China Study Group

City of Youth
by Robert Weil 31 dec 

Since ancient times, there are those who have dreamed of finding a City of Youth, where the population never ages, and any outsider who comes to live will remain forever young. They probably did not have in mind, however, the kind of "agelessness” found in Shenzhen, China. Lying just over the border from Hong Kong, this "instant city” grew in just over 25 years from a small fishing village to a sprawling metropolitan region now approaching 10 million people. As the first of the Special Economic Zones in China, it was a model for the capitalistic "market reforms” and "opening to the world” initiated in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping and today found everywhere across the country. But despite its unprecedented growth rate, among its most striking aspects has been the low average age of its residents, which has hovered for years at around just 27. This stands in ever sharper contrast to China as a whole, where the population is rapidly aging, in part due to the "one child policy,” first instituted in the 1980s, one longterm impact of which is to shift the elderly-to-young ratio ever higher. With some 95 percent of those who live in Shenzhen having initially moved there from other parts of the country, its youthfulness does not result, however, from the birth of new generations by its residents. Rather, it reflects the young age of most who come to the city—many only in their early teens— and the rapid turnover of those who work in its industries. According to the 2000 census, 5.77 million residents or 82.1 percent of the total population were "migrants.” In 2005, only 1.65 million had longterm residential rights or hukou, while there were "more than 4.32 million who had lived temporarily in the city for more than one year and more than 4 million less than one year.” (Shenzhen Daily, 5/27/07, from The vast majority of these migrants are from the poor rural interior of the country—some even refer to them as "farmer-workers.” Most work for only a few years in the mainly export oriented factories, after which they are either let go because they have grown too "old,” or quickly burn out under the harsh working conditions, before moving on to look for other forms of labor in the cities, or even returning home to their families back in the villages. Many leave before they reach 30, while few last in the plants into middle age.


Even a short visit to the city in the summer of 2006 was long enough to reveal the prevalence of very young workers, and the depths of exploitation to which the millions who make up this enormous youthful migrant flow are subjected by both large and small employers, whether mainland Chinese, or the Hong Kong, Taiwanese and foreign owners who have poured billions into its industries. The introduction that two of us had to the harsh conditions of labor and life in the city came quickly, after a walking tour of one of the main outlying factory districts of the sprawling metropolis, an hourlong ride from downtown. As we caught a bus back to our hotel in the center of the city at 11 that first night, among the handful of other passengers for the late trip were three very young men who had just gotten off a 7 am to 10 pm shift at one of the plants of the largest company in the area—and they still had to travel to get home. Despite the 15 hours they had spent on the job, however, they said that they would only be paid for 10 hours, with 2 hours of that being overtime. With time off for meals not counted, they were in effect giving 4 "free hours” to the company. They complained that they were totally exhausted, and would sleep all the next day, but that they had had to stay at work because a "rush job” needed to be finished. Young as they were, they did not stand out in this area. Three others waiting at the bus stop after their shifts ended looked to be only 15 to16 years old.

We met many such workers, and heard similar stories of abusive conditions, such as the excessive work hours of the young women at the next table in a restaurant, who had started at 7:30 in the morning and had just gotten off at 8:00 at night. They told us that their "official” shift is only 7:30 am to 3:30 pm. But the next crew starts at 7:30 pm daily regardless, because overtime stretching well beyond 8 hours is so common that the company they work for plans for it as part of the regular schedule. Something close to 12 hours is therefore the normal shift for these young women, whether in the day or night. The same story was repeated over and over, with only slight variations, by virtually all of the young workers who we met at random in our walks through the factory area. At a rollerskate rink at 10 at night, for example, a 17 year old from Hunan province told us that he had just worked for 11 hours. During our time in the city, it was rare to talk to any workers, no matter how young, who regularly worked only an 8 hour shift. Many complained of the toll of these abusive hours on their minds and bodies, as was evidenced by their obvious fatigue.

Even in a country that has been transformed in just three decades from among the most egalitarian in the world to a society with one of the highest and fastest growing rates of economic polarization, the extremes found in Shenzhen are especially dramatic. In its GDP, income of enterprises accounts for over 50 percent, that of workers only 30 percent and income of the state for about 15 percent. The enterprise-worker gap is wider than in any other Chinese city. (, Human Resources, Issue 07, 2006 (01 July)) With its many soaring skyscrapers and its shiny green glass Stock Market tower, it is now the richest urban area in China. According to People's Daily, as early as 2002 its yearly average income was 21,914 yuan or the equivalent of $2,647, over twice that for the top eight cities in the country, which stood at about Y10,000 or $1,208, and almost three times the urban average of Y7,703 or $930 (11/25/03). A 2004 report found Shenzhen with an average income of Y23,544 or $2,843 and still almost double that for all cities at Y12,216 or $1,475 (Victorinox Hong Kong Lmt.). The most relevant comparison may be not with these other urban areas, however, but with the low average rural income, which in 2005 was still around just Y2,500 or $300 annually (Associated Press, 9/21/05). It is this widening gap, and the harsh conditions of life on the farms, that draws millions of young migrants into the factories of Shenzhen and the other urban centers, concentrated in the southern and eastern coastal regions, that produce the vast flow of Chinese exports. The rapidly expanding wealth of these cities rests directly, therefore, on the poverty of the countryside, and its enormous "reserve army of labor” of peasant farmers who can no longer make a living on the land, or who believe that their chances will at least be better if they migrate. With almost 1.3 billion people in China, some one in ten are now migrants, and investors come from all over the world to take advantage of this seemingly bottomless labor pool.


The largest of the enterprises in the Shenzhen region are virtually complete cities unto themselves. In the suburban area where we based our investigations, Longhua town in Baoan district, the main company is Foxconn Electronics, the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industries, Inc., of Taiwan, which at its wholly owned subsidiary Hongfujin, makes iPods for Apple and motherboards for Dell, among other U.S. companies. It has only been in Shenzhen since 1993, but already has some 240,000 employees, with plans, we were told, for up to 300,000 in the near future, and eventually perhaps as many as half a million. The biggest foreign operation in the area, and the largest of the Taiwanese manufacturing companies on the mainland, it exported some $20.7 billion in products in 2005. ("Foxconn Refutes UK Media Labor Allegations,” 6/1/06) Its mini-city is measured in square miles, occupying a vast complex of production plants, administrative offices and housing. The Longhua "mega-factory complex . . . is the world's largest electronic-components work space.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/16/06, A-1) The central downtown districts of Shenzhen may gleam with their newfound wealth, but one would not know this from walking through the environs of Foxconn, where block after block of company owned dormitories and private apartment buildings for workers already look somewhat shabby, though most were built only within the last few years. At its factory gates, on the surrounding streets, and in restaurants in the area, it is easy to find many whose stories make all too starkly clear how the enormous wealth of the capitalistic "new” China is accumulated, with Shenzhen as its original epicenter, and still for many the example of what all its cities should aspire to be.

Our time there—after the first night we transferred to a hotel near the factory district—brought us into casual contact with a wide range of working people, most of whom were either directly employed by Foxconn or indirectly lived off it in various support or service occupations. At one of its dorms for women, we spoke with a lower level supervisor, who gave us a sense of the vastness of its "company town” environs, and of the degree of regimentation under which its hundreds of thousands of workers live and labor. In this single facility, some 5,000 female employees are housed, but it is only one of 48 such dorms for both men and women in the area. Here the workers get free housing, with a minimum of six or seven to a room, and in some cases many more, with three rows of double bunk beds—so crowded and noisy that workers complain that they cannot sleep properly. Most younger employees live in these dorms, and every time they pass either in or out through the gates, they have to slide their badge over an electronic data recorder. They are not permitted to do any cooking, even on a hotplate, and no visitors of either sex, including their own family members, are allowed. The dorm rooms are also not air conditioned, and since the factory floors are, this is a further stimulus to working overtime and on the weekends, as one way to escape the intense summer heat. (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/16/06, A-1) Married couples and those who have children are excluded from the dorms, and live in the nearby blocks of apartment houses.

When they are first hired, the company gives these workers a brief course of what the supervisor referred to as "military training,” the purpose of which is not to prepare them to defend the country, but to ready the young recruits, most of them from the rural areas, for industrial discipline, and to make them easier to manage on the factory floor. They are also indoctrinated in enterprise rules. The dorm we saw used to have an outside cleaning service come in, but management decided that the residents did not "adequately appreciate the environment,” so now the residents have to "volunteer” 4 hours per month cleaning, performing guard duty, etc. All of this is on top of their exhausting labors on the production line. One of the young women at the dorm told us that she is on the job from 8 to 8, staying in the plant 12 hours each working day, but is only paid for 10 hours, because 2 hours are deducted for lunch and dinner. On the factory floor, the line never stops, so even these meal breaks are done in two batches. Most workers eat at the plant cafeteria. They are allowed to go outside for meals if they prefer, but rarely do so, in part because they would have to pay for their own food—though they sometimes receive a stipend to go to a restaurant on Sundays, a rare treat. The two shifts rotate every three weeks, each running from 8 to 8, making it hard to ever adjust to the grueling schedule, though the company does make some small allowance because of this exhausting routine. We were told that if a worker is occasionally late, it is not generally treated as a big deal, and they are not docked pay, but just talked to, unless the problem becomes chronic. The plants also close for 10 days over the New Years holiday so workers can go back home.

The lowest rank workers in Foxconn earn only around Y1,000 or $120 per month, including overtime pay. This works out to approximately $.50 per hour, not counting free food and housing. We were told that overtime pay is set to be higher on Mondays and Fridays, Y5 per hour, and even more on Saturdays and Sundays, at Y6.80, with the highest on holidays, Y10. There are three levels of common laborers, then three of more skilled workers and lower rank supervisors, and twelve in higher management. A group of technicians from Taiwan we talked with confirmed that the standard working day for those on the plant floor is 10 hours, two of which are overtime, but that if production requires, may include Saturday and even Sunday at double time without any rest. These technical employees themselves work 12 hours per day, six days a week, but do get a week off after 35 days, during which they are flown back home to Taiwan at company expense. Security at the plants is very strict, and even technicians labor under some of the same kinds of tight restrictions as workers on the factory floor. At one Foxconn gate, uniformed guards were carefully checking every car and truck passing through. Two to three weeks earlier an employee had stolen a design and sold it to a competitor, so signs were posted saying that from now on no laptops, removable hard drives, digital cameras, etc., would be allowed into the plant. Some of the higher managers also live behind tall guarded gates in the factory area, but these are in compounds separate from the rest of the employees, and are relatively luxurious compared to the minimal and crowded housing of the dorms or the outside apartment buildings for their workers. Upper level management are provided rent subsidies for such apartments, and in certain cases receive supplemental food allowances and other special privileges.

All of those employed at Foxconn are supposed to have at least some other forms of limited benefits. If workers get sick, they go to a factory clinic, but in cases of major illness, they can go to a hospital, with the company paying 80 percent of the cost. For terminal conditions such as cancer, fellow employees take up a collection. If women workers become pregnant, they get 3 months off and can keep their jobs, but most leave afterward anyway. Foxconn and other large companies in the area use various techniques to avoid additional legal obligations to their workers, however. As activists familiar with the city explained to us, by law Shenzhen employees are supposed to get certain benefits that are guaranteed after ten years at any one enterprise, including indefinite contracts, retirement plans, etc. But workers who try to make sure that they can actually claim their right to insurance, medical, pension and unemployment payments are often fired, so some even ask their employers to disregard these legal obligations, in order to be able to keep on working. Governmental authorities collude with the enterprises in this process. When the city first announced the post-10-year set of regulations, according to these activists, enforcement representatives from the legal division of the city met with employers and told them to give workers just one year contracts, because if the employees do not keep a copy, they cannot prove their length of employment later on. Because many workers do not realize this, they lose their jobs, despite the law, being laid off at around nine years or earlier. In some cases, they are even fired after only eight years or less so that it does not seem like the company is avoiding the 10-year benefit guarantee rule—an additional cause of the high rate of turnover and the resulting youthfulness of the workforce.

While falling most heavily on workers on the plant floor, this kind of insecurity in employment affects every level of employee, even including management. One technical worker who is from the mainland and a college graduate, had been at Foxconn for three years, and only had a half year left on his contract. He was dissatisfied with the lack of job security and other aspects of his employment, and said that he may not even want to stay after that. Given the extremely long hours that such technicians are forced to work, there is a high level of frustration in their ranks, and many move on quickly in spite of their better pay levels. In addition, increases in salary can even lead to loss of their jobs, a situation that extends to those high up in the company hierarchy. Higher managers normally get raises each year, but after a while they also become "too expensive.” So ways are found to get them to leave with a payoff. One former employee said that at Foxconn they are told that their performance is too low, and their age too high. Even some who got Y5-7,000 per month had still been forced out. The result is a continual turnover at all levels of the enterprise, and the need for a constant supply of new blood.


We asked why, since the city undermines its own rules, it even bothers to pass such regulations as the 10-year plus benefits package in the first place. The answer was that it is just one more way that the authorities deceive the working class. Government and employers "wear the same pants” as the Chinese saying goes, but they try to pretend that they act separately. City leaders may also have been pressured by either the national authorities or the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), or even by NGOs that increasingly monitor and protest against abusive conditions in the plants. But with some 90 percent of the enterprises in the area foreign owned, and investment from abroad a key element in the policy of trying to maintain annual economic growth upward of 10 percent each year, local authorities are under great pressure to keep the new money flowing and owners happy. This close collusion of business and government is the main underpinning of the system of corruption that now pervades virtually every aspect and sector of the Chinese economy. As a result, though the law may say, for example, that any work above 8 hours a day or 40 per week should be paid as overtime, it is commonly just ignored, and simply not enforced at the local level. The same applies to regulations regarding all kinds of working conditions and benefits. It is for such reasons, according to one young technician I later talked with at the airport, that Foxconn, along with other similar enterprises, is known as a xuehan or "blood and sweat” company. Roughly equivalent to "sweatshop,” the Chinese term seems more comprehensive, taking in large corporations, and indicating an overall abusive level of exploitation. Perhaps indicative of this, the technician substituted "tears” for "sweat” when he translated it into English.

Yet Foxconn is considered one of the better places to work in the area. It requires a high school education of those it hires, along with good health and eyesight, a certain physical height, and a little English and training in technical matters. At the even more high tech electronics firm Huawei Technologies, all employees are required to have a college degree. According to those we talked with, it is known as a "good” enterprise. But there too, abusive conditions are still common. When Huawei first started up, the workload was much too demanding, and some employees even slept in the offices. Xu Mingda, an economics professor at the local Shenzhen Association of Social Sciences refers to its "'mattress culture,' in which every newcomer receives a mattress, which is put under the desk. Employees sleep on it during lunch break or whenever they work late and can't or don't want to return home.” (English People's Daily Online, 7/5/06) At the time we visited the area, it was supposedly somewhat better. But just a month earlier, Hu Xinyu, an athletic 25-year-old software engineer who had worked there for a year died of exhaustion after extremely long hours. The government press reported on the case, and "everyone” was talking about it on the web, exchanging their own similar experiences, and debating whether the excessive hours worked were the fault of the employee or of the company. It also set off a debate in academic circles over whether such practices are necessary for or harmful to the rapid growth of Chinese enterprises. Only a few such cases of death by overwork get reported, however. One activist we spoke with talked about technicians elsewhere with 12 hour shifts, who also sleep on their desks in the middle for 1½ hours, and work the remaining 10½ hours. In one such company, a woman died after 20 hours on the job, but her case did not receive the same national attention as the one at Huawei. One report lists five additional such instances of death from overwork, mainly in Shenzhen and surrounding Guangdong province, over the past four years alone. This phenomenon, known as karoshi in Japan, where it emerged in the 1970s, or guolaosi in Chinese, is becoming more widespread, and affects intellectuals, professionals and managers, as well as factory floor workers. Estimates of the number of deaths from overwork in China range from 600,000 to as high as one million annually (, 8/17/06; English People's Daily Online, 7/5/06)

The conditions in these large electronics plants are, however, far from the worst in the Shenzhen area. They at least have some form of "regular” hours—grossly extended as they often are—and halfway decent, if minimal, living conditions for their employees. Even these basics are often lacking in many other enterprises in the region, however. In the western sector of the city, where production of clothing, toys, and similar consumer goods prevails, the situation of the workers is generally even worse. This is due in part to the different ratio of women to men found there. In electronics firms such as Foxconn, the numbers are fairly equal, as was readily apparent on the streets surrounding its plants. Such enterprises can even have a predominantly male workforce. In one plant in the area, the division is 70 percent men, 30 percent women, with a specific division of labor, the large panels being handled by the male workers. Such ratios may reflect a higher technical or vocational level in electronics, with men having more access to training in these areas, especially in smaller towns and cities, making them more likely to be hired. Work on the production lines in such firms may also be more automated, and thus less labor intensive, putting a lower premium on the supposedly greater "female dexterity” that most employers prefer in the clothing and toy factories, where many enterprises specify in their recruitment ads that they only want women workers. In the western zone of Shenzhen, as a result, the ratio is closer to 7 to 1 female. Coming largely from isolated villages, where domination by men is rife, young rural women are considered more pliant and less likely to cause trouble than their male counterparts. Once hired, they are subject to often extreme exploitation, in the form of excessive hours and poor working and living conditions, including sexual harassment. Commonly unaware of their rights, they have little ability to resist mistreatment either on the job or through outside legal protections.

For those unwilling or unable to get jobs in large multinational enterprises, the opportunities are limited. Outside of their plants, conditions may be less restrictive, but this relative "freedom” often comes at the cost of even longer hours, lower wages, and less security. In a factory compound near our hotel, over 20 companies, both big and small, most of them owned by mainland investors, surrounded a grassy courtyard—a pleasantly green refuge from the sterility of most of the surrounding area. In contrast to the tight security at the Foxconn gates, where one guard even came outside to warn us, rather threateningly, not to take photographs, here we were able to wander in and talk freely with workers. We even chatted with one of the guards, while police who circled through the area noted our presence, but did not try to stop us from either talking with the employees or taking pictures. Workers in a print shop, lounging on the grass before their evening shift, said that they have similar daily hours to those in Foxconn. Two young men from Hainan province told us that they worked from 9 at night to 8 the following day, with a one hour break for a meal between 11 and midnight, leaving them hungry as well as tired by morning. Another worker told us that he was on the early shift from 8 to noon, and after an hour off for lunch, from 1 to 5, but after another break for dinner, did overtime from 6 to 9—a 13 hour day, with 11 hours of labor. But what distinguishes these young workers is that they work continuously, with no days off. Though they are supposed to be in the plant only 25 days per month, they actually are often on the job 30 to 31 days at a time without a break. Some of them had worked 300 hours the month before, or approximately 70 hours each week, in continuous days. It is only when the factory has no work to do, that they might get time off. If it is just for half a day, they may get full pay, but if is for 2-3 days, then they are not paid. It is this non-stop schedule that is the worst aspect of their jobs.

These workers live in a dorm inside the compound, 12 to a room. They do not cook, as the company provides meals in a cafeteria in the same building. They pay from Y20-30 per month for rent, and different amounts for food, but did not even know how much they are paid for working 8 hours, only what their total pay is with overtime. We were able to visit the dorm room of some young male workers from another factory in the same compound. The rooms are segregated by sex, on different sections of each of the floors, all around an interior courtyard that was littered with trash. Here there are "just” 7-8 to a room, with bunk beds and only minimal space for a few personal possessions—including posters with soft porn advertisements and pictures of fancy houses on the walls. These workers generally eat in the dorm cafeteria, though they get a small subsidy if they choose to go outside for food. As is often the case, the group that we talked with in their room were all from the same region, in Guangdong province. They generally work just 8 hours a day—the only workers we met who were not routinely putting in overtime—but are paid just Y800 or around $100 per month plus some extras, 20 percent less than those at Foxconn. They told us that they "do not get sick,” but they do have insurance through the company in case something happens. Bad as their pay and working conditions are, these employees are the "lucky” ones. Three very young men from Hainan had been in the area for two months, unable to find any jobs. Others from that province were helping them out. But after one month of looking, the jobless often cannot "make it.” Even when successful, the often desperate search for employment can lead to taking jobs with wages and living conditions that are barely survivable. Some plants pay as little as Y580 or $70 per month and still deduct Y200 for food and housing, leaving just Y380 or $45 net, too little to live on. Twice we were told, "maybe such low wages are ok for women, because they do not have to eat as much, but men need more for food, cigarettes, and to go to town to drink beer.” Many have nothing left over after living expenses anyway, but employers play on such well entrenched and widely held attitudes to divide and conquer.


Like the young workers we spoke with at Foxconn, those in the smaller factory compound complained that there is not much to do with the little time that they have off. The area is largely barren of entertainment. Even those who work all day in electronics cannot afford the goods that they produce, and usually have no room in the dorms for them anyway. From early in the morning to late at night, therefore, workers could be seen sitting in groups in front of television sets at small stores in back alleys or crowded on the sidewalks around displays at larger shopping centers. Along with the occasional dingy arcade with web access, videos and board games, these are among the few free or low cost forms of entertainment for hundreds of thousands of young people in the area—though some larger enterprises sponsor in-house events, such as Karaoke evenings, etc. Nevertheless, often these youthful workers "play,” as one of them put it, till very late at night, to find a little relief after their exhausting labor. Many of the young men said that they just walk around, and see their women friends. But their conditions of work and life make it very difficult to establish or maintain anything approaching a stable relationship, much less a family of their own. One of the workers we talked with is married—a rare exception—and has a child. But his wife is working 2 to 3 hours away, and it costs Y10 just to get there, limiting his visits, given his low wages. Another has a woman friend, but no money for a house, and talked about how hard it is to start a family. One 34 year old worker in the dorm room we visited—the only one among the 20 or so we spoke with in the compound who was not in his teens or twenties—has a wife and child back in his village. He seemed virtually an "old man” surrounded by the universally younger faces around him. Though he only gets to visit his family two times each year, it would be too expensive to bring them to live with him in Shenzhen, especially given the high cost of education, where even the least expensive primary school charges Y1,000 per semester, equal to more than his wages for a month.

For some, life in the dorms is either not available or too restrictive, though most still live in one way or another off those working in the factories. A few find ways, both legitimate and illegitimate, to exploit those who are searching for work. A flyer posted along the streets in the factory area advertised job openings, but we were told that this might be a hoax of fly by night agents, who take fees from those seeking work, and then quickly disappear. In some cases, there is no choice whether to go into the factories or not. A store owner, who had been in the area for nine years, said that he was not able to work for Foxconn because a high school education, which he lacked, is needed there. A middle aged couple and their teenage daughter with a small book shop had migrated after being laid off from a coal mine in the Northeast, where the state owned enterprises have been devastated by "market reforms.” Either too old or too young to be good candidates for work in the factories, they had first tried food service, before coming to Shenzhen two months earlier to seek there luck there. Others lack stores of their own, but instead run open stalls on the streets, selling books, videos and DVDs. Despite a few having more serious titles, these are in most cases expressions of the new values of "get rich quick” marketization and "opening to the world”—self-improvement materials, ”how to succeed in business” guides, and love stories, etc., including such U.S. TV shows as "Desperate Housewives” and "Sex and the City,” dubbed in Chinese, and in many cases probably pirated. We were told that most women prefer the latter, while men go for Kung Fu movies. But for many, sexual exploitation in a world of macho fantasy is all too real. At the entrance to a large and fancy foot and back massage parlor, six very young women from rural areas in Hunan, Hubei and other provinces were still lined up in uniforms as "greeters” at 10 at night. Establishments of this kind are common in China today, and while many of them are legitimate operations offering music and refreshments—though almost entirely to a male clientele—others shade off into the now rampant prostitution found everywhere across the country. It too depends on a constant flow of young women from rural areas. In Shenzhen 3,000 prostitutes and karaoke hostesses, left without work after a crackdown, even protested, until broken up by armed police (Guardian,1/21/06)

Very few of those who escape work in the factories experience the "glory” of getting rich, and then it is often as much a result of accidental factors as personal effort. The explosive growth of enterprises has been a windfall for some of the former villagers in the region, making them wealthy, as it were, overnight. With their individual "family responsibility” plots now worth much more as real estate than as working farms, they have either sold the rights to their land and village homesteads to outsiders, or built their own multistory apartment buildings to rent to workers at Foxconn and other companies, turning into rich landlords, and buying city homes with their profits. Rooms in the area cost around Y800-900 per month, close to the entire wages of a single worker, so it is usually necessary for four or more of them to live together in these rented apartments. One group of ten men we talked with who do building repairs share a room for Y1,000 per month, including utilities. The owner is one of the villagers who constructed his own apartment building. Despite having to pay for their own crowded housing, these workers stress that even if it costs more, their lives are "freer” than those who stay in a dorm.

Some of these slightly older workers have already been through the experience of exploitation in the factories, and refuse to accept it any longer. One restaurant worker had been a guard at a plant, but had been forced to stay on the job over Spring Festival—the most important holiday of the year, when everyone who can returns home to be with their own family. He was not even paid overtime for this work. His boss came from Xi'an, his hometown, a thousand miles away, but showed him no sympathy, increasing his anger. When workers at the plant walked out and were fired, he also quit. Close to our hotel were also several motorbike drivers, who hang around on the sidewalk waiting to do tasks for workers in the area. They too say they are "freer” and earn more than those in the plants. Complaining about U.S. "bullying” and Bush, they said "bosses worldwide are the same” as is ”true for the Chinese government too.” Such workers face their own hazards and forms of harassment, discrimination and exploitation, including by the authorities. In nearby Guangzhou, the local administration issued new licenses for taxi drivers—an alternative job across China for tens of thousands of workers laid off from state owned enterprises. The officials licensed some 30,000, but 3,000 others were not included. So they went on "strike” by driving around, refusing to pick up passengers, hoping that those with licenses would support them. When they did not, the unlicensed drivers blocked one taxi picking up a passenger. Then cops came and arrested the leader.


As such incidents show, whether inside or outside the plants, legal protections for workers are severely limited, and even when they do exist on the books, are frequently violated or simply ignored, or undermined by favoritism and corruption. Those in the compound said that in the small factories it is terrible, but they cannot do anything. If they have a complaint, the bosses just tell them that they "volunteered,” and if they do not like it they can leave. Their main dissatisfaction is with the holding back of wages. One month is not so bad, but two months is too much. As one activist explained, the problem of migrants not getting paid is so common—across China billions of yuan are owed to them—that some even commit suicide or threaten to do so, a favorite method among construction workers being to hang themselves from cranes. Others become desperate enough to take matters into their own hands. One migrant, for example, first complained to his boss because he was owed four months back pay. In response, he was told he was fired, and the owner would not give him the money. Two weeks later he used a knife to kill the boss, and was sentenced to death. The young technician who told me about this murder said that the worker "should die—it's the law”—though the government may suspend the sentence. But he also said that the larger problem is that the rich make or steal millions and send it abroad, and the authorities are powerless. They try to get the money returned, but are refused. The poor, on the other hand, steal a few thousand yuan and are quickly condemned. The system is simply "too corrupt and impossible.”

In an attempt to deal with this kind of criticism, which is coming more and more even from such relatively privileged members of the "new middle class,” and to try to prevent more highly organized opposition from developing among the workers, a recent law addresses the unpaid wages problem, setting up a pay dispute resolution process. With this legal backing, on occasion local authorities have come into the smaller plants to investigate and listen to complaints. They had even strung up a banner in the compound with the slogan: "Implement and apply the labor law and wipe out back wages”—a sign of their supposed good intentions, but also their inability to resolve the situation so far. Workers can go to the local labor relations office too, but its capacity to help is limited by the overall atmosphere of close collusion between government and business. Without enforcement by labor unions within the plants themselves, we were told, its efforts are largely worthless. In general, therefore, workers just move on if things get too bad. But given their limited options for finding better jobs, conditions have to be quite dire before they decide it is worth it to leave. The situation in the larger Shenzhen enterprises, 90 percent of which are at least partially foreign owned, was little different at the time we visited in early summer 2006, though some of the companies did have a formal process to handle minor labor disputes. At Foxconn, if workers had a complaint, they could report it to their boss and it then went higher up the line of management. But if their grievance was denied there was nothing they could do. There had never been a strike in its plants. There was no union either, though by law, all large businesses in China are supposed to have one, set up under the official All China Federation of Trade Unions.

Lacking protection of unions, when workers do undertake labor actions, these are largely spontaneous. There are some small scale, mild protests, such as slowdowns and work stoppages virtually every day, often triggered by relatively minor incidents which become the final straw for the abused workforce. In one case, a manager defaced a work card after a conflict, and 2,000 workers walked out. Another incident, one of the largest of the recent events in the Shenzhen area, saw 3,000 go into the city and block traffic for one hour, over a Hong Kong-owned electronics company paying wages below the legal minimum, and holding even those back for a long time. In that case, the government intervened and forced a raise—a not infrequent outcome, as the authorities often prefer working out a quiet settlement to an escalation of labor unrest. This action took place in 2006 on October 1, the national holiday celebrating the triumph of the revolution in 1949 and, given the effectiveness of the timing, almost certainly had some prior organization, most likely underground. As a sign of its significance, the security forces took a high level of interest in what was happening.

At another plant there was a strike because the workers were forced to put in endless overtime, as much as from 8 am to 12 midnight, and with only Y2 per hour extra. They also took advantage of a holiday season, with "nobody” returning after the New Year's break at all 21 plants. Some 2,100 workers out of 3,000 took part in the action, which lasted for a week. The company finally offered a raise in base and overtime pay, and a decrease in hours, but the workers still refused to go back to work without getting written guarantees. In the end, the company gave new contracts to each worker. But the 2,100 who had struck were fired. They got severance pay, but only the one month wages held back when they were first hired, though it was paid at the new higher rate. The new contracts turned out to be just for those who had kept working and any hired since the walkout. As a result of such retaliatory actions, workers basically have to be prepared to leave their company if they decide to go on strike. College educated employees are often sympathetic to these strikes and other forms of labor action, but they have more at stake, and more to give up if they join in any protests. They are told by management not to "make trouble” even if the line is on strike. But the plant workers have "nothing to lose,” and if things are bad enough, they just act.


Even while we were visiting the city, however, the situation had begun to change. There were growing pressures on the government, the official labor organization, and the enterprises themselves to take a different approach. In part, this resulted from more and more workers "voting with their feet” against the oppressive conditions and low pay in the export industries. For months before our visit, there had been reports of a reverse movement of labor out of the coastal regions, either to take up jobs at the many factories springing up in the interior of the country—closer to home for many of the migrants—or even to return to their villages, where a change in national policies, including an end to the main agricultural land tax, had relieved some of the worst economic burdens, making farming once again seem more viable. Some of the coastal enterprises are themselves moving inland, both to follow the work force, and to take advantage of lower pay rates and other incentives that authorities in the interior of the country commonly still offer. Others are leaving China altogether, moving their operations to Vietnam, among other neighboring countries, in a regional "race to the bottom” of low wages and poor working conditions. But despite numerous stories about how pay in Shenzhen and the other main export areas had been driven up as a result, the effect has been very marginal, according to those we talked with, in part because of this ability of the plants to move quickly—or at least threaten to do so—keeping upward wage pressures in check. While there may be pockets of labor shortages, especially of more skilled workers, the decline in the coastal migratory workforce should not be exaggerated in any case. Though a larger number than before may be moving on to look for jobs elsewhere, new laborers from the rural areas continue to stream into the city, where almost any pay level in the factories, no matter how low, exceeds what they can earn back home.

The dominant companies in Shenzhen like Foxconn that have expanded rapidly over the past few years, seem to have been able to enlarge their workforce with relatively little difficulty. The crowds of young people surrounding the kiosks and tents at its gates seeking employment interviews make clear that those from the rural areas are continuing to look for work in its plants, if perhaps not in quite the numbers that they did previously. Some 80 percent of those interviewed get hired. Many train specifically for these kinds of jobs, and need to quickly find work once they arrive in the city in order to pay for the high costs of their education—for example, the Y1,800/semester, or Y3,600 for one year that one worker who we spoke with had spent on vocational schooling before coming to Shenzhen. This is equivalent to $435 or almost 150 percent of the average annual income per capita in the countryside, and a very large amount for a farming family to lay out on the hope of a good job at the end. Among those we met were a group of some 25 or so very young migrants from rural Hunan province, who had just stepped out of the two minibuses that had brought them to the city. They looked to be only 15 or 16 years old, and some even younger. Since the legal minimum age for work in the factories is 16, when questioned they said that they were "about that,” but would not be any more specific. Their vague answers were both understandable and suspicious—it is easy to get forged papers in a country where pirated goods of all kinds, including phony documents, are found everywhere. Most of these newly arrived job seekers had only one suitcase or backpack, along with a bucket of cleaning goods and other items for daily life. They had gone for two years for basic technical training, at a cost of Y10,000, to a vocational high school that graduates 3,000 each year. There they studied computers, electronics repair, and English—all needed to work in the larger plants—and had come to Shenzhen with their principal and a couple of his assistants, who would help them to find jobs, especially at Foxconn, where some 80 percent of them expected to get in, though they would look at other places too. When asked about being on their own in the city, one quoted an old saying about "traveling over lakes and mountains.” All said they miss home.

With new job seekers every day—even the entire graduating class of a technical school—the balance of workers arriving and leaving in Shenzhen seems close enough to keep the upward movement of wages by the enterprises themselves relatively limited. Legal base pay rates are set by the government, and there is little variation, though a few do bid wages up higher, in order to attract workers. But there is nevertheless enough growing pressure on the local authorities, to help ensure that a steady flow of young migrants continue to come to the city, stay at least long enough to keep the export factories running once they are there, and remain sufficiently satisfied to refrain from labor protests, that they have moved more than once over the past few years to raise the minimum wage. Though already one of the two highest on the mainland—together with Shanghai—there is concern that the rate may not be sufficient to attract enough workers. Huang Zaoji, deputy director of the Municipal Bureau of Labor and Social Securities explained that the 2005 increase was "'because we will find ourselves in an unfavorable situation amid the fierce competition for workers if Shenzhen keeps minimum salaries low.'” (China Daily, 6/1/05, from, 6/8/07) Of the five regions in the greater Shenzhen area, two are special districts inside the city, where the legal base rate for wages is somewhat higher than in the suburban sectors where the major foreign enterprises like Foxconn are located. Just after we were there, the minimum wage was raised, in July 2006, from Y580 per month—as little as Y492 after food and housing—to Y700 in the suburbs, and in the city from Y680 to Y810, each around a 20 percent rise.

But many companies were already finding ways to avoid the effects of the higher pay requirements. Foxconn is trying to cut back on the amount of overtime its employees work under the new minimum wage law, though when production demands, it will still be used as needed. When the higher base rate goes into effect, therefore, extra hours and pay may go down, so there may be little if any overall gain. But even if the total earnings remain relatively stable for many workers, any reduction in the time needed to earn them would presumably still be welcome. In many companies, however, the new wage scale is likely to be honored more on paper than in practice, as with so many other legal rights, given the lack of government enforcement. Many employers use other means as well to cut back on costs at the expense of workers. According to a Shenzhen-based migrant labor rights NGO, the Institute for Contemporary Observation, "At Foxconn, even the housing benefit is in danger. Some 2,000 employees have already left the factory after learning that they would be charged for their rooms . . . just as the minimum wages were set to increase.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/16/06, A-1) As such instances show, efforts to raise the standard of living of workers in export industries yield contradictory results.


Without unionization, the largely migrant workforce has no form of protection. Though workers in the export plants generally want to have unions, they are afraid, and it is hard to organize in these factories. The ACFTU had tried to do a bit of organizing in the area to head off others doing so. Though any independent unions are effectively outlawed, the potential for them arising presents a challenge to the official body. Even if there is an attempt at unionizing, however, the choices are not very good. As one activist explained, if the government promotes a union, it is not truly independent, but without such official support, it is hard to get funding to organize. In the view of this activist, unions with greater independence would be fine if they were truly autonomous. But if each of them is only acting alone for its own narrow interests, with an economistic trade union approach that does not represent the unity of all the working class, then that is not good either. Independent labor organizations must also be secretive for a long time. The only way for them to survive is by working "underground.” Government-sponsored unions, the only available alternative, have largely failed the migrant workforce. The activist we spoke with was personally acquainted with a central labor regulator who he described as a decent and well intentioned administrator, and there are others up and down the ranks of the official federation who do take their responsibilities seriously. But in general, the ACFTU has been quite passive in the face of the resistance of foreign employers, and has gone along with the top-down "company union” approach.

This attitude on the part of the official unions is a remnant of their role under socialism, when they had a meaningful say in how state owned factories were run and served as "transmission belts” between management and workers, helping administer a full set of lifelong and virtually free housing, health, and education benefits and job and retirement securities—the so-called "iron rice bowl.” Once the socialist system was dismantled, however, the unions were left, like the government itself, with monopoly power, without either their former responsibility to guarantee the security and well-being of the workforce, or with the contractual and work floor activism typical of the bourgeois unionism model. Since the start of "market reforms,” therefore, most trade union leaders have served as little more than enforcers of the new capitalistic regimen, often involving corruption and collusion with managers and governmental authorities, especially in the conversion of formerly state owned enterprises into private companies. In most such cases, especially when foreign firms agree to set up inhouse unions to meet the official regulations, company management appoints the "leaders,” or even fills such top posts themselves so that, for example, the wife of the owner might be the head of the union, with the office in her home—one of various ways to avoid the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. ACFTU locals receive 2 percent of total payroll, part of which goes to the union leadership, and the rest supposedly to support activities for the workers—a prescription, under current conditions, for pay-offs, favoritism and the siphoning off of funds. As a result of such collaboration between unions and managers, there is widespread cynicism toward labor leaders, a view that taints even those who are honest worker representatives.

It is significant, therefore, that a second major change occurring over the past few months, is the rapid spread of ACFTU unionization into leading foreign enterprises. In part this is a response to growing domestic labor discontent, in part to outside pressure. As state owned enterprises have closed or been effectively privatized, and much of the workforce shifted to unrepresented migrant labor, the official union has seen the percent of workers that it represents rapidly fall and its influence decline. Only by beginning to organize more seriously in the growing nonunion foreign sector, could it regain its former position. The government too pushed ACFTU to move in this direction, under pressure from the exposure of poor working conditions in the export zones and fearing a rise in labor protests by the migrant workforce. The recently expanded unionization campaign is still largely top down, but there have also been cases of bottom up organizing that could mark the beginning of a new phase in its union activism. The breakthrough came, of all places, at Wal-Mart, as strange as that may seem given its virulently anti-union position, which has successfully prevented unions from gaining a foothold in any of its U.S. stores or generally elsewhere in its worldwide operations. But it is a measure of both the strengths and weaknesses of the union rights system in China, that the change occurred there first. The very stubbornness of Wal-Mart proved its undoing. Had it cooperated with ACFTU early on, it could have set up the typical "company union” with its own middle managers appointed as "leaders” of the locals, and headed off grassroots activism. Instead, it constantly stalled the many attempts to organize its rapidly growing number of stores. Faced with such stubborn resistance, local ACFTU activists took the unprecedented step of going to the workers themselves and beginning to sign them up. Since under the law, any 25 employees can form a union, which must then be officially recognized regardless of the attitude of the employer, this proved to be an unusually easy route to organizing Wal-Mart. On July 28, 2006, the first of its stores was unionized in Quanzhou City, Fujian province, using this bottom up organizing method. (Anita Chan, "Organizing Wal-Mart: The Chinese Trade Union at a Crossroads,” Japan Focus, 9/8/06)

The sense that this was an exciting new development with global ramifications, as well as a link to the older revolutionary tradition in China and worldwide, was conveyed by the atmosphere at the initial organizing meeting, when those present sang the national anthem at the start—"rise up, those who do not wish to be slaves, let us build a new great wall”—and closed with the "Internationale” in celebration at the end. (Dai Xiangde and We Jinyong, "'Labour's' breakthrough at Wal-Mart,” Business Watch Magazine, 9/4/06, China Labor News Translations, The organization of more Wal-Mart stores—22 out of 60 in just three weeks—and even its national headquarters branch in Shenzhen, where a 27 year old was elected head of the union committee, soon followed, and the movement spread to other companies. Among them was Foxconn, which had similarly stonewalled earlier attempts to get it to cooperate in recognizing official top down unionization of its plants. Like Wal-Mart it had not even bothered to go through the formality of creating an official union, despite efforts by ACFTU to get it to do so since 2004, and pledges that it would comply by the end of 2006. Free from the constraints of any labor unions, it commonly ignored the overtime pay rule, which was simply not enforced by the government. But two articles in 2006 brought it unwanted and unfavorable public exposure. In June, China Business News reported that many of its workers had to stand for 12 hours per day, with some even fainting from fatigue. A month later, Foxconn sued the two reporters responsible for the article for Y30 million or some $3.75 million—though under heavy criticism, they later dropped the figure to Y1 before abandoning their attempted action altogether. Around the same time, the Sunday Daily Mail in Britain launched a similar critique, claiming that iPods were being made at the plants in Shenzhen by workers laboring 15 hours per day for $50 per month. Though Foxconn attempted to refute the charges, the specter of sweatshop labor producing its expensive consumer goods led Apple itself to threaten to intervene, and put new pressure on the Taiwanese company to clean up its increasingly battered labor relations image.

Following the successful model of the organizers at Wal-Mart, the municipal ACFTU, encouraged by the local government, decided to take advantage of this situation and try once again to unionize the Longhua plants. Moving atypically on a Sunday, the last day of 2006, they went into the factory district and quickly signed up 118 workers, and immediately announced the establishment of the union. Not only was management left out of the process, but even the secretary of the Communist Party committee for Foxconn, who had been involved in earlier efforts at unionization, was not informed. Organizers of the new union stressed that they would continue to recruit members, though the company may decide after all to set up its own company union, raising the prospect of competing "official” representatives of the workers at the plants. Like the agreement of Wal-Mart to open its door to unions after the bottom up organizing effort, it is unclear whether the end result of these actions will be a return to business unionism as usual in which foreign enterprises and the ACFTU follow the old collaborative pattern. But a positive response from the national labor organization suggests that these recent successes have resonated among the more honest trade unionists in the federation in a way that may not be easy to put back in the box. The new movement, often under young leadership, is now spreading to older workers as well, such as 11 employees of Shenzhen Liqun Public Sanitation Company, half of them illiterate, and led by a 50 year old, who moved to set up a union in April, 2007, for its 7,000-8,000 employee plant. They work continuously without any days off and no overtime, for Y700 per month plus food and board. (Zhou Jie, "Cleaners want to form a union to protect their rights,” The Southern Metropolitan, 4/28/07, A28, Such efforts have begun to alter the image of the Chinese labor movement abroad. Significantly, some leaders of the U.S. union federations have broken sharply with the AFL-CIO Cold War attitude of treating ACFTU as nothing but a government front and refusing to deal with it. In May, 2007, Change to Win sent a high level delegation to China to hold meetings with the ACFTU.
The growing pressure from such labor activism, migrant worker protests, and fears of further bad publicity affecting foreign attitudes toward Chinese products, has been compounded by recent major scandals. First was the exposure of the use of virtual slave workers in the brick kilns and coal mines of Shanxi and Henan provinces, many of them teenagers or even younger, some kidnapped or mentally retarded, and most badly treated or even physically abused. Even in a country now hardened to the mistreatment of laborers, the horrors of this situation shocked the national consciousness, especially since it is only the tip of the iceberg of the employment of child workers in many sectors, including the export zones of Shenzhen. There a November 2006 investigation found 200 children under 16 working in just a single electronics plant, Yonghong, many of them students on summer jobs, virtual prisoners of an arrangement between the employer and their school, in part to pay off fees they owed, and forced to work especially long hours without overtime wages because they are "considered 'unskilled'” ( In the midst of other such worker scandals, news broke of the adulteration of a whole series of Chinese products—toys with lead paint, pet food and toothpaste with poisonous industrial chemicals, contaminated seafood, and faulty car tires—leading to costly recalls and the restriction or outright banning of some imports into the U.S. and other countries.

The quick path to "glorious” riches of an unrestrained capitalism in China now threatened to begin unraveling in the face of internal dissension and growing opposition abroad. In an attempt to head off further blows, the government passed a new and long promised law to grant workers additional rights, after considerable delays and some last minute tinkering. Directed especially at the condition of migrants, the provisions of this act require employers to provide written contracts to each individual worker, convert many temporary jobs into more longterm employment, and allow the ACFTU to bargain collectively for wages and benefits. The law was passed over the vigorous objections and lobbying of foreign employers, including those from the United States, who protested that it will undercut their main reason for investing in China—a pool of compliant low wage labor, largely powerless to alter their work conditions, in spite of mounting restlessness. There are serious doubts, nevertheless, how much will actually change under the new act, since any major transformation will require both a determined organizing approach by the labor federation and systematic legal enforcement—both lacking in the past.


Even in the best case, however, a more activist ACFTU can offer nothing more than a very partial amelioration of the severe exploitation of the Chinese working class today. Workers interviewed after the new Foxconn union was formed, were skeptical even of that possibility. The new unionism, such as it may be, will face very rapidly changing conditions. The transformations now sweeping the economy of China and its working classes are profound, and some of the most telling developments are below the surface. Perhaps the most important of these is the change in attitude among the young migrants. Though many still see themselves as peasants transported to the city, others are adopting the approach that they are the new ranks of urban workers, with no intention of returning to the countryside. In part this is a matter of finding bright city lights attractive after the hard life and isolation of the rural areas. But it also reflects transformation of the countryside itself. Young workers say that a new level of mechanization—utilizing small-scale tillers, pesticide and fertilizer dispensers, and processing machines—makes daily work easier on the farms. In that respect it is better than before, during the Mao era, though the advantages of collective organization and social securities have been lost. This change also means, however, that their labor is no longer as needed as it once was, despite the effects of the one-child policy, not always fully enforced in the countryside, which is having a major longterm effect on the number of younger people in China. In addition, competition from imports under the WTO—for example undercutting most Chinese soybean production— has pushed the young off the farms, since land can only be used to raise their own food, but cannot earn enough money for other needs. There is therefore "nothing back home” for them, and at most they could open a village business.

As a result, many today see themselves as urban working class, not as peasants. Because they were so young when they migrated, they barely had a chance as adults to know their families, much less to learn agricultural techniques—so even if they wanted to go back to farm, it would be very difficult. Middle aged migrants may still return home, but the younger ones "do not even know where the family plot in the villages is.” Many have decided to "never go back,” and feel that if so many others have come to the city, there must be a way to survive there and work out their medical care, education, etc. They may not remain in Shenzhen, but even if they leave, they will likely move to other cities. Most striking, though some young migrants continue to save money to send back home, a large percentage do not, using their earnings instead just to live and "play” in the city or prepare for their own future there. This is a profound change. The first generation of now older migrants saw their urban labor as a sideline to their village farm. The young migrant workers today increasingly see work in the cities as a career. This could mean the permanent urbanization of hundreds of millions of rural youth—though there is still great resistance to giving those from the countryside resident rights—and potentially a sharp drop in the billions of yuan sent back each year to the countryside. Such a change would only exacerbate the crisis that exists there, despite some recent governmental steps to ameliorate conditions.

The alienation of young people from the countryside carries over into the cities, even among many who are doing relatively well there. A technician in his 20s who I met at the Shenzhen airport, a well-dressed member of the middle class, conveyed in striking language the forces that are tearing not only at the rural areas, but even at his own more privileged urban stratum. The employee of a high tech firm who travels all over China repairing office machines, he was flying at company expense up to the mountain province of Yunnan as part of an all-paid group vacation. Yet his origins were in the countryside, and he had in no sense forgotten where he came from, or the hard life of those he left behind. His parents are farmers near Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, on the east coast close to Shanghai. But there is little farming left in that area. Instead, the villagers "just sell land to outsiders and do business.” His own parents tried selling eggs. It was good at first, "but others see success and do the same, there is too much competition, and prices fall, but costs keep rising.” So while initially it was easy, now it is hard, and they are back to only subsistence farming. Even so, the family spent Y50,000 just on his high school training, and he still cannot afford college.

It is perhaps an ominous sign for President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, with their ideological calls to create a "harmonious society” by reducing social tensions, that this young and upwardly mobile technician was not only highly class conscious, but strikingly angry and burning with a desire for radical change. His complaints were very specific, but linked to an analysis of the larger problems of Chinese society. What was most startling about the critique he offered were not so much the details of his views, but the depth of his alienation from so many aspects of what is happening in China today—including not only the rural economic crisis, but enterprise and government corruption, abusive working conditions, class polarization, lack of democratic control, and even the official position on global issues like the war in Iraq—and his willingness to state this to a randomly encountered foreigner. Among his concerns was a lack of social stability that he attributed to the "get rich quick” mentality that is pervasive, especially in the booming urban centers. He does not like Shenzhen so much, because of the bad security situation. There is almost no local population in this new city, so no sense of community to watch out for each other and against the outsiders. The atmosphere of transience is pervasive. Even many government officials just come to make money and leave, before going back home. Every day there are robberies, and women are not safe at night. "Everyone is here just to make money,” and if they lose a job, they will do anything to survive. This helps to explain the danger on the streets—though as usual in China, we felt safer walking around the city late at night than we would in many comparable U.S. urban settings.

For many like this young technician in the new urban middle class, feelings of insecurity are closely linked to the growing class polarization. He complained that economically, the top 1-5 percent are rich, while the bottom 50 percent have little. "There is no middle class” he said—a sense of how even those, like himself, who are a part of this new stratum, feel increasingly alienated within the ever more highly polarized social structure. The divisions are also geographic, with a saying that "the East of China is like the United States and Europe, while the West is like Africa.” In addition to being highly polarized, the society is corrupt at all levels. Until 5 or 6 years ago, a pass was needed to get into Shenzhen and its Special Zones. If you lacked proper papers, they threw you out. But you could pay the police Y500-600 to get a living permit, and the same widespread corruption still pervades the area today, including in the operation of many big enterprises. Now, according to the young technician, in Chinese companies every day there is another working condition "hot spot”—like the overwork death of the Huawei employee. "It is just like in the mines” in China, where hundreds die every year due to the lack of enforcement of safety rules. Showing a grasp of global and historical relations, he compared the situation to the United States in the 1950s-60s, but noted that there the government had stepped in. By contrast, in his view, in China now there are no rules for employer or employee, and the companies just make money any way they can.

The main problems for members of the younger generation are inadequacies in schooling, medical care and housing. The opening up of higher education to more and more children of peasant and urban worker families in recent years, in particular, has created a new and potentially radicalized mix, with those like this young technician combining knowledge of the life conditions of the working classes with increasing awareness of the larger social context. In addition, the objective conditions of large numbers of high school and college graduates are rapidly deteriorating. Many now cannot find jobs. Education itself has become another part of the pervasive system of get rich quick corruption. Colleges are increasing enrollment just to get money, but there is no work for many of the graduates afterward. Some students pay up to Y50,000 for their college education, but only earn Y1,000 per month later, to their surprise. They cannot make their investment back, even if they are still better off than the average worker. As polarization widens, corruption deepens, and the struggle for survival becomes ever more intense, many just want to leave, preferably to the United States. Among those who stay, their families often try to get one member into the government, who can then bring in others—an approach to familial advancement that has very deep roots in Chinese society.

But there are others who refuse to passively accept these kinds of conditions. In Zhengzhou in central Henan province, college students even rioted in 2006 when a school lowered the status of its university diploma and did not refund tuition fees to graduating students. Up to 10,000 protestors took part at the height of the disturbance. High school students are also realizing the situation. Some 500 in Chongqing in Sichuan province in the southwest refused to take part in the national college entrance exam, as a waste of time and money. This is something entirely new, as they always took the test before. Now, however, while it is easier to get into college, it is often not worth the expense. One university president stated that of the graduates at a school for minority nationalities, only 10 percent found jobs. Even at such top rank universities as Qinghua in Beijing—the so-called "MIT” of China—the ability to find work after graduation is dropping rapidly. Many college graduates end up working in fast food restaurants and other low paying employment, since they lack basic industrial or secretarial skills, and cannot find even factory or clerical jobs. As a consequence, even intellectuals who used to think that they were superior now see that they are treated like proletariat. Some took advantage of the opportunity offered by a webpage set up to allow workers to talk about their own conditions, to post items about the problems of the educated, who are today facing a similar set of exploitative situations. In such ways, class lines break down between the intellectuals, peasants, migrants to the cities, and the ranks of the urban proletariat.


The stark analysis made by the youthful technician at the airport is in striking contrast to the image often presented of the typical young person in China today, seeking only consumer goods and individual pleasure, and indifferent to the issues of the larger society. But though his critique may have been unusual in its elaboration, it may not be as unique as might be thought, given the growing alienation among many educated youth. Even those who are class conscious, socially aware and well informed on global issues, however, often lack indepth knowledge of the revolutionary socialist era in China. The young technician admitted that he does not know enough about the past to compare with the situation now, and younger workers generally have little understanding of the Mao period or the Cultural Revolution, which immediately preceded the capitalistic "reforms” in which they grew up. This historical amnesia is not accidental, but rather the result of deliberate policy. State and party authorities try to obscure and manipulate the record of the Mao era, and now stress only his nationalist character, attempting to latch onto this single part of his legacy, while stripping it of its more revolutionary side. As one young organizer we talked with put it, his migrant worker peers "cannot dream of the previous conditions in the socialist period, as they do not even know about them.” Even among intellectuals, according to this leftist activist, there are two distinct factions today, "those who still take a Maoist perspective and bourgeois liberals.” While this is perhaps an oversimplification, there are two general trends pulling at those in the young generation.
One is to seek broader democracy through an expansion of the representational system. As the young technician at the airport put it, solutions are virtually impossible today, because it is "not a people's government.” Despite the introduction of elections for some lower level posts, in his view the citizenry do not have a meaningful vote for local officials, who are in practice chosen by higher ups and the party. There is wide dissatisfaction with the monopolistic power of those in control. Politically the system is "too interconnected with just one party—China needs at least two,” so he actually wants to see a merger with Taiwan, as a means of introducing more democratization on the mainland. "Then at least there would be two parties, because it is too imbalanced now.” The same discontent extends to demands for greater governmental transparency and a freer media. "In China, knowledge of the bad is suppressed, and only positive news is allowed. People today have more money and goods, but they are not happy.” In his view, the situation is very explosive, especially in the countryside, where "some 80 percent of farmers are borderline. If it gets worse, they will either fight or die. But they do not have guns.” He does not know if it will lead to revolution. But that someone of his privileged urban status could speculate about peasants arming themselves, suggests that even among those like himself who are still largely unaware of the socialist past, the specter of revolution is once again arising, produced by the widening class polarization.

The younger generation is beginning to generate its own leftist activists as well, including college students and other intellectuals, who have studied the revolutionary era of socialism in China and are able to make comparisons between it and conditions today. Some are even attempting to link up the new ranks of migrants and other young members of the working classes with older workers who lived through that period. As the leftist organizer we talked with put it, they have a very different view of the past than does the government. According to him, "80 percent of older workers would like to go back to the Mao period, and think that the Cultural Revolution period was when the working classes were masters of society.” He is trying to spread to young migrants the knowledge that at that time there was little difference between managers and the workers, who had a strong sense of ownership in the plants, built their own enterprise-provided houses along with building the factories, and had education for their children. If they got sick they went to a worker hospital, and trusted to leave their families there—not like now, with high costs and corruption even within the medical system. During that period, they participated in management through revolutionary 3 in 1 committees—combining worker, manager, and technical personnel—and regulations were loose. Even those in positions of authority took their turn on the factory floor. Many older workers dispute current government propaganda, which states that the Cultural Revolution destroyed production, and that the workers were too busy politically during that time to produce. As they describe it, if one faction took over and was not good, others pushed it out and criticized it. Things had to run well. But young activists trying to reach the working classes with such alternative perspectives are few in number, and they have a very difficult task, faced with the official view of recent history and repression by the authorities, which blocks knowledge of the positive gains of the socialist era, much less any organized effort to reclaim them today.

While the ability of youthful organizers to reach their working class peers is quite limited, however, the deepening contradictions of China today keep reviving the demand for more radical change. This takes the form of an ever expanding number of protests, many of which are increasingly well organized, some involving tens of thousands of workers, migrants or peasants. Even though the level of organization of radical forces today remains very low, therefore, a critical mass may be forming of those who are reaching a breaking point of frustration and anger. Whether the potentially explosive mixture of a younger generation of protesting members of the working classes, alienated middle class elements, and radicalized intellectuals will reach the point of an organized upheaval remains problematic. There is little sign of any such movement so far. The youth of Shenzhen, like those across China, will have to find their own way forward, as they struggle to confront the brutal new forms of capitalist exploitation that they face. Given the extent to which the gains of the socialist era have been dismantled, they would largely have to "start over” again if they wanted to radically transform society. But the youth of China have one of the most revolutionary legacies of any in the world. If they choose to move down that road again, there are still many older workers and peasants who have not forgotten how the socialist revolution was made, and are eager to pass on to the next generation the lessons of that struggle and of the gains that they achieved then. The rapidly changing conditions of life and labor in China today make it highly unlikely that the "harmonious society” envisioned by the current leadership can be stabilized over a long period. If and when the younger generation of the Chinese working classes find their voice, they may once again "shake the world,” transforming not only their own country, but the current stage of "globalization” in ways that are barely imaginable.

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csg articles

The Cultural Revolution After the “Cultural Turn”

Arif Dirlik | 23 may 07

The radical cultural project that the Cultural Revolution placed on the global agenda four decades ago is as urgent in our day as it was then. It also affords a perspective from which to view the present critically.


韩德强 | 05/23


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