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China cracks down on workers’ centres

While the world’s media has been concentrating on the trial of Gu Kailai for the murder of her “business” partner Neil Heywood, a crackdown of a different sort has been underway in the southern province of Guangdong. Peter Main writes

In the last five months, seven NGOs that provide advice and support for workers have had their offices closed and activists intimidated.

The first was the Spring Breeze Labour Disputes Service in Shenzhen. In February, despite a recently agreed contract and three years’ rent paid upfront, the landlord removed their signboard and cut off the water and electricity. In April, workers at the Dagongzhe Centre complained of intimidation by the authorities. Police broke up their May Day protest and in June they were closed.

Chen Mao of the Shenzhen Migrant Workers’ Centre, which deals with some 300 individual cases per month, reported similar harassment and closure in May.

Across Guangdong province, there are about 30 such centres. They provide legal advice and assistance to migrant workers. To comply with the law, centres must either be registered with a “business supervisory unit”, regulated by the government authorities, or as private companies.

On 1 July Wang Yang, the provincial Communist Party chief, introduced new rules, supposedly to make it easier to set up new centres. Activists have been quick to point out the contrast between what the authorities say, and what they do.

The trial of Gu Kailai and the apparently contradictory behaviour of the Guangdong authorities might seem worlds apart but they are two faces of the same coin. Given China’s one party dictatorship, political conflicts, which would otherwise be reflected in the programmes of different parties, have to be fought out within the ruling party.

Gu Kailai’s case is one example of this. The details, as presented to the court, may be no more accurate than the original account of Heywood’s death: self-inflicted alcoholic poisoning. This has now been denounced as a cover up, orchestrated on behalf of Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai.

Bo came to national prominence as the Party chief in Chongqing, one of the fastest growing of all China’s cities. Chongqing had a reputation for corruption and gangsterism until Bo initiated a much-publicised clean up campaign. This combined legal proceedings with popular mobilisations around slogans condemning inequality and corruption made famous during the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s. This established his image as a radical “leftist” at a time when the ostentatious wealth of senior officials was bringing the Party into disrepute.

This reputation, coupled with a policy of providing more “social housing” in Chongqing than in many other boomtowns, put Bo in a strong position for promotion to the Politburo. In the factional jockeying ahead of November’s Party Congress, Bo represented those who want to preserve the role (and privileges) of the bureaucratic state apparatus against those who champion the growing capitalist class.

Gu’s arrest, trial and imprisonment have put her husband Bo back in his place – an indication of where the Party leadership will turn after November.

Similar factional manoeuvring lies behind the apparently contradictory treatment of the labour NGOs in Guangdong. China’s most populous province has long been at the forefront of capitalist development in China and Wang Yang is regarded as a moderniser.

The activities of the NGOs may be an irritant to employers, but not a serious threat. By allowing them a relatively free reign Wang could enhance his credentials at the expense of his Party opponents in the state-controlled trades unions.

Against this background, the clampdown on NGOs may represent a rearguard action by Wang’s rivals, who see the need to turn the unions into “negotiating partners” with sole rights to represent – and sell out – workers.

Whatever the intrigues, revolutionaries in China will oppose the clampdown on NGOs. Although restricted in what they can do, some of them advocate the establishment of factory-based rank and file controlled trade unionism.

Supporting that form of trade unionism should be at the heart of revolutionary activity across China. It is a strategic necessity that can strike at the roots of all the factions in the Party as well as at the increasing power of the capitalists.

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