Chinese workers strike back

This article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 11 No 6, published 31 December 2022.

What is the significance of the recent protests in China and what should we take from them here in Australia?

The capitalist press have mostly stuck to a simplistic explanation based purely on opposition to Covid lockdowns. Clearly, the draconian policing of a ‘Zero Covid’ policy which had become unrealistic (implemented as a substitute for a poorly executed vaccination effort and significantly privatised health system) has been a major source of anger. An important event in building popular support for the protests was a deadly fire in a Xinjiang apartment building, which resulted in at least ten people dying. Many locals blamed the inadequate response time by firefighters on Covid restrictions.

But there is much more to these protests than just anger over Covid restrictions. Furthermore, we can easily debunk conspiratorial narratives that this is some kind of right-wing or Western controlled movement. Instead, it is a manifestation of class war, which many Chinese workers continue to frame in socialist terms.

The Foxconn Strike

Particularly neglected in Western coverage of China is the component of labour struggle. A major development in the build up to the protests was the militant confrontation between workers and police at the Foxconn mega-factory in the city of Zhengzhou.

Foxconn is a Taiwanese company best known for producing iPhones for Apple, as well as working conditions so brutal that ‘suicide nets’ have been built outside of factory windows, to prevent workers leaping to their deaths. To comply with government Covid restrictions, Foxconn had forced workers to live in the factory from October through to November in appalling conditions. Eventually, many workers escaped and quit, forcing the State to work with the company to offer pay raises and bonuses to attract new workers.

When the workers arrived they found that the promises of higher pay didn’t materialise. On top of this, they became furious about the handling of Covid – in this case because workers who tested positive for Covid were not being separated from others. In other words, when Foxconn workers once again stormed out of the factory and confronted police, they did so on the basis of pay and workplace safety.

From Social Media to the Street

News of the strike spread across Chinese social media and messenger apps. Whatsonweibo, which monitors these platforms, reported that

a clear majority of the people speak out in support of the Foxconn workers. They post old propaganda posters that emphasize how the Chinese working class will lead the revolution, and recommend other Weibo users to read Karl Marx. “Is the working class still leading?”, they ask.”

Despite what many people think, protest is not rare in China. There is intense working class militancy, frequent struggles in rural areas over land and social services, and also student protest. What is rare is dissent against the political system as a whole, the rapid spread of protest across the country, and the intermingling of different struggles.

In the case of the recent protests, we saw both uncommon examples of political dissent and its rapid spread across various regions. There was widespread mourning of those who died in the Xinjiang fire, with some making open reference to the repression of the Uygurs. Workers took to the streets singing the Internationale. Slogans calling for the fall of Xi Jinping and the Chinese “Communist” Party dictatorship could be heard in multiple cities. University students began calling for freedom of speech and democracy. Others held up sheets of blank A4 paper – a defiant symbol conveying the same message.

In one video, a person opposed to the protests echoes the narrative that the West is behind the unrest. The man asks the crowd if they know that “foreign forces” are manipulating them. Someone with a megaphone responds: “The foreign forces you are talking about, are they Marx and Engels?” In another video, a student comes amazingly close to a famous phrase from Bakunin: “No socialism without freedom! No freedom without socialism!”

Certain Covid restrictions have now been eased, particularly in cities where the rebellion was strongest. Protest has waned, but now the Party’s incompetent management of the pandemic threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system, which could easily lead people back to striking and hitting the streets.

No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes

In Australia, the major political parties are increasingly militaristic in their attitudes towards China, and the capitalist media repeatedly warns us about the supposed ‘Chinese threat’. Incredibly, even when the people of China rise up against their own ruling class, the framing of the coverage barely changes at all. When Chinese workers show that they also oppose their government, it is seen as just another opportunity to encourage Australians to embrace militarisation and a readiness for the possibility of war.

The working class of Australia has no interest in a war against Chinese workers and Chinese workers have no interest in a war with us. Militarisation and war is a ruling class game. We have far more in common with each other than either of us do with the ruling classes of our countries. And just as so many Chinese workers (under much harsher conditions than our own) have had the bravery to fight the bosses and politicians who exploit and oppress them, rather than embrace a nationalist fight against ‘foreign forces’, we should also recognise that our main enemy is here at home. They manage our workplaces and make our laws. The only war worth fighting is the class war against them.