Brothers in Arms: The Tragedy of China and Tibet

1 04 2008

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On 6th March this year over 4,000 workers of the Casio Electronics Company’s factory in Panyu, China marched the streets and fought battles with over 1,000 riot police. The workers had come out in spontaneous protest when they realised that while they had been given a 90 yuan raise in their wages, the company had cut between 80 to 150 yaun from their bonuses and their “official” trade union had acquiesced in this daylight robbery. They did what any self respecting worker would and refused to work, came out of their factory and were marching towards the Mayor’s office. They were met by a wall of riot police and other security officers who dispersed them with baton charges in which about two dozen workers, including women, were injured.

This was no flash in the pan incident. Over the past decade and more workers, farmers and students are increasingly coming out on the streets to protest and often turning violent. Almost always, their protests are met with severe police action and an information black-out in the Chinese media which is dutifully replicated in the West’s free media.

Even with all the information control and media blackout, reports of Chinese workers, farmers and students rebelling against the depradations of capitalist restoration are already available. There are internet sites, newspaper reports, video grabs, investigation reports which document parts of the story. They do not become front page news and need diligent searching to be discovered.

From coal miners of Wanbao, to textile workers of Xianyang, teachers in Suizhou, oilfield workers in Daqing, to ex-soldiers working in factories owned by the People’s Liberation Army, workers are rising in revolt all over China. A quick analysis shows that they are demanding better wages, to be paid on time, treatment and compensation for illness and deaths related to working conditions and improvement in their general harsh conditions of work. Naomi Klien, in her book No Logo, talks about the young women workers in shoe factories producing branded shoes which sell at fancy prices in global stores working 12 hour shifts without even a toilet break! They are supplied plastic bags in which they have to ease themselves while working continuously and at the end of the day get paid a princely sum of 17 cents ($ 0.17).

The documentary film, China’s Bamboo Scaffolds, shows disturbing visuals of the living and working conditions of construction workers building the “new Beijing” for the upcoming Olympics a few kilometres from the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party. One worker complained of nine months wages they all had not been paid to prevent them from having the money to go back home for the spring festival and thus disrupt work schedules. Many of them informed that they were illegal migrants (Chinese citizens need a permit from the State to work outside their province) and therefore were paid less and denied benefits. But as soon as their work manager came along, someone who also happens to be the local communist party member, these workers immediately changed tune and started telling the camera how happy and proud they were to be building a new China.

It is conditions like these which are fuelling the widespread discontent and anger which is visible all over China. In 2006, it is estimated that over 85,000 incidents of “unrest”, “public disaffection” and “riot” involving over 100 people each were reported across China. That indicates that more than 10 million people came out to publically oppose the exploitation, oppression and discrimination they face under the capitalist restoration in China. In 1993, when this capitalist restoration was in its infancy, there were only 8,700 such protests all over China. Today, its not rare to find cases where 20,000 farmers take over an entire town to protest the pollution from the local factory, or 30,000 workers from a dozen factories strike in cooperation with each other over a single set of demands.

All these indicate that a veritable working class and peasant revolution is simmering in China and expending its energy in riots and localised rebellions without any political direction. Disorganised, scared of the security forces and unable to use the media to raise their issues, protesting workers end up in jail with criminal cases foisted on them. Factory managers, government officials and private capitalists get the rap only when a “public disturbance” becomes a media incident and embarrasses the State and the Party. But the global media had eyes only for Tibet. This is not to state that Tibetan demands for autonomy or independence are not important. But it is equally important to understand the politics which ignores and clamps a media blackout on massive protests in mainland China but celebrates a much smaller instance of rebellion in Tibet.

Mainland China is today the core of the world’s consumerist boom. It is at the vanguard of cheap manufacturing and the main source for sustaining the commodity fetishism of modern global capitalism. It is the heart of the material foundation of commodities which sustains the finance capitalism of the world. If China’s manufacturing machine collapses or is broken by worker strikes or peasant unrest, it has the potential of shaking the foundations of global capitalism.

It is inconceivable that Western politicians and Hollywood celebrities will ever have ethical refusals over attending China’s Olympic games to protest the exploitation and oppression of the construction workers who built the stadia and hotels. The secret of this selective sensitivity to oppression is to be found in the West’s (and particularly USA’s) acute dependance on Chinese capitalism. Therefore the oppression and exploitation of working people in mainland China will remain confined to drawing room chatter, documentary films at arty film festivals and the inner pages of newspapers and magazines. Tibet, with its colour and complete surrender to Western geo-strategic requirements, will continue to be used to attack the Chinese State and draw concessions from it in inter-imperialist negotiations.

It is often the case that national and ethnic minorities express their opposition to exploitation and oppression in terms of identity politics, as the Tibetans are doing at present, since these are perceived primarily as discrimination by the minority group. From a left perspective, I would argue that this is a less happy way of opposing exploitation, oppression and discrimination and it opens up space for chauvinism and prejudice to poison relations between working people with different identities. While many of the greviances of the Tibetans are surely justified, how can anyone justify their attacking Han Chinese or the Hui Muslim minorities in Tibet. It is also easy for such identity based opposition politics to be coopeted within the political structures of power and oppression, not by meeting the socio-economic demands of the working people of that minority group but by acceding to their cultural and religious rights.

Alone, and in opposition to the Han construction worker on a Tibetan highway project or a Hui trader, the Tibetans may get the opportunistic support of the “world” (read USA and Europe) in their struggle against Chinese oppression. But they will have strengthened the walls of mistrust and prejudice between them and the Han which the ruling classes in China and Tibet have historically nurtured and the Chinese Communist Party, in its revolutionary days, tried to break. Today the masses of Tibetan, those descendants of the serfs who were liberated from their feudal shackles by the revolutionary Chinese peasantry, need to stand shoulder to shoulder with that very Chinese peasantry and working class which is waging a bitter battle over the restoration of capitalism in China. To become pawns of the US establishment in its efforts to divide the Chinese people will be a greater tragedy for the Tibetans than anything China may have ever done in Tibet.

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This article was published in The Post, on 2 April 2008.

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4 responses

1 04 2008
Media Districts Entertainment Blog » The Chinese Context for Tibet’s Unrest

[…] Londonist: put an intriguing blog post on The Chinese Context for Tibetâs UnrestHere’s a quick excerpt […]

1 04 2008
somebody

yes, I am myself against violence. And if I know more about Tibet, I would try to understand why they went to protest and to learn how to improve their life to solve the problem peacefully.

But the western Media doesn’t care for any Chinese who is wronged, and if the western guys go to Tibet, they live in comfortable hotel rooms built against the will of the local residents. They only care for their own opinion, and because the esoteric is a nice pass time for them and Tibet a comfortable symbol for this, they are enraged if somebody dares to offend their own opinion.

2 04 2008
hollywood video

[…] on the NBC network show …http://www.nationalledger.com/artman/publish/article_272619807.shtmlThe Chinese Context for Tibet??s Unrest . On 6th March this year over 4,000 workers of the Casio Electronics Company??s factory in Panyu, […]

17 04 2008
Nirmalya

Makes sense.

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