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Analysis finds evidence of Chinese government's repression campaigns on labour activists

Image credit: Dreamstime, Ben Heubl

The data says labour unrest in China is on the wane. But this might not reflect improving labour relations. As E&T uncovered, the real reason behind the apparent fall has to do with repression. The government’s mounting interference is making it harder to collect data, while a transition to new industries and a slowing economy add to pressure on workers.

Does fewer labour protests equal better working conditions and a more blissful workforce? In normal circumstances, this rings true. In the case of China, it might be no more than wishful thinking. An E&T data investigation found that after the Chinese government ramped up its intervention campaigns on Chinese labour activists and NGOs, the number of reported incidents fell to record low levels. 

In the past, China's regional and local administrations have made a name for themselves as skilful influencers of data. A recent example is the city of Guanghan in the Sichan province, which was found to have meddled with figures on economic growth. A clampdown on labour rights supporters performs a similar role: obstruction of the gathering of data by non-governmental labour rights organisation China Labour Bulletin (CLB). 

Labour protests and strikes across China

Image credit: Ben Heubl, CLB

Hong Kong-based CLB was founded by labour activist Han Gongfang, who received the Democracy Award from the US National Endowment for Democracy in 1993. It has been tracking labour strikes and protests since 2011 across the whole of mainland China, primarily via monitoring social media services.

"China Labour Bulletin would be first to admit that their data isn't perfect", explains Tim Pringle, a labour relations specialist in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. 

Despite these gaps in completeness that have affected CLB’s operation from the start, Xi Jinping's government has increased efforts in targeting the service, making its work more difficult.  

"I don’t think less reporting by China Labour Bulletin means that conditions have improved”, says Kevin Lin, the China programme officer at the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) based in Washington DC. 

Similarly, Pringle finds no reason to conclude that the drop in protests is the result of more effective labour trade union and more effective labour relations. President Xi Jinping called on the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to reform [labour rights], on at least two occasions, he says. In 2013 and 2015. "Neither attempt has been ground-shaking to help with the level of trade union representation". 

According to Lin, repression by the government made the numbers drop in several ways. The government grew more efficient in its efforts to intervene in burgeoning labour protests by responding more quickly and also more effectively. This has made most of the strikes much shorter on average now than before, especially in southern China, he says. 

Because [most of the] strikes now last only half a day, a day, they often get resolved before they are reported. When the protests are off CLB's radar, it affects their reporting. 

By resolving protests, Lin generally means that to the government goes through the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) - the largest trade union in the world, with more than 300 million members.

The government invites the trade union to the negotiating table together with the management of the company. Here, the union will try to negotiate a compromise. Should this fail, the police will be sent to stop workers venturing outside of factory premises.

If workers' unrest should spill onto the streets, it is very likely that the government will send the troops, Lin explains. 

CLB's data confirms police intervention is not a rarity. About one fifth of all recorded strikes in CLB’s data since 2011 involved some sort of participation by the Chinese police forces. Police involvement is often accompanied by violence and force. 

A great number of interventions ended up in unspeakable brutality, the data suggests. Beatings were found in hundreds of cases. In one instance, when construction workers engaged in a strike in Heyuan, in the Guangdong province in 2016, protesting about wage arrears, one person was "beaten to death”. In another instance, during a strike of taxi drivers in 2015 against taxi apps, a driver was shot in the leg when the police opened fire against protesters. There were nearly 200 instances where protesters were beaten or threatened - and in a quarter of those protests, the police were in some way involved. According to E&T's calculations, protests at private companies appear to be more prone to experiencing excessive force against workers. 

Are protests growing more violent? This is hard to say. There are signs that more negotiating takes place. Since 2015, the number of occasions where the government tried in some way or another to mediate and - via the union - negotiated, increased. But it is not clear whether this was a genuine increase, or simply the result of more violent protests becoming harder to spot by CLB.

Labour unrest researchers struggle with a conundrum here. Should they use CLB's data or collect themselves, as other researchers such as Manfred Elfstrom have done.

Pringle argues that the power in CLB's data is that it will still generally keep reflecting what other strike data suggest. "At least at the moment, CLB data is the best non-governmental source available," he says. Without it, there would simply be no other, more reliable, sources.

The Chinese authorities will have their own statistics but do not make them public. Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stopped publishing data for China in 2006 because of mounting inaccuracies.

The government has given CLB a hard time more recently, arresting two major contributors to the database, key forces behind the statistics. Losing these valuable people crippled the service. 

This year, signs have emerged that other labour activists are moving into the crosshairs of the government. Around 50 activists were detained, some of them charged and sentenced at the beginning of the year. Labour protest crackdowns grew more coordinated. At least three well-known labour activists have been formally arrested in Shenzhen, one on the grounds of 'embezzlement'. Lin estimates that the government arrested more than 100 labour activists last year, including student supporters. 

Labour activists and labour NGOs do not organise strikes on their own. They merely fulfil a supporting role. They come and facilitate workers, Lin explains. This kind of support is used to add momentum to workers’ protests and help to lengthen and enlarge them. With smaller protests, CLB's ability to spot them online got more difficult.

In the past few years, there were hardly any of those big strikes that used to be common, those that lasted longer than a couple of days, Lin says.  

Size of protests

Image credit: Ben Heubl, E&T, CLB

Economic pressure

Another issue involves the considerable economic slowdown China is experiencing, experts argue. Real GDP growth decelerated to 6.1 per cent and is predicted to drop below the 6 per cent mark next year, according to figures by the International Monetary Fund

Lin says that a slowdown would cultivate fewer labour protests, especially within manufacturing. Workers would not have a powerful narrative to initiate what he calls 'offensive strikes' – those carried out, for example, to ask for higher wages. In a deteriorating economic climate, management finds it easier to fight off claims for wage increases issued by the labour union. CLB's data also supports this conclusion. 

In conjunction with the changing nature of China's economy, the country is experiencing a major move of manufacturing activities and factories. 

Lower prices elsewhere and China's national strategy to move towards high-end manufacturing have pushed activities away from southern China, either to other regions where it is cheaper or outside the country. What some refer to as 'manufacturing migration' has seen activity shifting to places in South East Asia, including Vietnam, where wages remain more favourable for employers. 

Pringle explains that low-end manufacturing in Guangdong has migrated away from the province. The move was westwards to the Sichuan province. This was the case for the shoe industry, but higher-end sectors such as automotive have also been affected. 

Manufacturing in Guangdong, particularly in Shenzhen and Dongguan and Guangzhou, really drove statistics on labour protests, Pringle says. Guangdong was always, what he calls, an "incubator province” – in other words, a place where labour and capital relations could really be tested out before being rolled in other parts of the country. Due to a lack of regulation and great zeal by employers to push workers as hard as possible, “that is where you saw a lot of labour disputes”, he says.

Much of the trouble protesters in Guangdong went through proved to show little benefit. CLB’s own research suggests that the union’s support still does not satisfy the needs of workers. Provincial trade union officials’ response to seven labour disputes during August 2018 saw the union get involved in just one case. Other issues in the province remain unsolved. Largely, trade unions get established under the control of management and often leave workers powerless in negotiations over wages and working conditions.

Today, CLB's data suggests Guangdong accounts for a declining share of protests, as they start to spread across the rest of the country more evenly - and expand in places like Beijing and Jiangsu. 

In the first-tier city of Beijing, a highly competitive place for white-collar employment, as well as Jiangsu, home to a leading finance and technology sector, CLB registered more protests and strikes. 

In Beijing, examples like one in September where workers protested against wage arrears and unpaid social insurance at a pharmaceutical company, grew more frequent. 

The service sector presented the last larger protests, involving more than 1,000 people. A protest against wage arrears in Taiyuan, the largest city of the northern province of Shanxi, at a private service enterprise motivated driving instructors to take their dissatisfaction to the streets. Services sector protests are on the rise, the data confirms. 

Protests by each sector

Image credit: Ben Heubl, E&T, CLB

As to what the future will bring, Lin explains that his biggest worry at the moment is labour protests within the platform economy. Platform economy companies can be e-commerce service giants such as online matchmakers or technology frameworks – China's most recent growth driver and backed by the fast-expanding internet sector. Lin's comment is supported by the result that strikes became more prominent within services. 

Delivery drivers bear the brunt right now, he says. Their industry is especially badly regulated. It will become the new hotspot for labour unrest, he thinks. Regulations were developed within manufacturing over the past two to three decades, but the service sector would just be at the beginning of that process. 

When the new labour contract law came out in 2008, it was primarily designed with manufacturing in mind, not for the platform economy, Lin says.

Now with increasing dissatisfaction by workers in sunrise industries, tech workers and other white-collar employees increasingly rebel. But the way they protest is completely different from those in the traditional sectors. 

Earlier in the year, Chinese high-tech workers started protesting online against long working hours. The campaign 996.icu, which refers to a work schedule from 9am to 9pm six-days-a-week that will land workers in the intensive care unit of a hospital (ICU), went viral quickly. 

But compared to manufacturing workers, white-collar workers are at a disadvantage. According to Lin, almost no labour NGOs currently support protests for these workers. “White-collar workers are seen as privileged, they have money, more power than manufacturing workers. For a long time, nobody really paid attention to white-collar workers," Lin says. Eventually, they took the matter into their own hands. 

Pringle also says that the 996.icu protests are very different from those in manufacturing. The lesson is, mistakes made in the past will not prevent mistakes in more modern industries. At the moment, the biggest problem lies in the fact that there is no real incentive for the ACFTU to up its game, he says. There is a lot of experimentation. But until China moves away from a one-size-fits-all single trade union system, there is little hope for change.   

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