Will Peasants and Migrant Workers Forge China’s New Political Vanguard?

China is no longer a sleeping giant. The past few months have seen riots, strikes, and peasant clashes with police. If you lay out all these incidents on a map, you get more than a random data cloud; you see a slow seismic shift in a society of contrasts, where boundaries of class and power are being constantly redrawn.

The most high-profile uprising of recent weeks is the revolt in the Guangdong village of Wukan. Peasants began protesting to defend their land rights, accusing officials of handing over land to developers and bilking farmers out of millions of dollars worth of real estate.

By December, as with many land-rights struggles in the Global South, direct action was apparently the only leverage villagers had to push back against the local government. The death of a leading protester in police custody catalyzed their outrage, and after driving out local officials, the activists launched an ad-hoc self-governing occupation.

Rachel Beitarie at Foreign Policy reported:

Villagers refrained from looting and instead focused on bringing food into the village through back roads, away from security forces that massed outside. They coordinated mass rallies, making protest signs, and cooked for the hordes of journalists who descended on the village.

A tense truce has emerged since then, with some political and economic concessions handed down from provincial officials. It’s unclear whether leading activists will continue campaigning or settle with authorities. But for now, the Wukan narrative stands as a vindication of poor people's challenge to metastasizing inequality and parasitic corruption across China.

Meanwhile urban areas are getting restless, too. Protest actions, including strikes and demonstrations, doubled from 2006 to 2010, according to one study. Many of those roughly 180,000 “disturbances” were driven by migrant workers who have flocked to cities hoping to bank on China’s capitalist explosion.

Last month, workers went on strike at a Japanese-owned auto parts factory over pay and hours, protesting a sharp cut in year-end bonuses. According to the U.S.-based China Labor Watch, the Aries Auto Parts factory has done a brisk trade supplying car and motorcycle parts to global brands like Honda and Suzuki, which symbolize new prosperity among China’s elite. But workers haven’t seen that wealth trickle down.

Management claimed that its decision to reduce the bonus was due to the Japanese earthquake reducing demand for production. However, the workers dispute this, as they believe this past year’s production orders have been roughly the same as they were in 2010.

However, there was another long-standing grievance that workers had with the factory, and that was their long working hours. Workers are currently working 12-hour workdays, forcing them to work about 50 hours of overtime every month.

Around the same time, in a similar strike action at an LG electronics factory, workers complained of unfair bonuses and wages despite workdays stretching up to 12 hours, and eventually wrested conessions from management. CLW described a walkout in an early negotiating session:

On their way out of the dining hall, the workers flipped a number of tables and chairs and toppled the dining hall’s Christmas tree.  Apart from that, the protestors have been largely peaceful. The exceptions have come during conflicts with the police, who instigated a few confrontations.

Domestic and international media outlets, as well as the public data-mapping project China Strikes, have documented actions ranging from a blockade of a Tesco chain store to work stoppage at an Apple-supplier factory.

Like the migrants themselves, the climate of unrest transcends the rural-urban divide. While it’s too early to tell if the Wukan rebellion will inspire other village uprisings, it suggests a convergence between rural and migrant labor struggles. First, migrants seeking a better life in the cities are thwarted by draconian residency regulations that restrict workers rights and economic opportunities. Yet, back in their hometowns, the land to which the rural poor have been tethered all their lives is being snatched by landgrabbers, with no real recourse.

The leaders of the Wukan revolt were migrants who had toiled outside the village and experienced the vast gap between rural and urban societies. The New York Times quoted the elder protest leader Lin Zuluan, who had earned a living as a merchant in the city of Dongguan: “I want to be able to express my opinions to officials... I have that right. We all have that right.”

In an interview with In These Times, Wayne State University sociologist and China specialist Sarah Swider sees the migration wave as a potential vehicle for dissent.

The migrant worker has been called into existence as a result of the transition from socialism into a form of capitalism. Their forms of protest, like their identities, integrate the old (peasants) with the new (peasant/migrant workers). They use old forms of protests that occurred frequently under Communism, such as mass marches to confront bosses and petitions for government intervention. These are coupled with newer forms of protest, which include strikes, legal complaints, and getting the media involved.

Yet the mobilization of the migrant working class resonates with a history of peasant insurgency, according to Swider:

[P]easants now face two fronts of protest. On the one hand, they have to contend with local authorities in the villages and towns that want to pillage their land, and other the other hand, they have to fight against being worked to death (literally in some cases) by capitalist employers in the urban areas.

But it may be a long time before farmers or workers can shake off the control of the state. As it prepares for a leadership transition, the Communist Party may step up efforts to buy off protesters with economic concessions or token elections, tighten censorship, or crack down on prominent dissidents.

Still, a massive populace of increasingly mobile, globally oriented workers will eventually outpace officialdom. Despite the monetization of Chinese society and the privatization of the state, the poor are discovering that justice can’t be bought. Now the dispossessed peasants and migrant laborers have to decide what price they’re willing to pay for democracy.

This article was originally published by Common Dreams and In These Times.