China’s hardline chief of domestic security has been forced to relinquish control of the country’s police, courts and espionage networks in the wake of the Bo Xilai affair.
The demotion of Zhou Yongkang (right) is “a symptom of the ideological struggle” within the ruling party, say observers:
Senior party members and political analysts, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was highly unusual for a top leader to hand over their portfolio before the end of their term, especially in the midst of a major power struggle.
One of these people characterised the current political strife and the purge of Mr Bo as “a symptom of the ideological struggle caused by disagreement over which direction the country should go in”.
Some officials within the party, including premier Wen Jiabao, are trying to push through political reforms that would move China towards western-style democracy while hardliners, including Mr Zhou, are opposed to such a move.
While international media has understandably focused on the cases of Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, Chinese media are also covering the country’s growing labor militancy, and media attention is “helping to drive the movement,” says China Labour Bulletin:
A glance at CLB’s new interactive strike map shows how strikes have increased over the last six months, and how disputes have expanded across different sectors to encompass a broadening range of issues. In March, for example, a sudden increase in the price of fuel led to an upsurge in strikes by bus and taxi drivers. The following month, the manufacturing sector once again took centre stage as workers protested low pay and plans by their employer to relocate, merge or downsize.
The growing number of labor disputes is also leading analysts to ask: Does rule of law matter in China?
“A cursory look at the two crises that have hit the Chinese government in recent weeks — one at the very top, with the purge of Bo Xilai, and one at the grassroots, with the escape from unlawful house arrest of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng — suggests not,” writes Nicholas Bequelin:
Both cases are widely seen as emblematic. Bo’s embodies the corruption of an unchecked political elite: Communist Party members are investigated by the party’s own disciplinary committee, and not by the courts. Chen’s case is rife with the predatory behavior of local officials whose conduct is more reminiscent of China’s feudal past than of the “new socialist countryside” Beijing leaders claim to be building.
“Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the law doesn’t matter in China,” says Bequelin, a senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch:
First, while Chen’s case entails the catalogue of unlawful measures that are used against government critics, it also embodies the rising assertiveness of a citizenry that is increasingly ready to defend its legal rights against official arbitrariness, corruption and injustice.
Land-rights activists, factory workers, forcibly evicted residents, arbitrarily censored netizens, ordinary consumers and environmental activists — citizens in China are increasingly committed to defending their rights. To overcome the control of local courts by local authorities, Chinese citizens are taking their grievances public, making full use of new media. They are increasingly ready to take their demands to the streets, as witnessed by the rapid growth in the number of social protests over environmental issues, labor disputes, land seizures, abuses of power and corruption.
“As a result, the authorities back down more often than people may suspect,” Bequelin notes, as in the cases of Wukan, where local citizens ousted leaders involved in illegal land transactions; the July 2011 Wenzhou train-crash; the Dalian protests in August 2011 over a petrochemical factory’s environmental and safety violations and it is the case “in countless labor disputes when workers sue for compensation or violation of labor laws.”
“Admittedly, such victories come hard,” he concedes, with rights activists suffering police harassment and suppression,.
“But the fact is that the rule of law has become a central demand of the Chinese citizenry, and grievances are increasingly framed in the language of rights. The law matters.”
Growing rights awareness and new communications technologies are proving a potent combination for mobilizing, China Labour Bulletin notes:
Last week on 8 May, around 1,000 shoe factory workers in Dongguan walked out in protest at management plans to cut their monthly bonus from the usual 500 yuan to just 100 yuan. Management refused to talk so one worker posted their grievances on his micro-blog.
China Labour Bulletin contacted the worker and posted an account of the strike on our microblog. This story was then retweeted more than 50 times within the hour and soon five reporters had gathered outside the factory gate demanding to know what was going on. They were refused entry but the very next day the management, under pressure from local government officials to make the story go away, agreed to increase the workers’ bonus to 300 yuan and the strikers returned to work.
To put these recent developments in perspective, CLB published in late March a research report that shows how demographic shifts combined with economic growth and social change over the last decade have given China’s workers more bargaining power, and how a younger, better educated, more aspirational workforce that is more aware of its legal rights has learnt to use that bargaining power to its advantage. Workers are not only more confident in their ability to organize strikes and protests, they are increasingly willing to sit down with their employer and negotiate a settlement on behalf of their co-workers. Indeed, in some factories, workers have already established an embryonic system of collective bargaining.
A Decade of Change: The Workers’ Movement in China 2000-2010 is available as a downloadable PDF.
China Labour Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.