Michelle Chen

A New Internationalism: Hong Kong protesters and militant Chinese workers

A New Internationalism: Hong Kong protesters and militant Chinese workers
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by Michelle Chen

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, OrgUp editors Calvin Cheung-Miaw and Max Elbaum published an article at In These Times on U.S.-China relations. We invited several thinkers and activists to respond. In the following article, originally posted at In These Times, labor historian and journalist Michelle Chen provides her perspective on a path forward.

Just as the “Made in China” label insinuated itself into our retail stores in the 1980s, China today insinuates itself into most of our mainstream news coverage, as one of the largest global markets, the top carbon emitter, the biggest workforce, and the biggest geopolitical rival to the United States in recent memory. For Americans, seeing U.S. dominance in the headlines displaced by an upstart rival superpower can be humbling—or terrifying.

As Max Elbaum and Calvin Cheung-Miaw pointed out in a recent In These Times article, it’s hard to know what to make of China from the left: Is China Washington’s national-security boogeyman, a neoliberal dystopia or a capitalist success story? In China’s economic transformation, many moderates and conservatives see a validation of the idea that economic modernization automatically spurs social modernization. Some on the Left see a giant counterfactual of a revolution betrayed: They ask, What if the ‘socialist’ state had not embarked so dramatically on its “reform and opening up’ in the late 1980s, trading social freedoms for economic advancement and growing inequality?

But China shouldn’t be viewed by leftist observers simply within the frame of a nation-state. After all, between China and the U.S., the two most influential working classes in the world live parallel lives that are increasingly interconnected through trade, migration, and cultural and intellectual exchange.

The economic ascent of China makes both the right and the left nervous for different reasons, which often have more to do with the U.S. economy’s own insecurities than China itself. Yet the U.S. and China have much in common, including their contradictions. The ruling elite of both countries are on the same side, and workers of both nationalities are backed up against the same wall: We’re all fighting for dignity under two governments that routinely abuse their power, and wield cultural, economic and legal power to blunt their constituencies’ political consciousness.

Activism across “Greater China”

Beijing and its propaganda organs have fashioned an image of China as a seamless, stable polity with little need for democracy so long as the country continues to prosper. There’s an element of truth in this portrait of stability above all, but that political stasis has been achieved through suppression of domestic dissent and breakneck global economic expansion. At the same time, the country’s nascent activist movements have evolved on their own trajectory on the mainland and across “greater China.” 

In the past few weeks we’ve seen Beijing losing its grip on its most restive territory, as the streets of Hong Kong flooded with protesters rallying against a draconian extradition law that would give Beijing carte blanche power to render political enemies to the mainland. While Chinese on the mainland were largely kept in the dark about the protests in the territory, Hong Kong’s youth have their eyes wide open. The street demonstrations have been escalating since June, following commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre. There’s a sense, perhaps, that it’s incumbent on the youth of Hong Kong to carry on a legacy of dissent in China that those living under Beijing’s rule are not free to do. Yet they’re also responding to their material conditions, frustrated by the island’s massive inequality and dismal job prospects in an economy rapidly becoming eclipsed by its mainland cousin.

Fear of China’s political and economic dominion has also prompted the Taiwanese to assert their sovereignty despite the precarity of the island’s unresolved legal status. Though Taiwan remains politically marginalized in international politics, it has over the past two generations built a distinct identity as a pluralistic electoral democracy, and the 2014 student uprising known as the Sunflower Movement helped thwart a major trade agreement with the mainland. It recently became the first Asian country to honor same-sex marriage rights after multiple efforts in the legislature and the courts.

Although these developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan are on the periphery of “greater China,” Beijing’s reaction has been telling. The central government retreated from its support for the extradition bill following the protests, siding, at least for now, with the Hong Kong government’s decision to shelve the measure. (As of this writing, however, Hong Kong has not completely withdrawn the initiative, and Beijing has made unprecedented overtures toward deploying military force to maintain order.) But public outcry has continued, along with calls for Lam to resign. In Taiwan, Beijing has actually attempted, awkwardly, to take credit for the progressive victory on LGBTQ rights in Taiwan by painting it as part of the People’s Republic. These face-saving measures hardly signal support for genuine democracy on Beijing’s part. Nonetheless, the fact that these messages were projected both to mainlanders and the outside world reveals that Beijing is responsive to unrest at the edges of its claimed territory and anxious about maintaining legitimacy inside and outside its borders.

On the mainland, the most energetic social movements have centered on grievances over material living conditions—wage theft, eroding pensions, environmental pollution, corruption and gender inequality. While formal collective-bargaining rights remain out of reach for countless rank-and-file workers, the regularity of labor protest indicates people’s intuitive consciousness of social fairness and willingness to take direct actionon grievances. 

Labor unrest does not always have an ideological bent, and agitation against political repression does not necessarily speak to working-class grievances. But uprisings of all kinds have a mutual political synergy. Even the monstrous mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is more than a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign: The development of Western China, as a back-channel to Europe and the Middle East, through the expropriation of the region’s mineral resources is critical to China’s economic agenda. The concentration camps are the culmination of years of brutal suppression and disfranchisement of Uighur communities, undertaken in part through the social and economic dominance of the majority Han Chinese in the region. The violent enforcement of this social hierarchy was foreshadowed bylabor clashes and ethnic riotsa decade ago. Though the repressive political atmosphere provides limited channels for explicitly political forms of rebellion, quieter modes of subversion have persisted, including clandestine efforts to circumvent internet censorship, which prove that the so-called Great Firewall cannot seal off a burgeoning community of savvy “netizens.”  

Building on common struggles

What does this mean practically for progressives outside of China? Today, geopolitical barriers preclude many forms of large-scale transnational collaboration between mainland China and the U.S. There were fleeting efforts to build transnational union solidarity in the late 2000s, with a few stage-managed “high-level talks” between SEIU-affiliated Change to Win coalition and the official state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions. However, these talks were primarily public-relations exercises and failed to create a durable vehicle for labor internationalism. 

A new kind of internationalism surfaced last year, with the student-labor organizing movement that mobilized in defense of aggrieved workers at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen. The group’s militant direct actions sparked a wave of international attention, with support campaigns and petitions launched by unions in Europe, North AmericaHong Kong, Philippines, and South Korea. The scrappy campaign, led by a small cadre of students armed with Marxist slogans, showed how some organizing campaigns, particularly those that marshal the collective power of youth and rank-and-file workers, can capture international media attention and spark global labor solidarity. Similarly, subversive transnational cooperation on GitHub’s programming communities has mushroomed into a subsurface resistance campaign against oppressive working conditions for mainland coders. The world of digital labor is chipping away at the Great Firewall. How can we harness the political networks that emerge at its far edges?

And one common struggle is too big to ignore: Workers everywhere are grappling with the climate crisis, and China and the U.S. are collectively responsible for over a third of the world’s carbon emissions. Finding a way to rebuild the world’s two dominant economies in a manner that gives workers a leading role in transitioning toward a sustainable, zero-carbon future, is a social imperative for labor movements and policymakers of both nations. A promising development—Trump’s current tariff war notwithstanding—is the growth of international civil society cooperation on environmental problems, along with mutual technology transfer for renewable energy development. It is incumbent on labor and environmental advocates here to help channel such alliances into a transnational dialogue on climate justice.

There are political impulses in China that the state cannot contain, coopt or absorb. We should read this, on our end, as proof that people power persists, and that the public’s sense of social justice and equality before the law doesn’t atrophy in the absence of representative government. People act politically even in the absence of electoral democracy; they just become more creative, less reliant on legal channels to offer relief, and more passionate about taking direct action. We can remain warily optimistic that, regardless of the system of government that rules over them, workers and civil society are still the force from which even the most powerful states derive legitimacy. Beijing is bent on achieving “territorial integrity,” but for ordinary Chinese people, perhaps unity is forming along different lines: not the integrity of borders, but the integrity of freedom.

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06 Comments

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  • Carl Davidson
    Carl Davidson August 5, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    I find it odd, and wrong, to discuss the current Hong Kong situation and ignore the intrigues of the National Endowment for Democracy. the US cats’ paw. Not that the struggle is reducible to the NED. Same with the Uighurs. Not to mention the Salaafists separatists and terrorist, and the 10,000 Uighur youth sent to die for ISIS in Syria and other Mideast countries, is bizarre. We can hardly criticize (or support) consequences without mentioning the key cause.

    Both Hong Kong and Xijiang are part of China. If the aim is to break them away, we can be certain that it will not end well.

  • Steve in Wuhan
    Steve in Wuhan August 6, 2019 at 12:50 am

    I would suggest that US activists with an interest in understanding China should come and see the PRC for themselves. I also think they might familiarize themselves with the current five year plan, the work report of the 18th central committee of the CPC, and official media as well as the critical literature. Every coin has two sides.

  • Jon Liss
    Jon Liss August 16, 2019 at 6:59 pm

    First, a general orientation about US humane and military or other interventions around the world –i’m hard pressed to find any that are benign or positive. At least back to WWII it’s hard to name one.

    Second, for organizers in this country, our primary international tasks are to keep our troops and soft power mechanisms home AND to build a powerful working class movement – centered in working people of color and women. It’s always easier to comment on others organizing and power building then it is to do the real work here.

    Third, regarding this article, how does the author and / or the editorial collective view the Communist Party of China? Are their 90 million members dupes, sycophants and barely disguised capitalists? Do their collective planning and action as well as differences and debate reflect some level of participatory democracy? It’s clear from reading the dominant press NYT, Post, etc…as well as bipartisan pronouncements from Trump to Pelosi…that China is seen by the dominant class as a short and long term threat to their rule or in fancy language hegemony. .

    I’ll stop frothing at the mouth and look forward to hearing what you all think.

    • Calvin Cheung-Miaw
      Calvin Cheung-Miaw August 18, 2019 at 3:53 am

      HI Jon, thanks for your note. Regarding our view of China, did you read our initial article at In These Times? It’s here: http://inthesetimes.com/article/21799/china-united-states-trump-war-poverty-imperialism-climate-change-diplomacy
      That article expresses the view of Max and myself and deals with a little of what you mention; our editorial collective doesn’t share a particular analysis of China.

      Also, I can’t speak for Michelle in response to your points about internationalism and intervention, but just some background – she’s a labor journalist who has extensively covered the movements of the multiracial U.S. working class.

      • Jon Liss
        Jon Liss August 18, 2019 at 2:22 pm

        Thanks Calvin. The ITT piece is very good. I mostly want to avoid the errors of previous generations and not move into obscure debates about other countries and their politics.

        I get worried, however, when we start weighing in on the ‘global working class’. That can quickly become a slippery slope.

        Importantly, we need to acknowledge the climate advances of China and put the onus on the climate crisis where it belongs – on Washington and Wall Street. China, it’s people, and the Communist Party of China are clear on the climate crisis and its danger to the planet and people. They have made remarkable progress in a short time – urban mass transit,25,000 kilometers of rapid rail, extensive use of passive solar power, ‘smart’ growth, focused investment on sustainable energy, etc…are concrete manifestations of their understanding and commitment to address the crisis. We (and i’m sure we all agree) need to build a massive people’s movement to do the same. Fast, quick and in a hurry.

  • Steve in Wuhan
    Steve in Wuhan August 20, 2019 at 1:39 am

    I was in Hong Kong last month, at the same time the large mobilization was underway. It was unpleasant and unlike similar mass mobilizations I have participated in time after time in the USA. I find the city to be the apex of neoliberalism complete with neo-slavery of imported domestic workers. An article posted on the Greyzone website captures the sense I subjectively felt about the protests. https://thegrayzone.com/2019/08/17/hong-kong-protest-washington-nativism-violence/

    Another article in the same investigative vein focuses on the annual Socialism conference. I believe that all journalism reduces to polemic, but some of the points that the author of this piece might be worth considering if one is contemplating the ways, means, and whys of building a transformational mass politics in America. ttps://thegrayzone.com/2019/07/06/dsa-jacobin-iso-socialism-conference-us-funded-regime-change/

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