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China: Crackdown on workers' centres

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China: Crackdown on workers' centres

by Peter Main

While the world's media have been concentrating on the trial of Gu Kailai for the murder of her business partner, the British “businessman" Neil Heywood, a crackdown of a different sort has been underway in the southern province of Guangdong.

In the last five months, seven Non-Governmental Organisations, NGOs, that provide advice and support for workers have had their offices closed and activists intimidated.

The first to be closed was the Spring Breeze Labour Disputes Service in the Baoan district of Shenzhen city. In February, despite a recently agreed contract and 3 years' rent, the landlord removed their signboard and cut off the water and electricity. In April, workers at the Dagongzhe Centre complained of intimidation by the authorities and organised a protest meeting for May Day. This was disrupted by police and in June their offices were closed.

Chen Mao, of the Shenzhen Migrant Workers' Centre, which deals with some 300 individual cases per month, reported similar harassment and closure by the authorities in May.

Across Guangdong province, there are thought to be 30 such centres. They provide legal advice and assistance to the migrant workers in the export industries of the Pearl River Delta. To comply with the law, centres must either be registered with a “business supervisory unit", regulated by the government authorities, or as private companies. These regulations have been a real obstacle to opening new centres but earlier this year Wang Yang, the provincial Party chief, announced a simplification that would make it easier to set up new centres. These new rules came into force on July 1.

Activists have been quick to point out the contrast between what the authorities say, and what they do.

The trial of Gu Kailai, with its ambitious Party leaders and tales of high finance, corruption and espionage, and the apparently contradictory behaviour of the Guangdong authorities might seem worlds apart but they are two faces of the same coin. Given China's one party dictatorship, political conflicts, which would otherwise be reflected in the competing programmes of different parties, have to be fought out within the ruling party and the bureaucracy it represents. The precise connections between these conflicts and what can be seen in public are by no means clear.

Gu Kailai's case is one example of this. The details, as presented to the court, may be no more accurate than the original account of Heywood's death in which he was reported to have died from self-inflicted alcoholic poisoning. This has now been denounced as a cover up, orchestrated by senior police officials on behalf of Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, at the time the Party chief in the city of Chongqing where the unfortunate Mr Heywood died.

Now it is held that Gu poisoned Heywood whilst mentally unbalanced because of fear that he intended harm to her son. Previously, Heywood had been responsible for pulling the necessary strings to gain this son a place at his old school, the elite public school, Harrow. Normally, the death penalty is inflicted very shortly after sentence is passed but in this case the court suspended sentence in the light of Gu's mental state at the time of the offence. Or because her husband remains a very senior figure in the Party.

Bo came to national prominence as the Party chief in Chongqing, one of the fastest growing of all China's mega-cities. Before his arrival, it had a reputation for corruption and gangsterism on a scale that threatened social stability and he initiated a much-publicised clean up campaign. This combined legal proceedings with popular mobilisations around slogans condemning inequality and corruption made famous during the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s. This established his image as a radical “Leftist” within the Party at a time when widespread property speculation and the very evident wealth of senior Party officials was bringing the Party into disrepute.

This reputation, coupled with a policy of providing significantly more “social housing” in Chongqing than in many other boom towns, put Bo in a strong position for promotion to the Politburo, when the existing leadership steps down at the Party Congress to be held in November. In the factional jockeying ahead of Congress, Bo represented those who want to preserve the role (and privileges) of the bureaucratic state apparatus against those who champion the interests of the rapidly growing capitalist class within China.

This is the context in which the trial of Gu Kailai has to be understood. Whether or not they had direct links to Bo's enemies in Chongqing, his political opponents had every reason to bring him down. The accusations of corruption and criminal conspiracy were the perfect issues with which to do it. In addition, the internal security service was no doubt well aware that the “business partnership” between his wife and Heywood involved the (illegal) transfer of huge sums of money out of the country. Since Heywood was the sort of businessman who is described as having “close ties to the Foreign Office”, in other words, what used to be called a spy, all of those transactions would also have been monitored in London. Had Bo been promoted to the politburo, London's potential leverage on him would have made him a major security risk for Beijing.

Similar factional manoeuvring lies behind the apparently contradictory treatment of the “Labour NGOs” in Guangdong. This province has long been at the forefront of capitalist development in China. With a registered population of some 80 million (much the same as Germany) and an estimated 30 million “migrant workers”, it is the most populous province in China. As the heart of the export industries, it has already gone through several business cycles and the old, labour intensive, industrial areas such as the city of Dongguan, are increasingly regarded as obsolete.

Wang Yang is regarded as the voice of a modernising current within the Party. In March, the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying, “Dongguan represents a traditional development model, but following the appreciation of the [yuan], and the price increases in raw materials, it’s hard for many businesses to continue.” Employers in more capital intensive industries rely on relatively skilled labour. For them, the activities of the NGOs, with their emphasis on individual advice and counselling, may be an irritant, but not a serious threat.

Wang Yang seems to have calculated that allowing NGOs a relatively free regime would not only enhance his reformist credentials but also ensure easier supervision of their activities. It might also weaken the position of his opponents in the Party hierarchy who are said to include the officials of the state-controlled trades unions. Against this background, the recent clampdown on NGOs may represent a rearguard action by Wang's rivals. For them, the NGO's represent a threat that could obstruct their own plans to remodel the official unions. They recognise the need to shift away from being simply an arm of management, as they were in the state owned industries, to becoming “negotiating partners” with sole right of representation of the workers.

Paradoxically, such a development would coincide with the policies of some western-backed NGOs whose own concept of trade unionism is precisely of bureaucratic mediators between employers and workers, committed to finding a compromise between firms' need for profits and the workers' need for a decent standard of living.

Whatever the factional intrigues and political strategies, revolutionaries in China will oppose the recent clampdown on NGO activity which aims, first and foremost, to prevent workers' gaining access to information and legal entitlements and to shore up the old party dictatorship. Although restricted in what they can openly do, some of the NGOs also advocate the establishment of factory-based, rank and file controlled trade unionism. Supporting that form of trade unionism, by all possible means, should be at the heart of revolutionary activity across China. It is a strategic necessity that can strike at the roots of all the factions in the party-state, as well as at the increasing power of the capitalists, whether they are of Chinese or foreign origin.