Restless Chinese proles need more than an iPhone

Our editor, Matthew Gwyther, reflects on what the punch-up at Foxconn says about China and its place in the modern world.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 12 Nov 2012

The proles are revolting. No it’s not another outburst from Andrew Mitchell trying to get his bike out of Downing Street but an observation about the events at the Foxconn factory in North China where they had a massive punch up on Sunday night. 

The riot broke in the Taiyuan factory which employs an amazing 79,000 workers and began as a brawl between a security guard and a worker. It then rapidly escalated into full-scale rioting with damage to the factory itself and to shops and properties, and at least 40 people injured. The possibility that they may not all be happy bunnies at Foxconn has been long apparent. Order is maintained through a regime of military-style discipline enforced by a standing army of 1,500 security guards at the Taiyuan facility alone.

The company is no stranger to bad publicity over the way it treats its workers.  In 2010 a spate of 13 suicides at another factory in Shenzen drew huge international criticism and focussed attention on the positively Victorian conditions under which much of today’s ‘must have’ gadgetry is actually produced.

The events of the past few days got me thinking about parallels with Red October in 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power in the Russian revolution. The way one thing led to another and before you knew it Lenin was in the hot seat was quite something.  The similarities between the current Chinese regime and that of the last Russian Czars are intriguing. (One feels sure that maybe Karl Marx and certainly Leon Trotsky would appreciate the likeness.)  China now has a fast-growing and often restless proletariat  - be careful how you use that word and never confuse it with "pleb" – plus an enormous and mostly very poor, but as yet largely supine, peasantry.  

You have an oppressive and often arbitrary regime where there is no fair, independent judiciary. Human rights are consistently denied and freedom of expression is curtailed. The difference is that the Chinese regime has, thus far, proved much better at keeping a ruthless grip on power than the Romanovs were. It has made some people better off. And, anyway, can you imagine the wet Czar Nicholas getting his head around efficient censorship of the internet? Too busy speaking French and quaffing claret. 

However, there are many reasons why one would not expect this Chinese restlessness  to go away. The global economic down turn has hit China hard and demand from the West for its cheap manufactured goods is down. At the same time there is a huge growth in expectations from the population as it watches those who have come to their special, privileged arrangements with the Communist Party driving around in their Ferraris and Bentleys. This is a potentially incendiary mix and one response has been a late attempt to stimulate domestic demand.

Of course in the West we kid ourselves that we can control our own destinies and get things off our chests by changing government every five years (Not that this, one could argue, ever changes much.) This option to vote for a better way of doing things is, of course, not open to the Chinese. They just have a bunch of dead-eyed, old men in suits with their dyed jet black hair and long spells of dutiful service to the Party who decide all behind closed doors.

There are likely to be a few more outbursts from not just the Foxconn workers but their comrades elsewhere before too long. To draw a further parallel with a revolution a hundred years before the Russian one, maybe we should amend the "let them eat cake" sentiment as expressed by Marie Antoinette, to "let them have an iPhone."     

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