Many people are asking “why” or “why now” about this sweep of Guangzhou labor activists… but in fact we already know the answer: Independent labor activity, outside of the institutional control of the ACFTU is intolerable to the Xi Jinping administration. The additional charge of “foreign influence” – and especially foreign funding – is given a lot of prominence… but there is no evidence that independent labor activity would be tolerated even absent foreign funding. The policy line is clear: The space and time for independent labor NGOs (those not collaborating with the ACFTU) is over, at least in the mind of the state.
Under the Hu Jintao administration, there was not only greater tolerance for labor NGOs but also an energetic push to the ACFTU to perform more effectively. The ACFTU was prodded to organize Fortune 500 foreign firms, to bring migrant workers into the trade union, to experiment with collective bargaining, and to have educational exchanges with foreign unions. Wang Yang, former Guangdong Party Secretary, famously commented on the auto strike wave in 2010 that such conflict between labor and capital was normal during industrialization, and that strikes were economic – not political – in character. Workers used this space and found ways to test the boundaries of resistance and demand-making on capital and the state. Labor NGOs moved beyond education and individual rights protection towards organizing.
If we are frank with ourselves, the signs have been unmistakable for about three years: The state is attempting to reassert the kind of political hegemony it enjoyed during the Mao era. However, workers in the post-Mao economy have problems which the state cannot, and will not, fix. The ACFTU is both historically impaired and structurally inhibited from solving workers’ problems… but that is alright; what the state requires is only that the ACFTU occupy all space for worker representation… and fill that space with emptiness. The reason labor NGOs must be suppressed is that they attempt to fill this space with meaning, purpose, and self-representation for workers. This is an intolerable challenge to the hegemonic project.
The task for labor activists, and for workers resisting exploitation, is no different than it was during earlier periods. We still must find ways to inspire, to engage, to take collective action, to become powerful… only now we must face the facts that new ways are needed. It’s not a task to be afraid of, but to welcome.