World

The future is hidden within these realities

Read selected translation from Factory Stories about Chinese migrant workers. At times, the style is a bit flat, but this is an accurate presentation of the quotidian: most of workers’ lives are consumed by the daily grind, only occasionally punctuated by collective acts of rebellion.

For all the English writings about Chinese migrant workers, only rarely have those workers’ own words been translated directly.

Usually, these stories are available only in brief passages cited as evidence to support someone else’s agenda. In contrast, a vast body of nongmingong[1] narratives has accumulated in Chinese, mainly compiled by academics and journalists, as well as a few labor activists.  A group called Gongchao took the initiative of translating some of these narratives into German and other European languages starting in 2008, but English translators have been slow to catch up. Last year, Gongchao began translating narratives from the independent nongmingong magazine Factory Stories (Gongchang Longmenzhen) into English, giving us permission to publish four selections here.[2] By the time this issue of Chuang goes to print, the first book-length translation of nongmingong strike narratives—collected by the Factory Stories group— will have been published by Haymarket Press: China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance, edited by Hao Ren, Eli Friedman and Zhongjin Li.[3]

Longmenzhen means “chatting” or “vivid stories” in Sichuanese. Hao Ren, the Sichuan native who edited the Chinese version of China on Strike, played a central role in starting the Longmenzhen group, the participants of which all work or used to work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta. After work or during holidays, they have been documenting and disseminating the stories of nongmingong who work day and night to fuel the Chinese growth engine, exposing its shadows and their denizens’ “vivid stories.”

Longmenzhen’s members all grew up during China’s integration into global capitalism in the 1990s. Workers from state-owned enterprises were laid off after privatisation, and a rising number of peasants had to leave their villages to make a living in faraway factories. The latter is particularly evident in the Pearl River Delta, where private and foreign-invested factories were first established. Though the group members were each politicised in their own ways, they are all concerned with labor rights and resistance as an integral part of factory life. Most became interested in labour issues during university, some getting jobs with labor NGOs after graduation, while others had no interest in NGOs and went straight for factory jobs. After leaving the NGO world in 2010,[4] they took a variety of factory jobs throughout coastal China. After thirty years of market reform, many economists had hailed rising productivity, while leftists often expressed sympathy for the suffering of workers. But the Longmenzhen group was frustrated by the absence of workers’ own narratives and analyses of factory life.

A worker supervises a power loom weaving denim to be used to manufacture blue jeans in LSH textile company, in Xintang, Guangdong province, China, on February 9, 2012. Photo by Lucas Schifres/Pictobank

Since then the Longmenzhen group has been doing factory observations and worker interviews in order to systematically record and analyse the various methods capital uses to exploit, deceive and control workers. At the same time, they have looked at how workers have resisted these pressures, focusing on the lessons to be drawn from past experiences, whether success or failure. In many cases, they were not just interviewing striking workers, but also participating in collective struggles alongside them.

In addition to interviewing workers, the Longmenzhen group has organized reading circles, translated foreign pamphlets and established international exchanges (unusual in Chinese labour activist and leftist circles, which tend to be rather insular). In 2011 some members attended the fourth international assembly of ILPS (International League of Peoples’ Struggle) in the Philippines. There they had the opportunity to exchange experiences with local labour activists regarding working conditions, resistance to factory closures and working-class solidarity across borders. The following year they visited other parts of the Philippines and continued discussion about the economic context of worker resistance and its global implications. Based on information collected at this time, they wrote a book called Labour Movement in the Philippines: Past and Present, introducing historical examples of the movement and their lessons for Chinese workers.

In addition to the Philippines book and China on Strike, the Longmenzhen group has published eight issues of the magazine Factory Stories[5] and another book called  2013: Factory Relocation and Strikes, with more writings in the works. While consciously focusing on printed media to facilitate the careful reading of in-depth material, they also maintain a blog—mainly for publicising these underground publications—and individual members use other online platforms to publish briefer texts about ongoing struggles.

The politics espoused in these writings are quite rare in China. Certainly there has been significant discussion of labour issues from left perspectives online and in print. But much of the leftist writing in China is nationalistic and nostalgic, aimed at glorifying an imagined Maoist past in which the working class was held in proper esteem. Longmenzhen narratives do not lapse into longing for a rose-tinted past, but describe in blunt terms the brutality of working under capitalist conditions. There is no need to contextualise this brutality in terms of its implications for the “China dream” or any other ethno-national project.

It is also important to note that these magazines are meant for fellow workers rather than intellectuals or NGO-type activists. This is apparent in the content and style of the writing. While strikes are a common topic for Longmenzhen, there is also fastidious coverage of the seemingly banal details of daily life for migrant workers. At times, the style is a bit flat, but this is an accurate presentation of the quotidian: most of workers’ lives are consumed by the daily grind, only occasionally punctuated by collective acts of rebellion. This presentation is oriented towards showing other workers that their seemingly individual problems are in fact social in nature. This is an effort to establish the symbolic groundwork for a collective understanding of exploitation and domination—a necessary step for proletarian politicisation, they believe.

Often the stories are not detailed reports but vague anecdotes where we seldom learn what kind of factory or even industry the author is talking about. This is not only to protect the authors, however, since it is precisely this vagueness and anonymity that give these anecdotes a universal feel. The authors often relate to specific situations as mere moments of abstract labour, drawing a picture of general conditions rather than giving details. If didacticism is one of their motives, then summing up an image of an abstract factory by relating common denominators of migrant workers’ lives could be understood as the teaching method.

CC, Wikimedia Commons

But central to Longmenzhen’s project is also a chronicling of workers’ resistance. The intent behind such meticulous accounts is twofold: First, it serves to reaffirm the worthiness of such struggles. By committing these stories to paper, they may come to be seen by other workers as something worth emulating. While not necessarily exalting struggles that, it must be acknowledged, do not always succeed, they can serve as inspiration to others with similar grievances. Secondly, these publications are didactic in intent. Detailed strike accounts give workers some sense of what to expect during the course of collective action, how bosses and the police may respond, and what workers can do to increase their chances of victory. While most workers, particularly in the Pearl River Delta, have heard stories about strikes, the editors of the magazine have curated a set of case studies with the clear intent of inspiring further class struggle.

This effort has not been without its challenges, and the Longmenzhen group has been in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. A simple empirical account of life in China’s workplaces is considered politically sensitive—a strong indication of the Chinese Communist Party’s current political orientation. Nonetheless, the incredible dedication and perseverance of the writers and editors has resulted in an impressive track record of publication. Given their shoestring budget and ongoing repression, circulation remains limited. But for workers who do come into contact with these publications, it can be a deeply meaningful experience.

The idea to do a translation emerged from a group of international activists based in China, and the translation itself was a global process, with people in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America volunteering their labour. If these narratives of Chinese worker strikes can in any small way contribute to furthering global proletarian solidarity and resistance, the project will have been a success.

One Day

by “I Love Cilantro” (Wo Ai Xiangcai)

Working in the factory has turned me into a robot. I live a mechanical existence. Almost every day I repeat my role in the same scenes.

The alarm clock wakes me up at exactly 7:20 in the morning. I go to the toilet, wash my face, change my clothes, no time to brush my teeth, I take my key and run straight to the factory. I get to the canteen a bit before 7:40, find a bowl, and rush to the window where they serve food. The aunty on the other side of the window serves me a bowl of porridge and a pancake about as thin as paper. This is my breakfast. Because I can’t fill my stomach, and the canteen won’t give me an extra pancake, I often buy a couple of steamed buns on the street. It’s the only way I can make it until noon.

Our workshop is on the fourth floor. We make face-masks. Each work post has a production quota, determined by specialised employees who stand behind our backs, timing us with a stopwatch. They always try to raise the quota by counting more than we actually produce. Moreover, they do this in the morning when we have the most energy, forcing us to repeat that speed for 11 hours. Otherwise we don’t reach the quota and have to do unpaid overtime. Most workers can’t meet the monthly quota. Although the management in this workshop isn’t particularly strict, and you need no special permission for a leave of absence, everyone is self-conscious. Some don’t even go to the toilet—not because they don’t need to go, but because they’re afraid they won’t meet the production quota if they do. Most people wait until they finish their work, so the toilets are always packed at the end of a shift.

Some don’t even go to the toilet—not because they don’t need to go, but because they’re afraid they won’t meet the production quota if they do. Most people wait until they finish their work, so the toilets are always packed at the end of a shift.

When it’s time for our break, the line leader gives the order to stop the line, then we queue up and wait for him to tell us when it’s OK to leave. We’re supposed to punch out one by one in an orderly fashion, but the queue tends to break up when we’re all eager to get to the canteen as quickly as possible, so the line instructors usually stand by the queue—supposedly to enforce discipline, but generally they just yell at us. By the time I finally punch out, change my overalls and shoes, and run down from the fourth floor to the canteen, it’s already packed with 200 people queued up in front of four windows. I grab a bowl, walk to the end of a queue, and then wait and wait, peeking into other people’s bowls to see what’s being served. When my turn finally comes up, I realise the dish I wanted is long gone, and all that’s left is the stuff that not only I but everyone dislikes. But I have no choice, so I take a few scoops of pickled vegetables to fill my stomach (and complain later). I often complain about the lack of decent food to my coworkers, but they blame me for running late, saying if only I hurried up there would be plenty to eat. Although I don’t argue, I’m always thinking that with a certain amount of people and a certain amount of food, it shouldn’t matter who arrives first or last; even if I came earlier, that would just mean someone else wouldn’t get to eat.

Although the food is bad, I have to eat something—I’m thinking about the five hours of work I have to do in the afternoon, so I manage to gulp it down somehow. The afternoon shift is the same as the morning one, an endless stamping of face-masks (that means welding together the mouth cover and ear straps). Eating dinner feels like eating a cloned version of lunch: everything is exactly the same. Sometimes I think my canteen fee is spent entirely on pickled vegetables—it’s not worth it, but there’s nothing I can do. Going outside to eat takes too much time, and I’m sure the street stalls are even less sanitary than the canteen. Although my coworkers sneer at hearing this, I keep hoping the canteen will improve.

After dinner, there are two more hours of overtime. This is the easiest part of the day, since we know it’s almost over, at least. As we get close to the end, everyone grows excited, as if we’re about to be “liberated.” That’s why we work really fast in the evenings and seem incredibly energetic. We’re finally done, freed, and after walking out of the factory gate, the fatigue weighing down my body unconsciously melts away into the noise of the commercial district. I also forget the repression of the shop floor, as if all that’s left is the unbearable physical exhaustion. Only then do I realise that I really spent myself in the workshop.

This is the easiest part of the day, since we know it’s almost over, at least. As we get close to the end, everyone grows excited, as if we’re about to be “liberated.”

I repeat this kind of existence day after day, on the shop floor, unable to see the sun, seldom going to the toilet even once. It goes so far that I’m afraid the sunlight will hurt my eyes! Although this is just one day, perhaps this will be my entire life as long as I’m “affirming” my labour-power in the factory.

Other stories can be found here.

[1] Literally “peasant worker,” but nowadays mainly indicating the workers’ rural hukou (household registration status). See “Gleaning the Welfare Fields” and “No Way Forward, No Way Back” in this issue.

[2] Other translations from Factory Stories can be read on the Gongchao website: <http://www.gongchao.org/en/factory-stories>.

[3] The book may be ordered here: <http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/China-on-Strike>.

[4] They became disillusioned with NGO’s approach to dealing with labor disputes on a case-by-case basis. They also wanted more opportunities to meet ordinary workers and experience everyday life in factories.

[5] All their published works can be found on < http://worker72.blog.163.com/> and <http://www.laborpoetry.com>.

***

Gongchao began translating narratives from the independent nongmingong magazine Factory Stories (Gongchang Longmenzhen). The stories were later republished on Chuangcn. This article has been published here with permission.

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