Communists want workers to unite, except in their own backyards. But the recent strikes in Chinese factories seem to have been approved, at least partially, by the Communist party bosses. Conditions in Chinese factories are known to be among the worst in the world and the lives of Chinese factory workers, mostly migrants from the villages, are generally nasty and brutish. In their anxiety to attract foreign investment and ensure double-digit growth, China’s communist rulers have long looked the other way. The latest strikes — in factories supplying parts to Japanese automobile giants such as Toyota and Honda — suggest that Beijing is now forced to face a new reality about the Chinese working class. The new generation of China’s vast army of migrant labourers no longer accepts working conditions their parents were forced to tolerate. The earlier generation of workers would rather quit a job than strike work. And despite the official media blacking out such news, wage disputes and strikes have become common in China. What is more, strikes — and workers’ suicides — have led to dramatic pay increases, most notably in a huge factory owned by Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group.
However, the unending labour unrest raises larger questions about the social tensions in today’s China and the government’s attempts to come to terms with them. The more the Chinese society develops fissures, the more the leaders harp on the value of stability and “harmony”. Many think that the present leadership’s attempts to revive Confucian values of harmony and respect for authority are actually a desperate ploy to defuse the rising social tensions. No wonder Wen Jiabao, the premier, called for better treatment of migrant workers and expressed concern over the risks of social turmoil. Clearly, the leaders are worried that the labour unrest may spread to State-controlled and privately-owned Chinese factories where the workers get equally raw deals. And, if that happens, the communist bosses can easily take off the velvet gloves and show the iron fists yet again. It may be alarmist to see the strikes as posing an immediate threat to foreign investment in China. But if they do, it will mean that the days of cheap Chinese labour are over. It can also mean new challenges to China’s rulers from its new working class.