China: Economy losing steam; workers losing jobs and wages

Millions face being thrown out of work in Guangdong province

Economy losing steam; workers losing jobs and wages

The global capitalist crisis has struck southern China’s export powerhouse Guangdong with the force of a super-typhoon. It is "the worst economic environment of our lives" exclaimed the chief economist of Hong Kong’s Chamber of Commerce. A domino effect of factory closures is rippling through industries such as toys, footwear, textiles and light engineering in Dongguan, Shenzhen, and other heavily industrialised cities in the Pearl River Delta. The Federation of Hong Kong Industries (whose members run their production from the delta) warns of 2.5 million job losses in the coming three months – 27,000 every single day! The same source said 20,000 Hong Kong-owned small and medium-sized enterprises could close down by the Lunar New Year (January 2009).


For years the world has marvelled at China’s spectacular growth figures, now it should prepare for spectacular figures of another sort! City leaders in Dongguan speak of a "depression" in the city of seven million people, mostly migrant sweatshop workers. Wang Zhiguang, vice chairman of the Dongguan Toy Industry Association, told Guangzhou Daily: "Of some 3,800 toy factories in Dongguan, no more than 2,000 are likely to survive the next couple of year".

Skyrocketing costs for fuel and raw materials, the Chinese currency’s rise, and shrinking export markets, have squeezed already narrow profit margins. "After the EU and the US changed the market thresholds for China-made toys, and because of recalls in 2007, our testing fees have gone up by about 25%," a toy industry spokesman said.

Several Hong Kong-owned factories have gone bust in the last week, including three run by the world’s largest toymaker Smart Union Group, which makes toys for Mattel and Hasbro. "It’s scary," engineer Zeng Yangwen, 26, who worked for Smart Union for three years, told Reuters. "The companies that folded before were small. This is the first big one to go under."

Daily protests

Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and many have taken to the streets to demand unpaid wages. Their former bosses in many cases have spirited away valuable assets and disappeared. Street protests and demonstrations at local government offices have been a daily occurrence in many townships in the region. In at least one case in Shenzhen, at the Xixian factory linked to luxury watch retailer Peace Mark, also Hong Kong-owned, more than 600 workers staged a sit-in for two days to demand their wages. More such protests are on the cards in coming weeks and months.

Exporting regions like the Pearl River Delta are the first to be hit by the crisis, as their export markets wither under the impact of the global recession, while input costs have risen, and bank credit has become tighter. This is just the first phase of what is clearly a significant industrial slowdown in China, exacerbated by the simultaneous bursting of gigantic financial bubbles in the Chinese stock market and property sector. Added to this there is of course the global capitalist crisis, which is hammering export markets and threatens new financial upheavals. Asian stock markets sank to four-year lows this week on fears that growing difficulties in China and other ’emerging markets’ will prolong the global recession. From being a possible ray of hope, China’s faltering economy is becoming another source of despair for the global capitalists.

All the above factors mean the current industrial downturn can be far more serious than China’s leaders and most commentators publicly recognise. The Beijing regime continues to reassure the public how ’basically strong’ the economy is. But in part these statements are tailored to avoid further frightening capitalist ’investors’ (speculators) – who are more inclined towards panic from the global meltdown than they are to be calmed by recent market-supporting measures from the Chinese regime and central bank.

"The slowdown in the Chinese economy so far is unexpectedly serious," Li Wei of Standard Chartered Bank told China Daily. All the main economic data now point downward. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth slowed to 9% in the third quarter, the slowest rate since during the SARS crisis of 2003, and the fifth consecutive quarter of reduced growth. All the forecasts for 2008 and 2009 are being scaled down, and several economists now warn of growth dipping below the crucial 8% level in 2009. Morgan Stanley’s latest forecast is 8.2%, while CICC predicts just 7.3%. Li Wei of Standard Chartered forecasts 7.9% in 2009 and only 7% in 2010. Anything below 8% is a recession in the Chinese context, meaning rocketing unemployment and falling living standards for broad layers of the population.

Investment slows

Investment too, a key motor of GDP growth since the start of the century, has seen a sharp slowdown. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warns that real fixed asset investment (after compensating for higher producer prices) could grow by 15% overall this year, compared to 20% growth in 2007. This poses big problems for the central government: even its monetary easing (interest rates have been cut twice in the last month) and lifting of earlier credit restrictions on banks, may not have the desired effect if companies are reluctant to invest due to a sluggish market and huge levels of existing surplus capacity. Industries such as steel, coal, and power generation, have grown far beyond the limits of the Chinese economy in the course of a frenetic seven to eight year investment bubble, and are dependent on the country’s XXXL-sized export machine to sustain demand. If this machine fails, so do they. Steel and coal firms have announced production cuts for the first time in years in order to put the brakes on sharply falling prices brought about by lower demand and excess capacity. Coal prices are down 14% and steel by 20% since the summer. Clearly, the slowdown is not confined to export industries or regions, although these are being hit first and hardest.

While China’s overall GDP growth still seems impressive by global comparisons, its complex and fragmented economy can experience widely divergent processes at the same time. Guangdong and other coastal provinces are, because of globalisation (they trade more with the US and Europe than with the rest of China), showing clearer signs of recession at this stage than most Western economies. There has been a spate of suicides by capitalists in these provinces. All told perhaps 20 million workers have lost their jobs in 2008 as a result of business collapses. But as the overall economy is still growing, many of these workers (most are migrants) can be absorbed elsewhere. At a certain point in the downward cycle, however, this ability to soak up the new unemployed will likely break down and open unemployment will soar and, with it, the threat of serious unrest.

Government measures

Property markets – pumped up to fantasy levels in the speculative wave of recent years – have deflated sharply, by 40% in some cities such as Shenzhen. The coastal exporting regions that are suffering most from the crisis and the property meltdown are also the main launch-pad for the much discussed but yet to be seen "rebalancing" of the economy towards domestic consumption. Per capita GDP in the wealthiest coastal provinces is roughly twice the level in the north-eastern provinces, three times the level in the central provinces and five or six times the level in the poorest western provinces. Much greater consumption – close to double today’s level – would be needed to break the economy’s huge dependence on exports and avert a serious downturn. If increased consumption does not come from the wealthier provinces, then where? But the combined blows of falling property prices, factory closures and recession, migrants moving elsewhere, will serve to weaken rather than strengthen consumption in these regions. For the first time in modern Chinese history, since the pro-capitalist reform and opening up process began 30 years ago, the coastal provinces may be headed for slower growth and greater dislocation than their poor relations in the interior. Already, coastal companies are gearing up for an assault on the markets of other provinces. The stage is being set for a dramatic increase in inter-provincial rivalries and economic disputes. Beijing may find itself in the role of referee at a dogfight!

The central government has responded to the current slowdown with a series of measures that include even more investment in infrastructure, restoration of tax rebates to labour intensive export industries (these were cut two years ago as Beijing moved to soften US protectionism) and special rules to ease loan terms for small and medium-sized companies. The pace of currency appreciation will surely slow, if not reverse, and US protests over this fact may be bought off for a time with a Chinese commitment to keep up its lending to the US government’s huge state bailouts. Other steps have been taken to shore up the sinking stock market, to prevent the main CSI 300 index slipping below the psychologically important 2,000 mark. The market has plummeted 70% this year, but the latest measures – using state companies and the sovereign wealth fund, CIC, to buy up shares – have not prevented further falls (the CSI 300 is down on 1,833 points at the time of writing).

The government will soon in all probability announce a stimulus package containing tax cuts and extra funds for public investment. It is rumoured that this package will be worth 400bn yuan ($58bn). That the plan has been delayed may reflect deep divisions inside the regime’s economic management team over what ’mix’ of policies to adopt. Many CCP bigwigs now favour tax cuts, accepting the liberal economists’ argument that this is the fastest way to stimulate consumption. Less than one-third of China’s wage earners would benefit from a tax cut as the remainder do not earn enough to pay any tax.

Fear of protests

What is the role of local-level governments in the Pearl River Delta and other export hubs in the rising wave of factory closures? There is of course a big risk of instability and even riots and the authorities are keen to diffuse this. At the same time the CCP local administrations have created an environment that allows corrupt capitalists to run their businesses into the ground and then abscond, leaving workers, creditors, and suppliers, in the lurch. Many of today’s fugitive bosses were well integrated with local officials and paid well for their services. Today the factories are being sealed for "immediate auction", with workers allowed to remain temporarily only in the dormitories and canteens.

At the same time the local governments are using public budgets to pay out unpaid wages to redundant workers, a fact that is drawing increasing criticism on similar lines to anger at bank bail-outs in the West. In order to clear the streets and prevent the anger of workers crystallising into a wider struggle across factory or township borders, governments are using the ’carrot’ of compensation rather than the ’stick’ of police repression – at least for the time being. Dongguan’s local government paid out more than 24 million yuan ($3.5 million) to compensate the 7,000 former workers of Smart Union Group, China Daily reported (23 October). Once paid off and dispersed, the authorities hope migrant workers will move onto other jobs or other areas. Rival factories have been sending recruitment agents into the demonstrations in Dongguan and Shenzhen to fill their quota of vacancies.

The main focus of workers’ protests has been to get part if not all of the wages they are owed. This is the still basic level at which the struggle stands today, not seeking to challenge the bosses’ right to turn thousands out onto the streets. The perspective of many migrant workers is that 1) they hope and believe that by moving again if necessary they can get new work, and 2) It is not really possible to challenge the bosses and officialdom: "They will do as they want, what can we do?"


But governments are evidently nervous. The popular mood can change especially as the crisis deepens, the downpour turns into a flood, and new jobs get harder and harder to find. Bankrupt factories are being cleared and sealed quickly to prevent workers lingering in factory buildings, where the idea could begin to germinate that a more effective struggle can be waged by staying put – occupying – and turning the factory into a symbol of protest. And not just to win unpaid wages, but to defend jobs, to win economic security, a future. Such a protest movement could in turn raise questions about working hours, wage levels, workplace safety, and about which social force – capital or labour – should organise and control production.

The sit-in strike in Xixiang is a warning sign that some groups of workers may opt to make a more spirited stand. Factory occupations and sit-ins – methods that resulted in big gains for US and French workers in the past – could develop into city-wide, regional, and possibly even national focal points for workers’ struggle. By placing the factory buildings under their control and organising to run them, workers show their potential power as the real masters of society. While many of the sacked workers in Guangdong have received some or all of their unpaid wages from government agencies, this amounts to a few thousand yuan only. Other payments such as severance pay and pensions have disappeared with the absconding capitalists. More than a thousand sacked workers have engaged lawyers to fight for compensation they are owed but will not receive under the limited offer from local government.

For a socialist alternative

Socialists support the right of sacked workers to full compensation, from government funds, but this is not enough. Why should these factories be handed over to another gang of unaccountable and corrupt capitalists for them to ruin? Furthermore, local government funds are not inexhaustible. There is a crisis. More bankruptcies are inevitable on the basis of the market madness. This means local governments will be squeezed by falling tax receipts, and – more importantly – fewer property sales, which have been a big source of (often fraudulent) government income in recent years. The point will come when a factory closes its gates and the township or city government tells workers: "Sorry, we’re broke!"

Why should previously profitable factories with a settled and experienced workforce be emptied and turned into industrial graveyards on the whims of capitalists and their casino economy? Instead of closing, these factories should continue, under full public ownership, but under the democratic control of the workforce. If the market for existing products such as luxury watches or toys is oversupplied, alternative and socially necessary product lines can be introduced as part of a wider democratic socialist reorganisation of the economy towards people’s real and urgent needs. This can only be implemented through elected workplace and neighbourhood committees in every area and a new independent trade union movement. (Where was the government-backed All China Federation of Trade Unions when the factories closed?) This alternative – socialism – will not come from the ruling party, but can emerge from the struggles beginning now in the streets and factories of Dongguan, Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta.

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October 2008