kilns and coal mines of Shanxi and Henan provinces. Many of these were teenagers or even younger, some kidnapped or mentally retarded, and most badly treated or even physically abused. Even in a country now hardened to the mistreatment of laborers, the horrors of this situation shocked the national consciousness. This scandal is only the tip of the iceberg of child labor. In Shenzhen, for example, a November 2006 investigation found two hundred children under sixteen in just a single electronics plant, Yonghong. Many were students on summer jobs, virtual prisoners of a deal between the employer and their school, in part to pay off fees they owed. In the midst of other such worker scandals, news broke of the adulteration of a series of Chinese products, leading to costly recalls and the restriction or banning of some imports into the United States and other countries.

To head off further blows, the government passed a new and long promised Labor Contract Law to grant workers additional rights. Directed especially at the condition of migrants, its provisions require employers to provide written contracts to each worker, convert many temporary jobs into more long-term employment with additional benefits, and allow the ACFTU to bargain collectively. The new law passed over the vigorous objections and lobbying of foreign employers, including those from the United States, who protested that it will undercut their main reason for investing in China—a pool of compliant low-wage labor, largely powerless to alter their work conditions. Chinese courts have also, on occasion, begun to enforce worker rights, such as payment for overtime, more vigorously.

The impact of these legislative and legal actions is likely to be mixed. Larger companies may actually benefit from their relatively greater ability to meet the new requirements. But they may suffer losses in other ways. When Foxconn, anticipating implementation of the new labor law, announced that it would offer permanent contracts to employees who had worked at its plants for more than eight years, the value of its stock fell sharply. Huawei, in contrast, was among those who “bribed or coerced long-standing employees to take early retirement or voluntary redundancy.” It persuaded “about 7,000 employees who had been with the company for more than eight years to resign. In return, the employees received a lump sum of one month’s salary for every year of employment, plus one additional month’s salary, and were allowed to rejoin the company on a short-term contract.” The other companies simply closed or moved out of the country (Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2007, and January 25, 2008.

In May 2008, authorities found a child-labor ring in Dongguan city, another major electronics and clothing center in Guangdong, “rescuing” about a hundred workers, most of them between thirteen and fifteen years old. They also announced that they were “investigating thousands of enterprises suspected of using child workers abducted from Sichuan and sold into slavery” (New York Times, May 2, 2008).

Nevertheless, there are serious doubts how much will change, since any major transformation will require systematic legal enforcement and determined organizing by the ACFTU—both lacking in the past. In an ominous sign of local reaction, there has been a series of brutal physical attacks in Shenzhen in recent months on migrant worker advocates, and the trashing of their offices, forcing one of the leading groups to close its doors (Citizens’ Rights and Livelihood Watch, November 21, 2007, China Labor News Translations,

Rural and Urban Alienation

Even in the best case, a more activist ACFTU can offer nothing more than very partial amelioration of the severe exploitation of the Chinese working class today. The new unionism, such as it may be, will face very rapidly changing conditions. The transformations now sweeping the economy of China and its working classes are profound, and some of the most telling developments are below the surface. Perhaps the most important is the change in attitude among young migrants. Though many still see themselves as peasants transported to the city, others have no intention of returning to the countryside. Most striking, while some continue to send money back home, a large percentage do not. This is a profound change. The older generation of migrants saw their urban labor as a sideline to their farms. Young migrant workers today increasingly see work in the cities as a career. This could mean the permanent urbanization of hundreds of millions of rural youth, and a sharp drop in the billions of yuan sent back each year to the countryside, exacerbating the long-term crisis there.

The alienation of young people from the countryside carries over into the cities, even among many who are doing relatively well. A well-dressed technician in his twenties conveyed in striking language the forces that are tearing not only at the rural areas, but even at his own more privileged middle-class urban stratum. He is an employee of a high-tech firm and travels all over China repairing office machines and  was flying at company expense to the mountain province of Yunnan on an all-paid group vacation. Yet his origins were in the countryside, and he had not forgotten where he came from or the hard life of those he left behind. His parents are farmers near Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, on the east coast close to Shanghai. But there is little farming left in that area. They tried selling eggs, but found there was “too much competition, prices fell and costs kept rising,” and they went back to subsistence farming. The family spent fifty thousand yuan on his high school training, yet he still cannot afford college.

It is perhaps an ominous sign for President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, with their ideological calls to create a “harmonious society” by reducing social tensions, that this young technician was not only highly class conscious, but strikingly angry and burning with a desire for radical change. What was most startling about his critique was not so much the details, but the depth of his alienation from so many aspects of what is happening in China today—the rural economic crisis, governmental and enterprise corruption, abusive working conditions, class polarization, lack of democratic control, and even official positions on global issues like the war in Iraq—and his willingness to state this to a randomly encountered foreigner. Among his concerns was a lack of social stability that he attributed to the “get rich quick” mentality that is pervasive now, and the growing class polarization. He complained that the top 1-5 percent are rich, while the bottom 50 percent have little. He added that the divisions are also geographic with the saying: “the East of China is like the United States and Europe, while the West is like Africa.”

The main problems for such members of the younger generation are inadequacies in schooling, medical care, and housing. Higher education has opened up to more and more children of peasant and worker families, but the conditions of high school and college graduates are rapidly deteriorating. Education itself has become another part of the pervasive system of get rich quick corruption. Colleges are increasing enrollment just to get money, but there is no work for large numbers of graduates afterward. Many of them end up in fast food restaurants and other low-paying work, since they lack basic industrial or secretarial skills, and cannot find even factory or clerical jobs. As a result, even intellectuals who used to think that they were superior now see that they are treated like proletarians. Some refuse passively to accept these conditions. In Zhengzhou in Henan province up to ten thousand college students rioted in 2006 when a school lowered the status of its university diploma and did not refund tuition fees to graduating students. High school students are also reacting to the situation. Some five hundred students in Chongqing in Sichuan province even refused to take the national college entrance exam, deeming it a waste of time and money.

Generational Politics

Even those members of the younger generation who are class conscious, socially aware, and well informed on global issues, however, often lack in-depth knowledge of the revolutionary socialist era in China. Younger workers generally have little understanding of the Mao Zedong period or the Cultural Revolution, which preceded the capitalistic “reforms” in which they grew up. This historical amnesia is the result of deliberate policy. State and party authorities obscure and manipulate the record of the Mao era, and stress only his nationalist character, attempting to latch onto this single part of his legacy, while stripping it of its more revolutionary side. As one young organizer put it, his migrant worker peers “cannot dream of the previous conditions in the socialist period, as they do not even know about them.”

There are now two general political trends pulling at the younger generation. One is to seek broader democracy through expansion of the representational system, challenging the monopolistic power of those in control, and demanding greater transparency and a freer media. But the younger generation is beginning to generate activists with a more leftist perspective as well, including college students and intellectuals who have studied the revolutionary era of socialism in China and are able to compare it with conditions today. Some are even attempting to link up the new ranks of migrants and other young members of the working classes with workers who lived through that socialist period. According to one young organizer, “80 percent of older workers would like to go back to the Mao period, and think that the Cultural Revolution was when the working classes were masters of society.” He is trying to spread to young migrants the knowledge that at that time there was little difference between managers and workers, who had a strong sense of ownership in the plants, built their own enterprise-provided houses, and had schools for their children. But the young activists trying to reach the working classes with such alternative perspectives are few in number, and face repression by the authorities.

While the ability of youthful organizers to reach their working-class peers is quite limited, the deepening contradictions of China today keep reviving the demand for more radical change. This takes the form of an ever-expanding number of protests, many increasingly well organized, involving tens of thousands of workers, migrants, and peasants. Even though the level of organization of radical forces remains very low, those who are reaching a breaking point of frustration and anger may be forming a critical mass.

As one young professional put it, “People today have more money and goods, but they are not happy.” In his view, the situation is very explosive, especially in the countryside, where “80 percent of farmers are borderline. If it gets worse, they will either fight or die. But they do not have guns.” Whether the potentially explosive mix of young, rebellious members of the working classes, their alienated middle-class peers, and radicalized intellectuals will reach the point of organized revolution remains problematic. Despite growing turmoil, there is little sign of any such movement so far.

Given the extent to which the gains of the socialist era have been dismantled, young members of the working classes would largely have to start over if they wanted radically to transform society. But Chinese youth have one of the most revolutionary legacies of any in the world. If they choose to move down that road again, there are still many older workers and peasants who have not forgotten how the socialist revolution was made, and who are eager to pass on the lessons of that struggle. The rapidly changing conditions of life and labor in China today make it highly unlikely that the “harmonious society” envisioned by the current leadership can be stabilized over a long period. If and when the younger generation of the Chinese working classes find their voice, they may once again “shake the world,” transforming not only their own country, but the current stage of globalization in ways that are barely imaginable.

2008, Volume 60, Issue 02 (June)
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