Pierre Rousset and Danielle Sabai

It is urgent to relaunch the campaign of solidarity with the “Hunza 5” and all victims of state terrorism in Pakistan.

For months now, a solidarity campaign has been underway in Pakistan itself [1] and internationally [2] to obtain the release of Baba Jan and his four comrades: Iftikhar Hussain, Amir Ali, Ameer Khan and Rashid Minhas . They were imprisoned in Gilgit, northern Himalayan country. Twice severely beaten and tortured [3] they were transferred to a prison with hardened criminals in late April where it was feared that their lives were in danger. The purpose of this transfer could indeed be that they were assassinated by other prisoners.

It is important not to take such a situation lightly. Not only are the cadres of popular organizations (peasants, trade unions …) slaughtered every year in the country, but prominent figures have been killed by security forces, like the late Governor Punjab Salman Taseer [4], or threatened with death: as is the case today for Asma Jahangir [5] Former president of the Bar Association of the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (an NGO), she worked for the United Nations as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religions and beliefs. Remember also that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was shot dead in broad daylight and that a commission of UN investigation concluded that the murder could have been “avoided” if the authorities had provided an “effective protection”… [6]

Faced with the threat to the “Hunza 5,” the solidarity campaign was relaunched in a hurry, has grown and achieved early success: Twelve days after being wounded, Baba Jan and his comrades were finally visited by a doctor, organizations defending human rights began to mobilize and the Pakistani press began to take up their situation.

While their “crime” is to have supported a population which was first the victim of devastating floods in the Hunza Valley and then of police violence — with two dead during a demonstration — Baba Jan and his comrades were brought before an anti-terrorism court. They appealed against the decision, but the hearing is constantly being postponed on various pretexts (it is now scheduled for June 13). It is feared that the authority wants to obtain a conviction before their appeal can be heard.

The solidarity campaign must be intensified with urgency. In particular a week of international action is being called from 20 to 27 June.

The solidarity campaign: what has already been done

Actions taken to date have helped to break the isolation in which the “Hunza 5” were kept and they may have saved Baba Jan’s life. They should also serve as a fulcrum to expand the solidarity campaign. What needs emphasis here is that the initiatives involve a fairly wide range of personalities and movements.

Of particular interest:

Support from personalities. – On May 7, an “Open Letter” was published in defence of Baba Jan and his friends, originally signed by thirteen writers and academics in Britain and the USA, including Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad. [7]

Support from organizations defending human rights. On May 7, the Commission of Human Rights (HRCP) launched an “urgent appeal” in defense of the “Hunza 5” [8]. On May 10, it was the turn of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to do the same [9] 26 September 2011 already, the Philippines, ALTHAR – Defenders of the Alliance Three Peoples for Human Rights (Tri-People Alliance of Advocates for Human Rights) – sent a letter to Pakistani President via the embassy in Manila [10].

Support from radical environmentalists networks. These calls have been particularly sparked by the fact that Baba Jan and his comrades continued to stand up for the victims of a climate-ecological disaster. They were launched by Climate and Capitalism and Natural Choices [11]. The Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group of Great Britain (Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group Britain) also joined in solidarity.

Support by social movements in Asia. On May 10, the New Trade Union Initiative of India has sent a letter of solidarity via the National Federation of Trade Unions of Pakistan [12] – a gesture of solidarity which is particularly valuable when the respective governments keep these two countries in a state of latent war against each other. On May 24 in Indonesia, a delegation of the Joint Secretariat of Labour for Greater Jakarta which includes many unions, student movements, etc., took a letter of protest to the Pakistani Ambassador [13].

Parliamentary support. Initiatives were announced in the European Parliament. In Australia, David Shoebridge, MP, wrote to the High Commissioner and Consul General for Pakistan, calling for the release of Baba Jan and his fellow prisoners.

Socio-political support. Baba Jan is a member of the Federal Committee of the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) and his fellow activists are members of the LPP or of the Progressive Youth Front, (PYF). They received the support of their sister organizations. On September 22, 2011 a statement of solidarity was signed by thirty organizations (political, union, etc.). [14] and other initiatives have been taken since. Among the countries involved are Germany, Australia, Bangladesh, Croatia, the United States, France, Britain, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Switzerland ….

Many actions within Pakistan. At the initiative of the LPP and with the support of other organizations, many actions were taken in Pakistan, including demonstrations in various cities. On June 5, Farooq Tariq raised the case of Baba Jan and his comrades during a group meeting with Navi Pillay, High Commissioner of Human Rights to the United Nations. Rallies were held outside the Press Club in Lahore, to encourage the media to inform the public of the situation of the “Hunza 5” – three days of hunger strikes are planned by the Committee for the Liberation Baba Jan (FBJC) on 15, 16 and 17 June before the press club in Karachi.

This list of solidarity actions conducted to date is probably incomplete and will be updated later.

Solidarity Campaign: The Next Step

A new impetus has been given to the solidarity campaign.

Call for International Week of June 20-27 for the release of Baba Jan and all political prisoners in Pakistan. It has what is called for initiatives to be pursued with the Pakistani diplomatic missions, including denouncing the use by the establishment of anti-terorrist courts to punish human rights activists, trade unionists and peasant cadres and progressive people generally.

The important thing is that actions (delegations, rallies and “pickets” …) is conducted in as many countries as possible, to pressurize the Pakistani government through the increasing internationalization of protests and to alert the media.

The International Week of action will also kick start a week of national action that will follow immediately afterwards.

A week of action in Pakistan from June 27 to July 4. Besides the three-day hunger strike in Karachi, a national week of action is scheduled for late June-early July. It will be concluded on July 4 with a national gathering in Islamabad, the capital.

A multiparty conference on July 18. Everything should lead to the holding of a multiparty conference on the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan (the “Northern Territories”) and misuse of anti-terrorist act.

The LPP is considering taking legal action against the articles of the Anti-Terrorism Act that contradict the provisions contained in the Constitution of Pakistan in protecting human rights.

Considerable challenges

We must save the “Hunza 5” and secure their release. For them and also because they are a textbook case. They are indeed far from being the only ones involved. The use of torture by “security” forces and the frequent use of anti-terrorist courts must be challenged. The sentences are often quite arbitrary and terribly heavy. The criminalization of progressive social movements has reached extremely serious levels. From Faisalabad to Karachi via Lahore, trade unionists are in the line of fire [15], as well as small farmers and fishermen of Okara [16], in Karachi [17] and also Dehra Sehgal [18].

Defending human rights defenders. Though it was asked, Amnesty International would not itself take charge of the defense of the ” Hunza 5,” while welcoming the fact that Human Rights Commission of Pakistan did. We understand that AI cannot deal directly with all cases of repression worldwide, and has to rely on other organizations. But there are many calls for the defense of human rights defenders is more systematically carried out – because by attaching them to the réprimé.es, they endanger themselves and become the target of repression. This is exactly what happened to Baba Jan and his comrades are in prison for having made known at the federal level what was happening in the Hunza Valley.

Fight against torture and state terrorism. Fundamentalist sects are responsible for many crimes in Pakistan, but so are the state apparatus, the military secret service, police, paramilitaries: we are also dealing with them. This fractured state is one of the most violent in the world; its components benefit from a level of criminal impunity rarely seen. [19] Soldiarity concerns very directly the associations that are mobilizing against torture and state impunity.

Put an end to the criminalization of popular struggles. The policy of criminalizing unions and popular movements is very sensitive internationally. It has reached a climax in Pakistan. Defending progressive Pakistan activitsts is the responsibility of the global union movement, social forums and their components. The links are active with networks operating in South Asia, but we must now go further.

The right to the existence of a militant left. The Pakistani militant left does not have the same historical weight as in India or Bangladesh. But it exists – witness for example the LPP or the Workers’ Party (Workers Party) – and it has given birth to unitary structures. Their activists take very big risks by engaging in social resistance, defending women’s rights, opposing both fundamentalists and the army. The militant left is under attack from various directions: the security forces, militias of the bosses and landlords, armed fundamentalist groups, parties like the MQM mafia in Karachi … They need our help now.

Long term solidarity. The next step in the campaign for the release of “Hunza 5” should be an opportunity to further disseminate information about the situation of Pakistan and to build long term solidarity. Repression strikes across the country. Beyond Baba Jan and his comrades, it is affects all victims of arbitrary government and sectarian violence and fundamentalism. Workers, peasants, women, journalists, students, political activists. All women and all who stand against the powers that be are threatened.

We must therefore broaden solidarity in all directions: parliamentary, democratic organizations, progressive parties, trade unions, media …

Financial support. The defense of victims of state terrorism need significant resources: legal action, information work, mobilizations, travel, aid to families who have lost income with the imprisonment of unionists or the murder of a villagers … we should therefore continue the solidarity campaign launched in 2011 with financial commitment [20]

Repression against popular resistance has hardened. It is clear that the ruling parties in many provinces, large wealthy families and the security apparatus want to break the back of progressive movements. A showdown is coming. It’s time to affirm our solidarity.

Pierre Rousset

You can send donations via ESSF:

Cheques Euro cheques only and payable in France to the order of ESSF to be sent to: ESSF 2, rue Richard Lenoir 93100 Montreuil France

Bank: Credit Lyonnais Branch: Croix de Chavaux (00525) 10 Boulevard Chanzy 93100 Montreuil France ESSF, Account No. 445757C

International bank details: IBAN: FR85 3000 2005 2500 0044 5757 C12 BIC / SWIFT: CRLYFRPP Account in the name of: ESSF

In France, these donations are tax deductible. We need your address to send you a tax receipt (usually indicated on the cheques).

You can stay informed through the ESSF website of developments on the ground and solidarity initiatives.


[1] See the website Free Baba Jan.

[2] See Pierre Rousset, September 19, 2011, “U.S. Policy of Abuse Undermines Rights Worldwide”, Violent repression in the north of Pakistan.

[3] See Amanullah Kariapper and Cindy Zahnd, May 8, 2012,“Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan): Imprisoned and tortured for supporting the flood victims,” Courier article available on ESSF.

[4] On the ESSF keyword.

[5] See ESSF, Asma Jahangir, June 5, 2012,-“Pakistani intelligence Plotted my assassination”.

[6] See Frédéric Bobin, Le Monde journalist, April 16, 2010, “Bhutto’s Assassination: UN negligence leading to the Pakistani state,” available on ESSF.

[7] See ESSF, [“Open Letter Demanding the Release of Baba Jan Hunzai in Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan” http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article25120%5D.

[8] See ESSF, “Gilgit-Baltistan/Pakistan: Torture of Detained activists in Gilgit jail politique”.

[9] See ESSF[ “Urgent Appeal – Pakistan: Human rights defender tortured during jail custody in Gilgit-Baltistan”.

[10] On ESSF ALTHAR, “Free Baba Jan and All Other Political Prisoners! – Statement of the Solidarity ALTHAR feel to the Pakistan Embassy in the Philippines”.

[11] See on ESSF, “Urgent appeal for Baba Jan, prisoner of climate change”.

[12] See on ESSF NTUI, “The trade unions center NTUI (India) icts Sends Solidarity with Baba Jan and His Comrades, jailed in Gilgit (Pakistan)”.

[13] See on ESSF, Joint Secretariat of Labor – Greater Jakarta, Indonesia, “Free Hunza Baba Jan and All Political Prisoners and Faisalabad 9; Democracy and Welfare to all Pakistani People!” .

[14] See “Solidarity Statement Pakistan: Free Baba Jan and all political prisoners! ” .

[15] See Pierre Ropusset “Employers’ terror against Karachi weaving loom workers”

[16] See Farooq Tariq“Pakistan: This Is Our Land, Declare 20,000 Peasants”.

[17] See AHRC “Pakistan : The villages of fisher folk are being grabbed by powerful persons from the ruling party”.

[18] See on ESSF Farooq Tariq “Pakistan: Police attacked village in revolt near Lahore, one killed, dozens injured, police register murder case against peasants leaders ».

[19] On the geopolitics of violence in the country, see in particular Pierre Rousset, “Pakistan, theatre of war”.

[20] See “Financial update of the 2011 Pakistan Solidarity Campaign ”.

Posted by: daniellesabai | 2012/06/03

Employers’ terror against Karachi weaving loom workers

Pierre Rousset

Dressed in big coats of sandy, white or clear blue colours, the weaving loom workers fill the small union office – all men; it is a male trade here. We are in Etehad Town in the outskirts of Karachi, capital of Sindh, principal industrial and port metropolis of Pakistan. Several of those present had just been freed under bail. Their crime, like that of their comrades then still imprisoned, was wishing to set up a union in enterprises which live under a veritable regime of employer terror: the Etehad Power Looms Labour Union, affiliated with National Trade Union Federation. For this, they were arrested by paramilitary Rangers, tortured, imprisoned, accused of racketeering and brought before an anti-terrorist court.

They take turns to speak with great eloquence of their condition. They have a lot to say. Of poverty and of this dread of unemployment which led them to accept working under unacceptable and inhuman conditions. In this region where temperatures can reach 48 degrees in June (it is already reaching 38 in April), the workshops are suffocating. However, if a worker has the audacity to request the installation of a ventilator, he is immediately sent home without hope of return… In the eyes of the bosses and their guard dogs, the workers have only one right: to give in, shut up, suffer.

But how can workers be deprived of all rights, even the most elementary ones, to this extent? Quite simply because legally they don’t exist: the factory itself is not declared, it has no legal existence; a little like the clandestine workshops in France (in the textile sector, also!). Except that here, we are talking about large scale enterprises, wildcat industrial zones which rise up in the view of and knowledge of all, with the active complicity of the governing parties and the “forces of order”. Except that here there is no need to employ immigrants without papers to subject workers to a regime of totalitarian exploitation.

The companies in question are indeed highly respected. They are formally installed in the controlled industrial zones. They are concerned about their advertising and are hypocritical enough to publish charters of good conduct on the Internet; but the bulk of production is carried out elsewhere, half an hour’s road journey from the centre of Karachi. There are good reasons for going here. If popular protest against super-exploitation becomes pressing, trucks come to take away raw materials and machines. One or two days later, the factory is working again, at some kilometres distance.

The employers use a variety of means to impose their law. Permanent indebtedness is one of the most traditional mechanisms of subjection of workers: a loan is “agreed” initially which can never be repaid, because wages are so low. If that is not enough to keep a trade unionist quite, the blacklist is a fearsome measure of coercion. The worker dismissed by one boss will not be taken on by another. Worse, his brothers risk also being blacklisted– “even my cousins!” said one of those present. Through debt and the threat of forced unemployment, the employers hold families as hostages.

The employers’ mutual understanding locks in the system. Conscious that too much is too much, some entrepreneurs would be ready for wage concessions, but are prevented from doing so. The local employers have decided to inflict a very heavy fine on anybody who agrees to increase wages.

Beyond the company henchmen, the army and police are under orders. Thus, it was at the request of their employer that seven trades unionists were arrested by the Rangers on March 21, a little before my arrival, then severely tortured: Saif Ur Rehman, Naik Muhammad, Irshad, Muhammad Rome, Nizam Uddin, Akhter Ali and Hazrat Yousaf. Following a first wave of protest, six detainees were handed over to the police on March 23, the seventh, Hazrat Yousaf, being freed.

As the workers were employed illegally, the employer claimed that the (undeclared) wages that they had received had been extorted from him. The trades unionists were tortured again to sign false confessions of racketeering, which they refused to do. On March 24 they were taken before the Karachi anti-terrorist court. The judge ordered that the victims should receive medical care, but refused to order an investigation on the recourse to torture.

Numerous mobilisations took place in Pakistan, under the initiative notably of the National Trade Union Federation, combined with an international solidarity campaign waged by the trade union movement, but also involving the European Union, mobilised on the torture cases. The six detainees were finally freed on the night of May 14 -15 (after a bail payment of 600,000 rupees). It is a significant victory. Release under bail is very rarely granted in the context of anti-terrorist courts. The Etehad Power Looms Labour Union immediately mobilised in honour to the freed trades unionists and to reaffirm its demands.

The affair is however far from being closed. Twelve trades unionists who have been brought before the anti-terrorist court: Saif Ur Rehman, Bacha Wali (Naik Muhamed), 
Akhter Ali, Nizam Uddin, 
Muhammed Rome, Irshad, Abdul Muhamed, Muhammed Amin, 
Sana Ullah, Azam Khan, Khan Zareen, Umer Gul.

Lahore, Faisalabad, Gilgit

Lahore: Pearl Continental

The policy of criminalisation of popular and trade union movements is being employed across the country. It was denounced by the UITA federation of international trade union organisations in the case of the struggle of the employees of the Pearl Continental hotel in Lahore. Their union has waged a very difficult struggle to win recognition, against the obstruction of the management, threats and collusion with the local authorities. It finally won the union elections last February.

The management of the hotel then used a tactic already tried and tested, having a bedroom vandalised and set on fire to accuse the union leaders of criminal acts. A month later, new charges were added, falling within the ambit of anti-terrorist laws which could justify prison sentences of up to 20 years. Is there any need to point out that the owner of the Pearl Continental hotel chain, Sadruddin Hashwani, is one of the richest men in the country?

The UITA has launched a campaign of solidarity with the Pearl Continental union leaders (See http://www.iuf.org/cgi-bin/campaign… and Pakistan hotel union leaders jailed and face criminal charges after union wins recognition election!)

The “Faisalabad six”

In Faisalabad, the big centre of textile production in the Punjab, six union leaders have been sentenced to 590 years in prison by an anti-terrorist court. Here as in Karachi power loom workers are involved (even if in this case the existence of the enterprises is legally declared).

The police arrested a seventh loom worker, Mehmood Ahmad, under the same charges as the first “Faisalabad six” although he was not present at the places the incidents took place. For two years, he had escaped arrest, but had to resume work in the neighbourhood of Sadhar to help his family survive. It was there that the police found him.

This new arrest provoked a strong reaction from workers in the sector. Many factories emptied and the main road, Jhang Road, was blocked by more than 5.000 workers according to the information we have received. The leadership of the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM) was able to negotiate with the police from a position of strength, threatening to organise a strike involving the whole town. On May 15, Mehmood Ahmad was released.

The accusations against the Faisalabad six do not hold water. They have appealed to the supreme court of the province. The appeal has been judged admissible in principle, but the date of the hearing is still not fixed.

While the legal process proceeds at a leisurely pace, three other union activists have been detained on similar charges. Thus, the Faisalabad 6 have now become 9.

Gilgit: the “Hunza five”

We will bring more news soon on the situation of the “Hunza five”, also being prosecuted under the anti-terrorist court in Gilgit, in the north of the country, for having defended the rights of the people of the Hunza valley, devastated by a natural disaster.

For now we will only say that the solidarity campaign has yielded its first results. Twelve days after having been beaten and tortured for the second time, Baba Janb and his comrades were finally seen by a doctor. The national press has begun to publicise their situation, which is very important, since it is feared that their forced transfer to a prison of high criminality had the objective of having them discreetly killed by common criminals.

The manoeuvres of intimidation continue in Gilgit. Thus, six activists of the Progressive Youth Front were arrested on May 13 when sticking up posters, but after protests were released by the police – who moreover did not know what to charge them with in order to keep holding them in detention.

The Hunza five have also appealed to the court to request (at least) their released under bail, but the hearing has already been postponed three times under various pretexts. The hearing is currently programmed for June 5.

Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Gilgit… and in many other places also, like the military farm of Okara or the village of Dehra Sehgal, not far from Lahore, Pakistani activists need our solidarity.

Harrison Mariano

On the 17th of December 2011, Northeastern Mindanao had been hit by a never-expected disaster. Thousands were killed in a short a time, millions of pesos worth of properties were destroyed and several hundreds of people were missing. This disastrous event was brought by the strong current of water from the river with tons of logs and mud in it. The darkness and the destructive flood buried and flashed away the dreams and future of those families, communities and children. Experts named the typhoon in local and international as Sendong and Washi respectively.

In the aftermath, there were massive displacement of survivors and communities, dead bodies in the river banks, streets and coastal areas retrieved to even to nearby towns and regions. It was a regrettable year ender for 2011 among the population of Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Dumaguete cities.

The disaster was even worst because of the revelation of the incapability of the government in responding to the said situation. The burden of responding to the needs of the survivors was passed on to the civil society organizations, the churches, peoples’ organizations and volunteers. Up to the third month after the disaster, no plan was offered to and made with the survivors. And in the process of defining the rehabilitation and rebuilding lives for the survivors, no consultation for the survivors happened except those done by the non government organizations. Among those worst attitude of the government personnel was the grand standing and manipulating the goods for the survivors by claiming the goods as their efforts and used as best political preparation for the coming 2013 local elections. Here is a case of the elite politicians victimizing the survivors for the second time.

Disasters again and again

Prior to the disastrous Sendong, majority of those poor victims were urban poor and minimum wage earners suffering the economic disaster by the high rising prices of commodities and low social services from the government and more and more of these families were even threatened by the massive unemployment and contractualization of labor sector.

Right after typhoon Sendong, government did not even think of responding to a minimum action to convince investors for instance to lower the prices on petroleum products, localized suspension of the 12% value added tax to commodities and moratorium to lower down the rates of energy and power. But not a single action aside from the political grand standing and self-serving speeches of these politicians on the cancelation of logging permits only to be recalled later. Investigations for the incident were made only to safeguard those responsible for the massive tree cutting and divert the attention from the government’s policies of disregarding the environment for logging and mining industries.

Sad to note also are questions among responders. Fly by night private organizations also used the survivors’ situation to make money. NGOs of family dynasty built consortiums and joined networks then reported to their funding partner the network’s efforts and saving the funding for their organization and family interests. International funding organizations and response groups have literally robbed local potentials from local responding organizations, offering high fees and incentives in the name of capacitating the local organizations but in the end, it turned out staffs were pirated and hired with high paying jobs to do the dirty works and profits go to the NGO executive who parachuted in the affected areas. More so, these international organizations felt like they owned these local personnel and their employees – a master and a slave relation or the capitalist and the worker to contextualize it today.

More and worst disasters will happen when people and the masses will be used and fooled by these voltures. The more the collective response must the people have the less these opportunists can take advantage of the victims.

The State and its Vibrant Contradictions in Actions

Policy combating the effects of climate change was passed and to give teeth to the law, a disaster risk reduction and management law again was passed with penalties and sanctions for the violators while on contrary the government encouraged open pit mining and massive “selective” and “responsible” logging. Preservation of environment has been also in the primary program of the government that is why organic farming and sustainable agriculture laws were passed and put budgetary allocations for the implementation of such laws, but again, line agencies and even policy makers are promoting chemical fertilizers and manipulating agricultural industry in favor of the investors and not the masses. Thus, conversion of lands for business is only one of such manifestations how the government takes care with its people and the economy.

These were the only few contradicting pronouncements, actions and initiatives of the government in the past and more so in the present.

Such posted real challenge for real response from the peoples and movements. Revolutionary movements and disaster response groups must always bear in mind that the government is always an institution to subjugate and put the interest and welfare of the masses in its last priority. It is an institution to oppress and implement the interest of the capitalist and oppressive system. These glaring realities can always be seen during the times of the disasters like in Sendong.

In principles and in practice, the well being of the masses and environment shall always be a non-negotiable matter. This means that environment must be saved from the capitalist dominance or else, there’s nothing left to the people especially the masses. Then, it is an obligation of all marginalized and struggling for the liberation of humanity to liberate ecology from the greediness of capitalists.

The real constant disaster that the world’s masses are experiencing is the capitalist neo-liberal assaults killing every human and the environment, and our response shall always be revolutionary which is not neglecting the important role of the masses themselves. The gains of these revolutionary struggles shall be with and for the masses and the direction will be the elimination of all kinds of exploitation including that of the environment.

The need to expose and eliminate those money-making and opportunist organizations and individuals is a duty of all survivors and responders like building the society free from oppression and deprivation.

Kitahata Y.

Starting Point – “Osaka Metropolitan Government” and “Osaka Restoration Association”

“Critics of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto sometimes describe his politics as ‘Hashism’, referring to a supposed similarity between some of his tactics and those of fascism.”(“The Asahi Shimbun”, March 3, 2012)[1]

Hashimoto, a former lawyer and TV personality, was elected Governor of Osaka Prefecture in 2008 with his popularity and aggressive campaign against administration and public sector workers. He challenged the “ineffective” administration and “wasteful” public services and resorted to predatory practices, drastically cutting the wages of public employees and reducing or abolishing subsidies to a series of cultural and social facilities. In addition to his tough policy on national anthem issues[2], his anti-China remarks and aggressive attitude toward Korean National Schools pleased reactionary forces.

One of his main agenda had been unifying the governments of Osaka City and Osaka Prefecture in order to allow an extensive local authority, “Osaka Metropolitan Government”, to attract more investment and compete effectively with other big cities in Asia. As this type of rearrangement requires not only negotiation with the city government but also revision of national laws, which he knows would inevitably contradict the interest of some part of central bureaucracy as well as national political parties, Hashimoto formed his own political party, “Osaka Ishin-no-kai” or “Osaka Restoration Association”, as a catalyst for a political change in the whole country.

Although his “achievement” as governor was quite dubious, his confrontational way of pushing through his rough ideas gave a kind of catharsis to the constituency and tamed the majority of the local assemblies.  After gaining the majority of the prefectural assembly and a good number of seats of the city assembly at the election in April, 2011, he opened a battle against Mayor of Osaka City, Kunio Hiramatsu, on the method to solve the “duplication” of the roles of the city and the prefecture.

At the same time, he tightened his control over public employees. In June, 2011, he introduced an ordinance to force teachers to stand at “Kimigayo”, national anthem, at school ceremonies. He also announced a plan to introduce ordinance on education and ordinance on public employees which include provisions for punishment against disobedience to administrative orders.[3]

When the four-year term for Mayor Hiramatsu expired in November, 2011, Hashimoto resigned as governor in order to run for mayor. His colleague, Ichiro Matsui, ran for governor to succeed him.

Sweeping Victory in November Elections

The elections for Mayor of Osaka City and Governor of Osaka Prefecture were fought between “Osaka Ishin-no-kai” led by Hashimoto on one hand and ruling Democratic Party (DP) plus the main opposition party, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the other hand. Even the Communist Party joined the camp of Kunio Hiramatsu in order to call for a united resistance against the autocratic rule of Hashimoto.

The result was a sweeping victory for Hashimoto and his Ishin party.[4]  “Apparently the helplessness felt by many Osaka people amid economic stagnation and the sense that power is concentrated in Tokyo, boosted Mr. Hashimoto. More than 150,000 Osaka city residents are on welfare – about one of every 18 citizens, the highest rate in Japan. Mr. Hashimoto captured the hearts of Osaka voters with such bites as ‘Strong power, almost dictatorial, is needed to change today’s politics’ …The established parties failed to present plans that would give hope to Osaka people. Neither the DP nor the LDP could overcome the populist rhetoric used by Mr. Hashimoto.” (The Japan Times Online, Dec. 1, 2011)[5]

After elected as Mayor, Hashimoto lost no time promoting his agenda. For him, the appearance of decisiveness and the speed with which to upset the adversaries are the keys to success. With his favoured argument, “an elected officer can make any decisions and force these decisions because it is ‘the will of voters'”, he intimidated the officers into obeying him and launched a blistering attack on the trade unions of municipal employees. Every day, his controversial policies attract media coverage, contributing to the maintenance of his high popularity.

Decisiveness and Speed

Here are some of the major changes since Hashimoto took control of the city administration:

– More than forty advisors and counsellors were recruited to work out plans for concretising “Osaka Metropolitan Government”, drastically cutting budgets for public services, tightening the discipline, re-developing the central part of the city, recruiting administrators (including school principals and heads of a wards) from private sectors and so on. Most of these advisors were handpicked by Hashimoto.

– Frontal assault on trade unions of municipal employees. In February, the city government ordered all municipal employees to answer the questionnaire on their involvement in trade union activities in order to dissuade them from active commitment. After fierce criticism from lawyers and other people as well as protests from trade unions, they suspended and disposed the questionnaire. However, they are still continuing unfair labour practices of ordering the evacuation of union offices in the city hall and threatening to abandon the check-off of union dues.

– Hashimoto announced a plan to reduce the wage of transportation workers (mainly bus drivers) by 40%!  A city councillor of Ishin used fabricated data on their union’s involvement in the Mayor election in the city assembly. Even after the councillor admitted the fabrication, Hashimoto rejected to apologise and justified his deed as having stimulated the discussion about issues of political activities of trade unions.

– Hashimoto is rushing to rearrange public schools so that competition among schools and teachers are stimulated. He wants to abolish school districts for high schools to allow “free choice”, which means increasing motivation for selected elites and closing schools with poor records.

So far, the “changes” he has brought about are welcomed by broad layers of citizens and both DP and LDP are shifting to appeasement policy or active cooperation with Ishin. However criticism and resistance is increasing day by day as people become aware of the serious implications of his policies.

Rising to the National Political Arena

From the start, Hashimoto has been talking about challenging the inductility of the centralist bureaucrats and changing politics from local governments. After the victory in November elections, he has renewed his ambition for gaining the political power of the central government.

Ishin is planning to endorse more than 200 candidates in the coming election of lower house and actively cooperate with other like-minded candidates. They released a rough draft of its election platform in February, which includes “reforming the nation’s administrative bodies and revising the Constitution”, the abolishment of the upper house and electing future prime ministers by popular vote. “It largely reflects Hashimoto’s unconventional politics, but some proposals seem infeasible due to a lack of supporting details” (“The Daily Yomiuri”, Feb. 16, 2012).[6]

The extraordinary high popularity and expectation toward this new political force is threatening both DP and LDP. The Komei Party and the “Minna-no-tou” (“Your party”) are supposed to cooperate with Ishin.  Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Takashi Kawamura, Mayor of Nagoya City, will also closely cooperate with Ishin.[7]

As the impasse of the DP government become more and more obvious, Ishin is taking tougher position against the DP. They chose the nuclear power plant issue as a focus of campaign because Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda discredited himself by pushing ahead with the restart of the Oi nuclear power plant located within 100 kilometres of Osaka. Hashimoto has expressed his opposition against resuming the operation.

Resistance of Workers and Citizens

The popularity of Hashimoto reflects the dysfunction of parliamentary democracy and impasse of the established political parties. Expectation for changes, which was pervasive at the time of the power shift in 2009 (from LDP to DP), has been swiftly turned into disillusion and impatience among people. Hashimoto’s energetic and catching agitation, empowered by excessive appearance in mass media, has been quite effective to activate hostility among people and divert their fury toward public employees, elders, beneficiary of social welfare and progressive intellects.

To this extent, “a supposed similarity between some of his tactics and those of fascism” does exist, for sure.  A very striking fact is that so many people chose Hashimoto after the heated election campaign of last year despite the widespread criticism and concern about his openly authoritarian idea and practices.

However, the real issue is the failure of the trade unions and political parties to organize actions against this “petit-fascism” and elicit the oppressed desire for more humane society.

Hashimoto’s attacks on public employees and reduction of social services are nothing new. They are only the continuation of the neo-liberalists’ “reform” under Koizumi government (2001 to 2006) and basically the same as what is going on in most of the advanced capitalist countries in the world. The striking difference is the lack of massive resistance from trade unions in the case of Osaka and Japan as a whole.

For the moment, it is hard to expect an effective counter offensive from major trade unions because they seem to be feeling isolation. Instead of daring to organise resistance, they seem to prefer to avoid or minimize the confrontation in order to secure the organization. Division among trade unions and progressive political forces, with somewhat hostile attitude to one another, is making unified resistance more difficult.

Therefore, the actions so far are quite humble or limited in size. Some of the minor trade unions are quite active in organizing a broad campaign to defend the rights of workers and trade unions, democratic and creative education, affordable public services and humane community from “Hashism”. Major municipal employees have launched lawsuits against a series of unfair labour practices by the mayor and administration. Various forms of struggles against forcing to sing Kimigayo (the anthem) and raise Hinomaru (the “national flag”) have been continuing despite concerted intimidation against teachers involved. Young people began to organize themselves and raise their voices. In town meetings arranged to explain the city’s plan of education reform, storms of criticism from parents and people in the community often prevail. There have been meetings of hundreds of people repeatedly at the city hall to express their objection to “Hashism”.  Efforts are taken to overcome the division of the progressive forces and cooperate each other in order to broaden the scope of the struggle.

In late February, two leaders of education workers from Wisconsin visited Osaka at the invitation of Osaka Social Forum 2012[8] and shared their story about the courageous struggle against Governor, Walker in February to march last year. They attended 5 meetings in Osaka and Kyoto, where they impressed and encouraged hundreds of workers including teachers and retired workers.

These are only the first stage of the resistance. But the historic uprising of workers, students, farmers and citizens in Wisconsin proved that people are ready to fight back in order to defend their rights. Bold and continuous actions and dissemination of our alternative of participatory democracy would change the people’s mind-set gradually. Although this fight is being fought in Osaka, the outcome of the fight will determine whether Hashism grows to be a real danger of fascism or workers and citizens derail it. The stake is very high and the battle has only begun.

[2] The national anthem (“Kimigayo”) and the national flag (“Hinomaru”) have been very controversial in Japan because of the historical background.  See, for example, “Hashimoto stalks anthem foes” (“The Japan Times Online”, May 27, 2011) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20110527a2.html and “Osaka should respect ruling on Kimigayo, Hinomaru” (The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 18, 2012) http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/editorial/AJ201201180032

[3] The ordinances were passed at the prefecture assembly in March, 2012 and are scheduled to be voted on at the city assembly in June.  LDP and Komei Party expressed their support to the ordinances after Ishin accepted some amendments suggested by them.

[4] Mayor: Hashimoto got 750,813 votes while Hiramatsu got 522,641.  Governor: Matusi got 2,006,195 votes while Kurata (supported by DP) got 1,202,034 and Umeda (supported by Communist Party) 357,159.  It is said that most of the supporters of Komei Party, a Buddhist Party which has been allying with LDP, voted for Hashimoto and Matsui.  LDP was split between anti-Ishin group and “appeasing” group.

[7] For the general political scene, see, for example, “Political visions in Japan: Generational warfare”(“Economist”, January 28, 2012) http://www.economist.com/node/21543544

Posted by: daniellesabai | 2012/04/29

New Signs of Hope: Resistance in China Today.

Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixue [1]

The number of cases of resistance in China continues to grow. Protests both large and small are an extremely frequent occurrence in China. They range in scale and nature from workers’ protests against unpaid wages or demands for increasing labour rights, to protests against corrupt officials or environmental protests. While protests have often been brought to a swift end via repressive means, struggles have also frequently led to concessions being granted to the protestors, as the party-state will adopt different means by which to limit social unrest and restore “social harmony”. The fact that the overwhelming majority of protests are spontaneous or limited to one locality or to a single issue, and furthermore due to fact that information and reports concerning struggles are frequently censored, makes it very difficult to view or comment conclusively regarding an in depth overall picture of resistance in China. However, there have been some struggles that have emerged more recently that have stood out for their significant new features, and which are worth commenting on as they seem to mark unprecedented steps forward or a change from the past. For twenty years, since the crack down on the democratic movement in 1989, deep demoralization has persisted among workers in the declining state sector, whilst among the booming private sector the low expectation of rural migrant workers has meant that they have been unaware of many of their rights. Thus workers’ economic struggles in both sectors have been highly atomised and spontaneous. The recent cases show that things may begin to change, as they reflect higher awareness regarding the coordinating of struggles and even an aspiration for grass-root democracy.  Although the party-state apparently remains very strong, there are signs at the provincial level that the party has to come to terms with this growing aspiration of the grassroots, hence these struggles subsequently offer us some new signs of hope. We would like to attempt here to provide an assessment of some of the more significant struggles of the last three years, to try to illustrate why they are significant in the context of China and why such forms of resistance could potentially be of importance for the future of wider resistance in China.

Labour Struggles

The Tonghua anti-privatisation struggle.[2]

The Tonghua anti-privatisation struggle of July 2009 is the first of such struggles that we would like to look at. The struggle by steel workers at the Tonghua Steel Mill in Jilin province, which led to the death of a factory boss, resulted in a victory for the workers and led to the plans to buy out and privatize the steel mill being dropped. The protest had begun when workers found out about plans for Jianlong steel to take over and control the company. The workers already had cause to resent this. Jianlong had already bought a 36% share in Tonghua in September 2005 and this had resulted in a wave of layoffs. In addition Jianlong had also previously temporarily controlled the company in 2008 and had fared badly financially when steel prices had fallen. Afraid of further job losses, in a city where the steel mill was the only major employer, when they found out about the planned takeover the workers decided to take action to protest against it. On the 24th July, therefore, a worker who had previously been laid off hung a banner outside the Tonghua main office building saying, “Jianlong, Get out of Tonghua” and workers started to blockade a railway in order to stop supplies from reaching the mill so as to cause the company to suspend production. Approximately 30,000 present and former workers and their families were involved in the protest.

The action ended after 10pm that night following factory boss Chen Guojin being beaten to death during the protest. Jianlong withdrew their offer to buy out the mill just hours after Chen was killed. Much of the workers anger had been specifically directed at Chen, who had first come to Tonghua in 2006 not long after Jianlong had first purchased a stake in the company. He was resented not only due to the fact that he was seen as the representative of Jianlong and in addition was known for his tough disciplinarian management style, but also because of workers’ recognition of the increased inequality and injustice in the pay differential between management and themselves that had occurred since Chen arrived. One report claimed, for instance, that while Chen was paid 3 million Yuan in 2008, some of the company retirees were receiving as little as 200 Yuan per month[3].

The struggle successfully stopped Jianlong’s privatization in Tonghua. The following year China’s Shougang Steel Group, a giant SOE, acquired a majority share in the company. Although this was a victory, it remains to be seen how long the workers can keep their jobs, since after restructuring SOEs are run as any other commercial entities with pressures to cut the cost of labour.

The Tonghua struggle is significant for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it not only illustrates yet another case of resistance where Chinese workers are not prepared to passively sit back in the face of privatisation, the fact that in this struggle a manager was killed only goes to reflect the growing depth of the anger and desperation of workers whose livelihoods and means of survival are at stake, while management reap in the rewards and grant themselves even higher salaries. During the enterprise reforms since late 1980s, it was not uncommon to read in the news that individual workers killed the managers for sacking them or for cutting their wages, but this was never a collective action. Where there were collective actions – mostly demonstrations, camping in front of factories etc – they were moderate and very self disciplined due to fear of retaliation. The Tonghua incident is the first case where a manager was killed by a large group of workers and was supported by most other fellow workers. The workers’ violence was also widely supported by netizens. Such a massive outbreak of anger by workers frightened the local government and forced the latter to make significant concessions to the workers. Whether it represents an individual case or is a sign that the demoralizing effect of the 1989 defeat on workers is now receding, still remains to be seen. But future SOE workers’ struggles may refer to this example and continue draw inspiration from it.

Secondly, at more or less the same time as the Tonghua struggle, workers at the Linzhou Steel Company in Puyang city was also fighting against privatization and the victory at Tonghua greatly encouraged their struggle. At the height of the incident the workers locked up an official from the municipal government for 90 hours. They also ended their fight with a victory.

Thirdly, the Chinese steel industry, which is the world’s largest, is an example of one of the industries in which many workers have lost their jobs as they have become victims of the large scale layoffs resulting from the central government policy of pushing the industries into privatization and/or a series of mergers aimed at making them globally competitive. In the ferrous metal industry, in the period 1996-2001, the workforce declined from 3.37 million to 2.04 million, a 40 percent fall in the workforce.[4] Although now just one fifth of the national working class, the Tonghua struggle proves that SOEs and collective enterprises workers can still be a formidable force. In addition to this is the fact that although the weight of both SOEs and their workforce has declined, the most important industries are still SOEs, even post restructuring, and this gives more power to these workers than numbers alone might suggest.

Finally, in the Tonghua case and the Linzhou case all the supposedly pro-labour institutions within the plants – the trade union, the staff and workers representative congress etc –proved ineffective at representing workers’ interest. This was why workers at both plants took actions independently of the official trade union, despite many of the workers being members. One Tonghua employee speaking to China Daily commented that, “I can’t remember the last time we had a conference with our union representative. The union certainly didn’t do any good the day Chen was killed.”[5]

The Honda Workers’ Strike

In May 2010, what has been probably the most high profile incidents of strike action in China’s recent history began when Honda workers in Foshan, Guangdong province, took action calling for higher wages and, perhaps even more significantly, the reorganization of their workplace trade union, triggering off a wave of strike action by workers in foreign-owned car plants that summer. Unlike in the case of the Tonghua struggle, these workers did not take action in the face of an imminent attack on them caused by potential job losses due to privatization, but already working at a privately owned enterprise, took action in order to actively improve on their current situation.

The strike action, which first began on the 17th May with around 100 workers going on strike, was followed by two further strikes on 21st May. This led to retaliation by Honda management who dismissed two of the workers’ leaders. The workers did not give in, however, and the following day the strike spread as the whole factory went on strike bringing its production to a complete halt. The strike lasted for more than two weeks and only ended after regular workers at the plant had been offered a 35% pay increase and those working as interns at the factory had received a raise of more than 70%. Previously the Honda workers had been receiving wages which were well below the industry standards.  Honda had also been particularly quick to exploit those on internship programmes, as they were not protected by Chinese Labour Law and so paid wages that were far below the minimum wage.

Despite the different circumstances in the action taken, as in the case of the Tonghua struggle, the ACFTU at the Honda plant was failing to protect the interests of the workers. Indeed, in the course of the strike the local level trade union showed that its interests did not really lie with the workers at all. On May 31st some of the striking workers reported that they had been physically attacked by men wearing union badges.  Even after it issued a vague apology letter it was still clear that the union was more keen to encourage them to go back to work as quickly as possible, than to ensure a positive outcome for the workers. At an enterprise based level, however, the Honda workers recognized that their union was failing them and thus had made the reorganization of the workplace based union a key demand of the strike. In an open letter by worker representatives they condemned the branch trade union saying, “We are outraged by the trade union’s appropriation of the fruits of the workers’ struggles. We insist that the branch trade union of the factory shall be elected by the production line workers.”[6] In the end, the workers were not able to realize this demand in their settlement with the management. Although the local trade union was soon to announce an election of the workplace union at the company in late August 2010, it turned out that this was only a by-election, where only part of the workplace union leadership was open to election and the original chairperson, who was very much resented by the striking workers, kept his seat. According to a study by Globalization Monitor in April 2012, the election in August 2010 and again in November 2011, hosted by the local trade union, was deliberately arranged in a highly complicated way – the election of union representatives alone went through four stages – such that members of the management were elected as members of the leadership, while the activists who led the strike in 2010 were pushed out altogether. Nevertheless, one positive development reported to have taken place is that the workplace union was able to negotiate a further wage increase in March 2011 as a result of collective bargaining with the management.[7]

The fact that many of the workers were so young – more than 50% of those who took part in the first strike in Foshan were high school students on internship programmes – is in itself significant. This is because it means that the strike represents the actions of a new generation of Chinese workers, who have no memory of their own of the defeat of the 1989 democracy movement – in fact most of them probably do not know of the event at all because of censorship – and who are prepared to fight to improve conditions at their own workplace. Whereas SOEs workers generally were not prepared to call for the re-election of workplace unions due to fear of being accused of “trying to get rid of the leadership of the party”, these young workers in the private sector, mostly rural household holders or those coming from small cities, dared to break the taboo and call for the re-election of the workplace union.

Secondly, the Honda workers showed that they have a much broader vision than their parents. At the height of their struggle they made it clear that they saw their actions as being in the interests of the whole Chinese working class. In the words of the striking workers, “Our struggle to defend our rights is not just about fighting for ourselves, the 1800 workers of Honda. We are concerned about the rights of all the workers in the whole country. We want to set a good example of workers struggling for their rights.”[8] We are not sure that how many workers may share this kind of vision, but one thing is certain, they are quite unlike their parents, who may say “ershi ding chushan, sishi ding shoushan” (when we are at twenty we all go to cities to work, and when we turn forty we all go back to our home village). Instead this young generation of rural migrant workers in general have a strong desire to establish roots in the cities, and are more likely to view themselves as part of the urban working people rather than as nongmingong. In fact, they rarely till the land at all and have little intention to live as peasants. Those who receive secondary education or vocational training are more likely to have a broader vision than their parents too. Even if the Honda case remains an individual case, like the Tonghua case it will nevertheless be referred to as an important signpost for the development of resistance among young rural migrant workers. What they can accomplish is still largely unknown but these young workers may surprise us in many ways in the near future.

The Pepsi workers’ struggle

Another significant recent example of protest action by workers was the protest by thousands of workers from Pepsi bottling plants, on the 14th November 2011, against an agreement between PepsiCo. Inc and Taiwanese Tingyi Holding Corporation (also known as “Master Kong”). As a result of the agreement, which involves PepsiCo giving up its bottling operations in China and transferring its equity interests to Tingyi-Asahi Beverages Holding Co. (TAB), a joint-venture between Tingyi and Japanese company Asahi Group Holdings Ltd, in exchange for a stake in this joint-venture company, workers were to have their existing contracts with PepsiCo terminated and would be forced to renegotiate them with TAB. On hearing the news, the workers, who claimed that they had previously known nothing about the deal between the companies, took the day off work[9]  and protested to demand either  that the takeover be halted or that if their contracts were to be terminated then they had a right to compensation from PepsiCo for its violation of the original contract.

 The protest by the workers is significant because, unlike most workers’ protests in China, the workers took the unprecedented step of coordinating their action. Protests took place at bottling plants in more than five different cities at the same time, including Chongqing, Chengdu, Fuzhou, Changsha and Nanchang.  Moreover following the protest action, an online campaign was organised to try and involve workers at all of PepsiCo’s bottling plants across China.

Subsequently on November 30th, Pepsi did actually announce some compensation packages for the workers, who were given the option of either staying on and working for one more year and then receiving a higher level of compensation pay, immediate compensation of a smaller amount, or to keep their current labour contracts without making any changes. Nevertheless posts on workers blogs, which were quickly deleted soon after they appeared, have indicated that at least among some works there was still dissatisfaction with the situation. On December 1st for instance, a Lanzhou Pepsi workers’ microblog stated that the workers did not agree with the terms offered by their employers and that workers were still demanding that their employers respond to the demands of their working party. If the management did not respond in time the workers threatened to do whatever they could within the law to express their grievances.

 The alliance between PepsiCo and Tingyi was finally approved by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce at the end of March 2012. While there are reports that the works remain unsatisfied with the proposed compensation package, it remains to be seen whether any further action will be taken.

The Wukan Protests

Probably the most remarkable case of resistance of the last year was the 2011 struggle by villagers in Wukan, a fishing village with a population of approximately 13,000, in Guangdong province. This struggle saw the ruling Communist Party temporarily completely losing control of the village to the villagers, and then even when this came to an end it was with a partial victory for the villagers, who were able to set about preparing to organise new independent elections to their village committee for the first time.

The Wukan incident began due to action taken by villagers’ due to their opposition to illegal land seizures by corrupt government officials. “Land grabbing” is a common problem in China, and indeed it has been officially acknowledged that more than 43 percent of Chinese farmers have been victims of this and that local governments have made huge profits as a result.[10] Nevertheless, protests in opposition to such corruption have also been extremely frequent, something which has become of growing concern to China’s leadership who are keen to maintain social stability, leading them to state at least in rhetoric that there is a need to protect peasants’ rights.  In Wukan, according to villagers, the problem of their land first being taken from them and sold off to property developers was something that had actually been going on since the mid 1990s. It was not until a few years ago, however, that a group of the villagers had first begun submitting legal complaints about corrupt officials misappropriating village land.  It was then, in September 2011 that the villagers finally decided that they had had enough and came out onto the streets leading to mass protests, the storming of local government offices and the driving out of the party secretary.

In this instance, riot police were soon sent in to attack the villagers, however, and villagers were driven back. Although shortly afterwards, the local government asked the villagers to choose 13 representatives to represent them in mediation, as soon as the villagers’ anger had died down, the government tried to get the village back under their control and in early December the representatives were arrested from a restaurant in Wukan, interrogated and then thrown into jail. Two days later, when riot police were again sent into the village, they were met by more mass protests from the villagers and despite attempts to regain control, by using tear gas and water cannons, police were pushed out of the village, retreating to a road block a few miles away, from where they tried to prevent food and water from entering the village as the protests continued. When it was heard that, Xue Jinbo, one of the thirteen village representatives had subsequently died in custody, anger at the news of this death only fuelled the determination to protest.

 The Wukan protests were significant for a number of reasons. In the end, despite the initial brutality and the horrendous death of Xue Jinbo, the protests were not fiercely suppressed, as they have been known to be in the past, but rather they resulted in the release of those detained, the promise that the villagers’ complaints would be addressed, and what is more, for the first time in decades, the official recognition of a provisional committee, founded by the villagers, by the municipal and provincial governments [11], hence allowing the villagers a vehicle to make preparations for elections for a new village committee to be held in which the villagers could themselves actively participate.  This shows that struggle from below has the potential to change the party’s practical ban on any form of autonomous organisation.

In February 2012 this then led to genuine elections being held in Wukan for the first time, to create an 11 member elections committee which would organise the election of a new village committee the following month. The old officials who had overseen the illegal selling off of the land had already been driven out. Much was done to ensure that these elections were open and democratic.  Prior to these elections a census of the village population was conducted with the aim of aiding transparency and, according to a Xinhua report,  more than 70% of those eligible took part in the ballot. Furthermore, all candidates were required to make a public statement announcing that they would not run in the forthcoming election to the village committee and were required to collect 50 signatures from their fellow villagers to support their running in the election so as to make sure that they at least had minimum support. According to the report many of the villagers, who were participating in an election for the first time, were very enthusiastic about it.[12]  Following the February election of the election committee, in March the election to the new village committee was then held.  One of the representatives hoped that this election might inspire the nation and that all levels of the government, from the villages to the central government will be democratically elected in the future.[13]

That the villagers won the right to these elections no doubt represents a remarkable and previously unprecedented step forward for the villagers in Wukan. Recent online comparisons have been made of the Wukan elections and the election for the Hong Kong Chief Executive have shown how Wukan is now more democratic than Hong Kong, both a reflection on the achievement of the villagers in Wukan as well as the lack of democracy in Hong Kong. What this new democracy will actually mean for the villagers of Wukan, however, is yet to be seen. Indeed, the problem of the illegal land seizures initially raised by the villagers, and which was the cause of the protests, has not yet been resolved and it is uncertain as to whether it really adequately will be.

It is also worth commenting on how despite the protestors denouncing the corruption of officials, the protest was not a protest against the Communist Party. There were in fact many banners and statements throughout the incident which actually expressed support for the Party, something commonly expressed at all varieties of different protests in China,  and often reflecting the mentality that it is corrupt local officials rather than the central government who are to blame. Indeed among the protest leaders were Communist Party members, one of whom, Lin Zuluan has since been promoted to the position of party secretary of Wukan. The villagers’ trust in him is reflected in how he was then later also elected by villagers to head the village committee in the March election, meaning that he now holds both the position of party secretary and head of the village committee.

The Wukan protests are also significant because they have the potential to act as inspiration to other struggles in China. One question which has frequently surfaced in the discussion over the implications of the Wukan incident is of how far the event or the subsequently much more democratic model that has emerged as a result of the protests has the potential to be replicated elsewhere in China. However, talk of a “Wukan model” is overly optimistic if not misleading. The events at Wukan can be seen in terms of a victory being brought about by determined grassroots resistance on such a scale, but also specific conditions, namely that one of the leaders of the struggle was a popular and skilful Communist party member, and that it had the support of a fully developed network of young villagers who made all efforts, through electronic devices and the internet, in breaking news censorship. An additional factor is probably the fact that the Guangdong provincial government has, in recent years, been seen as being a bit more tolerant towards economic protests, as it realizes that these are not necessarily threatening to the party state. If such reforms were to be introduced elsewhere from above, however, they would most likely only be on a limited scale and could be easily reversible at any time, for instance if candidates who lack party approval or are seen as a threat are elected. It would only be through more widespread struggle that saw beyond the immediate single issue that a more genuinely democratic and accountable model could emerge in China.

Environmental Protests

Environmental issues are also a major cause of protests in China. Despite government claims about aims to reduce environment pollution and to create a cleaner environment, such claims often have little meaning or are put aside where they conflict with the desire to attract investment. Nevertheless, due to feared social instability environmental protests have been known to have at least some successes.


One recent example of a widely reported environmental protest comes from the Dalian struggle of August 2011, in which protests in the city of Dalian in Liaoniang province, Northeast China, led to authorities ordering a petrochemical plant to be immediately shut down and pledges to relocate it elsewhere. The protest began after Dalian residents became concerned about the potential spill of toxic chemical paraxylene (PX) from the Fujia chemical plant following a heavy storm which had caused high waves to burst through the dyke protecting the plant. Despite the authorities insisting that there had been no spills, thousands of residents nonetheless took to the streets in anger about the spill and the safety risks that they were being exposed to by the plant. Many claimed that toxins had in fact leaked from the plant and used slogans demanding “PX out of Dalian” and “Refuse PX”.  It was furthermore reported that Chinese reporters who had tried to investigate at the plant had been beaten by security guards.[14]

As in many cases authorities were keen to limit the scale of social unrest and early into the protests the mayor of Dalian, Li Wancai, tried to appease protesters by offering to relocate the plant, however many of the protesters demanded that a clear timetable had to be established first before they would end the protests. Indeed one of the key issues, which this protest highlighted, was the clear mistrust of the authorities by the residents. In the words of one demonstrator, “”Even if there was contamination, the government would restrict the news.”[15]

This was not the first protest to lead to the scrapping of a project involving the chemical PX. Following protests in Xiamen in 2007, for instance, the authorities there were also pushed into halting a similar project and moving it out of the city’s jurisdiction.

Despite the Dalian protest ending with what seemed like a victory for the protesters with the plant being shut down and the promise that the authorities would relocate it to Xizhong island, reports have since suggested that the Dalian factory may have been reopened, although much of the news reporting on the plant’s resumption on mainland websites has since been removed.[16] If the plant has indeed reopened then it reflects just how little the word of the authorities’ means and how easy it is for them to backtrack on their promises at any time.


In December 2011 thousands of villagers protested for four days in Haimen, a town in Guangdong province not so far away from Wukan, by blocking a road and surrounding government offices, to express their opposition towards the planned expansion of a coal-fired power station owned by state-run Huaneng Power. The residents were prompted to protest due to concerns about the high level of pollution, which they said was already leading to health problems including a rise in the number of cancer cases, from the existing power station.

In this case riot police who fired tear gas at the crowd were sent in to try to break up the protest, which resulted in injuries and also reports of two deaths. The incident also resulted in a few of the protesters being detained, allegedly for vandalism. Due to fear that the protests might grow, and probably with Wukan in mind, many efforts were made to deter protesters. Students, for instance, were reported as having been prevented from leaving school until late in the day out of fear that they might join in with the protest. [17] Meanwhile, local televisions broadcast clips showing legal experts warning that those who joined the protests could face up to five years in prison.[18]

Reports have indeed suggested that many of the residents in Haimen had been following the situation in Wukan and were influenced by it. The fact that these two events were taking place at the same time would no doubt have only added to the pressure put on the provincial government and may also have contributed to the quick decision being made regarding the suspension of the power station project, once the immediate response of trying to deter protesters had failed. Authorities would certainly not want there to be any chance of events at Haimen spiralling out into another Wukan, potentially involving even larger numbers. The protest therefore resulted in the Shantou city government, under whose jurisdiction Haimen falls, announcing that the project was to be temporarily suspended and with the detained protesters being released. No promises were made to put a stop to the plan altogether, however.


As the cases here have shown, resistance in China can bring about limited positive change. This is important not only in terms of the benefits of the immediate victory, such as to halt privatisation, to win better working conditions or to limit harm to the environment but more importantly as such victories can act to inspire the future action of others and help to impact on the potential for their positive outcome, as is illustrated  by the influence that the struggles of the Tonghua steel workers, the Honda workers and the villagers of Wukan had on other similar struggles at the same time. The forms that resistance have taken also reflect how the current generation are becoming increasingly bolder. Although still on a smaller scale, the attempt by Pepsi workers to coordinate their action is of particular note in this respect. Even if such coordination was contemplated in the past, fear of the consequences would only have acted as a deterrent. The fact that the young Honda workers made the claim that they were acting interests of the whole Chinese working class again shows how there are signs that this new generation, free from the memory of the terrible defeat of 1989, has the potential ability to see beyond their immediate issue and to identify with wider concerns. Although at present these remain but small signs, they give us reason not to give up hope.

This article has ben written for Contretemps

[1] Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixue are both members of editorial board of China Labor Net.

[2] The following sections on the Tonghua anti-privatisation struggle and on the Honda Workers’ Strike are adapted from our article “The Case for an Autonomous Labour Movement in China,” Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixue

[4] Woguo zhongchangqi shiye wenti yanjiu (Research on China Medium and Long Term Unemployment) , Jiang Xuan, China People’s University Press, Beijing, 2004, p.181

[5] Cited in “China debates the lessons of Tonghua tragedy”, China Labour Bulletin, http://www.clb.org.hk/en

[6] Open Letter to the Public and All the Workers in Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co., Ltd., 3rd June 2010


[7]Nanhai bentian laozi tanpan, jinnian gongzi zaizhang 600 yuan, (Honda Nanhai Wage Negotiation Resulted in Raising 611 Yuan wages for This Year),


[8] Nanhai bentian gongren daibiao fachu gongkaixin (Honda Nanhai Workers Representatives’ Open Letter), June 3, 2010,  http://www.sina.com.cn

[9] Workers are reported to have claimed that they were not on strike but simply protesting to demand their rights.

[11] Although, it is also significant that the Honda Foshan workers representatives won official recognition as elected as grassroots representatives, which is rare, in their negotiating with the management.

[12] Guangdong Wukan cunmin yiren yi piao tuixuan cunmin xuanju weiyuanhui, Xinhua Guangdong, February 2nd 2012.

[13] Ming Pao, December 18, 2011.

[14] Cited in “Tens of thousands protests against chemical plant in Northern China”, Guardian, 14th August 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/14/china-protest-against-px-chemical-plant

[15] Ibid

[17] Chinese official denies reports of deaths at Haimen Protest, Reuters, 21st December 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/21/china-protest-plant-idUSL3E7NL0KR20111221

[18] Police fire tear gas at protesters in Chinese city, New York Times, 23rd December 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/24/world/asia/china-jails-rights-activist-chen-wei-for-9-years.html

Posted by: daniellesabai | 2012/04/29

Burma: Series of by-elections Held

Danielle Sabai

On April 1 by-elections were held in Burma to fill 48 vacant seats in Parliament. The National League for Democracy (LND) led by the Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won 43 out of the 44 seats that it contested. The result was greeted unanimously by the international press as a victory for democracy.

Some steps forward

The fact that it was possible for the LND and other opposition parties to take part in the elections should not make us forget the context in which they took place. For the majority of Burmese people, life has changed little since the transition to a semi-civilian government headed by the former general of the junta Thein Sein, in March 2011. A (small) number of political prisoners have been released and there has been some relative progress with regard to democratic freedoms.

These gestures cost the reconverted Burmese junta little, while they served as guarantees to the international community to obtain the lifting of economic sanctions. But in this country impoverished by 60 years of military dictatorships, the real reforms which would change the life of the 54 million Burmese people are still awaited.

In spite of assurances that the elections would be independent and democratic, they were marked by massive irregularities: censorship, pressure on candidates, violence against activists, intimidation of voters, vote-buying, irregular registration on electoral rolls. The authorities and the Electoral Commission created many obstacles in order to obstruct the electoral campaign of the LND.

Violation of human rights

At the same time, in spite of the signature of peace agreements with several ethnic minorities, military conflicts have continued, as have serious violations of human rights. According to the commission on human rights of the United Nations (UNHRC), the methods of the Burmese Army, the Tatmadaw, have not changed: attacks against civilians, extra-judicial murders, rape, forced displacement of populations, use of civilians as human shields and recourse to forced labour.

On March 23, the Electoral Commission postponed the elections in three districts in the Kachin territory, where the army is conducting a military offensive, depriving more than 200,000 people of the vote.

For the ethnic minorities, which account for 40 per cent of the Burmese population, no improvement has been seen with the new government. On the contrary, the situation has worsened, with a renewal of military conflicts.

The April 1 elections have symbolic significance, but they will not change the relations of power. The National League for Democracy will have approximately 5 per cent of the seats in Parliament, whereas the army and its principal party, the USDP, have about 80 per cent. Moreover, the Parliament has very limited powers and the army has a right to veto its decisions.


Burma is still far from being a democracy. Is it really on the road to it?

The answer will depend on the ability to exert pressure, both in Burma and outside the country, on this government whose objective is to remain in charge of the economy and of business in order to enrich itself.

The real success of these elections lies without question in the massive mobilization of tens of thousands of Burmese citizens, who broke the fear of getting involved in politics. Suu Kyi herself considers that “it is the emergence of the political consciousness of our population that we regard as our greatest success”.

Translated from French by and for International Viewpoint

Peter Boyle

The Coalition of Free and Fair Elections (know as Bersih — which means “clean” in Malay) called for a mass sit in on April 28 because it suspected that the country’s entrenched Barisan Nasional (BN) government was about to call a general election before addressing widespread electoral irregularities. The irregularities were confirmed by a review forced on the government by the previous Bersih 2.0 mass rally on July 9 last year.

The government banned the Bersih 2.0 protest. It set up roadblocks around the capital Kuala Lumpur, carried out pre-emptive arrests of activists and tried to ban the wearing of yellow clothes, the colour used by the movement.

Yet about 50,000 defied the riot squad, tear gas attacks and 1600 arrests and took to the streets.

It became the “Malaysian Spring”. Stories, photos and amateur video footage of great bravery and perseverance of the “rakyat”, the ordinary people of Malaysia, went viral in the social media.

One image that was etched in the hearts of millions of Malaysian democracy activists was that of tear-gassed 65-year old retired teacher Annie Ooi Siew Lan — later popularly dubbed “Auntie Bersih” — walking away from riot police line, wearing her “banned” yellow t-shirt and clutching a water bottle and a small bunch of flowers.

Bersih 3.0 organisers hope to at least double the numbers coming out. More than 53 Bersih solidarity actions are planned in 18 other countries.

The movement is making three demands:

1. The election commission must resign, as it has failed in its responsibility and has lost the confidence of the public.

2. The electoral process must be cleaned before the [next] general elections.

3. Invite international observers to observe the general elections.

If these conditions are not met, the movement fears the BN government will rig the election.

Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj told Green Left Weekly: “More than 50% of the urban population, maybe as high as 70% in certain areas, supports the opposition Pakatan Rakyat front.

“Many of these supporters are deeply suspicious of the BN. They feel that the BN regularly cheats in the elections, and that this time they are packing the electoral roll with foreign workers. Information recently received by the Electoral Commission seems to indicate that there is hanky-panky going on.

“Let me give some examples. The parliamentary seat of Kota Raja has had a huge increase of voters — an increase of 32% over the number on the roll in March 2008. The overall increase for the country as a whole is about 10%, and the neighbouring parliamentary constituency of Klang had an increase of about 13%.

“Similarly, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter Nurul Izzah’s seat of Lembah Pantai witnessed an increase in voters of 26% since March 2008 while the neighbouring seat of Siputeh only experienced a 5% increase.

“The rumour mills are working overtime. People allege that thousands of foreign workers have been given identification papers and that they have been asked to vote for the ruling coalition. Something like this did actually occur in the state of Sabah, so it is not a totally outlandish suspicion.”

Jeyakumar said there “is a perception that massive cheating is going to take place.

“Then we have the open warning by the prime minister that the ruling coalition will hold on to power whatever happens. He now says that it was just rhetoric to motivate his party members, but people are worried that he would hang on to power by extra-parliamentary means.

“The BN has gone on an open vote-buying spree. Five hundred Malaysian Ringgit [about A$160] has been given out as cash handouts to around 70% of Malaysian families. One hundred Ringgit has been given to all school children. This is significant because around 35% of Malaysian families earn a monthly income below 2000 Ringgit.

“All this is unprecedented, and underlines the fact that the ruling coalition feels itself under threat. Meanwhile, BN politicians and their proxies are trying to stir up ethnic-religious anxieties.

“So people feel that we need to mobilise peoples’ power to make sure that the peoples’ will as expressed by the polls is respected.”

Jeyakumar noted the BN government’s “marked departure from their aggressive authoritarian stance over Bersih 2.0. The government is playing it cautiously now.”

Global Bersih

David Teoh, a Malaysian currently working in Australia, helped organise a very successful global component to the Bersih 2.0 action last July. He played a direct role in organising actions in Australia, the biggest of which drew about 1000 Malaysians and their supporters in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

This year, Teoh told GLW that he expects even bigger global Bersih mobilisations.

“We had Malaysians in 38 cities supporting Bersih 2.0,” he said. “This time around, we have banded together to increase the number of global locations and to get the message out there to Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike in support of Bersih 3.0.

“The Global Bersih website will serve as a one stop centre for all Global-related Bersih news.

“Juxtaposed with the police violence against Bersih 2.0 in Kuala Lumpur, the Global Bersih movement proved to be highly embarrassing on the government as Malaysians abroad assembled peacefully under the protection of the police at their respective locations.

“Since Bersih 2.0, the Malaysian government has commendably responded by setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee which has come up with 22 recommendations for electoral reforms, most of which have to be responded to by the Electoral Commission (EC).

“However in that same period, we have witnessed the total inability of the EC to address the fundamental issue of cleansing the electoral roll, which is mired with irregularities.

“At present, the Malaysian government has given the undertaking that they will not crack down on the main Bersih 3.0 sit-down rally to be held in Kuala Lumpur. However, there is some disagreement with the venue chosen, Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur. We will have to wait on how this will play out in the coming days ahead.”

Student protests

Since July 14, students demanding free education and protesting the government’s education loan system have been peacefully occupying Independence Square.

Several tents have been set up, tapping into the symbolism of the global Occupy movement. Student activists say they will stay there to welcome the Bersih 3.0 protesters on April 28.

However in the early hours of the morning of April 19 a group of 50-70 thugs attacked the students’ camp, smashed up their tents and destroyed some of their equipment.

At first, nearby police allowed the attack to proceed. They intervened later only after students demanded they act against this criminal activity.

Meanwhile, the right-wing Perkasa militia group (which the BN government allows to operate as a counterforce to the democratic and progressive movements) has threatened to hold a counter-rally at Independence Square on April 29. However, a similar right-wing counter-protest to Bersih 2.0 drew very small numbers last year.

From Green Left Weekly 918

Niel Wijethilaka and K. Govindan

More than 5,000 people packed Colombo’s Sugathadasa stadium for the inaugural conference of the Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya (Frontline Socialist Party – FSP) on 9 April 2012. Most were members and sympathisers of this new Left party – a breakaway from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples’ Liberation Front – JVP); but many representatives of other radical Left parties, Left intellectuals, and progressive social activists were also in attendance. The emergence and consolidation of the FSP is an important and hopeful development for the revival of peoples’ movements in Sri Lanka in the post-war era, following decades of retreat of the labour and left movements.

Underlining the internationalism of the new party, and its understanding of the relationship between national and global struggles against capitalism, the Convention was dominated by speeches and messages from international guests[1] and representatives of FSP branches in England, France and Italy. Greetings were also delivered by Left groups within Sri Lanka, mainly of Trotskyist and Maoist lineage, including Vickramabahu Karunarathne on behalf of the Nava Sama Samaja Party.

A ‘Party for Us’ announced the new party in a poster and social media campaign in the weeks leading up the Convention, showcasing images of the poor and exploited – of different classes, occupations and ethnicities, who are unrepresented in the present political system.

Currently, the working class movement is passive and its traditional leadership are unwilling to challenge the government on the unbearable cost of living and the pillaging of workers savings to service government debt and stimulate the stock market. The number of strikes and workers on strike has sharply declined to only 8 recorded strikes in 2009, with only 5,320 workers involved in contrast to 52 strikes of over 200,000 workers in 2006.

The governmental Left is palpably weaker in policy influence than in previous coalitions and unable to even moderate the authoritarian capitalism of the Rajapakse government. The organised Left outside the government has declined numerically and in social weight and is struggling to regenerate itself. While there have been some significant social struggles of free trade zone workers, university teachers, and fisher-folk in the past year, these have been short-lived episodes with only partial defensive gains at best.

Abductions overshadow Convention

The excitement of an impressively organised and staged launch was overshadowed by the abduction of two leading members of the new party on the eve of its Convention; in a transparent attempt to sabotage the event and to sow disarray and confusion in its ranks.

Premakumar Gunarathnam and Dimuthu Attygala were abducted in two separate incidents within hours of each other, following a pre-Convention meeting of the leadership on 7 April. Their party was unequivocal in holding the state responsible for the abductions and in expressing the widespread sentiment that it was a prelude to their extra-judicial killing, as has been the despicable trend in Sri Lanka.

Even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – which unsurprisingly has had a hostile relationship with its former comrades – was forthright in blaming the Rajapakse regime for the ‘disappearance’ of Gunarathnam and Attygala and in expressing the widespread lack of confidence in the investigative process. “Since the government was involved in murders, abductions, disappearances and suppressions of opposition political activists”, said JVP parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake, “the [law enforcement agencies] were helpless.”[2]

In fact, since October 2011 alone, around 60 individuals have been abducted or ‘disappeared’[3], in so-called ‘white van’ incidents (after the colour and favoured vehicle of the perpetrators). Most of them are not of Tamil origin, unlike during the war, but rather from the Sinhala, Muslim and the indigenous peoples (Wanniyaletto) communities.

However, among them are two supporters of the new party of Tamil origin, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Murugandan. Both activists were abducted on 9 December 2011 in Jaffna where they were campaigning for justice with family members of Tamils who have been ‘disappeared’ or reported missing during the last stages of the war.[4] Weeraraj and Murugandan’s whereabouts and physical safety remain uncertain; and international solidarity for their release must be redoubled.

It is widely believed that most of these abductions are organised by military/paramilitary/ex-military units under the direction of the all-powerful Defence Secretary and brother to the President, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, to dispose of those believed to be of threat or inconvenience to the regime, or whom they are unable to detain through judicial process for lack of evidence.

Enforced Disappearances

The practice of ‘enforced disappearances’ has been prevalent in all political regimes and have targeted both Sinhala and Tamils: the former mainly during the JVP insurrection between 1987 and 1990 and the latter mainly during the 26 year civil war that ended in May 2009.

Covert ‘counter-terrorist’ operations of this nature were revived following the 2005 election to the presidency of Mahinda Rajapakse; and the reorganisation of the state security apparatus by Gotabhaya Rajapakse – a former officer in the Sri Lanka Army who saw active duty in the brutal suppression of the Sinhala youth rebellion in the late 1980s.

In an unprecedented development, Gunarathnam and Attygala were both released from captivity on 10 April. Their safe release is only due to the broad and diverse political coalition that protested against their abduction within Sri Lanka, the diplomatic pressure of the Australian government, and an international solidarity campaign that was swiftly organised including through the Fourth International.

The government denied responsibility for their abduction and has bizarrely sought to link Gunarathnam – who is of Tamil ethnicity – to the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and to highlight his Australian nationality and use of an alias to enter Sri Lanka.

This is really ludicrous because the JVP, of which Gunarathnam (nom de guerre ‘Kumara Mahattaya’) was an activist during its second insurrection and later leading member until last year’s split, has historically been implacably opposed to the Tamil armed struggle and indeed vocally supported the military campaign of the present and past governments.

Further, as an underground leader of the post-second insurrection JVP, and considering that his elder brother Ranjitham (the only Tamil-origin central committee member of the JVP during the late 1980s) was killed by state security forces, it is unsurprising that he would secure residence abroad for himself, and travel under an adopted name for his own protection.

Gunarathnam was promptly deported to Sydney where his wife and children live. Soon after his arrival he addressed a media conference organised by his party in Sri Lanka via the internet; and described how he had been tortured and sexually assaulted during his captivity.[5] He reaffirmed his political commitment to the struggle for socialism and to the new party.

Dimuthu Attygala (alias ‘Krishanthi’) is the best known woman leader of the FSP, and was formerly a member of the politburo of the JVP. Her area of responsibility was the women’s wing of the JVP (Socialist Women’s Union); and in the new party she has been assigned coordination of its international relations in addition to its women’s front organisation (‘Women’s Movement for Freedom’).

Recounting her ordeal in a media conference organised by the FSP following her release on 10 April, Attygala believes she was abducted to extract information on the new party’s international connections and particularly to discover its political and financial network [6]. Her captors persistently questioned her as to whether the FSP had links with pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora organisations. She has no doubt that she was abducted by state security personnel and detained at a military camp during her interrogation.

 Splits within JVP

Late last year the media began carrying reports of a major split within the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has been Sri Lanka’s largest Left party (although many Sri Lankan leftists object to characterising it as socialist because of its Sinhala nationalist stance on the Tamil national question).

The JVP’s roots are in the Maoist Ceylon Communist Party in the late 1960s and its membership and supporters are drawn from the Sinhala rural and semi-urban petty-bourgeoisie. Its central leader, Rohana Wijeweera, was expelled from the CCP-Peking and formed his own secretive organisation which led two armed insurrections against the Sri Lankan state in 1971 and later in 1987, which were brutally crushed with the loss of tens of thousands of young lives. In the second insurrection, all but one member of its leadership was physically eliminated.

In the early 1990s, the JVP revived its organisation and entered electoral politics. As the bourgeois populist Sri Lanka Freedom Party adopted the neoliberal policies of the right-wing United National Party after forming a new government in 1994, the JVP became the beneficiary of social and political discontent and a pole of attraction to radical students and young workers. Its parliamentary caucus grew from 1 member in 1994, to 10 in 2000 and 16 in 2001, and peaked at 39 (in the 225 seat legislature) in 2004. It also made significant gains among organised workers especially in the state and private sector, often through poaching members from rival unions; while also dominating politics in universities through its militant student unions which were not averse to using violence and ragging to exert its authority over the administration and students alike.

However, the JVP faced two ways: it presented itself as an anti-imperialist and an anti-capitalist force struggling for socialist revolution in Sri Lanka, while simultaneously projecting itself as a patriotic nationalist organisation rooted in Sinhala Buddhist culture and committed to the preservation of the unity and territorial integrity of the country.

As former general-secretary of the JVP, Lionel Bopage – who also pushed in the late 70s and early 80s for his party to recognise the existence of Tamil national oppression and to support the Tamil struggle for equality and justice – commented: “Since the late 1990s the JVP not only supported the chauvinist verbal onslaught against the Tamil people but also became an active collaborator in the brutal repression carried out by the state against the Tamil people. Thus, it has to bear some responsibility for the socio-cultural and economic outcomes that the working people of the island are experiencing today. For dividing the people by clouding its consciousness, the JVP, in particular its nationalist bloc used chauvinist and fundamentalist slogans to the maximum effect. The JVP camouflaged its ultra nationalist stance with socialist phraseology”.[7]

The JVP have been virulently opposed to any proposals for power-sharing with the Tamil nation. It was a bitter critic of the draft 2000 Constitution, the political proposals debated during the Cease-Fire Agreement (between 2002 and 2005), and withdrew from the All-Party Representative Committee process on constitutional reforms. It even continues to oppose the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that introduced limited devolution of powers to the regions, despite contesting elections for and being represented in those provincial councils.

The JVP were vocal supporters of the war and of the use of military force to suppress the LTTE. In their view, the division of the island through creation of an independent Tamil homeland (‘Tamil Eelam’) would benefit US imperialism and Indian ‘expansionism’ in the region. The logical political conclusion of this perspective was to form alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government that was prosecuting the war.

Thus, the JVP – like the ‘Old Left’ Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Communist Party of Sri Lanka decades before it – succumbed to the pressure of ‘coalition politics’ (popular frontism) by aligning itself with the SLFP, first by joining the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government in 2004, and later by vigorously supporting the election of her successor Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005.

As the flawed ‘peace process’ and full-blown war broke out after August 2006, the JVP mobilised Sinhala society in warmongering. The government even arranged for the JVP parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa to regularly address soldiers at the battle-front, in a morale-boosting exercise.

This twin policy of collaborating with the neoliberal governments of Kumaratunga and Rajapakse as well as its non-differentiation from the Sinhala chauvinist campaign against Tamil rights sparked an internal debate within the JVP on its revolutionary socialist identity.

Chauvinist split in 2008

Hidden from public view, the different viewpoints were partially revealed when the camp around the Sinhala chauvinist Weerawansa broke with the party and joined the Rajapakse coalition in April 2008, along with 10 other JVP parliamentarians. The JVP lost its most charismatic public speaker along with a front organisation of Buddhist monks and laity that was in the vanguard of agitation against political resolution of the national question.

At the time, Weerawansa revealed that there was a group within the party that wanted it to rethink its political positions, including on the Tamil question, and warned darkly of ‘Trotskyist’ deviations.

This was clearly an exodus of the Sinhala nationalist bloc within the JVP. It allowed the JVP to reassert its political independence from the Rajapakse regime. In fact, soon after the end of the war in mid-2009, the JVP in an about-turn began demanding the end of emergency rule, the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, speedy rehabilitation and release of LTTE combatants and Tamil political prisoners, and for respect for democratic and human rights. It also repositioned itself as a bitter critic of the Rajapakse regime but without any self-criticism of its own past political record of support.

The debate continued within the JVP as a group of dissidents attempted to win the traditional leadership of the party over. It was only in August 2011, when it became clear to the dissidents that there was no democratic space for them within the JVP that they took the decisive step of forming a public faction known as the Jana Aragala Vyaparaya (Movement for Peoples Struggle – MPS).

The dissidents began at a disadvantage. They were mainly second generation leaders recruited in the student movement in the course of the 1990s for e.g. Pubudu Jagoda (‘Lasith’), Chameera Koswatta, Waruna Deepthi Rajapaksa, Duminda Nagamuwa and others. The older members such as Senadheera Gunatilleke (‘Opatha’) were only known within the party and unknown to the general public as the JVP has generally projected its parliamentarians as its public spokespersons complemented by its paramount leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and its General Secretary Tilvin Silva as its ideologues. One of the MPS’ criticisms of the JVP is that its leaders were created through their entry into elected bodies such as parliament, and not through struggles.

The mainstream media was swift to describe the dissidents as ‘extremists’ and hint that they represented a throwback to the JVP’s armed adventurism. The identity of one of their key leaders, Premakumar Gunarathnam, was leaked to the media; and his Tamil ethnicity was used to throw mud at the new formation, manifesting Sri Lanka’s racist political culture.

However, the MPS was able to win the loyalty of most of the bureaus of the JVP (for e.g. student, education, publications etc.), as well as the majority of its district structures aside from Anuradhapura, Hambantota and Kurunegala. Also, many of the JVP’s overseas members, excepting perhaps in Japan, have also joined the new formation.

The new party is evidently well-funded in comparison to other Left parties. It has several full-timers and an efficient and disciplined organisational structure. It is supporting the Janarala newspaper (edited by the team that previously published the pro-JVP Irida Lanka weekly). It has organised several public events in the last few months to consolidate its membership and explain its differences with the JVP. It is able to mount posters island-wide and within the space of a few hours, such as immediately following the recent abduction of its leaders. Like the JVP it is able to count on the selflessness and self-sacrifice of its cadres and sympathisers. Its overseas committees are also critical to its income and in developing relations with fraternal organisations abroad.

The JVP has the support of 3 of the 4 parliamentarians returned in 2010; only Ajith Kumara representing Galle district has joined the FSP. It also has retained the support of its trade unions and their membership. However, its peasant front leader (and former member of parliament) S. K. Subasinghe has joined with the dissidents. The JVP has also secured most of its assets including headquarters and many district offices.

Partial Break with JVP

Initially, the MPS aimed to gain leadership of the JVP and therefore it has presented itself as the authentic or genuine inheritors of the legacy of Rohana Wijeweera. So, last November on Wijeweera’s death anniversary that is marked as ‘Heroes Day’, there were two commemorations of JVP martyrs (Il Maha Viru Samaruwa) by the different factions.

Although it has engaged in self-criticism of its past (that was distributed in book form at the inaugural convention), the new party has focused its critique on the post-2004 record of the JVP, particularly its support for the capitalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Therefore, it is still unable to confront the adventurism of the JVP’s two abortive ‘revolutions’, as well as the break from Marxism represented by Wijeweera’s position that the Tamil plantation proletariat (of recent Indian origin) constituted a fifth column of Indian expansionism; and his opposition to the Tamil liberation struggle.

The split has already had a salutary effect on the JVP. In January 2010, it supported the presidential campaign of former army commander Sarath Fonseka, also backed by the United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance, and formed a motley electoral front with him and his supporters (ranging from disgruntled UNPers and SLFPers to military personnel) called the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). This alliance is now dead as the JVP has accepted that it was a mistake to ally itself with Fonseka and claims that it will not enter into coalition agreements with pro-capitalist parties in future. Also, the JVP has become more strident in its criticism of the militarisation of the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces of the island and in highlighting abuses of democratic and human rights in those regions.

While the FSP is critical of the JVP’s position on the Tamil national question, its own perspective is still vague and ambiguous. It recognises the existence of multiple nationalities in Sri Lanka, but does not advocate the right to self-determination for oppressed nationalities. In fact its leaders have said that they oppose “separatism and federalism” and will seek to convince Tamils to “accept a solution which ensures equality and democracy to them”.[8]

We can agree that the existing 13th Amendment is not a solution to the national question and that we need to transcend capitalism to attack the roots of national oppression. However, as a beginning, does the FSP accept the need for its full implementation including the controversial exercise of powers over land allocation and police powers by provincial governments? And, will it join the campaign for “13+”, that is, for power-sharing with Tamils and other minorities and self-government in the North and East? This is a thorny issue for the FSP partly because the JVP opposed the 13th Amendment and killed leftists who (critically) supported the Indo-Lanka Accord that introduced the constitutional reform during its second insurrection.

It is commendable that the MPS/FSP has not yielded to the prevailing Sinhala nationalist ethos and has publicly declared that it is engaged in dialogue with ex-LTTE combatants and willing to accept them into its ranks. The government has unleashed a ferocious propaganda campaign against it for daring to forge unity between the Sinhala and Tamil oppressed and to overcome the mutual distrust and suspicion that has polarised the exploited and marginalised of both peoples. However, the new party cannot take cover under the threadbare position of the JVP that Tamils and other minorities must await ‘socialism’ for the satisfaction of their democratic demands.

 There also needs to be clarity on whether we mean the same thing by ‘socialism’ and the road to socialism. What is the relationship between democracy and socialism? How do we entrench and assimilate democratic practices within our own organisations and mass organisations? How should socialists work within the workers movement when it is divided on party political lines? What is the relationship between struggles against national oppression and struggles for socialism?

For instance, the FSP’s inaugural convention appears to be modelled on those of the JVP which are rallies of the faithful and not delegate-based conferences where open debate takes place and the leadership is transparently elected. Instead, the new leadership (an 18 member central committee) of the FSP was announced at the Convention, having apparently been pre-selected by an inner core membership. Subsequently, the central committee has elected Senadheera Gunatilleke as its general secretary and G. Kularatne as its organising secretary among its 9 member political council that also includes Premakumar Gunarathnam and Dimuthu Attygala.

It is to the credit of the Frontline Socialist Party that since its inception, it has been open to collaborate and dialogue with other political traditions. This sharp break from the political practice of the JVP cannot be over-stated. The JVP has always been a sectarian party that placed its self-interest over those of the broader movement. It avoids engagement with the radical Left and is unable to collaborate on joint campaigns even in the trade union and social movement. The JVP only considers itself to be the genuine party of the Left. This has isolated it and contributed to its political stagnation.

In contrast, the comrades of the FSP understand that the working class is not homogeneous and that it will have diverse political tendencies. Therefore the FSP recognises that there has to be a plurality of the Left in the revolutionary movement and that the movement as a whole can only advance through grasping and channelling the various experiences of its constituents.

The FSP has adopted the perspective that it does not claim to have all the answers and neither does it claim to have had a spotless past. In that spirit it has welcomed the participation of other groups in its Movement for Peoples Struggle which it intends to continue as a broad front while building its own party. This enlightened approach of the comrades of the FSP and the respectful manner in which it has been in dialogue with the radical Left including Trotskyist groups such as the NSSP, despite the hostility of the JVP towards this political tradition, is what is most encouraging in what are bleak and unfavourable times.

In addition to common campaigns such as around disappearances and abductions, the current political dialogue should also take place at the base of the radical Left and not be confined to its leadership in Colombo. The FSP could open the pages of its newspaper, not only to promote greater understanding within the Left, but also to overcome the crisis of credibility of socialist ideas and politics. The NSSP has proposed to the FSP that it should jointly organise its May Day celebration this year with other Left parties and trade unions. Unitary initiatives such as these can be decisive steps towards greater convergence on the Left and inspire hope among those in struggle today and tomorrow.

Niel Wijethilaka is political bureau member and K. Govindan is an international committee member of the Nava Sama Samaja Party


[1] The international guests included Clare Doyle of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI); Khalid Mehmood of the CWI-affiliated Socialist Movement Pakistan; a leader of Rifondazione Comunista(Party of Communist Re-foundation) in Italy; a representative of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL); and a leftist from Belarus.

[2] “Gunaratnam affair: JVP too points finger at govt.”, The Island, 9 April 2011, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=49329

[3] “Horrible rise of disappearances in post-war Sri Lanka continues unabated”, 5 April 2012, groundviews.org, http://groundviews.org/2012/04/05/horrible-rise-of-disappearances-in-post-war-sri-lanka-continues-unabated/

[4] “Two activists missing in Jaffna”, BBC Sinhala.Com, 10 December 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2011/12/111210_jvprotest.shtml

[6] ‘We were White Vanned’, Daily Mirror, 11 April 2012, http://www.srilankabrief.org/2012/04/we-were-white-vanned-dimuthu-Attygala.html#more

[7] Lionel Bopage, “Sinusoidal nature of the JVP Policy on the National Question”, groundviews.org, 26 July 2009, http://groundviews.org/2009/07/26/sinusoidal-nature-of-the-jvp-policy-on-the-national-question/

[8] “There is a grave need for a leftist movement”, Daily Mirror, 6 October 2011, http://print.dailymirror.lk/images/WEFG.jpg


Posted by: daniellesabai | 2012/04/05

Sri Lanka : New Farmland Grab

B. Skanthakumar*

Sri Lanka’s farmlands are being aggressively marketed as investment opportunities for agro-export agriculture by the island’s foreign missions in the Gulf, and to Gulf-based businesses, including at the recently concluded Sri Lanka Expo 2012 (28-31 March) in Colombo.

The island’s Consul-General in Dubai was quoted recently urging emiratis to acquire land in Sri Lanka to produce food for export to the Gulf: “UAE’s imports of food products have significantly increased over the recent years. Investing in agricultural land will greatly benefit in preventing steep increase in prices and ensuring steady supply.”1

While the acquisition of arable lands abroad may be a short-term response to the shortage of land for food production and to the demand for vegetables and fruits which cannot be met through local production in the Gulf states; it spells ruin for farmers and consumers in Sri Lanka: a net-food importing country itself that is not self-reliant even in the cultivation of staple foods and vegetables.

45 million hectares of farmland have been acquired by agribusiness companies in just two years (2008-9), mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Latin America and Asia. Kuwait has obtained 50,000 hectares of Cambodian farmland. Indian commercial interests have bought or leased lands in Africa, for the cultivation of food grains, pulses and edible oils, including vast territories in Ethiopia.2

The rush for farmlands for export purposes undermines local economies, distorts production of appropriate foods for the domestic market, while inevitably increasing the volatility and upward spiral of food prices; pushes people off customary lands or turns them into seasonal labour for the new owners; increases peasant dependence on the market for food; reduces or even removes their share of natural resources such as water for irrigation; increases the cost of external inputs into small-scale agriculture; and so on.

Women – whose land rights are already precarious as there is gender bias in the award and succession to state lands under the Land Development Ordinance 1935 and Land Grants Act 1979, as well as in the entrenched perception that the ‘head of the household’ is always male – are likely to be less protected from acquisition of lands which they access through customary rights, and less likely to benefit from compensation.

As a larger proportion of the active labour force in Sri Lanka is dependent on agriculture (32.7%) compared to industry (24.2%) for employment; as around 80% of the poor live in the rural sector; and as the majority of the poor are women; the consequences of large scale investments in farmland will be multiple and far-reaching.

This isn’t scare-mongering. A study on international investments in agriculture recently asked: “Can such international investment in land be a means to improve agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods?” The high level panel of experts concluded: “The evidence from this land rush to date shows very few such cases. Rather, large scale investment is damaging the food security, incomes, livelihoods and environment for local people.”3

Once again, the yawning gap between the populist pro-small farmer rhetoric of this government; and the neoliberal thrust of its macro-economic policies is plain to see.

The 2012 Budget liberalised use and control of state lands, through permitting foreign investors (in joint ventures with local capitalists) to lease unlimited acreages for up to 99 years.

In its 2010 election manifesto, Mahinda Chinthanaya – Vision for the Future, the government claimed that “44% of the agricultural lands are sparsely used but have a huge potential for development…the end of the prolonged conflict has released a huge amount of arable land that can be utilised for productive purposes.” One ‘productive purpose’ identified is the establishment of 1,500 floriculture villages (for production of cut-flowers for export) in the Western, North-Western and Central Provinces by 2020.

The farmland grab is just one of other forms of land-grabbing that are underway in Sri Lanka today – for purposes as varied as bio-fuel production; tourist development; energy production; special economic zones, construction or expansion of permanent military camps and so on – and where the actors are as diverse as private individuals, local and national politicians, state agencies, the state security forces etc.4

Industrial agriculture for export is not a new idea in Sri Lanka. Over 30 years ago, the United National Party government of JR Jayewardene that introduced ‘open economy’ reforms first mooted the creation of agricultural promotion zones.

Similar to industrial zones, these areas were to be earmarked for foreign investments in non-traditional crops (i.e. not tea, rubber and coconut), such as soya, cut-flowers, fruits and vegetables for export to the world market, and with tax-holidays and export concessions as incentives.5

However, the areas identified were adjacent to, or in the, conflict area and the outbreak of war after July 1983 stalled the establishment of these zones in the districts of Mannar, Vavuniya and Moneragala.

Only in Moneragala was it possible – after protracted peasant struggles that were ultimately overwhelmed in the violence in the South in the late 1980s – to privatise land for sugar cane cultivation. However, two sugar cane plantations quickly folded-up, sugar production has been on a downward trend, and the remaining factories plagued by political machinations. Sri Lanka imports 95% of its sugar consumption.

Now that the war has ended, and conflict-affected territories have been pacified through saturated military occupation, a new wave of neo-liberalism is underway; driven by state policy and directed by an avowedly left-of-centre regime raiding the policy toolkit of its one-time ideological opposite, the United National Party.

In the government’s sights is the accumulation of dizzying degrees of private wealth, through the dispossession of the peasantry of its farmland.

* Law & Society Trust, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Email: <skanthakumarb@gmail.com>


1.  “Sri Lanka seeks investment in agriculture”, Emirates 24/7, 05 March 2012.

2. Rowden, Rick 2011. India’s Role in the New Global Farmland Grab: An examination of the Role of the Indian Government and Indian Companies Engaged in Overseas Agricultural Land Acquisitions in Developing Countries, New Delhi: GRAIN and Economic Research Foundation 2011.

3.  High Level Panel of Experts 2011. Land tenure and international investments in agriculture: A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome 2011, p. 8.

4. See our written submission to the 19th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council, ‘Sri Lanka: Land-Grabbing and Development-Induced Displacement’, A/HRC/19/NGO/64, 22 February 2012, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/107/18/PDF/G1210718.pdf?OpenElement.

5. Rupesinghe, Kumar 1982. “Free Trade Zones to Agricultural Promotion Zones in Sri Lanka”, Social Science Review (Colombo), No. 4 (1982): 116-138.

Posted by: daniellesabai | 2012/03/25

Wukan – A Symbol of Popular Resistance

Isabelle Zhang

The terms of the debate on the future of the Chinese political system are often defined starting from three different perspectives: some believe in a democratic transition impelled by movements of citizens and intellectuals [1], others believe in a popular uprising legitimated by social inequalities and corruption [2], finally some believe in a reform guided slowly by the élites of the Communist Party. This is perhaps the most widespread view and has led to much research on the various currents inside the Communist Party [3]. These three perspectives embody different visions of the roots of the current tensions and relationship of forces in contemporary China.

But whether the working class, the middle classes or the political élites are seen as the subject of political transformations, a common character of these three perspectives is considering the city as the site of change. And yet the massive protest which developed in Wukan (a coastal village in the province of Guangdong in the south of China) at the end of 2011 has drawn attention to the countryside, from whence the Chinese revolution emerged.

Land at the heart of Chinese social struggles

The protest at Wukan results from the conjuncture of two factors – the corruption of the local authorities (cunweihui, the village committee, which is directly linked to the Communist Party), and the question of who owns land in the countryside – two problems of the greatest importance in rural China since the beginning of the privatisations from 1978 onwards.

Indeed, the acquisition of land takes an increasingly central place in social contradiction in China today. After the Communist revolution in 1949, the social system was based on the binary City/Country distinction which defined both the rights of citizens and land rights. In the Communist era, the land of the cities belonged to the state to allow the construction of factories and public enterprises; the land of the countryside belonged to peasant collectives (commune, gongshe) and was devoted to agricultural use. The economic reform undertaken in 1978 has changed this system. A new law in 1991, which distinguished the “right of use” and the “right of possession”, allowed the local authorities to lease the land to other economic actors with the agreement of the villagers and with compensation [4].

In reality the work of the village committee was not always transparent, despite the existence of elections at the village level [5]. This has created then a major source of conflict in China today. Because of rapid urbanisation, the geographical frontier between the “city” and the “countryside” tends to become vague. This has created financial opportunities for the political cadres in the countryside who have made big profits by selling the land to property agencies without the agreement of the villagers. Thousands of demonstrations have taken place around the sale of land and the derisory compensation paid.

This is the scenario which is at the origin of the struggle of the villagers of Wukan. Since 1993, the village committee has little by little sold collective land to construction companies. Whereas the official representatives have received profits of more than 70 million Yuan, the costs of compensation were only 550 Yuan (55 euros) per family. A mobilisation seeking the democratisation of the village committee and the revaluation of land values thus began.

Mobilisation and repression

As during the Arab spring, youth have played a central role in the mobilisation. The experience of work in the cities has rendered them more conscious of the injustice of the monopoly of power by the village committee. Thus in 2009 a social network called “Wukan Radical Youth” was created to discuss the situation of the village. The network broadcast video discussions and distributed leaflets and songs which stressed corruption and evoked résistance.

In September 2011, 5,000 villagers demonstrated before the village committee and elected 13 representatives to negotiate with the Guangdong officials. Above all they asked the officials to investigate the corruption of the village committee and the compensation for financial losses of the villagers. This protest won a favourable response from the Guangdong authorities.

But after a month of waiting without action, another collective petition was launched in November with the slogan “Give us the agricultural land” and “Down with corruption!” This new action was violently repressed by the authorities. On December 9, the authorities arrested five members of the temporary village committee deemed “illegal” by the officials. At the same time, the Lufeng municipality announced that all the problems raised by the villagers had been resolved and the case of Wukan should end with the resignation of the former representative of its village committee.

The next day, the villagers were stupefied to learn of the death in custody of Xue Jing-po, aged 47, vice-president of the temporary village committee. The police denied all responsibility. Overcome with anger and sorrow, the villagers decided to resist to protect the other activists against new arrests. They set up barricades at the entry to the village to block access to officials and police. Only journalists from Hong Kong and foreign countries were authorised to enter, the villagers being suspicious of Chinese journalists who might be members of the secret services.

In the following ten days, tension rose markedly, in particular because of the attention aroused by the foreign media. The police cut off water, electricity and food supplies to the villagers who had to live off their reserves and the solidarity of neighbouring villages. At the same time, the demonstrations continued around firm demands: democratic election of local leaders, the return of the remains of Xue and a continued investigation of corruption on the village committee.

But the Guangdong cadres were no longer trusted and the villagers requested the intervention of Beijing. Faced with the calumnies “of conspiracy with the foreign media” spread by the officials, the villagers remained solid, maintaining their demands and the request for intervention from the Beijing government. After ten days of demonstrations and confrontations with police from the city, and despite the rumour of an army intervention, the villagers were uplifted by the turn of events on December 20. The vice-secretary of Guangdong made a televised speech announcing that the demands of the villagers were “reasonable”, specifying that if they did not organise “over-radical” demonstrations, the authorities had agreed to free four people still held and to respond to their demands.

After a continuous negotiation between the villagers and the authorities on February 1, 2012, the first “democratic” and “transparent” election finally took place in Wukan. 6,000 villagers participating in the election of 109 representatives. Lin [6] aged 67, the main negotiator with the Guangdong officials, was elected President of the village committee. On February 14, Xue’s family was finally allowed to bury him.

The struggle in Wukan thus ended with the birth of an autonomous and “democratic” political structure and the name of Wukan incarnates the new paradigm of the people’s struggle in China.

Why did they succeed?

As we tried to explain in the introduction, the cause of the conflict in Wukan is not extraordinary but represents a short episode in a long series of conflicts. However, several factors have made for the exceptional “success” of Wukan among the incessant protests in rural China today.

Firstly, the self-organisation of the villagers, initiated by the youth, was an essential factor. Zhuang, the leader of “Wukan Radical Youth” has a clothes shop in a big town near Wukan. Discussing with other migrant workers, he understood that the behaviour of the local rulers was scandalous. With another youth born in 1990, they interviewed some old people in the villages on the privatisation of land by the local political élites. Thus the will to fight was forged and cooperation established between the 41 clans [7]. A division of tasks was established and became more obvious after the death of Xue: the older people took care of negotiations with the government while the youth participated in stewarding and remained in the first rank of the demonstrations.

Secondly, the attention brought by the foreign media was undoubtedly a favourable factor. Because of Wukan’s position near Guangdong and Hong Kong, its struggle was followed very closely by the Hong Kong media, who not only sent images of the struggle around the world, but also put pressure on the governments of Guangdong and Shanwei.

Another striking characteristic is the politico-economic structure of Guangdong. Having been the leading region developed by the economic reform, Guangdong has a more liberal ambiance than other Chinese provinces. Its governor, Wang Yang, is influenced by the “liberal current” inside the CCP. The Wukan struggle took place just before the 18th “State National Assembly” which was to renew its cadres. The international pressures of the media thus encouraged a more “conciliatory” approach from Wang and prevented military repression.

Finally the demand for more “local democracy”, without however defying the legitimacy of the Communist Party, illustrates the contradictions of the resistance in China today. In a context of radical transformation of Chinese society, the central government supports the victims of violation of the law to better fragment the massive résistance [8]. In the name of “defence of rights” (weiquan) and the “rule of law” (fazhi), the government increasingly tolerates individual action for the defence of rights, but oppositional and collective mobilisations are severely repressed [9]. The insistence of the villagers on referring to the central government in Beijing to defend their rights has the goal of delegitimizing military repression.

In fact this choice is not only a strategy of negotiation, but is also linked to the complex heritage of the Communist Party. For a great part of the older generation who lived through the era of the Communist revolution and Mao, the CCP and the central government still have an idealised image which incarnates a regime which “serves the people”. Also, as citizens have got wealthier with the economic reforms, their anger has been turned directly and exclusively towards the local leaders, rather than the Beijing government. Thus Zhuang’s father has affirmed that “the Party is still with the people!” [10]. In spite of the rage against local injustices the heritage of the Communist revolution allows the maintenance of loyalty towards the Chinese state.

If local injustices explain the determination of the villagers to struggle, the statement by Zhuang’s father show the capital of confidence that the central government maintains. In other words, despite the widespread corruption at all administrative levels in China today, the discontent with the local regime is not necessarily reflected by a loss of legitimacy in the system. This is the dilemma stressed by Han Han, a writer and popular blogger living in Shanghai, intervening in a series of debates on China’s future: “the Communist Party has 80 million members and 300 million families are linked to these members, so this goes beyond the framework of a political party, it amounts to a system. Moreover, unlike the Arab revolutions, political discontent in China today cannot be reduced to the image of a dictator inside the Communist Party” [11]

The stunning success of Wukan is then also revealing of the limits of the political movement in China today. Without a political alternative the reign of the CCP remains the most legitimate for most citizens in spite of all its faults. Also the increasingly flexible attitude of the government heads off the intensification of the popular struggles by valuing “negotiation”. If the claim for more autonomy at the level of the local structures – village, factory, school –is a convergent demand of the struggles in different milieus, the trend to flexible “reforms” at the local level could mean for now an absence of opposition to the central government and of a dramatic overthrow in the style of the Arab Spring.

Translated from French for IVP


[1] This is for example the constant demand of the overseas movement for democratisation since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. In China, there is also a current of thought which wishes to reproduce the “Velvet Revolution” guided by intellectuals, illustrated by Liu Xiao-Bo, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2010, held since 2009 because of his activity around “Charter 08”. We can add the protest of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, essentially asking for more freedom of expression and less corruption

[2] This is for example the viewpoint of the novelist Yu Hua expressed in the following article, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/11/opinion/la-oe-yu-hua-china-20111211

[3] For a summary, see: http://www.piie.com/publications/chapters_preview/4174/03iie4174.pdf

[4] Ding Chengri, 2003,“Land Policy Reform in China : assessment and prospects.” Land Use Policy (20), pp.109-120

[5] The “Village committee organisation law” of 1988 states that the village committee should be decided and renewed by regular elections. However, in reality, because of the rural exodus and the non existence of elections at higher levels, it is hard to apply this law in all Chinese villages. In Wukan, there were several so called “elections” organised by the village committee, but this has never been done in a transparent manner, and the same people have monopolised power on the village committee for 41 years http://www.lifeweek.com.cn/2011/1220/36080.shtml

[6] A member of the Peoples Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution; in 1969, he worked for three years on the village committee, before becoming an entrepreneur until his retirement

[7] Social relations in the Chinese countryside is organised around the “clan” – people who have the same family name and the same genealogy. For generations, decisions on the overall interests of the village have been decided by common discussions among generations. In Wukan, there are 41 clans and it is not possible to have a significant mobilisation without their solidarity

[8] In the case of violation of rights, often by the corruption of local authorities, Chinese citizens have the right to go to Beijing to “petition” the central authorities and request compensation. This system of Shangfang, or individual petition, is not only a long and slow procedure, but it is often blocked by the local authorities. On the other hand, the state encourages a legal approach to encourage individual solutions to conflicts linked to land. See http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/EG03Ad03.html

[9] See Yongshun Cai, 2008, “Local Governments and the Suppression of Popular Resistance in China”, The China Quarterly, March 2008, pp.20-42

[10] See http://www.isunaffairs.com/?p=1648

[11] http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4701280b0102dz5s.html

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