Peking starts to panic as Chinese workers get the union habit

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The Independent Online


For three days last summer, private stallholders in the Hongqiao consumer- goods market in central Peking behaved quite out of character for Chinese entrepreneurs: they refused to sell customers any goods. It was their way of protesting about high local-government taxes and the fees charged by the owner of the building.

The next month, outside the five-star Palace Hotel, 40 drivers staged a sit-in after blocking the hotel entrance with a coach decorated with a large banner. "We protest against the Palace Hotel's unjustifiable sacking of employees," it read. In December, 1,000 elderly workers in the central city of Wuhan staged a sit-in during the morning rush hour, sparked by a sudden rise in the entrance price at their favourite Zhongshan Park. Inflation was eroding their pensions, they complained.

Such are the varied ways in which China's increasingly emboldened workers and pensioners are airing their grievances. The complaints are well-worn: unfair taxes, overdue wages, bad working conditions, sackings. But what has changed is a new assertiveness that is being seen across the board.

Jean-Victor Gruat, former director of the International Labour Organisation office in Peking, said: "The Chinese situation in industrial relations is becoming closer to normal. So what some could see as a degradation, others may see as the road towards normality." But this terrifies the government. According to an internal circular, there were more than 12,000 protests and petitions by labourers, farmers and miners in the first 10 months of 1995. When the Chinese "parliament", the National People's Congress (NPC), opens today, social stability will again be a national priority. The Prime Minister, Li Peng, will stress the government's commitment to improve conditions and welfare for those who feel they are falling behind in China's economic transformation. But there remains no flexibility for those who want to take their grievances into their own hands.

In January, eight taxi- drivers in the southern boom city of Zhuhai were sentenced to up to two years of "re- education through labour" for instigating a strike by 300 drivers protesting against unfair treatment by the traffic police. The strike was judged to have "seriously disturbed social security and road-traffic management order".

The only acceptable mouthpiece is the closely controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Independent labour organisations remain illegal. When the NPC met two years ago, the newly formed League for the Protection of the Rights of Working People petitioned for an improvement in labour rights, including the right to strike and to set up independent unions. All its main protagonists were detained.

But this intolerance has failed to stifle the growing willingness of people to make a stand. Nor can the authorities always employ a heavy- fisted approach, particularly when old people are involved. Three months ago, 40 elderly petitioners gathered outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Peking, protesting about their homes being cleared for redevelopment. There were no reported arrests.

Unrest in loss-making state enterprises is the most alarming prospect for Peking. Last month, Mr Li explained why large-scale bankruptcies and lay-offs were unsuitable. "If China were to use such capitalist methods, it would shirk its responsibility to the people, and it would trigger social unrest."

North-east China has seen some of the biggest strikes because of the many big, loss- making heavy industries. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but even a survey by ACFTU found a one-third increase in stoppages, petitions, sit-ins and other protests in state-owned enterprises in 1994.

At the beginning of last year, the government launched a wide-ranging new labour law but so far almost all the successful disputes highlighted in the Chinese media have been those involving foreign firms. In a now- infamous case at the Zhuhai Ruijin Electronics Company in Guangdong, 120 employees complained when the South Korean manager told them to kneel because they had not filed out for their rest-break in an orderly way. Twelve refused and were dismissed. Last year the Zhuhai Labour Supervisory Committee ordered the manager to apologise.

Success is not so easy if one is taking on government officials. At Hongqiao, a stallholder selling stationery said: "I can hardly make any profit with these high taxes and fees." He recalled the strike. "All the business people here came to their places, sat and refused to sell goods. Some tried to get back their deposits and leave here but the officials from the Tax Bureau refused and threatened to confiscate our goods. In the end, the government succeeded in persuading some businessmen who own larger places to go on trading. So the strike collapsed and we have to remain here to survive."