China’s state unions and their conflict of interest

Posted: July 6, 2011 in China
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Guangzhou, China: Federation of Trade Unions o...

ACFTU building in Guangzhou. The obelisk commemorates a peasant revolution massacre. Image via Wikipedia

The official Chinese union body has been in the press in the last week, since Tianannmen square activist Han Dongfang wrote a piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper which suggested it could actually work as a legitimate voice for Chinese workers.

It might seem strange that he would even need to say this, or that it could be controversial. Fact is, Western labor activists are broadly of the view that the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is compromised by its close association with the Communist party and not a legitimate worker association.

The reality is a little more complex.

As China Labour Bulletin have reported extensively, despite having 200 million members the ACFTU is seen by Chinese workers themselves as ineffective. When they are disgruntled they set up ad hoc worker forums and bypass the officially-sanctioned union by organising strikes by themselves.

The reason for this is not uniquely Chinese (or Communist) at all. It is corporatism. The ACFTU is the servant of two masters. On the one hand it purports to represent workers’ interests, but on the other hand it has a client relationship with the Communist Party in Beijing who do not want to see civil unrest. As a result its work has been heavily skewed towards conflict reduction or, if you like, social harmony and not advancing its members’ interests.

This can happen anywhere, including in Western countries. Charities that accept government funding discover that the government begins to set their agenda for them.

There is a cultural driver too. This situation is less a result of Communism as it is of Chinese cultural values, which generally rate community cohesion above personal well-being (see related post). Suffice to say, China is a very big place and these figures mask a lot of regional and generational difference.

I’m optimistic for the ACFTU in the long term. Apparently it has been more independent at other times in the past. Who’s to say it won’t be again. One thing’s for sure, with all of the disquiet in the country, the present state of affairs is not tenable.

  1. […] Excluded from that count are the 193 million members of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The ACFTU is shunned by the global movement principally because it is not by any means democratic. […]

  2. […] China’s state unions and their conflict of interest 6 July 2011 […]

  3. […] unions do not exist in China. There is only the ACFTU state union. It does not affiliate either to the ILO or to the global union federations. What it does have […]

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