Around the world this week millions will remember the brave Chinese students and workers who stood up to the Chinese “communist” autocracy in May and June of 1989 and paid for their courage with their lives. Thousands were likely murdered in the streets around Beijing, while many thousands there and elsewhere throughout China ended up in prison. The picture above was taken in the days after the crack PLA troops went on their bloody offensive on June 4 – only after regular troops refused their orders to shoot on unarmed Beijing residents.
Influenced by the uprisings of Polish Solidarity the Chinese protestors thought that China, too, could emerge from the era of neo-stalinist authoritarianism and join the global community.
The party/state apparatus that controls China had other ideas. Their implicit alliance with global capital has provided that apparatus with a new lease on life – as long as Chinese workers are willing to comply with the cheap labor/non-union regime imposed by the alliance.
In the west policy makers and intellectuals bend over backwards to justify the alliance with arguments about “progress towards democracy” and an “emerging rule of law.” Some like David Brody, the eminent American labor historian, contend that the state controlled labor organization can evolve, as did some American company unions, into genuine labor unions. Others, such as labor educators Ken Jacobs and Katie Quan of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, Kent Wong of the UCLA Labor Center and Elaine Bernard of Harvard’s trade union program, work hand in glove with the regime itself in various exchange and “education” programs. They seem to think the American labor movement can actually learn something from the Chinese regime. You can watch me debate these issues with Brody and Jacobs as well as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein here.
Some US labor leaders such as Andy Stern of the bureaucratically controlled SEIU buy the line of Brody et. al and believe an alliance with the Chinese regime offers a chance to counter balance the power of global multinational capital. He seems oblivious to the impact of the alliance that has already been established between capital and the Chinese regime.
What is striking about these kinds of defenses of the brutal labor regime in China by westerners is that the Chinese working class itself has been, on and off since 1989, in near open revolt against the Chinese government and spurns its labor arm, the All China Federation of Trade Unions. One analyst – Ching Kwan Lee – described this as a veritable “insurgency.”
Even official Chinese statistics admit the level of resistance. According to the China Labour Bulletin, the leading independent labor advocacy group based in Hong Kong and led by 1989 workers leaders Han Dong Fang, there has been a huge increase in labor disputes referred to the official arbitration bodies used by the state to resolve labor conflicts. There has been a similar explosion in the number of lawsuits filed by workers.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, party dissident Bao Tang, now under house arrest in Beijing, said:
“China has almost erased the memory of Tiananmen by making it illegal to talk about what happened. But there are miniature Tiananmens in China every day, in counties and villages where people try to show their discontent and the government sends 500 policemen to put them down. This is democracy and law with Chinese characteristics.
“The first sentence of the Chinese national anthem goes like this: ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves.’ I believe there will be real democracy in China sooner or later, as long as there are people who want to be treated equally and have their rights respected.
“It will rely on our own efforts, it will depend on when we, the Chinese people, are willing to stand up and protect our own rights.”
So this week, in the words of the American labor radical, Mother Jones, “mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”