Challenge for Xi Jinping to rein in rising workers' activism as China's economy slows

As economic forecasts have turned more sober, Mr Xi has sought to defuse tensions by urging companies to pay salaries for low-income workers on time. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Factory workers across China are staging sit-ins, demanding unpaid wages for "blood and sweat". Taxi drivers are surrounding government offices to call for better treatment. Construction workers are threatening to jump from buildings if they don't get paid.

With economic growth in China weakening to its slowest pace in nearly three decades, thousands of Chinese workers are holding small-scale protests and strikes to fight efforts by businesses to withhold compensation and cut hours.

The authorities have responded with a sustained campaign to rein in the protests, and most recently detained several prominent activists in the southern city of Shenzhen late last month.

Such protests are a glaring example of the challenges the sharp economic slowdown poses to China's top leader, President Xi Jinping, who has aggressively promoted the "Chinese dream", his signature vision of greater wealth and a fairer society.

As Chinese families gather this week to celebrate Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the year in China, many workers say they are struggling to pay basic expenses like food and rent.

"Nobody cares about us anymore," said Mr Zhou Liang, 46, who took part in a protest last month in Shenzhen outside an electronics factory that he says owes him more than US$3,000 (S$4,065).

"I sacrificed my health for the company," he said, "and now I can't afford to buy even a bag of rice."

China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group in Hong Kong that tracks protests, recorded at least 1,700 labour disputes last year, up from about 1,200 the year before. Those figures represent only a fraction of disputes across China, since many conflicts go unreported and Mr Xi has intensified censorship.

The authorities have detained more than 150 people since August, a sharp increase from previous years, including teachers, taxi drivers, construction workers and leftist students leading a campaign against factory abuses.

The unrest puts the ruling Communist Party in an uncomfortable position. Since the days of Mao Zedong, the party has staked its reputation on protecting everyday workers, but increasingly, many are blaming party officials for not doing more to defend their rights.

As protests have multiplied, Mr Xi, China's most powerful leader since Mao, has sought to reassure workers that he understands their plight.

"You are the most diligent, like diligent bees, travelling here and there and being exposed to the sun and rain," he said last Friday (Feb 1) as he ventured into the streets of Beijing to wish delivery workers a happy new year, a photo opportunity that was heavily featured in the state-run media. "It's not easy."

But experts warn that public trust in the party and Mr Xi's "Chinese dream" could suffer if he does not do more to help workers.

"If teachers refuse to work, truck drivers stop delivering goods, construction workers stop building infrastructure, it will be hard to chase dreams," said Ms Diana Fu, an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto.

The unrest has also affected newer industries, including companies that provide food delivery and ride-sharing services, as workers complain of backbreaking schedules and low pay.

Mr Xi, who rose to power in 2012, faces a variety of headwinds that are complicating his efforts to manage a smooth transition to a high-tech economy. Consumer and business confidence is falling, the housing market is sputtering, and a trade dispute with the United States is dragging on.

The government says the economy grew by 6.6 per cent last year, the weakest pace of growth since 1990. Many experts, noting problems like declining property sales and sluggish factory activity, say the actual rate may be even lower.

As economic forecasts have turned more sober, Mr Xi has sought to defuse tensions by urging companies to pay salaries for low-income workers on time. The State Council, China's Cabinet, says it wants to eliminate wage arrears by next year.

Labour protests in China are common, and to avoid protracted conflicts, local officials often put pressure on businesses to settle disputes. But companies may be more unwilling - or unable - to do so now, as they struggle to find money.

Mr Xi has expanded the party's oversight of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the party-controlled organ that is supposed to mediate disputes for its more than 300 million members but often sides with management.

He has also dismantled non-profit labour advocacy groups, which in the past provided advice to workers and helped with collective bargaining.

In a crackdown in Shenzhen in late January, the authorities detained five veteran labour rights advocates and accused them of "disturbing public order", a vague charge the party often uses against its critics.

Now, with no independent unions, courts or news outlets to turn to, some workers are resorting to extreme measures to settle disputes.

Mr Wang Xiao, 33, a construction worker, grew tired of lobbying his bosses for more than US$2,000 in unpaid wages for a project in the eastern province of Shandong. So last week he turned to social media, threatening to jump off the headquarters of the company overseeing the project.

"If I get to the roof of the building and make a scene, then the money will be given to me more quickly," he said. (Mr Wang did not carry out his threat.)

Despite the restrictions, activists have had some success in organising protests across provincial lines, often with the help of social media. Crane operators across China coordinated a Labour Day strike last year that involved tens of thousands of workers from at least 10 provinces.

But at a time of economic uncertainty and rising tensions with the West, Mr Xi has emphasised social stability above all else. At a meeting on "risk prevention" last month, he called on provincial leaders and senior officials to redouble efforts to expand ideological and social control.

Mr Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for China Labour Bulletin, said the country's leaders were "taking a much more stringent approach to making sure that large-scale protests don't happen again".

Chinese leaders see labour unrest as a potential political threat and are particularly sensitive to demonstrations because this year is the 30th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square.

Mr Xi has particularly sought to suppress a resurgence of labour activism on college campuses, including a high-profile campaign for workers' rights led by young communists at elite universities.

The activists have used the teachings of Mao and Marx to argue that China's embrace of capitalism has exploited workers. Last summer, they tried to help workers in southern China organise an independent labour union, saying that corrupt local officials were colluding with managers to abuse workers.

The authorities have repeatedly tried to quash the protests, leading to the disappearances and detentions of more than 50 people associated with the campaign.

The authorities have responded so forcefully to the young communists, in part because their demands are ideological, not material, said Prof Fu, who has studied unrest in China.

"To the government, calling out the party for not being Marxist is like children openly denouncing their birth parents," she said. "It is seen as outright defiance and rejection of the state-led socialism."

But most workers are less focused on challenging the party than they are on trying to make ends meet.

Mr Song Zuhe, 50, who packages ceramic tiles at a ceramic tile factory in southern China, says he is owed US$1,500 in back pay and has not received a pay cheque in three months.

Mr Song worries that he will not be able to pay medical bills for his wife or support his son. He recently posted on social media a poem he had written about his predicament:

Work is hard and work is exhausting,
I don't have money to pay my way home,
My life as a labourer is bitter.

This year, when Mr Song returned to his hometown in south-western China to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family, they sat down to a small dinner of chicken and vegetables.

"My burden is heavy," he said. "It's very tough."

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