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Anti-privatization protests at Tonghua Steel

Click here to download this introduction in PDF format

One the biggest events in recent Chinese labor history was the workers’ protest at the Liaoning Iron and Steel Plants. In this issue CLNT draws attention to yet another protest that also involved state workers – the Tonghua Steel protest of 2009 in Changchun City, Jilin Province in northeast China that was followed by another one in Linzhou Steel in Henan Province. How should we view this new wave of anti-privatization protests by state workers?

The Liaoning incident was an extended struggle over a course of more than year with massive street actions, violent suppressions and arrests of several leaders several of whom is still in jail (see http://www.clb.org.hk/en/node/100014). At that time the popular interpretation, at least in the West, was that Chinese workers were ready to demand for the formation of a new trade union (though based on our reading of the text, there was no such demand), and revolution was just round the corner. But this did not happen. The received wisdom has been that the Chinese state was too suppressive.

This CLNT issue, based on the Tonghua case, raises the issue of workers’ consciousness. Was workers consciousness high enough at that time to make such a political demand? There is no way of knowing. But in a comparative analysis of this new Tonghua case and the Liaoning case of nearly a decade ago, a writer by the name of Wu Canze (吴灿泽) argues that workers’ consciousness at that time was not that high and even today still has some way to go.

Selected for this issue are two Chinese articles. The first one provides the background to the workers’ grievances. It is quite a detailed account by a Tonghua employee of the causes behind the upheaval at Tonghua the upheaval itself during which Manager Chen Guojun was beaten to death.

Follow the link below to download the translated blog:
“Anti-privatization protests at Tonghua Steel, Jilin: general manager beaten to death by workers”

Follow the link below to download the original blog in Chinese:
《吉林通化钢铁公司私有化遭抵制 总经理被工人暴打致死》

The second blog posting by Wu Canze is an analytical piece mostly about Chinese state workers’ level of class consciousness, using Tonghua as a take-off point for discussion. It is not clear who Wu is, but while he does not seem to be a Tonghua worker, has been an avid Marxist observer of the Chinese labor movement, tracking details in the movement that others have missed. While others blame the Chinese official trade union for not having done much for workers, he puts the responsibility back onto the workers. He points out that historically under the Maoist period it was the workers themselves who had given up their own rights to be “masters of the state”. Now, years down the track, it will be difficult to reassert these rights. To reassert these rights, especially the right of the staff and workers representative congress that can share decision-making power with management at enterprise level, workers can no longer uphold “spontaneity” as a means, but for the sake of sustainability need “organizing” as a vehicle.

Follow the link below to download Wu Canze’s translated blog:
“Evaluating the July anti-privatization protest by workers at Tonghua Steel, Jilin”

Follow the link below to download Wu Canze’s original blog in Chinese:
《 简评吉林通钢工人7月反私有化抗争》

Another important observation that Wu catches that is missed by most Chinese labor observers is the lack of solidarity among those workers who have jobs and those who were laid-off (or sometimes known as off-post when there is still some lingering connection between workers and work unit). It is here that class consciousness has advanced to a new stage among the Tonghua workers since the Liaoyang Steel upheaval. In Tonghua, workers still with jobs united with the unemployed and played an active role to reverse ownership; in Liaoyang, employed workers did not come forth to support the protests of the laid-off workers and even among the latter, some were indifferent.

Wu’s critical view of China’s labor movement may be controversial to those in the West who generally have wanted to see Chinese workers as bearing the torch bearers of workers’ revolution, that they would make demands on the Chinese government to democratize and agitate for a free trade union. The devil is in the detail.

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