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The Fourth Plenum and the Chinese Labour Movement

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In late October 2014 the fourth plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China (CCP) Congress took place in Beijing. Traditionally, each Party Congress lasts for five years, during which the more than 370 members of the party's Central Committee meet for seven major sessions to discuss party business, assign roles and make plans for the future. The first two plena deal primarily with positions and offices in the Party and Party committees in the major urban areas and in the regions. The third plenum generally sets priorities and goals for major economic issues. The fourth plenum often plays a significant role in directing Party governance. Historically, the fourth plenum serves as implementation session for policies decided at the previous year's third plenum and for correcting any negative influences arising from failures to follow the policies of the third plenum.

In the recent Fourth Plenum Chinese President Xi Jinping concentrated on the "rule of law" within China. An important part of the "rule of law" is the eradication or, at least suppression, of corruption. Since the start of his anti-corruption drive in November 2012, more than forty high-level officials have been investigated and shamed. These officials include current and former municipal and provincial party secretaries and vice governors, senior government officials, and executives at state-owned enterprises. But the highest-profile politician to be caught up was China's former security chief and Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. In July, the CCP officially accused the former head of security forces of "serious disciplinary violations". The Zhou case wasn't actually raised at the plenum because Zhou had already quit his party posts but the anticipation of action against him emphasised the party's push to adopt the rule of law as a cornerstone of national governance as the best way to provide institutional support to battles against corruption and embezzlement.[i]

While there are many other aspects to the reform of the Party and its workings, an important beneficiary of the Fourth Plenum's emphasis on the "rule of law" will be the Chinese labour movement. An important factor in this is that the interests of the Chinese labour movement and the thrust of the policies of the Chinese President Xi Jinping towards removing corruption and making more transparent the workings of the Party in the economy tend to overlap. Despite the waves of strikes, sit-ins and protests by labour across China in recent years, these industrial actions have been largely based on economic problems and have not manifested themselves as a rejection of the CCP but rather as a protest against the inability of the CCP to live up to the standards it says are the core of its policies. By moving towards a "rule of law" there is scope for co-operation between the official state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the numerous smaller union structures outside the aegis of the ACFTU. Recent legislation has promoted this and there have been important steps made in enforcing this new legislation. However, like everything else in China it is important to understand the history of how today's structures have been created.

Background to Chinese Labour

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Chinese workers were first exploited by the survival of feudal practices in the rural economies, which frequently led to the deaths of millions of Chinese through starvation and ill health; by the rise of weak imperial dynasty states in which military warlords took over real power; by the invasions and demands for concessions and reparations by foreign powers; by the concomitant rise of an urban proletariat in China's cities, which fell under the influence of parasitical organised criminal Triads; by the brutal occupation of the country by the Japanese military; by a brutal civil war that pitted the Kuomintang against the Communist Party; and by the consistent betrayal of a long history of peasant revolts that were finally subsumed by the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Communist Party of China drew its strength from the urban working class in such large cities as Shanghai and Canton. In these cities there was an urban proletariat that had settled permanently and worked in ports, transport hubs, construction, and an increasing number of administrative jobs. Sun Yat-sen and his troops played an instrumental role in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. After the success of the Double Ten Revolution he became the first president of the Provisional Republic of China, in 1912, and then founded the Kuomintang, serving as its first leader. He was succeeded by Chiang Kai-Shek, who led the Kuomintang into a close relationship with the Bolsheviks.

It was a little ironic that the first trade-union bodies to fall under the almost complete control of the political forces were the urban unions of China, especially in Shanghai. In China, after the republican revolution of 1911, trades unions began to form among the urban masses of China's large cities.

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With the formation of the Comintern, numerous foreign unionists were sent to China to help strengthen the nascent Chinese communist unions and parties. Mikhail Borodin's famous mission was only one of a large number of Comintern missions. Nonetheless, power still remained firmly in the hands of the local warlords whose min t'uan (private armies) controlled much of the rural areas.

By far the most important development emerged in 1923 when workers, students and peasants began to form national parties. Among the first was the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. The other major party was the Kung Ch 'antang, the Communist Party. Interestingly the Kuomintang found a close ally in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which sent down instructors and advisers to shape the Kuomintang into a disciplined Bolshevik party.

No sooner had the party formed and become organised than the Soviets demanded that the notional Communist Party, Kung Ch'antang, merge itself into the Kuomintang. In the meantime, the Kuomintang became a model in miniature of the Bolshevik party. The Soviets sent advisers to instil communism in the military forces and set up the Whampoa Military Academy. The Russians shipped in arms and instructors to bolster the Kuomintang forces. The Kung Ch'antang remained a left faction within Kuomintang and worked to strengthen the Kuomintang on Moscow's orders.

The Chinese communists were successful in recruiting the urban workers of Canton and Shanghai and were able to set up communist-led peasant organisations in Hunan. They built strong unions among the railroad workers and miners in Hunan and, through their control over the Independent Division of the Fourth Army in Hunan, were able to control the industrialised areas east of Changsha.

The leadership of the Kuomintang devolved on the director of the Whampoa Military Academy and the hero of the northern campaign, Chiang Kai-shek. Having won control of Canton he began a march on Shanghai. In support of the Kuomintang the workers in the communist unions of Shanghai began a series of major strikes. At the height of this demonstration more than half a million workers went out on strike in Shanghai, backed by an armed workers' militia of more than five thousand.

On 26 March 1927 Chiang Kai-shek marched into Shanghai, welcomed by the striking workers as their liberator. Chiang had barely been in the city for a few days when he contacted the leaders of the compradors and the notorious Green Gang to make a deal with them. Allied with these forces, Chiang began a purge of all the communists, especially the unionists.

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On 12 April 1927 he and the local gangs turned their forces on the communists in the unions. More than five thousand communists lost their lives. When the strikes ended in May, communist control had been wrenched from the unions by the Kuomintang. A brief attempt at an urban uprising based on the unions in the 1930s was ruthlessly put down by the Kuomintang. The Soviets had succeeded in creating a Kuomintang, which had devoured the local communist party.

It was Trotsky, in fact, who had warned of the dangers involved in making the communists join the Kuomintang. He wrote that 'the policy of a shackled Communist Party serving as a recruiting agent to bring the workers into the Kuomintang is preparation for the successful establishment of a Fascist dictatorship in China'. He was not wrong. The Kuomintang set about obliterating the communists, driving them from the cities to their stronghold in Hunan.

The Chinese communists, led by the son of a wealthy Hunanese peasant, Mao Tse-tung, adopted these lessons to the communist struggle in China. He decreed that the peasantry (not the workers) should form the basis of the revolution. Only after the peasant revolution would there be a need for control of the urban masses. In addition to making a virtue of necessity, this line abandoned the unions in the cities to the less than tender mercies of the Kuomintang.

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Dr. Gary K. Busch has had a varied career-as an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political intelligence consultant. He was a professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii and has been a visiting (more...)

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