Labor Unrest in China

When I was in China, I found myself surprised by how extensive the China Daily coverage of an ongoing labor dispute at Honda was. There also appeared to be TV coverage of it, though of course it was impossible for me to say what was actually being said. According to Keith Bradsher in the NYT, China is now backing away from that openness:

The Chinese authorities have allowed some media coverage in the past two weeks of labor unrest, while Li Keqiang, the deputy prime minister and the heir apparent to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, voiced support early this week for higher wages. The government even allowed national television coverage for two days of the strike at the Honda transmission factory two weeks ago, before abruptly barring further domestic media coverage.

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But there have been signs lately of a more restrictive attitude. Workers here complained that when they posted comments on the strike here on the Web sites of Baidu, a big Chinese Internet company, the comments were quickly expunged.

The workers also described seeing at least two Chinese reporters politely escorted away by the police when they tried to cover the strike Wednesday.

The Economist recently featured an account of official unions being used as strike-breakers in one of the Honda disputes that’s at the center of the current issues:

[A]t the Honda plant, employees fume more about the factory’s trade union than about Japanese managers. On May 31st more than a hundred high-level union members were sent to the factory by the local government. Some scuffled with workers who were trying to get to the gate to talk to reporters. “They’re mafia,” fumed one employee, as another showed a long cut on his face that he blamed on the union men.

Several workers complained that despite paying membership dues of around 10 yuan ($1.50) a month, they had received virtually nothing from the union, least of all help negotiating with managers.

It seems to me that revaluation of the Yuan would help finesse these issues. In effect, that would be an across-the-board increase in the real wages of Chinese workers and it would also get Congress off Tim Geithner’s case and maybe let US-China economic dialogue move on to other matters.