Monday, February 29, 2016

The Fight Against Inequality: Martin Luther King and China's Labor Activists

The issue of inequality is arguably the central issue of our time. On this last day of February, I can’t let January (MLK’s birthday) and February (Black History Month in the U.S.) go by without making a connection between Martin Luther King and China's labor activists. The two seem like strange bedfellows but both have fought long and hard for the one percent to share more of its wealth with the 99 percent.

Many Americans know that King was assassinated in 1968 on April 4, but few know that he was assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers. Many know King as a civil rights leader, but few know him as a democratic socialist who was broadening his activism beyond racial and religious lines to take on the issue of economic justice.  In 1968, he and the Southern Leadership Religious Conference (SLRC) began the organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to call attention to the problem of poverty in the U.S. and worldwide. That campaign took him to Memphis in that fateful month of April where he was shot in the neck on the balcony of his motel at the tender age of 39.

Few people also know that one of the signal events in modern Chinese labor history was a strike by more than 200 sanitation workers in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in August of 2014. The workers went on strike because the management company that employed them decided not to renew their street cleaning contract with the district government. When the management company refused to talk to the workers about severance pay and their future employment prospects, the workers went on strike.

With the help of a local labor NGO, the Panyu Workers Center, the workers organized, elected representatives and approached the management company with their demands. When the company again refused to talk, the workers went on strike. Soon after, with the encouragement of local government and union officials, the workers representatives and management company sat down and came to a collective bargaining agreement in which the management company agreed to a severance package that totaled nearly three million yuan (about U.S.$476,000). 

Several things made this case unusual and important in the annals of Chinese labor history. One was that workers succeeded in getting a collective bargaining agreement in an authoritarian country where the official union stands on the side of the government and management and does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of workers. Second, the local authorities and unions encouraged the workers and management to negotiate, instead of arresting or firing the workers for striking as is the norm in China. Third, the workers received support from other sectors of society - local students, journalists and other members of the public.

In his speech to the striking Memphis sanitation workers on February 12, 1968, King sought to lift the spirits of an overflow crowd with words that would have sounded familiar to the Chinese sanitation workers in Guangzhou[1].

“You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor….One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive… All labor has dignity.
But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.

Now you are doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is a distinction.

Now let me say a word to those of you who are on strike. You have been out now for a number of days but don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice…. Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized.

We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power.  Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power.”

The story of U.S.-China relations over the last 30 years can be read as the story of how inequality was accelerated within and across borders. The tremendous growth in trade and investment between the U.S. and China led to the hollowing out of industrial urban centers in the U.S., and the lifting of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. In the process, wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few in both countries. China, in particular, went from a relatively egalitarian country to one of the most unequal countries in the world. 

The Guangzhou sanitation strike is, in a sense, a natural product of this decidedly unnatural inequality in a communist country. It is also a product of a growing consciousness among Chinese workers of their rights and their collective strength, or as King noted, their power to induce change.  In King’s words, “never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.”

King’s universal language would have resonated deeply with the Guangzhou sanitation workers. It’s unfortunate that he did not live to see their achievement, one victory on the battlefield in the long war on inequality. He would have been only 86.

[1] “All Labor Has Dignity,” in Cornel West, ed., The Radical King (Boston: Beacon Press).

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Regenerative Power of Civil Society

I’ve always been more of an optimist when it comes to the future of civil society in China, even in these dark days under Xi Jinping’s rule. In early March of 2015, I wrote the response below to some hand-wringing among academics about the growing restrictions on labor NGOs and activists. Soon after I wrote this, five women activists around China were detained in a coordinated high-level campaign, and then about nine months later, a number of labor activists were interrogated and some detained and criminally charged. So was I wrong? I don’t think so. Re-reading this response, I think it’s as relevant as it was when I wrote it about a year ago. My point then and now is that we need to be more attentive to the organic way in which civil society multiplies and regenerates itself. Indeed, months later, some of these same women activists, who were released after a month in detention, have gone back to working on the same issues they were working on prior to their detention, and for all I know they may have found a few more supporters, and I’m confident the same will be true of some the labor activists.

March 2, 2015

At a macro level, the recent campaign against lawyers and activists in China is not sustainable, nor is it meant to be sustainable. In this sense, the crackdown is not the “new normal”. It is instead a means to an end. What that end is remains to be seen, whether it’s laying the foundation for the reforms laid out in Xi Jinping’s ambitious Third Plenum Decision, or revitalising the relationship between the party-state and society, or strengthening China’s national sovereignty and security, or perhaps all three. Those are the new normal, not the crackdown. 

The end is not, as some people believe, the eradication of civil society. If that is the end, then the Xi Jinping administration has a lot more work to do but I don’t believe that is a priority.  The leadership has too many other burning issues to attend to than try to stamp out pesky activists - the economy, the anticorruption campaign, territorial and sovereignty issues on its periphery, and North Korea come to mind. Nor am I saying Xi Jinping is a closet liberal who will turn around to save civil society. He wants to save and strengthen the party and the nation, not civil society. But if Xi Jinping’s affirmation of “social governance” in his Third Plenum Decision’s is still valid, then there’s still a chance that he is willing to work with civil society if it helps him achieve his larger goals.

At a more micro level, I wish journalists and academics would do more to recognise the hard work of civil society activists and organisations on the ground and their achievements rather than their setbacks. Activists, NGOs and lawyers seem to attract more attention and support for being repressed than for making progress. No disrespect to the journalists which have done a great job covering China under tight deadlines and editorial demands, but if I was just trying to understand China by reading the media, I’d wonder how civil society could make any progress at all on the ground because it always seems be getting shut down.

To illustrate the power of the media, I always think about people I met when I was reviving the English version of China Development Brief whose founder, Nick Young, was barred from China in 2007. When I told them in 2011 or 2012 that I was working for CDB, many would tell me that they read CDB’s newsletter and would cite some piece from the pre-2007 days. Well you know, I would say, that was the old CDB, but you know there’s now this new CDB and it’s not the same as the old one. I could tell though it was hard for them to get their mind around this piece of information. It was like once the media reported that Nick had been barred, CDB ceased to exist in the minds of many people.

The reality is that in China, as I’m sure happens in other countries, detaining activists and lawyers and closing down NGOs is like the whack-a-mole game. They just pop up in other forms. Or maybe a better analogy is to understand these civil society actors as an organism. Hurting that organism, killing some of its cells, is only a temporary setback because over time that organism will grow new cells to replace the ones that died. Just as I was able to resurrect the old English-language CDB through the Chinese-language CDB that had spun off of the English-language organization and had managed to survive the closing down of Nick’s operation. Count that as yet another achievement of civil society. Once it begins to multiply, it’s very difficult to exterminate.

Ironically, this seemingly novel way of looking at civil society is applied to uncivil society actors, or what we might call bad civil society, such as terrorist organizations and networks. We often hear how killing leaders of an organization like Al Qaeda may not be that be that effective because other leaders and cells will arise to take their place. How prophetic that insight has become! But it’s that not great of a leap to say the same of civil society actors.

I recognise that there are exceptions to this tendency in the media to play up the negative, but the grand narrative plays in favor of seeing activists and NGOs as weak and powerless rather than as fighters, objects to be pitied rather than admired. Progress made by civil society is rarely reported, whereas their failures almost always are.

I think our myopia with regard to civil society is one reason we are often caught off guard when social movements succeed in causing a political rupture, as in the Solidarity movement in Poland, Arab Spring in North Africa, and the democratic opening in Myanmar. Experts very rarely predict these events. They end up trying to explain them using the benefit of hindsight, working backwards from the rupture to see what they had missed. But maybe if we were more attentive to following the various ways in which civil society multiplies and regenerates, we might have more forewarning of when a rupture is coming.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cao Yaxue's article on Guo Jianmei and the closure of Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling Center

Cao Yaxue, the founder of the ChinaChange website, has written a nice, in-depth article detailing the work and accomplishments of Guo Jianmei and her legal aid NGO over the last 20 years, and possible reasons for the order to close Zhongze. In that article, she also cites Guo's Wechat message saying that her Qianqian Law Firm is still in operation.