Protesting Against Poverty

(Originally published in CLB#42, May-Jun 1998)

Economic Reform : The Winners

Since the Chinese Communist Party's 15th Congress in September
1997, the government has stepped up its appeals to workers to make "great
sacrifices" during the current "transition period". The sacrifice required
for millions of workers and their families is to passively accept redundancy
and a subsequent cut in income of between 70-90%. According to a recent
talk given by mainland economist Hu Angang, the number of jobless will
climb to between 13 and 15 million this year and may reach 18 million
by 1999.(1)
In April, the Beijing authorities ordered the sacking of 120,000 migrant
workers a day after the Shanghai government announced another 250,000
layoffs - approximately 10% of the city's industrial workforce.

Yet the "transition period" means different things for different people.
According to information gathered from the Shanghai Annual Market Report
(Shanghai shi shangshi nian nianbao), more than 80 directors from
20 state-owned companies are fully-fledged millionaires and a few are
even billionaires. Among them is the nationally renowned state-enterprise
manager Ni Haifeng. Ni is a director of the Chang Hong enterprise as well
as an alternate member of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee.
In 1994, prior to Chang Hong's floatation on the stock market, he bought
shares worth Rmb 7,900 in the company. They are now worth Rmb 2 million.
Yang Guoping is one of the leading lights of the Shanghai Pudong District
development project and also the proud owner of shares worth more than
Rmb1.2 million. In 1986, Shenhua, the electrical appliances company, was
privatised in what was then a pilot project of the gufenzhi scheme
[literally meaning "shareholderization" - Ed.] which was recently given
the go-ahead by the 15th Party Congress. Shenhua's managing director,
Qu Jianguo, bought 100 shares at a cost of Rmb 100 each, a total outlay
of Rmb 10,000. Mr. Qu's "foresight" has paid off handsomely. The shares
he bought are now worth Rmb 20 million.(2)
Dong Da Ah Pai's managing director is Liu Jiren whose personal wealth
is estimated to stand at Rmb 3 million. Lu Bei Chemicals boss is Feng
Yisheng who bought 20,000 shares in the company at an outlay of 1.2 million.
The shares are now worth just under Rmb 11.5 million. The list goes on..........

Economic Reform : The Losers

The city of Zigong in the western province of Sichuan has been the site
of a number of protests by workers attempting to secure at least enough
to eat. On April 15, CLB received information regarding a protest
staged by dozens of laid-off and retired workers from the Zigong Pujiang
Chemicals Factory. The protesters blocked Tanmulin Road leading to Zigong
City's Chemical Industry Bureau. Although a number of workers' representatives
went into the building to negotiate, it was a vice-mayor who emerged to
explain that the problems had been solved and then asked the protesters
to go home. However, according to eyewitness reports, the official gave
no further information and the workers insisted they were going to stay
where they where until they had received concrete promises regarding welfare
payments owed to them.

Down but Not Out

Pujiang Factory ceased production a year ago, but since then the workers
have not received any of the monthly subsistence wages the enterprise
is obliged to pay employees by law. Risking violence and arrest, dozens
of workers felt they had no other option but to go collectively to the
bureau in charge of their enterprise to demand their rights. They were
not the only ones. CLB is still receiving many telephone calls
from sympathisers and participants in protests against corrupt management
practices and demanding the right to work. In March and April this year
in Zigong alone, we received reports from the following demonstrations:

March Carbon
Blacking Factory:

Several hundred workers demand basic subsistence guarantees

No. 2 Radiotelephone Factory: Hundreds demand basic living
allowance owed to them

March 10 : Steel Casting Factory: More than 100 retired, employed
and laid-off workers connected to the enterprise demand the right
to work and the right to pension and layoff wages (3)
9 : No.2 Machine Processing Factory:

More than 200 workers demand layoff wages

The No.2 Machine Processing
Factory has more than 5,000 workers on the books. Approximately 2,000
are formally retired and 500 were laid off at the beginning of 1995 with
a monthly lay-off wage of Rmb 50. In January 1997, a further 600 workers
were laid off with the same monthly allowance. In March 1997, several
hundred of the laid-off workers blocked Guanghua Street in front of the
Da An district government offices for a whole day demanding an adequate
lay-off wage. As a result, the government ordered the factory management
to issue a month's full wage for March. However, the following month they
again only received the pitiful Rmb 50, which buys just 10 kilos of rice,
leaving nothing for vegetables and meat. In other words, the workers were
demanding the right to an adequate diet.

Since last year's demonstration over 1,000 workers from the factory have
individually petitioned government departments, only to be ignored or
pushed around by arrogant government bureaucrats. Apart from a special
subsidy of Rmb 100 issued at this year's Chinese New Year Festival, the
situation has not improved. With no other channel open to them, the No.2
Machine Processing Factory workers again took to the streets on April
9 with placards and banners condemning corruption and demanding a basic
standard of living. Their protest ended peacefully when they were given
permission to present a collective petition to the government signed by
several hundred workers.

Open the Books!

When government officials and company managers deign to explain anything
to employees, it is invariably to say that there is no money available,
an odd explanation given the vast private fortunes some individuals have
accumulated since the reforms began. It is not unusual for managers to
claim an enterprise has money while their own incomes continue to increase.
Moreover, a so-called lack of money is no excuse for the government's
total failure to establish an adequate social security system. One of
the chief demands of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China and the many
working class protests since has been for the government to stop the corruption
that stains almost all economic activity. If the government really made
serious efforts to systematically end the endemic embezzlement of public
money by high-placed officials and managers, then the literally billions
of dollars saved in just one year would be sufficient to establish a basic
welfare system.

Rights not Charity

We are not asking for government hand-outs or a continuation of the food
and clothing handouts that the ACFTU is so proud of distributing at festival
time (see box below). We are demanding a welfare and social security
system that is the basic responsibility of any government anywhere. The
Chinese government has had 20 years to set up such a system. Its failure
to do so is not a question of lack of money, but a question of where its
priorities lie. In countries with parliamentary democracies, a government
that neglects it's duties to the extent the Chinese government has, at
the very least must face a general election and the threat of being kicked
out of office. In China, we are ruled by a government that has delivered
laid-off, retired and unemployed workers to the very door of destitution,
and still it does not have to answer for its mistakes.

The ACFTU’s response to the destitution stalking its members is the so-called "song wennuan" (4) programme (literally "delivering warmth"). The programme is a clumsy combination of charity and propaganda, often resented by workers who feel they deserve more than occasional handouts. In CLB’s view, the answer to unemployment is real training for real jobs, not charity from government ministers seeking photo opportunities in fleeting and stage-managed visits to the homes of the poor. According to
a press conference given by ACFTU Vice-chairperson Ni Haorong in
December 1997 (5),
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 grass-roots level branches of the organisation.
Funds available stood at Rmb 2 billion.(6)
Over 180,000 ACFTU cadres have established communication systems
with 35,000 enterprises in financial difficulty and over 4 million
households had received support."


(1) From a paper delivered
on May 18, 1998 by Hu Angang at Hong Kong's Shue Yan College.

(2) During 1994, this researcher worked at
a Shenhua-franchised electrical goods counter in the Kunming branch of
the Baihuo Dalou department store. Monthly wages at the time were
Rmb208. There was an official branch of the union, but very few of the
counter staff were aware of its existence.

(3) Chinese law stipulates that all laid-off
workers are entitled to draw lay-off wages (xiagang gongzi) unless
the company formally declares bankruptcy. Employees are then supposed
to register as officially unemployed, which theoretically entitles them
to a welfare allowance from the government back

" (also referred to as song wenbao
or delivering food and clothing) is a basically feudal notion by which
high-placed government and union officials hand out food parcels and clothes
to the poor; "wenbao" means to be adequately clothed
and fed; "wennuan" means warmth.back

Ribao (People's Daily), 17/12/97back

(6) The funds are clearly not evenly spread.
According to a report in Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) on 8/12/97,
the Shanghai ACFTU's share of the total funds was Rmb 400 million or 20%.

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