Minqi Li, “The Rise of the Working Class and the Future of the Chinese Revolution” (2011)
Many of the currently employed state-sector workers are the children of the “old workers” [what workers from the Maoist era are referred to in China]; or they have had experience working together with the old workers; or they live in the same working-class neighborhoods. Thus, the currently employed state-sector workers have been influenced by the old workers’ struggles and their political experience. This was illustrated by the Tonghua Steel workers’ anti-privatization struggle in 2009.
Tonghua Steel was a state-owned steel factory in Tonghua, Jilin Province. In 2005 Tonghua Steel was privatized. The state assets, once worth 10 billion yuan, were appraised at only 2 billion yuan. Jianlong, a powerful private company having connections with high-ranking officials in Beijing, actually paid only 800 million yuan and took over the company. After Jianlong’s takeover, twenty-four thousand out of thirty-six thousand workers were laid off. Wages for the workers on “dangerous tasks” (with high rates of work-related injuries) were reduced by two-thirds. The managers could impose various arbitrary penalties and punishments on the workers.
In 2007 the Tonghua Steel workers started to protest. During the protests, a Maoist-era worker, “Master Wu,” emerged as the leader. Wu made it clear to the workers that the real issue was not about any particular problem, but about “the political line of privatization.”
July 2009 found the workers on a general strike. When the Jianlong general manager threatened to fire all workers, the enraged workers beat the manger to death. Although the provincial governor and thousands of armed police were at the scene, no one dared to intervene. After the beating, Jilin Province was forced to cancel the privatization plan.
The Tonghua Steel workers’ victory was a huge inspiration for workers in many parts of China. Workers in several other steel factories also protested and forced the local governments to cancel privatization plans. Worker-activists in other provinces saw the Tonghua victory as their own and regretted that “too few capitalists have been killed.“