The relationship between capital and labour in Chinas state-owned enterprises has a complex history. For decades after 1949, the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party and most of all the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) argued that there was essentially no reason for industrial conflict as China was a workers state where the interests of workers took precedence above all else. The logical conclusion of this bizarre concept arrived in 1982 when the new Constitution deleted the right to strike, heralding the official end of class antagonisms in China. The real history of industrial conflict in post-1949 China tells a somewhat different story in which worker militancy featured as a regular and overriding concern of the authorities.
It still is. Twenty years of economic reform have forced the government to admit that industrial conflict is very much on the agenda. A recent dispute at the Beijing Measuring and Cutting Tools Factory throws the reforms, and what they have meant for millions of workers, into sharp relief. In this case, hundred of workers are set to lose their jobs in a privatisation process they are denouncing as corrupt to the core.
No ones representing out interests. Even our so-called labour union is in their hands. Meanwhile, theyre using state property to buy cars, penthouses and trips overseas.
These words came from a member of the peaceful picket line 250 plus workers mounted on August 14th, 2001. The company, which has approximately 1,250 workers on the books, has recently sold off land and is about to move hundreds of miles to neighbouring Hebei province. Employees unwilling to move have been offered Rmb 2,500 in compensation for every year worked at the plant. Some renegotiated contracts will be available under the new owners in Beijing.
Sell your houses and limousines and give us the means to live. Rmb 150 million in state assets - where has it gone?
This was the question asked by a banner the workers had strung across the factory gates. When Zhang Guoliang, the chairman of the factorys branch of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) emerged from the premises, he was heckled by the pickets who branded him a collaborator. Zhang defended his role saying:
This is the road China must go down as we convert state-owned enterprises to stockholding companies Were just doing what you in the West have urged us to do
Mr. Zhang is not lying. Chinas privatisation programme has been greatly encouraged by various experts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. As far as the workers were concerned however, he was on far more shaky ground when he denied the corruption charges and said that his members were just after more cash. As one employee pointed out:
They say theyre broke. How can they be broke and driving top-of-the-line Audis?
It was left to a supervisor to voice the bosses mantra that workers all over the world are having to listen to as they face globalisation:
Workers are scared of facing changing times. Most of them are chronically lazy. After all, theyve eaten out of the countrys hands for years. They would work three to four hours in the eight-hour day.
As the tensions between capital and labour force their way back to the top of the political agenda in China, the supervisor quoted above appears to be taking up his part with relish.
(HK: SCMP, Mingpao, CLB, 15/08/01)