China: JASIC workers’ struggle reveals rising class tensions

In early June of this year, the workers of the Chinese welding equipment manufacturer Jasic Technologies in Shenzhen attempted to legally unionise to protect themselves from chronically poor working conditions and brutal treatment by the management.

The workers indicated that they’ve been regularly subjected to illegal fines and underpayment of social insurance contributions, acts made more egregious given that Jasic is a large, publicly traded corporation that was contracted to provide equipment for the construction of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Jasic’s chairman Pan Lei also conveniently happens to be the ‘elected’ Shenzhen representative to the National People’s Congress.

At first, the Jasic workers in the Shenzhen facilities sought to unionise in accordance with Chinese law and even gained the permission of the All China Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU), the only legal trade union in China, to begin their unionisation drive. After management caught wind of this effort they preemptively called for a meeting of workers’ representatives under the company’s direction, effectively freezing out the activist workers who were preparing the unionisation effort from being elected to lead the union.

At the same time, the leading activist workers began to face random beatings by thugs or were fired by management. Dissatisfied with this turn of events, a group of workers went to the local Shenzhen Yanziling police station to protest this treatment, only to be detained by the police. It is at this time that the ACFTU’s local branch rescinded its endorsement for the workers’ unionisation drive, rendering it illegal.

Student solidarity

At this point, these events began to garner attention from leftist activists. A group of Maoist students travelled to the site to show their solidarity, an act that was appreciated by the workers. However, the authorities responded with beatings and detention of all activists involved. The police even descended upon the lodgings of the Maoist students in riot gear and arrested them, forcing their parents and university professors into a local hotel to undergo “parental training” to force them to pressure the students into abandoning their solidarity action. In protest, five of the students began a hunger strike.

The charges that the Chinese state levied on the students developed to ridiculous dimensions. One of the most notable student activists in this action, Yue Xin, was charged with “supporting Taiwanese independence” over an allegation that she took a picture with Taiwan’s DPP politician and current president Tsai Ing-wen. Yue is not Taiwanese and none of her activism has anything to do with Taiwan. She was noted, however, for leading the charge in Peking University demanding the school investigate a rapist professor.

To date, around 70 workers and their supporters remain detained for face severe restrictions of their freedoms. Since its eruption this incident has garnered widespread attention for the acute brutality against workers fighting for their rights. Many solidarity actions inside and outside of China have spontaneously sprung up demanding the governing Chinese Communist Party rectify the situation and release all those arrested.

Crisis in Chinese society

This development has been anticipated by the Marxists. We have consistently put forth the perspective that the restoration of capitalism in China will inevitably lead to the strengthening of the working-class and the intensification of its struggle against the capitalist system. Indeed, throughout the past decade or so China has been no stranger to sporadic and ferocious strikes, from the marvelous Shuangyashan miners’ strike of 2015 to the attempts of Walmart workers to unionise in 2016. This year, however, saw a marked increase of attempts to launch cross-country strike actions. Concurrent to the Jasic workers’ efforts, we also witnessed the May Day crane operators’ strike, the truck drivers’ strike, the Meituan food delivery workers’ strike and the Dee Dee drivers’ strike, with countless others doubtlessly unreported.

Crane Operators strike Image UDNIn the past decade, the downturn in Chinese capitalism has provoked a number of major strikes / Image: UDN

After a period of growth, Chinese capitalism is now facing a downturn, with a protracted economic crisis looming ahead. The wave of struggle is linked to the slowdown of the economy in recent years, as well as structural changes in the relative weakening of the industrial sector in favor of the service sector. One of the factors triggering the JASIC struggle is “a slowdown in urban development in [Shenzhen], paralleled by increasingly precarious labor conditions,” as the Nation reported.

The students and middle class, although they do not have power in isolation from the working class, are sensitive barometers of the class struggle. The nationwide scope of the struggle is reflected by the participation of students from elite universities located far apart: from Peking University, Tsinghua University of northern capital Beijing, Nanjing University on the east coast, and Sun Yat-sen University in the south.

It is noteworthy that some students have pursued the strategy of salting workplaces: giving up their chance at becoming comfortable, petty-bourgeois functionaries under the present capitalist system in order to work in factory jobs and agitate amongst the working class. The fact that privileged students chose to forfeit their prosperous futures in favor of the class struggle indicates that the capitalist crisis is shaking the entire Chinese society, affecting all classes.

The tactics and bravery of the students are commendable. They have succeeded in forming connections with the fighting workers of Jasic. A 27-year-old worker from central China’s Hunan province who was recently released by the Shenzhen police said he was overwhelmed by the support. “If not for this, I would probably never have come across a Tsinghua or Peking U student in my life,” he said. The threat posed by the potential converging of the student movement with the working-class struggle poses a serious threat to Chinese capitalism, which is why the government is trying with all their might to sever students from workers.

No illusions in the CCP

The about-face of the ACFTU and the conduct of the Chinese authorities is nothing short of criminal. It was only last year, during the 19th Party Congress, that Xi Jinping reaffirmed that China is a “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” Their behavior towards the Jasic workers proves that the exact opposite is true, that China today is a dictatorship of the party in favor of its capitalist class.

Xi Jinping is consolidating his grip on the CCP Image kremlin.ruChina today is a dictatorship of the CCP in favor of its capitalist class / Image: kremlin.ru

Moreover, a group of retired CCP cadres and officials from the older generation arrived at the scene to show their solidarity with banners stating “senior cadres stand with workers!” Their presence indicates that the questioning of the nature of state power, the CCP’s role, and the meaning of the Xi Jinping administration, is spreading even among sections of the rank-and-file of the party. A representative example is cadre Zhang, a former department head of a high-level CCP think tank with 47 years seniority in the party. His presence at rallies is confirmed by a video posted on Twitter and a news report. This is both a reflection of how the crisis of capitalism affects the functionaries of the bourgeois state itself, but also a source of danger in the pressure of alien class ideas on the working class.

Activists have also written letters directly to Xi Jinping, urging him to intervene on behalf of workers and citing Xi’s years of labor in Liangjiahe as a positive example, as well as petitioning state institutions like ACFTU and All-China Women’s Federation.

We fully sympathise with the fact that activists may not be in a position to state their full goals, and that slogans focusing on how “organising trade unions shouldn't be illegal according to the CCPs own laws” is understandable as a protective cover against persecution. But we also need to caution that there is a deeper reason why the CCP has no intention of allowing truly independent unionism, which goes beyond “corrupt cops” that are bought off by individual bosses, as some banners suggested.

The hyper-exploitation of the workers as guaranteed by their total subjection to government-controlled company unions is an essential contributor to the large profit margins pocketed by Chinese capitalists. In addition to the bottom-line, there is also a political dimension: any challenge to the ACFTU, which is fused with the state and party, poses the question of which class should rule society.

State crackdown

The escalation of the economic struggle into the political plane is already acknowledged by the central government in their raid and crackdown of Maoist political publications and even Hong Kong-based NGOs. Apart from brutal repression, sectors of the state can sometimes attempt the strategy of co-option. This is especially true for regional officials with their own grievances with the central government that have nothing to do with workers’ interests. As the Nation reported, in the past, “rabble-rousing workers have successfully wrested concessions through workplace activism, sometimes with support from local officials who also have an interest in busting bad bosses.” The ACFTU has also used the appeals from rank-and-file workers in order to preemptively ‘unionise’ unorganised workers as a further means of co-opting them.

China food delivery strikes Image Chengdu Evening News Slow NewsThe task of Chinese workers is the establishment of independent union organisations democratically operated by the workers themselves / Image: Chengdu Evening News

Every political struggle opens up complex questions of theory and ideology. Here we can discern influences from two directions. Firstly, liberal intellectuals who have chimed in with support, offering their advice of unconditional respect for rule of law. Secondly, the presence of well-organised Maoist groups who are genuine, heroic and self-sacrificing. The dismantling of the planned economy led to the destruction of social safety nets, a progressive gain of the 1949 revolution. It is entirely understandable that radicalised youth look to Maoism as a way to return to the “good old times”. However, we must be careful not to let nostalgia for old slogans cause working-class interests to be conflated with the empty phrases of CCP and Xi. That being said, while we disagree with the Maoist ideology they rally behind, the arrested workers and students are fighters in the working-class struggle. For this reason Marxists stand in absolute solidarity with them.

Above all, the task of Chinese workers in their struggle is the establishment of independent union organisations democratically operated by the workers themselves. No confidence whatsoever should be put in the CCP, ACFTU, Xi, or ‘enlightened’ local officials. Activists must understand that any real struggle that challenges the capitalists’ economic power will inevitably shake their very legal system itself, and will always invite aggression by the whole police apparatus and not just a few bad apples. Only this awareness can allow workers to be fully prepared for what lies ahead.

Free arrested activists! Sign the petition!

Recently, the IMT was invited to sign the global petition demanding the release of the detained Jasic workers and activists, organized by Jasic Worker Solidarity. We wholeheartedly endorse the petition’s demands in solidarity with the fighting workers and youth of China. We urge socialists and progressive workers around the world to also sign this petition and take steps in showing solidarity and join forces in placing these demands upon the Chinese Communist Party government.

Here we reproduce the full text of the petition below:

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Global Call on China to Release Arrested Workers, Activists and Students in Jasic Struggle: To the Chinese Government and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions

Please join us in signing and sharing this petition to call for the immediate release of the workers and their student allies unjustly arrested for union organising and solidarity actions at Shenzhen Jasic Technology in China since July 2018.

Since July, more than 70 workers, activists and students had been harassed, assaulted or detained. So far:

- 4 workers have been charged with criminal offence awaiting trial;
- 2 workers and 6 activists, currently in detention, are at high risk of facing criminal charge;
- Released student supporters are disciplined by their colleges, under police surveillance at home.

This is the most severe repression against workers and labour activists in China since a crackdown on labour rights organisations in 2015.

We, the undersigned, support the right of Chinese workers to organise unions, and the right of their allies to express solidarity, and demand the Chinese government:

#Release all detained workers, reinstate their jobs and recognise their right to unionise;

#Release all detained student supporters, and protect them from retaliation;

#Release all detained labour rights group staff.