Class conciousness of migrant workers in the chinese Pearl River Delta

Der Beitrag von Anita Chan und Kaxton Siu vom April 2011 ist ein lesenswerter Versuch, die Entwicklung der Arbeiterbewegung im neuen industriellen Herzland Chinas und die Entwicklung der Gewerkschaften zusammen zu analysieren, wobei der Schluss gezogen wird, dass nur solche Veränderungen oder Neuorganisationen Besserung versprechen, die aufgrund echter Bewegung entstehen.


Anita Chan

Kaxton Siu

With the rise of labor protests in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region in the past decade, particularly among the so-called “new generations of peasant-workers”,1 labor sympathizers have great expectation that they herald a rising consciousness among these workers. Tthe authorities on their part fear the protests will lead to social unrest. In either case, whatever the attitude the assumption is migrant workers should have developed articulated class consciousness.

We are in general agreement that this is true to some extent, but we wish to offer a different and more refined interpretation. This analysis draws on Marx, Lenin, and Marxist historians' view of history to put forth a different interpretation of the present class consciousness of the millions of Chinese migrant workers in South China.

Class and Class Consciousness: Theory and Methodology

1. Historicity—Extant studies of China’s migrant workers tend to be ahistorical in that they either describe phenomena that took place at one point in time or within a couple of decades with no attempt to show how historical events or historical periods influenced or built onto later events. Historically class formation, emergence of class consciousness, labour movements and social movements built on each other and have taken a much longer time span to take full shape. The Annales School’s Fernand Braudel and world-system theorist Immanuel Wallenstein considered even several decades as too short to understand and predict social change.2 In this paper, we shall place the last thirty years during which a large group of Chinese migrant workers has emerged into a historical perspective. We shall compare this contemporary social phenomenon with the class formation that occurred during the European industrial revolution two centuries back, in the belief that by situating China’ current level of class and class consciousness development as a historical process, we are able to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the current situation and what lies ahead in the coming several decades.

2. Objective Structural Class Position and Subjective Class Consciousness—While shared socio-economic conditions of a large social group can structurally and objectively be identifiable as a class, subjectively they may not identify themselves as a class.3 This brings us to the famous Marx’s distinction between “class in itself” and “class for itself” of industrial workers:

“Economic conditions first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. The mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, the mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”4

In the following pages we shall tease out in some depth the development process of this enormous new-born laboring group starting from a state of no consciousness to a certain level of consciousness.

3. Levels of Class Consciousness—How does a working class transform itself from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”? In Europe, this was a historical process that took many decades. It was a linear progression interrupted by fits and starts. The development can be divided into stages, and within each stage, into phases. Both Marx and Lenin wrote about this staged development of consciousness. Marx observed that in the beginning workers' strikes were isolated and were mainly over wage maintenance. After some time they united across factories in an effort to counter the strength of the capitalist employers. Finally, when consciousness was high workers even forfeited some of their wages to support the workers' organization. They had progressed to be "a class for itself”.

Lenin divided class consciousness into three different levels: individual consciousness, trade union consciousness and social democratic (meaning revolutionary) consciousness. E.P. Thompson developed the fluidity of class and class consciousness further as a process that became "a historical phenomenon", "I do not see class as 'structure', or even as a 'category', but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships."5

As class and class consciousness are historical developmental processes, the time frame used is important in understanding the level of class consciousness. In 1845, about sixty-five years after the emergence of an industrial labour, Engels expected that the English working class would rise up in rebellion, but it did not. Engels’ too optimistic expectation was based on the biggest workers' uprising in English history between 1841 and 1842. After this countrywide strike, Engels had to wait until 1853 – three-quarters of a century since the start of the Industrial Revolution – when 18,000 textile factory workers went out on strike in Stockport, Lancashire, Cheshire and Preston, demanding pay raises to keep up with the high inflation of that year.6 In Russia, industrial development roughly began only in the second half of the 1860s, and it was about three decades later that Lenin argued in "What's to be Done?" that workers' class consciousness would not rise beyond spontaneity unless given a push by an intellectual vanguard.7 Marx, Engels, Lenin, and many labor historians were impatient about how slow class consciousness matured. There was an urge to will history, and Lenin, impatient, ultimately put his organizational prescription into practice and tried to create history, as did Mao, following Lenin's footsteps.

At what stage and phase of development is the consciousness of today’s the new Chinese migrant working class? What time frame should be used when studying the development of their class consciousness? We shall put the development of class consciousness of Chinese migrant workers in Guangdong into historical context by using cases of protests to delineate the progression of level of class consciousness at various point of time. Notably, among all the cases presented, we pay particular attention to the Nanhai Honda strike case that happened in 2010, the most recent that attracted widespread attention, and evaluate its significance in terms of level of class consciousness by using other cases as reference points.

Yet, before going into detail of these cases, several points have to be emphasized: The main purpose of this paper is to re-revisit Marx and Lenin’s theoretical schema to measure objectively the level of class consciousness possessed by the present-day migrant workers in Southern China. There is no intention to suggest any advocacy plans; nor is there any intention to demand today’s Chinese migrant workers to raise their consciousness up to the revolutionary level as that was in Lenin’s years; nor do we want to use other strike cases to downplay the role of Nanhai Honda strike in Chinese labour movement history, now generally regarded as having reached the most progressive of cases in China’s labour movement

Embryonic Stage of Class Consciousness of Chinese Migrants in Guangdong

From a very small number of migrant workers in the factories of Guangdong Province beginning in the mid-1980s, today numbering some 30 million, this is probably the fastest growing and largest rural-to-urban factory workforce created and packed into one geographical region ever in human history. The birth of this industrial workforce emerging from agrarian societies to a great extent bears resemblance to the birth of the industrial workforce in England and other parts of Western Europe at the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th Centuries. Using empirical evidence we argue that the class consciousness among the several tens of millions of migrant workers in Guangdong Province is still at a low level when measured against the industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th Century to the 1840s.

First, let us consider the scale and frequency of strikes in the PRD, which records the largest percent of strikes in China. They occur mostly in the Asian foreign-fund factories that supply to the global production chain. But the Chinese government does not release strike figures. Besides it is extremely difficult for the central authorities to collect reliable strike figures due the local governments’ attempt to portray their success in maintaining social stability. However, lack of information has not deterred scholars interested in the topic from stating the seriousness of the situation. Much emphasis is placed on one or two strike cases8 or even on one individual worker as evidence of rising class consciousness.9 Admittedly these cases do reflect in some detail the conditions and actions at the sites in question, but to conclude that consciousness is rising rapidly and spreading among the broad migrant workforce, or that there have been strike waves call for more caution.

Chris Chan had done the most systematic overview of strikes in the PRD . The thrust of his argument is that strikes were increasing.10 But what has not been taken into account is strike density. As the number of foreign-invested factories in China expanded from a tiny number in communes and county towns of the PRD to several tens of thousands of factories in less than three decades, it is inevitable that the number of strikes has risen. Given the huge number of workers in the 2000 decade, the highest concentration in human history, are the recent strikes that large in number? Our comparative study of the Ho Chi Minh area of Vietnam and Guangdong in China strongly suggests that the density of strikes in Vietnam is much higher.11

To compensate for the dearth of reliable statistical data, in this paper we will use a collection of protest and strike cases in the PRD that one of the two authors have filed stretching back for almost two decades since 1993. These include newspaper clippings, labor NGO websites, labor NGO internal documentation and in some cases, our interviews with workers.

The empirical evidence is that, so far as we know, there have not been any large-scale, coordinated, organized labor protests in Guangdong province, nor have workers from a number of factories made any collective demands on the local or central Chinese governments, nor have workers attempted to set up any independent trade unions at the workplace or multi-workplace level. The protests and strikes almost always have been spontaneous and have involved very specific issues of discontent within a factory. In contrast, three centuries ago by 1720 London journeyman tailors had already organized the earliest trade union in England with members more than 7000 workers, demanding less working hours and more wages to the Parliament. What’s more, the famous Luddite movement that happened between 1812 and 1814 had also swept across England’s most knitting, cotton and weaving regions including Nottingham, Leicestershire, Derby, West Riding and Lancashire.

Pre-1994: A Stage of Pre-consciousness

The few strikes that were recorded from the end of the 1980s to the 1994 were outbursts of serious immediate grievances of individual workers or a small group of workers, or at most, the workers confined to one workplace.12 These isolated protests cannot be generalizable. In fact, during this period, based on evidence provided by 77 private letters possessed by fire victims of Zhili toy factory fire victims of 1993, migrant workers at that time were terribly mistreated. Their wages were so low that they had to cut down on food consumption. Some did not even have enough to eat, In those letters, there was not even one worker who had expressed a wish to do something to improve their plight, not to mention ideas of taking protest action. They were physically trapped in the factories. They felt isolated and helpless. Those were the days when mobile phones did not exist and landlines rare. All they could do was to lament at their fate and accepted it as inevitable.

Compared to today, working and living conditions twenty years ago were, as one worker cited by Chris Chan called it, an “invisible prison.”13 It was common practice for factory management to take away workers’ identity documents and to delay paying them to prevent them from leaving, reducing them to bonded labour.14 1993, the year the Zhili letters were written, pre-dated the enactment of China’s Labor Law that was passed in 1994. Though at that time there were regulations on maximum work hours and overtime pay, the authors of the 77 letters were not aware of these nor of any other safeguards against exploitation. The notion of rights was non-existent. The period before 1994 can be considered a pre-class conscious period. The best that workers in such circumstances can do to protest their conditions is to nurture seeds of individual hidden resistance,15 or take the exit option of looking for other factories, which often turned out to be no better.

Post-1994: A Phase of Rights-based Protests

The 1994 Labor Law was the first labor legislation passed in China since the founding of the People’s Republic. The passage of the law stirred up a debate among government bureaucracies. The All-China Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU) fought to ensure the spirit of the law was advantageous to workers. It was passed not because workers had been collectively making demands on the government, but because there was a consensus within the political elite that social stability had to be maintained by having a law to regulate industrial relations. In the 19th Century the introduction of the Reform Act in 1832, the Factory Act in 1833 and the New Poor Law in 1834 was also for the purpose of maintain stability. The difference was in those days large-scale labor protests for several decades had put a lot of pressure on capital and the state to improve working conditions. In the 1990s in China, such organized collective demands did not exist. Workers got these pro-labour laws without having to struggle for them. It can be said that contemporary Chinese labour history has skipped a stage of wide spread sustained struggle for legal rights that took at least several decades in the early industrializing western countries.

The law did induce a change in workers’ awareness, and migrant workers in the Guangdong region gradually began to use the law as an instrument to “protect rights” (weiquan) when their legal rights were violated. Note that these “rights” refer to “legal rights” and not “inalienable” human rights.” They are rights defined by law. The social discourse on “rights protection” entails acceptance of prevailing laws as the standard by which work conditions and wages should be set. “Weiquan” is a hegemonic discourse propagated by the political and social elites, and since then it populates the vocabulary and consciousness of this new working class. It is the best tool they have as “dagongzu”, the “tribe that toils”, to “defend our [legal] rights”.

This slang “tribe” or “ethnic group” (zu) has been invented by the elite to describe what is in reality a “class.” Migrant workers themselves accept this label. In the post-Mao era there has been a deliberate effort to downplay the concept of class, that was once an everyday word used under Maoism. The “classless” discourse using the Weberian social stratification approach has succeeded in expunging the concept of class from social consciousness. In this discourse Chinese migrant workers today will never be a “class in itself” in China’s new “classless” era.

The “Intellectual Vanguard” of the Pearl River Delta Region

When Lenin grew impatient that proletarian class consciousness was developing too slowly to stage a revolution, he proclaimed that the workers needed a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ drawn from the intelligentsia to quicken the historical process. China’s so-called revolutionary vanguard was the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao. After the introduction of economic reforms there really was no more vanguard. Beginning in the early 1990s several Hong Kong labor NGOs have come into the PDR to fill the place of the “intelligentsia” of yesteryear. They are by no means Lenin and Mao’s “revolutionaries.”

The Hong Kong labor NGOs, usually staffed by a few middle-class young idealists, began setting up offices across the border. With the Chinese staff they hired, these NGOs have played a significant role in popularizing the idea of “rights protection” among Chinese migrant workers.16 Their programs focused on raising awareness among migrant workers of the details of the Labor Law and how the laws relate to safety production. They taught migrant workers how to read pay slips and pointed out where payment and work hours fell short of legal requirements. They also helped injured workers seek compensation, which requires an expert understanding of injuries assessment and litigation procedures. Local authorities tolerated them because their free services were in tune with the new laws, which gave their activities legitimacy.

In one decade the Hong Kong labour NGOs’ persistence paid off. They had trained a new generation of PRC NGOs. As the number of NGOs multiplied most migrant workers today know about legal maximum overtime, about the region’s official minimum wage and about industrial injuries compensation. Taking bosses to court for underpaying, going to the authorities to lodge legal claims for back pay, and suing for injuries compensation have become commonplace. Litigation is a legitimate form of protest. These lawyers and paralegals have come to be known as “citizen’s agents” (gongmin dailiren). The rise of litigation and of citizens’ agents has catapulted China’s industrial relations into a new phase.

The legal aid movement has been instrumental in raising workers’ awareness of their labour rights, but the very fact that the movement is framed by the discourse on “rights protection,” it individualizes labour dispute settlements in a reactive manner. China is headed in a direction that is becoming increasingly litigious and individuated, interrupted very sporadically by industrial violence. This “intellectual vanguard” of rights protectors delimits itself to these law-abiding activities. While not intending to belittle their efforts, we think that they have actually helped to alleviate social discontent by channeling workers’ grievances into the legal system, which is exactly why the ruling elite created the legal instruments in the first place.

Rights-based Protests versus Interest-based Protests

It is instructive to introduce the difference here between rights-based as opposed to interest-based protests. Rights-based demands push for legal compliance when legal rights are being violated. The law imposes a maximum on claims—these can be no more than the minimum standards that the law requires. Interest-based demands go beyond the minimum standards defined by law: say, a demand for a wage rise above the legal minimum wage.

Thus Chinese migrant workers, in taking the litigation route, have not questioned the legitimacy of this structure. Their level of consciousness had not reached the point of asserting a right beyond the legal minimum. Since the implementation of the Labor Law their level of consciousness had not progressed very far. This is not unrelated to the fact that they have not had the experience of having struggled for these laws, which could have contributed to a maturation of class consciousness.

In Marx and Lenin’s conception of class, the workers’ main concern was still their physical well-being revolving around narrow, non-political, immediate issues such as whether long working hours would lead to casualties, or whether dangerous work in dye and bleach industries were hazardous to workers’ health. It is still a “class in itself.”17 Starting from agrarianism it took some fifty years for workers in England between 1829 and 1834 to become aware of its class identity. The migrant working class in China existed for almost thirty years, and despite today’s instantaneous communication capability it has not yet developed a horizontal organizational labour network.

2010: the Beginning of Interest-based Protests?

The Nanhai Honda Strike

The Honda transmission plant in Nanhai, Guangdong, has been widely regarded as a watershed in China’s labour movement. Within our analytical framework this strike has progressed from a phase of rights-based to interest-based. Two thousand workers downed tools on 17 May 2010 and demanded a raise of 800 yuan a month—an 80% increase. What was more, they insisted the increase had to be added to their basic wage rather than as a subsidy. The demand for such a big increase was unprecedented, as labor protests mostly have been over unpaid overtime work or wage arrears or other legal violations. In addition, they wanted a stepped wage structure reflecting an aspiration for job security, an incentive system for promotion and introduction of a seniority system. This is in line with Pun Ngai's analysis that this generation of workers do not want to return to their home villages or home towns.18 They want to stay and become permanent residents of Guangdong province. The workers at the Honda parts plant also complained that the salaries of the Japanese staff were too high and the gap between the Japanese and Chinese employees too wide. This was also unusual, because migrant workers for all these years have accepted that foreign staff are on a much higher salary scale. Workers might have complained about this in private, but not as an open grievance. This was a sign that the Honda strike leaders have developed a sense that there should be a fairer share in the distribution of income. A last demand worth noting, though by no means unprecedented, was a call for a new election of the factory’s trade union committee, to replace the existing ineffectual union leadership made up of management staff.

The strike lasted 19 days and ended after the intervention of several people—the CEO of the Guangzhou Automobile Group which is the Chinese partner of the Honda assembly plant,19 the provincial deputy trade union chairman and a well-known legal scholar. The workers obtained the wage rise they demanded and were promised that they would be able to elect their own trade union committee.20 The Honda strike and its results were well publicised, especially through the web. Within a two-week period, strikes at two other Honda auto parts plant in Guangdong Province broke out, also ending with workers winning big wage increases. In other parts of China, about a dozen or so strikes of a similar nature were reported in about the same period. It was unclear whether these latter strikes were inspired by the Nanhai Honda strikes, but this was widely assumed to be the case. The strikes that broke out in the few other Honda auto part plants were all peaceful. Within days they were able to force production at several large Honda assembly plants to grind to a halt. The losses to Honda and to its joint venture’s Chinese partner, the Guangzhou Automobile Group (GZAG) of the halted production were enormous, and this can easily explain why Honda conceded to workers' demands. In all these cases, the the GZAG and the provincial government and the provincial and Guangzhou city trade unions intervened as mediators. The strikes attracted national and international media attention, which interpreted them as signs of the beginning of serious workers' unrest. The demand for a big wage rise sent alarm bells to Honda, other companies and the government that the low-wage era might be over. These strikes, if allowed to spread, could have ripple effects on the Chinese economy. But when we examine closely what these strikes, and the one at Nanhai Honda in particular mean, workers' class consciousness has risen but has not attained a qualitative leap.

First, based on some inside information we were able to collect, and analyzing the developments since the strike ended, it can be said that though quite long and staged with great solidarity, it was still a spontaneous strike. There was no planning, no organizing of core activists or strike committee. Once satisfied that their economic demands had been met, workers did not press hard for an immediate election for a new trade union committee. Admittedly this has to do with strikers’ lack of experience. Thus when the provincial trade union which came to help organize a new election and took a few months before the first round of elections for 30 trade union representatives took place, workers' enthusiasm, willingness to struggle for change, and sense of solidarity dissipated. Workers became susceptible to management’s to divide and rule tactics. The strike leader lost her election in a run-off vote. The thirty newly elected representatives are mostly management staff, because workers did not know whom to vote for. The second stage election for the new trade union chairperson has been postponed to 2011 when the term of the existing union committee expires. This effectively means that the strike has failed to set a precedent replacing ineffective workplace unions by a democratic election. The provincial government and trade union are intent that there is no such precedent.21

Second, this strike, like those that preceded it, has shown itself to be not sustainable in pulling workers together to form a stable oganization to continue on the struggle in the factory, less still beyond. From the very beginning the strike possessed the ingredients of an emphemeral protest action. The two orginal strike leaders wanted to stir up a strike only after they had handed in their resignations to the company. They had not built up a solid core of workers to lead the strike if workers reponded; there was no long term plan. Their fellow workers did respond, and after a few days when the two leaders were fired, they just left, as they had already planned to do anyway. This much—that they would leave the plant—was planned. When Ms. Li, a nineteen year-old, took up the leadership after their departure, she was too inexperienced to take up the challenge beyond reacting to immediate circumstances.

Third, the several strikes that took place in June and July had no coordination across workplaces. Workers of the Honda Lock plant that broke out in Zhongshan County did not contact strikers at the Nanhai Honda plant before they began to strike.22 Within those two months workers in other parts of the country who started strikes could have been inspired by what they read in the media and internet on the Honda strikes, but the small strike wave, if one can call it as such, showed no signs of co-ordinated collective efforts across workplaces, industries or regions. These activities remained isolated and workers' consciousness has still not risen beyond immediate economic demands.

One big achievement of the Nanhai Honda strike is that it has become a significant wage-setting incident. That a particular industry or a particular region is looked up as a wage-setter for the entire country is quite common in some countries. The strike set the precedent to Chinese workers that is it not unreasonable to ask for a high payrise. We are however skeptical that had the Nanhai Honda workers not have the backing of the provincial government and the union to use it as a successful precedent of a collective “consultation” lead by a trade union, will this strike go down in Chinese labor history as an important event.

Other Strike Cases

The Nanhai Honda strike to our mind has not attained a breakthrough in class consciousness. There have been other strikes and labor activities in the past decade that had surpassed the Nanhai Honda workers in a number of ways: for instance, in scale of the strike, in willingness to take risk, in organizational ability, in persistence and in solidarity.

Willingness to take risk can be seen in a strike staged by 60 employees in a firm of several hundred in 2000. They signed their names to an open letter addressed to a New York-based labor NGO, China Labor Watch, listing their company I.D numbers and their telephone numbers. Using extremely emotional language five representatives pressed their bloody thumbprints on a document authorizing them to be representatives. They asked the NGO to ask American buyers to intervene on their behalf. Approaching the outside world was politically risky.

The Nanhai Honda strike was a significant interest-based protest. But it was no precedent. There had been cases where workers had to struggle hard to even get a small raise above the minimum wage. Workers of a factory called Dechang in September 2007 went on strike asking for a raise from 700 yuan to 800 yuan a month after the local government announced it would not raise the minimum that year. Dechang management stood firm on 750 yuan, which was then the official minimum wage. Workers took to the streets and several hundreds of police came to drive them back and then locked them inside the factory. An NGO report recorded this interesting observation:

"The strike in Dechang is characterized by the consciousness of a new generation of workers. Unlike workers in other enterprises where demands tend only to revolve around paying up to the official minimum wage standard,

Another interest-based strike that attracted much media attention was one staged by crane operators and truck drivers of a huge Shenzhen container port in November 2007. Dock workers were making about 4000 yuan a month which was considered as good pay. Admittedly, the workers had to work a lot of overtime and the work was heavy. They demanded a raise of 25 to 50 percent, at least four days of rest a month and an overtime rate 6 times higher than the illegally low rate of 3 yuan an hour. It was not a spontaneous strike. It broke out on 1st May, a significance day in a socialist state. Workers elected their own representatives to negotiate with management. The Shenzhen trade union served as mediator, urging management to concede to workers’ “reasonable” demands quickly. The results of the bargaining were not made public, but appeared to have been settled in the strikers’ favour as they resumed work after two days.

Others had also tried to ask for a re-election of management-dominated trade unions. In 2008, a group of workers at a Nestle factory in Dongguan distributed leaflets to fellow workers calling on the trade union that had been in existence for 12 years be replaced. The news story was covered by the Chinese press, including China Daily. It was portrayed as an example of management violating the Trade Union Law in not organizing regular union re-elections.23 The leader was dismissed by the company on grounds of misconduct. The local government and the union did not lend him any support.

In factories where there is no existing workplace union, sometime workers struggle to set up a new union, In Lenin’s expression—these workers possess trade union consciousness. On paper, the procedure of setting up a trade union branch at a workplace is very simple. It involves a minimum of 25 workers’ signatures (Article 13, The Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2001) applying to the trade union one level above to hold an election to set up a union.24 In 2003, Liu, a 29 year old worker who worked in a Hong-Kong supplier factory that made aquatic sportswear for a New Zealand firm, collected 182 signatures (out of 2000 workers) and went to the district union to apply to set up a union. He then called a New York Times reporter in Beijing to come to Shenzhen to cover the story.25 In the end, the local union and factory management maneuvered and controlled the union election and the effort came to naught. Liu then went to another factory to try to do the same but did not succeed.26 Liu’s consciousness was quite high: he did some groundwork organizing before taking any action and was willing to take the risk of confronting management and the local government.

The case that exemplifies so far a high level of trade union consciousness, organizational ability, fighting spirit and solidarity in face of massive police suppression and violence was a Uniden strike. The struggle began in December 2004 and on and off lasted for about 5 months. In this Japanese-owned plant of 16000 employees, management culture was harsh and suppressive. Workers’ demands were originally right-based due to the large number of legal violations. The organizers of the protest issued a number of open letters to local government bureaucracies and management, and made good use of the internet to report on the latest developments to fellow workers and the public, coordinating daily and hourly protest actions. These reports and open letters provided a vivid picture of the scale and intensity of the struggle inside and outside the plant for several months. The call-to-action bulletin listed 15 demands related to wages, work hours, penalties, dismissals and social benefits, and one demand was to set up a trade union.27 Japanese management quickly gave in to many of them, but not the one about setting up a union. To prevent the workers from setting up a union management tried to isolate the leaders, humiliated them in public and had security staff beat them up. This provoked three days of large-scale fierce confrontations between strikers and police. In the end, a union election was promised, but similar to Nestles, management quickly got rid of the strike leaders (at times physically), workers became demoralized, and they lost control over their union election.

The Uniden workers displayed a high level of trade union consciousness. Even after winning economic concessions, they continued a fierce struggle to have their own trade union. The protest was planned and well-coordinated. However, strike leaders had made no attempt to organize beyond the workplace. The class issue was diluted by a dose of nationalism. The strike took place at a time when anti-Japanese rallies were springing up across the country, and in Guangdong Province it was in the third week of anti-Japanese street protests.

The Absence of Trade Union Consciousness

The cases of workers protests described above, three of which involved workers wanting to elect their own unions, are rare occurrences. To migrant workers as a whole, the concept of trade unionism is non-existent, or at the most vague. In this sense, these strike leaders who led in asking for a union are vanguards. Since there has been no big upsurge to set up unions, workers’ trade union consciousness is still weak, and isolated cases of success in setting up elected workplace unions will have difficulty surviving.


One of the tasks of this paper is to locate where to place the level of consciousness of the migrant workers in South China along a continuum. Based on the empirical evidence presented using the Marxist-Leninist theoretical schema, we conclude that migrant workers in South China as a class are at the stage of "embryonic trade union consciousness." Within the stages and phases of levels of class consciousness it has hovered at the right-based level since the mid-1990s. Workers have yet to transcend their personal immediate economic conditions concerns to struggle for collective rights.

At times sprouts of union consciousness might flicker. Those who have asked for a union were only asking to be registered with the official union. This could have been a strategic move. But we think it is because workers continue to have an illusion of trust in the official union. The Nanhai Honda workers allowed the provincial union to take over. Their trust was misplaced. Trade union representatives are now mainly management staff members. One of the ILO's core labour rights is freedom of association. But Chinese workers have not been calling for this. The Chinese state pre-empts this possibility by publicly consenting to let workers elect their own official unions. In reality though, it would not let go its grip. The state's and the ACFTU's attempt to promote “collective consultation” to regulated industrial relations to maintain social stability is an unrealistic solution. Without truly representative trade unions there cannot be real collective bargaining. The campaign will only be another bureaucratic exercise. Meanwhile the litigation route is not viable. The number of litigations since the passing of the Contract Law has multiplied and there is a big backlog of cases to be processed. Workers’ trust in the legal system will soon vanish with frustration.

The fundamental solution to the problem comes back to workers having their own representation. Workers will have to struggle for it. How long will it take to acquire collective consciousness and an independent trade union consciousness is hard to predict. After all, history, as our guide, tells us that it had taken many decades for workers in 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to organize themselves into mature trade union structures, and when strong enough, gained recognition by capital and state. Only then would they agree to negotiate with unions. At present, despite a big leap in communication technology no such collective action has surfaced in the delta region. The process may take another two decades. If say there is a drastic economic downturn, run-away inflation, or even a more rapid widening of the income gap, which has not stopped widening, and migrant workers rose up again and again, it will help quicken the whole process of maturation.

The paper has shown the factors constraining the development of class consciousness. One factor is that the material conditions of migrant workers have been rising, though it has not kept pace with the prospering middle classes. Unlike countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh where workers’ means of survival are threatened by high inflation instigating frequent strikes and mass protests, the Chinese government has avoided such upheavals by raising minimum wage by a large margin to catch up with inflation.

It is popular belief that the second generation of migrant workers who are better educated, want a better life and want to stay in the cities, is a factor social instability. This thread of argument regards age cohort as an important factor causing rise in class consciousness. However, earlier in the paper we have argued that even thirty years is too short a timeframe to understand fully class formation and class consciousness and that lengthening the timeframe allow us to gain a historical perspective. The emergence of a class for itself takes longer than one or two generations. Thus despite the expectation that this so-called second generation of migrant workers will push through to a new stage of class consciousness, reality militates against this expectation.

The thing the state worried most regarding labour is when workers' economic demands turn into political demands. For this reason labor NGOs and "citizen agents' are suspected as potential grounds where a political vanguard might emerge. But NGOs do not impart political ideology to the workers. In a state-controlled society in which the political climate is kept non-ideological, except when deploying some formalistic slogans, such as "market socialism" that is devoid of "socialist" content, migrant workers have little to inspire them to understand their own class position. Production line workers' ability to mobilize thus far has been limited. It seems those who can organize better and communicate more effectively are either technicians28 or staff member, as seen in cases like V-tech and Uniden.29 Without an intelligentsia vanguard, the vanguard may ultimately emerge from within the working class. They may be the ones to take on the challenge to propel their own labour history forward, and not the less educated and exploited production line workers.

1 This is a newly coined expression “new generations of peasant-workers” (xinshengdai nongmingong) has become popular among Chinese academics. For instance, see the edited volume, The Problem of the Country’s New Generation of Peasant-workers Melding into Towns and Cities: An Academic Forum, organized by the Guangzhou Social Science Association, the Guangzhou Development Research Institute and the Guangzhou Human Rights Research Centre, held at Guangzhou City, November 2009.

2 Fernand Braudel, On History, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982; Immanuel Wallenstein, Unthinking Social Science: the limits of nineteenth-century paradigms, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991.

3 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Bonaparte, New York: International Publishers, 1963, p. 124.

4 Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, p. 188-9.

5 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 9, p. 35-36.



8 For instance, Chris Chan's book focuses on two cases; So and Leung put a lot of emphasis on one case; see Chris Chan, The Challenge of Labour: Strikes And The Changing Labour Regime In Global Factories, New York/ London: Routledge Press, 2008.

9 Pun and Lu, “Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Present-Day China”, Modern China, 2010.

10 Chris Chan’s book, chapter 2, pp.18-45.

11 Anita Chan, “Strikes in China’s Export Industries in Comparative Perspective,” The China Journal, No. 65 (January 2011) pp. 27-51.

12 See Chris Chan’s book, chapter 3.

13 See Chris Chan’s book, pp. 29.

14 Anita Chan, “Globalization, China’s Free (Read Bonded) Labour Market, and the Chinese Trade Union,” Asia Pacific Business Review, Vol. 6, No. 3 & 4, (Spring/Summer, 2000), pp. 260–81.

15 This kind of hidden resistance is particularly well-portrayed in Pun Ngai’s Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

16 Initially the main ones were Hong Kong Christian Workers’ Committee (HKCIC), Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) and Chinese Working Women’s Network (CWWN). Many of these idealists had shared a common experience when they were university students or fresh graduates during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. After the movement dissipated, these young idealists wanted to understand Chinese society in the hope of getting involved in the social movements in China. The founding of these labour NGOs was one of their ways they found suitable at the time when many kinds of political rights and freedom of association were seriously constrained.

17 Ibid.

18 Pun and Lu, “Unfinished Proletarianization: “Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Present-Day China”, Modern China, 2010, pp.

19All foreign companies setting up assembly plants in China have to be joint ventures. The Chinese partners of these joint ventures are all local state enterprises. In Guangzhou, the auto company is the Guangzhou Automobile Groups, which has a number of auto joint ventures. The CEO is an important government official. He played three roles: as an employer, a mediator and as a government official whose job is to protect the workers from foreign exploitation.

20 Boy Luthje, "Auto Worker Strikes in China: What Did They Win?", Labor Notes, 23 December, 2010, (accessed 15 January 2011). Chan, Chris King-Chi and Elaine Hui, unpublished draft, “Labor Activism and Trade Union Reform in China: The Case of Honda Workers’ Strike.”

21 The information was provided by several Zhongshan University students who conducted follow-up research on the post-strike development of plant. They went to the plant and the dormitories several times in 2010 and were able to talk to workers quite freely. The interpretation that the strike has failed is ours.

22 Information came from the Chinese labour activist who went to Nanhai to find out more about the strike and met with some strike representatives.

23 “Workers of Dongguan Nestle factory complain that the 12-year old union never had an election,” (巢东莞厂工人投诉该厂工会十二年未改选), 11 July 2008, (accessed 17 January 2011). Zhan Lisheng, “Nescafe trade union under investigation,” China Daily, 10 September 2008, (accessed 17 January 2011).

24 (accessed 18 January, 2011).

25 Joe Kahn, "When Chinese Workers Unite, The Bosses Often Run the Union," New York Times, 29 December 2003. (accessed 15 January, 2011).

26 I was able to track down Liu and met with him in 2007 in Shenzhen.

27日企深圳友利电公司16000人大罢工 (accessed 17 January 2011).

28 Chris Chan's book, pp. 279-306.

29 Another example is the Walmart employees. After the Walmart trade unions were set up in all Walmart stores in China, the one time that employees used to collectively negotiate with Walmart were not the ordinary workers but some management staff when they were laid off in 2008. Information from Gao Haitao, the former trade union chair of the Walmart Nanchang Baiyi store who helped these managers in litigation.