(Originally published in CLB#47, Mar-Apr 1999)
Zhou Quanfeng had worked at
the Anshan City Number Two Machine Tool Factory in the northern
province of Liaoning for most of his working life. At the age of 72 and
in retirement, the slide into poverty and desperation became too much
to bear for Zhou and his wife, Zhang Suqing. The factory had not issued
Zhang's pension for over a year and the couple felt that the only option
left open to them was suicide.
On January 4, 1999, over 100
hundred retired workers from the Qintai Furniture Factory in Wuhan,
Hubei province, held a demonstration at the bustling intersection between
Hanjiang road and Zhongshan road. They were unaware that 200 armed police
were waiting for them and in the ensuing police attack, ten pensioners
were beaten and one protester, over 70 years old, was kicked to the ground.
During 1998, the furniture factory had merged with another company. Since
the merger, the new enterprise had continually failed to pay over 200
retired Qintai workers their meagre pensions of Rmb 150. By January 1999,
many of the retired workers had received nothing for over three months.
With no other option, the pensioners decided to hold a peaceful demonstration
to encourage the authorities to intervene on their behalf. They were met
with the brute forces of a dictatorial state.
The state-owned Fenjie
County Sulphate Works, in Chongqing, capital of Sichuan province,
kicked off 1999 with a 28% reduction in pensions to its retired workers.
Already on the edges of poverty, the cut was a disaster for the pensioners
and on the morning of January 25, two hundred of them decided to voice
their opposition to the decision and organised a peaceful protest outside
the local government offices.
When CLB telephoned
the government offices, a spokesman said that the deduction had been made
to cover new regulations related to reforms in the pension system. Furthermore,
the official claimed that once the new rules had been fully explained
to the protesters, they dispersed peacefully. However, when CLB
tried to check this information with some of the pensioners who had taken
part in the demonstration, it was obvious they had been threatened and
were not willing to discuss the matter for fear of reprisals.
The Peijiang Iron and Steel
Factory is in the Sichuan city of Jiangyou city. On October 2, 1998,
Zhang Xucheng, Liu Dingkui and Yan Jinhong led over 500 fellow workers
from the steelworks in a sit-down protest over the company's refusal to
pay pensions to retired employees and living allowances for laid-off workers.
Many had not been paid for three months. The collective action blocked
the vital Baoji-Chengdu railway line for over four hours -- until armed
police attacked the workers' peaceful demonstration. Over 15 people were
arrested, ten injured and four seriously injured, in vicious beatings
meted out during the attack. Liu and Yan were punished with Re-education
Through Labour sentences of one year and eighteen months respectively.
Zhang has been formally arrested and the authorities are preparing a case
The largest state-owned factory
in the city of Changde in central Hunan province is a cotton spinning
enterprise with over 10,000 workers on the books. Over 3,000 have already
been laid off. On January 18, 1999, after suffering wage and living allowance
arrears stretching back for over three months, 500 laid-off workers blocked
a bridge on a nearby trunk road and refused to allow traffic through.
The workers' anger had been exacerbated by the corrupt behaviour of the
boss who continued to steal the company assets while refusing to issue
wages. The outcome of the protest is not known.
Throughout 1998, laid-off
workers from the Yongsheng Cotton and Textiles Factory in Xinzhou
county in the Hubei city of Wuhan regularly protested against the company's
refusal to pay subsistence allowances. On February 6, 1999, anger again
spilled on to the streets when more than 300 workers blocked the main
Xinyang road and demanded that living allowances be issued on time.
During 1998, the factory had
been bought out by another company and over 2,700 of its 3,000 workers
were laid off with a monthly allowance of just Rmb 80. None of those laid-off
have been rehired and in October 1998, the company stopped paying the
living allowance altogether -- continuing protests forced them to start
paying again. Workers from the factory contacted CLB and said they would
continue to organise protests if the management persists in delaying or
refusing to pay the allowances they are entitled to.
Protection a Farce
The "law is an ass" as the saying goes. In China, it is an ass with a
vicious kick. Guo Xinmin and Yue Tianxiang both drivers from the Tianshui
City Transport Company tried to use the law after being laid off by the
company. Tianshui is in the poverty-stricken northern province of Gansu.
Guo and Yue were forced into redundancy in 1995 along with many others
from the company's two thousand strong workforce most of whom were not
getting the subsistence allowance they were entitled to. Guo and Yue were
also owed three months back pay dating back to early 1995. Despite this,
the company refused to negotiate a settlement, so the two activists decided
to take their case to the Tianshui Labour Disputes Arbitration Committee
After hearing the case, the
LDAC issued a written decision that was clearly in contradiction with
various articles in China's labour laws. For example, law stipulates the
three months back pay owed to Guo and Yue should have been issued immediately.
However, the LDAC judged that the company could put off paying the wage
arrears -- despite the fact that the disputed period dated back to 1995
-- until it deemed it could afford to pay. The decision also ruled that
although Yue and Guo had not been reallocated work at the company, they
still had to pay monthly contributions to the pension scheme out of their
Because the LDAC's decision
also stipulated that the company should find new positions for the two
workers as soon as possible, Guo and Yue decided to temporarily compromise
on the other issues and accept the decision in order to try and get back
to work. Management's response to the legally binding decision was nothing
if not to the point:
don't you go and work for the people who gave you that document. There
is no work and no money here. You can sue me if you like!"
was the general manager's
Faced with haranguing and
bullying from the management of the company and feeling that they had
no other alternative, the two wrote an open letter to President Jiang
Zemin asking for official intervention from Beijing. After receiving no
answer, they sent the same letter to international news agencies hoping
to bring more pressure to bear on the authorities in Tianshui by publicising
the bullying and cruel treatment dished out to working people by bureaucrats
and managers. Within a week of releasing the letter, the two had been
picked up by the police and charged with "subverting the government".
Which Way -- Workers Lose
Following 20 years of reform, almost all the assets and advantages of
China's state-owned industry have been grabbed and frittered away by the
class of management bureaucrats who run them. The other side of this wasted
coinage, is the increasing destitution of the working class: pensioners
who can't draw their pensions; unemployed refused welfare; and those still
in work owed months, even years, in wage arrears.
Although a unified working
class movement has so far failed to emerge from the straitjacket of laws
preventing freedom of association, Chinese workers have not taken these
attacks lying down: Guo Xinmin and Yue Tianxiang tried to use the law
and stand accused of trying to subvert state power. As reported in CLB
Issue No.46, Hunan-based teacher and labour activist Zhang Shanguang tried
to establish a union for laid-off workers and was promptly sentenced --
in a secret and illegal trial -- to ten years in prison for passing on
"intelligence" to foreign organisations. In a coordinated attack on the
China Democracy Party (CDP) and its members, Beijing and Tianjin branch
chairperson Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years after he publicly called
on workers to get organised and defend their own interests.
Others have responded to the
poverty, unemployment and imprisonment with indiscriminate and desperate
violence. The table below lists the REPORTED
explosions in January 1999 alone.
|bus bomb||9 dead|
|bus bomb||2 injured|
|bus bomb||40 injured|
|cinema bomb||1 dead, 5 injured|
|train station||Beijing-Guangzhou railway line closed |
for several hours
|9 dead, 15 injured|
The authorities guard information
on such incidents very closely and it is impossible to say whether these
attacks are coordinated or are totally separate incidents. But it is clear
to all -- including the ruling class itself -- they are a direct result
of laws and regulations that have closed off virtually all channels of
genuine expression. Increasing numbers of Chinese people feel they have
no power, no voice and no hope and as a result some are taking revenge
on society in general. If the government continues to deny the opportunity
for an independent trade union movement to develop along peaceful and
democratic lines, while simultaneously intensifying its political and
economic attacks on the lives of working class people, the tragic attacks
such as those listed will continue, even increase.
In late January and early February this year, President Jiang Zemin visited
the industrial city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia. During the visit he pronounced
allowances of laid-off workers and the pensions of retired workers must
be paid and paid on time. We must guarantee that they have a happy Chinese
Also in January,
the ACFTU leadership issued a notice to its affiliates and branches at
all levels and sectors to speedily implement its "song
wennuan" charity programme. Like its political backers in the
CCP, the "union" was anxious that the approaching Chinese New Year Festival
would highlight the poverty of many workers and lead to more social unrest.
Along with the circular,
the ACFTU sent out 14 "Home Visit Teams" to coordinate the distribution
of the song wennuan programme that allocated Rmb 21 million for
this year's festival. The programme is a kind of sticky plaster to cover
the splits in China's social fabric. According to the official People's
few years, the "song wennuan" [programme] has welded the Party,
government and people's organisations even closer together"
The reason for the largesse
is not hard to discern -- fear of unrest. But alms-giving and occasional
handouts on public holidays are no substitute for the right to work and
the right to a wage. Besides, 1999 is full of anniversaries: International
Women's Day (March), Qing Ming Festival (April), International Labour
Day (May), May Fourth Movement Anniversary (May), the 10th Anniversary
of the 1989 Democracy Movement (June), Mid-Autumn Festival (August), the
50th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China (October), Christmas
(December), New Year. Any one of them could become a focus of discontent.
Is the government going to make sure no one goes hungry on any of these
days while pushing anti-working class policies that create poverty during
the rest of the year?
The ACFTU's response to the destitution stalking its members is the so-called
"song wennuan" programme (literally "delivering
warmth"). Wennuan is a nauseating and clumsy combination of
propaganda and alms-giving increasingly resented by workers who feel they
deserve more than charity. The answer to unemployment is real training
for real jobs, not charity from governmnent ministers seeking photo opportunities
in fleeting and stage-managed visits to the homes of the poor. According
to the press conference given by ACFTU Vice-Chairperson Ni Haorong in
December 1997 (People's Daily, 17/12/97), the ACFTU had set up
"song wennuan" programme fund offices in "27 provincial-level,
576 city-level, 2,800 district- and county-level and 17,000 grassroots-level
branches of the organisation. Funds available stood at Rmb 2 billion.
Over 180,000 ACFTU cadres have established communications systems with
35,000 enterprises in financial difficulty and over 4 million households
had received support." (back to article)