The Jasic Incident of 2018, a major labor dispute characterized by student-worker solidarity, signaled a turning point in migrant labor struggles in China towards explicit calls for left politics. Beginning in the mid-1990’s, migrant labor struggles in China have utilized a civil society framework of contention, downplaying the role of ideology and politics. While they have met with some success in addressing single-sited workplace grievances, they have been unable to address class inequality in the country more broadly or to develop multi-sited forms of organizing. The Jasic Incident signals the need to revisit Marxism and Maoism for today’s emancipatory politics and labor struggles.
Jasic Workers’ Struggle
Jasic Technology is a manufacturing welding equipment company based in Shenzhen, China. The company has a workforce of roughly 1000 workers. Unacceptable working conditions in the factory induced the workers to fight to form a union. In mid-May 2018, Jasic workers reported their grievances to the district trade union council, seeking to form a legal union under the framework of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) at the factory. In mid-July, workers circulated a petition to collect signatures expressing “willingness to join the Jasic union” within the factory. 89 workers signed to support the establishment of a trade union.
Afterward, leading worker activists became the targets of employer retaliation and were discredited by management, with threats, insults and job re-assignments. On July 20th, when two worker leaders arrived at work, they were stopped by factory security, after which they were beaten and illegally detained by the local police. More than twenty workers went to the police station to demand their release. They were all detained there by the police.
This sparked more demands for justice from workers and the university students who supported them, leading to the formation of a student-worker coalition. The coalition fought for the release of the detained workers and the right to set up a trade union at the Jasic factory. On the morning of August 24th, heavily armed police violently burst into the Jasic Support Group’s student accommodations, detaining all of the activists. More than fifty students from top universities, including Peking University, Renmin University and Nanjing University, as well as workers from nearby communities, were arrested.
On the evening of August 24th, the state media firm Xinhua News condemned the Jasic workers’ struggle for “creating disorderly behavior” and suggested that foreign forces were responsible for the agitation and organizing effort. The struggle ended with the local government crushing the entire effort and continuous arrests of students throughout 2018.
Despite the tragic outcome of their struggle, the Jasic workers’ demand to form their own union is of great historical importance, marking the beginning of a new era of Chinese workers’ political awakening.
For a long time, China’s workers have been excluded from forming legal unions by the Chinese union system which is under the control of the party-state as well as capital and management. In China, an independent trade union movement has failed to emerge, with workers instead tending to demand the formation of more democratic unions under the ACFTU. With the increasing development of class consciousness, more and more workers have begun to struggle for the right to organize and left-wing students have increasingly sought to unite them in struggle.
A small group of students with left-wing political ideals have chosen to renounce the privileges afforded to them by their elite schooling and enter factories to become assembly line workers. Their actions recall the early Chinese Communist radical leftist movement tradition of student-worker solidarity. Moving beyond civil society and the dominant labor NGO framework of organizing, their actions are a reminder of Mao’s mass line. The re-activation of class politics has begun to reshape labor struggles firmly in the direction of transgressing capitalism, or ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, and approaching true communism.
Back to Class Politics
In its “New Year’s Pronouncement from the Jasic Workers Support Group — Unite for Greater Victory!”, the Jasic Support Group writes:
“First of all, the young workers emerging in the Jasic struggle were well aware of the situation of the working class – at the bottom of society and under oppression. They had known the true way out for the class – unity and resistance. They had a political consciousness and demanded the political rights they deserve. . . When they raised these legitimate legal rights but were suppressed by the police authority, they dared to confront the violent machine positively and showed a fearless spirit of struggle.
Secondly, the Jasic struggle is a great union of left-wing forces and a great union of social justice forces. New workers, left-wing students, old workers, veteran comrades, public welfare workers, labor activists, and all those who support workers’ rights not only verbally but also in action were united in this struggle. . .”
To Jasic organizers, both workers and students, all human history, extending into the present, is the history of class struggle. While class politics was the most fundamental form of politics constituting socialist transformation in Maoist China, it has been entirely suppressed along with the denunciation of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s politics.
Reform and the opening up of China represented a fusion with global capitalism as well as a betrayal of the socialist past. In the intervening forty years of post-socialist transformation, China has become the “workshop of the world” with a working class that now comprises more than 280 million peasant-workers, 90 million laid-off state-enterprise workers and millions of university graduates. The notion of China as ‘workshop of the world’ describes not only the huge capacity of China for global production but also the tendency of global capitalism, through expanded reproduction, to subsume the social life of non-capitalist nations within the dynamics of globalization.
The trade war between China and the US has led to deepening contradictions between labor and capital in China. The impact on the Chinese working class has been entirely neglected by the Chinese state while the trade war has escalated on all fronts. The primary impacts on Chinese workers are twofold. First, sanctions against Chinese manufacturing by the US have squeezed workers’ wages and even their jobs. Second, the buying of American agricultural products hurts Chinese agriculture and the livelihood of the Chinese peasantry. The Chinese working class is thus the first to be sacrificed. The economic slowdown, closing of factories and moving of jobs to Southeast Asia generate wider social inequality and deeper capital-labor conflicts.
All of this has led Chinese workers to begin to recognize that, in the face of powerful structures of vested interests, such as competition among nations, GDP supremacy and the collusion between business and government, no one in power will really care about workers unless they are able to get organized, form unions that truly belong to them, defend their legal rights, and make themselves heard.
The ideal of communism has largely vanished, but not the struggle for it. This is the historical origin of the Jasic struggle, manifested in the form of student-worker unity, which challenges the ideological justification of Xi’s self-proclaimed “socialist” regime. The return to class politics, to communism and to Mao’s mass line have laid the foundation of the left movement of workers and students that is burgeoning in China.
Pun Ngai is a Professor of Sociology at The University of Hong Kong.
Image Wikimedia Commons “Jasic Incident” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).