Even though a strike at a Honda factory and suicides at Foxconn garnered world wide attention and led to significant pay increases, at this remove, the hubub about them seemed overdone (“China faces wave of strikes after Foxconn pay rise“). China is still very much an authoritarian country, the Honda strike was approved officially, and using suicides as a route to get wage increases is not a model that will get widespread traction. Perhaps more important, both companies were foreign, which also raises the question of whether one can generalize from these cases.
The New York Times offers the other side of the coin: the futility of labor action against entities near and dear to the officialdom. One would have to imagine that state-owned banks hold a particularly favored position. Former bank staff, typically middle aged, fired in downsizing efforts, are virtually unemployable in China. Over the last two years, these workers have found their protests met with fierce opposition. From the New York Times:
….these unlikely agitators — conservatively attired but fiercely determined — have staged… public protests in Beijing and provincial cities. They have stormed branch offices to mount sit-ins. A few of the more foolhardy have met at Tiananmen Square to distribute fliers before plainclothes police officers snatched them away…
According to one organizer, a scrappy former bank teller named Wu Lijuan, there are at least 70,000 people seeking to regain their old jobs or receive monetary compensation, a sizable wedge of the 400,000 who were laid off during a decade-long purge….
For a government determined to maintain social harmony, the protests and petitioning are vexing. Compared with farmers angry over seized land or retired soldiers seeking fatter pensions, the bank workers — educated, organized and knowledgeable about the Internet — are better equipped to outsmart the public security agents constantly on their trail.
“What the government fears most are people capable of organizing, and the bank workers have discovered their power,” said Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “The sad thing is that they’re not going to succeed because the more organized you are, the more harsh the government’s reaction.”
Protest organizers are often thrown in “black jails” — extrajudicial holding pens — where they are sometimes beaten before local police officers arrive to take them back home. The recalcitrant and unrepentant sometimes end up in labor camps, where they can spend up to three years without being prosecuted for a crime….
Even if their numbers are smaller, the former bank employees are not unlike the millions of factory workers shed during the effort to restructure inefficient state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s. In the years that followed, they, too, clamored for redress but were eventually silenced.