The story, which has not received a huge amount of interest in the Western media, revolves around a huge strike which is going on in the provinces of Guangdong (China’s economic heartland) and Jiangxi. The factories where the strikes are taking place produce shoes for companies like Adidas and Nike, and overall around 30,000 workers have downed tools in a dispute over unpaid wages and fears that the factory will soon shut down and they will be left without social assistance. Riot police have been sent out, and there are stories of workers being arrested or injured, although not in large numbers so far.
Whatever the final outcome, the strike demonstrates the increasing tension between the miraculous economic growth of China in the past twenty years and the low labour standards and wages that have helped to achieve it. China now finds itself at a crucial crossroads of development, as it transitions from being a low income country, where people are happy to be paid a small amount of money in exchange for the security of having a job; to being a middle income country, where people demand more benefits and higher wages in order to take part in the consumer spending that has fuelled China’s growth on the world stage.
The issue of how China deals with the strike will go some way to determining the future – will they go the ‘Tiananmen Square route’ and violently suppress the strikers? Or will they be able to find a new way out this time, twenty-five years on from that terrible setback to democracy, and encourage worker participation in political and economic life?
These struggles and tensions are not just being played out in the relatively rich areas of Guangdong and Jiangxi, but also in the remoter provinces with higher minority populations. After the knife attack in Kunming station a few months ago, another attack by Uyghur seperatists has just taken place, with a bomb exploding in a train station in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang province. After the Kunming attack we talked of the need for China to balance economic development in the prosperous east with the cultural and economic demands of the western minorities, and that struggle continues – China must respond primarily with economic and social policies, rather than trying to repress disgruntled Uyghurs (or Tibetans, or Mongolians, and so on…).
Modern China is a fascinating country, and one which we should all be keeping a close eye on. They are currently walking a policy tightrope. If they can find the right solutions to keep themselves balanced, they will continue to pull people out of poverty at a speed that has never before been achieved in human history. If they get things wrong – well, it will not just be China that fares worse because of it. Instead, we will all be the poorer.