Out of the two banners unfurled during the one-man protest in Beijing, just days before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) began, was one with a call for strikes by students and workers. While this draws images of Tiananmen 1989, it needs to be underlined that strikes are illegal under Chinese laws and regulations — it has continued to remain so, despite a raft of pro-labour legislation in the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era. By adopting the legal route, the Party-State managed to individualise labour conflicts, but continued to deny any collective rights for workers.
Exit Labour’s Social Character
A laissez-faire approach to labour has been salient in Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’. It has more or less continued to remain so in the political report at the 20th Congress. In fact, as has been with other aspects in the report, there has also been continuity with regard to labour. Xi’s vision for labour is purely from the view of prioritising development, and for the upgrade of human capital for higher productivity.
He envisages the cultivation of a large workforce of high quality talent — talent managed by the CPC, and encouraging the talent to love the party — possessing integrity, and professional competence. Thus, on display is the Party-State’s very calculated relationship with labour that is rooted purely in the extraction of value. Solely emphasising on productive capacities and, therefore, asking workers to fully immerse themselves in the national mission of development, the CPC has strived to debase labour of its social character.
This approach is visible even in Xi’s much-vaunted ‘Common Prosperity’ campaign, as also in his political report at the 19th Congress in 2017, wherein he set the goals to “build an educated, skilled, and innovative workforce, foster respect for model workers, promote quality workmanship, and see that taking pride in labour becomes a social norm and seeking excellence is valued as a good work ethic”.
Shrinking State Support, Expanding Moral Education
Labour mostly figures in Section IX of the report, which deals with people’s well-being, and quality of life. It has been fitted into the rubric of Common Prosperity, and flows from Xi’s formulations last year. Even here, the overwhelming concern is that of employment, rather than about labour conditions or protection standards.
On top of that, there is a strong moral education imparted by Xi, in the constant espousal of the need for hard work for better life. In fact, this aligns with many of his earlier speeches. Academic and scholar Mary Elizabeth Gallagher has termed it as ‘Bootstrapped Common Prosperity’. In essence, what is visible is the non-intervention by the State in terms of redistribution or welfare support by it. Rather, the Party-State has chosen to abdicate its responsibility in instituting workers-centric reforms at a systemic-level.
There has been an indication of protection and regulation in new forms of labour, which refers to the gig economy that has been a big source of employment in urban China. For instance, the food delivery workers who were among the lifelines during stringent lockdowns under Xi’s Zero Covid strategy are surrounded by precarity in spite of the valorised narratives.
Another aspect that finds mention is the call for eliminating discriminations — to be read as gender-based — undermining equal employment. Given China has done away with the One-Child policy, this is also possibly in line with measures encouraging more births in light of the country’s demographic challenge. Interestingly, unlike previous reports, reforms to the hukou system (urban registration) that restricts mobility is absent in this report. Big cities in China have constantly pushed back against any easing of hukou norms, to provide greater access to migrant workers.
Overall, most of the points on labour — as also on welfare — seem to be a re-packaging of Xi’s earlier speeches, and reports. There is nothing entirely new in his statements and formulations in this political report. In line with his endeavour for the party to permeate all levels of society, Xi has pointed to the need for party building in the gig economy, along the need to attract migrant workers into the party fold. While there were about 24 migrant workers as delegates at the 20th Congress, it is difficult to imagine the Party-State allowing any kind of social mobilisation to emerge. Rather, under Xi, the crackdown on labour activists, their support groups, and labour NGOs have only intensified.