May Day in China: government glorifies the rich, workers protest inequality

By John Chan
8 May 2002

May Day highlighted the unbridgeable gulf between the Stalinist regime in Beijing and the working class. While the official celebrations extolled the success and wealth of China’s new capitalist elite, workers in the north-eastern provinces used the May 1 holiday to renew their protests against the inequality and unemployment produced by the pro-market measures.

Hong Kong’s Chinese-language daily Singtao reported a May Day protest in Liaoyang, the capital of Liaoning province, where layoffs have led to unemployment of over 25 percent. In a phone interview, a worker stated that some 800 workers defied the threat of arrest and rallied outside local government offices to demand the release of four men who were detained during mass demonstrations in March.

The four prisoners—Yao Fuxin, Xiao Yunliang, Pang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming—are former employees of the bankrupted state-owned Liaoyang Ferro-alloy Factory, which was closed last October at the cost of 5,000 jobs. They have been charged with leading “illegal gatherings” for their role in organising the March protests in Liaoyang, which demanded the government immediately pay outstanding wages, pensions and benefits and address the poverty of laid-off workers. Yao Fuxin’s arrest on March 17 provoked several days of militant demonstrations by tens of thousands of workers demanding his release. Xiao, Pang and Wang were seized during a clash between workers and police on March 19.

The local authorities had guaranteed they would be released if workers ceased their protests. Instead, they now face prison terms and the police are continuing to hunt for other leaders. A fifth man, Gu Baoshu, was arrested in early April but released. A relative of Yao Fuxin hinted at the repressive atmosphere in the city. “It is inconvenient to say too much,” he told Hong Kong reporters by phone. Yao’s wife commented that the official May Day holiday meant little to workers in the city without the release of the detained leaders.

Singtao reported on a May Day demonstration in Fushun, a coal mining region of Liaoning province where laid-off miners blockaded roads and railways in mid-March over inadequate redundancy payments. Fushun officials told the paper that workers had protested outside the city government buildings. Others sources reported to Singtao that “several thousand” took part, demanding the authorities address the “difficult livelihood” of the unemployed.

Hong Kong newspapers reported that several thousand workers took part in a May Day protest in the Daqing oilfields of the northern province of Heilongjiang. The Daqing oilfield Administrative Bureau has denied any demonstration took place. Media attempts to confirm the protests by telephone were allegedly interfered with. Workers in Daqing engaged in a series of mass demonstrations in March, with up to 50,000 laid-off oilfield workers rallying against changes to their redundancy agreement that would drive them deeper into poverty.

Beijing’s May Day

For the millions of workers across China suffering deprivation and hardship as a result of Beijing’s free market policies, the official May Day celebrations could only have heightened their disaffection with the regime. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) awarded its annual Labor Medal to four entrepreneurs and honoured 17 businessmen as “model workers”.

In the past, the Labor Medal was given to workers who, for one reason or another, could be exploited for propaganda purposes to boost the regime’s claim to be building “socialism in China”. Among those previously awarded medals were workers in Daqing, who endured freezing temperatures and brutal working conditions to develop the region’s oilfields and provide the energy needed for the industrialisation of the country.

After more than 20 years of free market restructuring, however, Beijing openly maintains that those who contribute to China’s prosperity are not workers, but business owners. Guo Jiaxue, one of the entrepreneurs named as a “model worker”, told the state Xinhua newsagency: “It shows that as a new social rank, our strong desire for social honour and political kudos has been recognised by the state.”

The May Day “model worker” awards are part of a broader campaign to elevate the emerging Chinese capitalist class. In 1999, the right to own and inherit private property was formally recognised in the constitution of the Peoples Republic and last year President Jiang Zemin launched a campaign to change the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitution to allow business owners to become members. Under conditions where masses of workers and the rural poor view the regime with hostility, Beijing is attempting to consolidate a base of support among the capitalist elite and the urban middle class of professionals, small businessmen and state functionaries.

Ideologically, the elevation of property, wealth and inequality by a state that still claims to be “communist” is being justified in the crudest fashion. A recent study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which is supervised by the CCP Central Committee Politburo, declared the Marxist theory of class struggle was “no longer applicable” to Chinese society due to the development of “a middle class”. Lu Xuoyi, a CASS sociologist, told the Inter Press Service on May 3: “We see the formation of a middle class society in China and the old class models can’t illustrate this new, more complicated stratification of the society.”

The argument that the growth of a middle class refutes the class struggle has been the stock-in-trade of every anti-Marxist for well over a century—generally advanced in times of relative prosperity to justify the nostrums of reformism. Applied to contemporary China, it is absurd. The most visible process over the past 20 years of free market “opening up” has not been the emergence of a middle class. It has been the transformation of millions of peasant producers into brutally exploited wage workers for transnational corporations and the devastation of the living standards of workers dependent on the state-owned industries.

As a result, class antagonisms have reached fever-pitch. A report published by Amnesty International on April 30 noted: “Protests by angry [Chinese] workers over layoffs, wage arrears, poor working conditions, and management corruption have been met with repression and force. Clashes between workers and armed police have resulted in casualties and arrests. Such demonstrations are often unreported as local authorities attempt to conceal the severity or extent of the protests.”

The conflict will only intensify as the economic restructuring continues. Competition from imported agricultural products, following China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, is predicted to drive 20 million small farmers bankrupt. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security issued a warning on April 29 that official urban unemployment is likely to triple from 6.81 million to over 20 million within four years due to layoffs. This figure does not include 40 million xiagang (laid-off) workers from former state-owned companies or the estimated 150 million “surplus” workers in rural areas.

The working class and the pro-capitalist regime in Beijing are on a collision course. As a laid-off worker, Liu Wei, told the Inter Press Service: “We no longer love each other [workers and the CCP]. The Communist Party courts only those who have money and pay high taxes.”