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Analysis and Commentary

In China, Democracy Must Begin on the Factory Floor

CLB Director Han Dongfang contributed this commentary to The World Post. Copyright remains with The World Post.

February 11, 2014

HONG KONG -- After 35 years of economic reform and development, China's Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China's new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China's state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an "iron rice bowl" that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that "iron rice bowl" has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer.

The country has gone so far to the other extreme that, if it is to maintain its legitimacy as the ruler of China, the Communist Party will once again have to make sacrifices and concessions. This time, it needs to sacrifice social control rather than economic control. Of course, the party will not permit broad political freedom in China, but it knows the only way it can create the conditions for ordinary people to share in the benefits of the much-hyped "economic miracle" is by allowing grassroots democracy to flourish. And probably the safest place for the party to start implementing grassroots democracy is on the factory floor.

China's workers have already begun the march towards workplace democracy. You just need to look at the thousands of strikes and protests by factory workers across the country to understand that China's workers will no longer accept being dictated to by the boss, nor will they accept a trade union that just keeps quiet and does nothing when their livelihoods are destroyed, as was the case during the breakup of the state-owned enterprises. Compared to 35 years ago, China's workers are willing and increasingly determined to take their future into their own hands.

Today, China's workers want the same as workers everywhere: decent pay for decent work. They want their children to get a good education and proper healthcare, and to have a decent pension when they retire. But in order to realize even these basic aspirations without having to resort to strikes and protests, China's workers need two things: firstly, the right to collectively bargain with their employer over pay, benefits and working conditions, and secondly, a democratically-elected and democratically-run trade union to back them up and really defend their interests.

Of course, China's business leaders, who have had everything their own way for the last three decades, unilaterally determining employee pay and conditions without any consultation, are obviously not going to voluntarily sit down and negotiate with their employees as equals. You can see from the recent dispute at the Nokia factory in Dongguan following the sale of the company's mobile phone business to Microsoft, even bosses from a country like Finland, where collective bargaining is a way of life, do not see the need to consult their workers in China on issues that directly affect their livelihoods. It is only when workers go out on strike that the bosses begin to listen.

Likewise, China's official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, has spent the last three decades doing virtually nothing to help the workers it is supposed to represent. This suited the party just fine during the breakup of the state-owned enterprises at the turn of the century when it needed the ACFTU to do nothing except keep the workers quiet. Today, however, in order to strengthen its political legitimacy, the party needs the trade union to be proactive and give the workers a voice.

In order to rouse the ACFTU from its slumber, China's new President Xi Jinping summoned the leaders of the ACFTU to the party headquarters of Zhongnanhai on Oct. 23, 2013 to tell them face-to-face that China's workers deserve to share in the fruits of economic development, and that it is the job of the union to help them realize their dreams. However, the union responded with its usual jargon, platitudes and archaic rhetoric while basically ignoring the issue at hand. The only "constructive" suggestion the ACFTU came up with was for senior union officials to walk out of their grand offices and spend more time with ordinary workers, "listen" to their complaints and "ask" if they have any grievances.

So far it seems that the top down pressure on the ACFTU has gentled bounced back. Encouragingly, however, workers are increasingly putting pressure on the ACFTU from below. Workers want to resolve their grievances over pay, welfare benefits and working conditions through negotiation with management, and they want their trade union to back them up. In fact, some workers have even gone so far as to demand the ouster of their union representative for failing to stand up to management bullying.

The workers are doing their job in pushing for reform of the ACFTU and have forced the union to respond -- as was the case in the dispute at the International Paper factory in Guangzhou last year, the Hengbao Jewellery factory in the same city, and even in the Maoist heartland of Yan'an, where workers at a state-owned enterprise forced the union to intercede on their behalf.

Now it is the turn of Xi Jinping and his senior party colleagues to join the workers in making that sure China does indeed get a real trade union. For the sake of China's workers, for the sake of the Chinese economy, and for the sake of their own legitimacy, we believe that China's leaders will do just that.