Trade Unions in China

Some of those most vocal in their opposition to the Tory Government’s Industrial Relations Act have been the various Maoist groups in Britain. One wonders, however, how many of them have bothered to examine the situation of trade unions in their “own” country.

The Chinese Communist Party’s concept of the role to be played by the trade unions was derived from Lenin: the unions were to be “transmission belts”, one of a number of organisations through which the vanguard exercised the alleged dictatorship of the proletariat. But at the same time, since the transmission belts were supposed to work in both directions, the Party was to learn from the masses via the unions. In practice, the first of these concepts meant a close relationship between Party and unions, with the latter’s role reduced to one of helping to maintain labour discipline and to increase production. At various times since 1949, what one might call “traditional union functions” have reasserted themselves, and the unions have found themselves accused of “economism”, i.e. concentrating on the immediate interests and material welfare of the workers rather than on furthering the interests of the State as a whole.

Two instances will suffice to demonstrate the legal position regarding trade unions and the general spirit of labour laws in China:

    “After a dispute has broken out, both parties, during the period of consultation, mediation or arbitration, shall maintain the status quo in production. The management should not resort to a lockout, suspend payment of wages, cease providing meals or take any other measures which lower the workers’ living conditions. Labour shall also maintain production and observe labour discipline. After arbitration by the Labour Bureau [a government organ], even if one party disagrees and calls for settlement by the court, the two parties shall nevertheless abide by the arbitration award pending the verdict of the court.” [1]

In other words, from the start in 1950 (despite some measures designed to protect the workers’ interests), arbitration was to be compulsory, and strikes and go-slows were outlawed. Then in 1958:

    “The distribution of income shall be based on the principle of ensuring high speed in expanded reproduction. With the development of production, wages shall be increased every year, but the rate of increase must be slower than the rate of increase in production. When the average wages (including grain supply) of members of the commune rise to a level that guarantees a living standard equivalent to that of the well-to-do middle peasant, the rate of increase in wages should be reduced to ensure the rapid growth of industry, the mechanisation of farming and electrification of the rural areas in the shortest possible time.” [2] 

Comment would be superfluous.

Detailed information as to the exact way in which trade unions carried out their functions is rather harder to come by. Some interesting sidelights are shed by Edgar Snow’s report of his interview with Li Chi-po, Vice-Chairman of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (Chinese equivalent of the TUC), in 1960. Snow asked what would happen if a union of shoemakers wanted to strike for higher wages; as answer, he was told that the unions’ main task was educational, with auxiliary tasks being the maintenance of labour morale and the improvement of the workers’ living conditions. Eventually Li replied to the question as follows:

    “Strikes for higher wages cannot occur if workers have been properly educated to understand that wages are based on fair standards of values of production set by the state, which makes no profit for itself but merely acts for “the whole people” to reinvest national savings for the future enrichment of all.” (“The Other Side of the River, Red China Today”, 1963)

During the Cultural Revolution, however, the unions were found to have been under the influence of Liu Shao-ch’i and his particular faction of the Communist Party. Liu was accused of attempting to emasculate the revolutionary nature of the trade unions and so pave the way for the restoration of capitalism (Peking Review, June 28, 1968). By October 1970, it seems, trade unions had ceased to exist in China. A British union official who visited China in that month was told by a Peking factory worker:

    “Before the Cultural Revolution . . . instead of carrying forward revolution the unions concerned themselves with welfare and material incentives to the neglect of politics and state affairs.”

Among the organisations set up to replace the unions were Workers’ Representative Conferences “under the direct guidance of the Party”:

    “Their main activity at the moment is organising the study of Chairman Mao’s philosophical works.” (‘China Policy Study Group Broadsheet’, June 1971.)

In short, the attitude taken by those who control the means of production in China towards so-called workers’ organisations has been to use them as a means of raising production and thereby increasing the amount of surplus value available for reinvestment. Any attempts by the trade unions to gain a larger part of this increased production for their members have eventually met with determined resistance from these same rulers. Which, to say the least, makes the Maoists’ protests about the situation in Britain a little hypocritical!

Paul Bennett



[1] Provisional Rules of Procedure for Settling Labour Disputes (1950), Article 11. In Albert P. Blaustein (ed.): “Fundamental Legal Documents of Communist China”, New Jersey 1962, p. 505.

[2] Tentative Regulations (Draft) of the Weihsing (Sputnik) People’s Commune (1958), Article 22. In Blaustein, pp. 464-5. Emphasis added.

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