Strike Out

What the foreign media misses in covering China's labor unrest.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Since mid May, Chinese factory workers from several Honda plants in southern China have gone on strike, calling for higher wages, better working conditions, and, according to some accounts, the right to form their own independent labor unions. The first work stoppage was a May 17 walkout by roughly 1,800 workers at a Honda parts plant in the city of Foshan; another began in early June and involves employees at a factory in Zhongshan that makes locks for the auto company.  This week, another Honda supplier in Zhongshan shut down operations after workers went on strike for higher wages. Both Foshan and Zhongshan are in southern Guangdong province, a manufacturing hub and magnet for rural migrants across China seeking a better quality of life.

The first two plants to experience strikes are back in operation, thanks in part to pay raises and other concessions offered by Honda. However, it seems strikes are contagious. There has also been recent labor unrest in other parts of China, including a sit-in at rubber factory not far from Shanghai and a strike at a Toyota plant in the northern city of Tianjin.

Two things have been missed in much of the foreign coverage of these strikes and the government’s response: the significance of workers toiling for foreign-owned companies, and the rich symbolism of the mid-May dates.

In China, the only legally recognized labor organization is the government-sponsored All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). But it has not played a central role in the current strike wave.  In fact, some Honda workers  who were dissatisfied by the settlement terms that the company offered them in late May have accused the official labor union, which is notoriously strike-averse, of siding with management.  Rumors even circulated that "thugs" (gongzei, literally "worker bandits") linked to the ACFTU had roughed up laborers at one plant.

Still, the latest round of labor unrest has been relatively free of violence — on both sides.  The state has not used force to curtail the strikes (something it has done many times in the past); it has allowed the Chinese media more latitude than usual to cover the protests (though the mainland press has not discussed worker complaints about the ACFTU); and top government officials have even voiced support for the idea that the time has come for laborers to receive higher wages and better treatment (Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, gave a speech recently saying that, in return for their contribution to China’s economic take-off, migrant workers deserved to be "cared for, protected and respected").

This strike wave has inspired a great deal of commentary in the international press.  Sometimes it is treated on its own terms, and other times it is bundled together with another recent worker-related story from China: a series of suicides at the Foxconn faculty complex (also located in Guangdong Province), where Apple products are made.  Overall, three key themes have emerged in the foreign coverage of recent events:

First, China’s economic boom of recent decades has gradually raised expectations among Chinese workers and made them less willing to accept low wages and harsh working conditions. In coming years, China will be forced to focus not on producing low-cost goods (such manufacturing will move to poorer countries in regions like Southeast Asia) but on finding other ways to serve international markets and increasingly important domestic markets.

A second prominent theme has been that many of the people employed at the Honda factories are relatively young and comparatively well-educated. One reason this strike wave is spreading is that youthful workers, some of whom graduated from vocational schools or even colleges, are using cell phones to share information with friends and colleagues who live and work in other places, and are also exchanging ideas and updates with strangers online.  Meanwhile, discussion of "rights" (i.e., the moral justification for seeking a fair wage, basic legal protections, and just treatment by the state and from employers) has become more common in China generally.

Finally, reporting on and analysis of the strikes and events at Foxconn has highlighted the fact that the main companies involved, Honda and Apple, are both foreign-owned. The government responds differently to outrage directed at these kinds of companies. The same kind of strike that would go unmentioned in the Chinese press if it occurred at a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) can be dealt with sympathetically when it takes place at one run by foreign "capitalists" — especially given the history of Japan’s aggression against China, when the company involved is Japanese, like Honda. More leeway is given to mainland journalists who want to write about abuses or simply dissatisfaction in a foreign-run factory.

Much of the reporting and media commentary on recent events has been insightful, including a thoughtful exchange on the New York Times’ "Room for Debate" blog.  Still, when taken as a whole, several aspects are problematic about the coverage, including a general failure to place events in an appropriate historical context.

The unrest at Honda needs to be seen as part of an uptick in labor activism that has been underway for several years in China, and also as part of a very long history of strikes by Chinese workers at Japanese-run plants.  In the rush of dramatic events (including unusually open discussion of the protests in the Chinese media, in everything from Chinese language newspapers to English language television shows), these kinds of historical precedents have sometimes gone unnoticed. Yet, commentators such as political scientist Mary Gallagher remind us how history can supplement in important ways what we learn from even the best on-the-ground reporting. 

This is particularly important at a time when it’s possible to be misled into thinking that what’s going on is even more important and novel than it is, thanks to breathless headlines such as "Chinese Workers Challenge Beijing’s Authority" (Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2010) and "An Independent Labor Movement Stirs in China" (New York Times, June 10, 2010)–the latter of which was later toned down (the online version now reads simply "A Labor Movement Stirs in China").

While attention-getting headlines may even call to mind antecedents to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, a more useful frame of reference may be 1925. That year’s "May 30th Movement" was a struggle that began, as this strike wave did, with mid-May protests by Chinese workers at Japanese-run factories; it takes its name from the date of a massacre that involved Shanghai’s foreign-run police force firing into a crowd of unarmed students and laborers.  The killing of around a dozen protesters galvanized the struggle, which spread to cities throughout China and culminated in a boycott of Japanese and Western goods and a general strike by students, workers, and merchants that paralyzed Shanghai.  The May 30th Movement is honored now as one of the first major event in which the Chinese Communist Party played a leading role, an upheaval that brought many new converts into the organization.  Schoolbooks and the obligatory annual anniversary newspaper articles look back admiringly on the heroism and sacrifices of the martyrs of the May 30th Massacre.

The Honda protests of 2010 were certainly not inspired by the events of 1925. Still, the timing definitely affected the way that some commentators in China, from bloggers and journalists to government officials, thought about the strikes.  In early June, several mainland websites ran a commentary piece whose title can be translated as "The Honda Strikers and the Foxconn Leapers — Remembering the May 30th Movement"; the online comment threads appended to May 30th commemorations in the press included allusions to the enduring power of labor activism and the fact that "patriotic" workers in 2010, like their predecessors of 1925, were standing up boldly to Japanese employers. It would have seemed particularly ill-timed for the government to have put down contemporary strikes on this lightning-rod anniversary.

Of course, historical analogues have not stopped China’s leaders from suppressing protests in the past, nor will it stop them from taking a hard line against unrest in the future.  Still, history and symbolism always figures in the calculus that determines how the government responds to a given outburst. It also affects how much or little freedom the press is allowed in covering an outburst and the official line on a given struggle.

All of this helps us understand what happened in May and has been happening so far in June, when it comes to both state action and the Chinese media. The Chinese reporting on the protests was initially not that different from the foreign reporting, though it did pay a bit more attention to resentment against Japan as a cause of the unrest

Later, though, as strikes spread to other locales, there was less reporting in the Chinese media, and at times a blackout on coverage of particular strikes.  A larger divide also developed between the approach to the story found in the foreign and domestic press. The international press played down the role of anti-Japanese sentiment, even at the Honda plants, while mainland outlets continued to stress that side of the protests.  And the mainland press has left out discussion of the desire for independent unions. They have allowed no quotes like this one, attributed to an anonymous striker, which ran in the New York Times on June 10: "The trade union is not representing our views; we want our own union that will represent us."

How long will this strike wave last and how far will it spread?  Will its fate be like that of the 2002 labor upheavals that swept through the rust belt cities of Northeast China and ended with the government finally taking a hard line to bring them to an end?  Or will this saga turn out to be more like the 2008 outbursts by taxi cab drivers in several urban centers across China, which simply petered out after a few weeks?  Looking backwards will not provide certain answers.

Still, to make sense fully of what has happened so far, it is important to be mindful of both China’s recent and not-so-recent past.  The history closest to us in the rearview mirror tells us, for example, that the government is likely to take a harsher line on the strikes as soon as there are signs that workers in different cities are not just learning from one another, but starting to establish organizational ties, as in 2002.  Meanwhile it seems that older anniversary dates may be providing breathing space for contemporary participants in new rounds of collective action.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Californian, teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.