Scholars’comment on the suppression of labor NGOs in China

《Dr. Eli Friedman, Assistant Professor, Cornell University》

Let’s start with a basic fact: the Chinese working class is not radical. Much to the chagrin of myself and other labor scholars, Chinese workers by and large accept the naturalness of the market and wage labor. While they frequently express anger at the government for its consistently anti-labor actions, workers rarely espouse anti-state or revolutionary politics. By and large, protesting workers are simply demanding to have laws implemented and to enjoy modest wage increases that allow them to survive.

In this context, then, the Chinese government’s move to crack down on labor NGOs in Guangdong is particularly puzzling. These NGOs are, basically without exception, simply attempting to help workers realize their basic legal rights. The more “radical” organizations have advised workers in collective bargaining. That collective bargaining is seen as radical in the Chinese context is an indication of just how extremely paranoid the state has become about any form of coordinated social activity outside of its direct control.

And indeed, this crackdown is primarily about the ACFTU jealously reasserting its right to sole representation of the working class. The union understands that workers frequently trust and value the guidance of NGOs, while the union is almost universally shunned. The problem, however, with this strategy, is that it hinges on the assumption that with NGOs out of the picture, workers will turn to the union to help them resolve conflicts. This will not happen. The union has talked about “reform” and winning the trust of workers since the inception of the People’s Republic, with scant evidence to suggest that this is possible within the existing framework.

Worker resistance is not going away, and indeed is likely to intensify with the slowing economy. By eliminating NGOs from the picture, the government seems certain to be ushering in an intensification of antagonism and repression in the workplace. While this may lead to radicalization of workers in the long term, in the short term it inevitably means more lawlessness and violence within Chinese capitalism.

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