Ty Burke

They toil in China’s factories and build its modern megacities. At 280 million strong, China’s migrant workers are greater in number than the entire workforce of the European Union.

Chinese people are assigned their residency status through the Hukou system. This designates where they can legally live and receive government services. Despite reforms, these designations continue to reflect an era when China was heavily rural. As it has industrialized, tens of millions of people who were assigned residency in rural areas have moved to the city – and brought their status with them.

“Migrant workers have all sorts of problems getting basic legal rights,” says Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science and affiliated faculty at the Munk School’s Asian Institute.

“Getting their wage on time — or getting paid at all.  When they get injured, it’s very difficult to get the compensation they’re entitled to.”

Labour organizations work with them to obtain legal rights, but how exactly do you mobilize a labour movement, when collective action is strictly forbidden?

They need a different playbook, and Fu’s explores what it is in her book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China. It won multiple awards including the 2018 Gregory Luebbert Prize for Best Book in Comparative Politics from the American Political Science Association, the first time that a scholar from a Canadian institution received the award.

“When things don’t work as they’re supposed to, labour organizations can’t stage a protest,” says Fu, host of TVO’s 2018 docuseries China: Here and Now.

“Instead, they coached workers, one by one. They’d coach a worker to make a vague threat — like going to the labour bureau, or contacting a journalist.  Sometimes, workers would be coached to do a ‘suicide show’.  To climb on a dormitory, and strategically pretend they’re going to jump off, if their issue isn’t resolved.”

Even though media is tightly controlled, the spectre of bad press can be effective. These techniques leverage an existing scepticism toward local government in China.

“Local governments are in a very difficult position,” Fu says.

“They have two mandates: to grow the economy and maintain social stability. They have to partner with business, while also making sure people don’t challenge social stability. There is tension between those mandates, and it creates trouble for local officials. Many people believe they’re corrupt, and the central government is benevolent. They think that if they can make the central government aware their issue could be fixed. No government wants bad publicity. No official wants to see their name in the papers associated with the suicide of a worker who wasn’t paid.”

China’s labour organizations faced a crackdown in 2015, but during the period of Fu’s study (2009-11), small protests were part of their playbook – and social media was used to frame their actions.

“Flash protests seemed spontaneous, but were coordinated. A group would appear at a government agency to protest, but say they were random people who showed up for a cause. Sometimes, they’d hold a sign for a few minutes, take photos, then disband. It wouldn’t last long. They minimized disruption to minimize risk, but if their actions were posted on social media and traditional media, it would seem that their protest had lasted longer.”

Increased electronic surveillance and the growing use of facial recognition technology has made it more difficult to stage semi-covert action in China, but Fu notes that many of these tactics are widely applicable.

“There are oppressed people everywhere,” she says.  “In non-democratic settings, workers have to take a different route. My research addresses how people who don’t have the luxury of protests and demonstrations can get their voices heard.”

November 13, 2019