Barriers to Success for Chinese Labor Protests

By Sarah Stahlman

When workers strike, they band together as a collective to prove that there is power in their numbers. Why, then, have factory workers in China, aided by immense numbers and international media attention, failed to ignite a nation-wide labor movement? The increasing number of labor-related protests across China would seem to threaten the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and create a nation-wide movement. However, the lack of unity among factories, little real leadership and organization, and insufficient modes of international pressure combine to stop labor strikes from evolving into a labor movement and posing a serious threat to the CCP.

The 1970s restructuring of the labor force and opening up to the global economy caused unparalleled economic growth in China. Although this lifted millions out of poverty, it widened the gap between the rich and the poor and relied on an oppressed labor force working in the manufacturing industry. Bearing the burden of economic growth, the workers of these factories have suffered low wages and dangerous working conditions in order to transform China into a global economic player.i While China’s GDP and economic connections have grown tremendously since the Mao era, so too has the gap between rich and poor, causing tensions among the working class to rise and factory workers to strike.

Labor strikes may be numerous and have occurred across industries, but they lack the power to create real societal change and damage to the CCP because they are localized and disorganized. Although strikes in factories are not uncommon, a strike in one factory is unlikely to lead to a strike in another. Further, although there are certainly areas where factories are more concentrated, such as the Pearl River Delta, China’s large geographic size means that manufacturing is not as tightly concentrated in a single district as it may be in other countries.ii In order for labor strikes to create a nationwide protest movement that would become a major problem for the political authority of the CCP, workers would have to organize across a large country without assistance from unions or Chinese nongovernmental organizations. This is no easy feat, especially in a country where internet use and social media platforms are tightly controlled. This absence of nation-wide unity makes it impossible for strikers to form a labor movement, which is a necessary structural distinction for creating change.

Similarly, the design of the trade unions in China makes it impossible for workers to press for demands that the CCP is not willing to meet. From its inception during the revolutionary struggle against the Nationalist Party, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has existed to serve the interests of the Communist Party. Following copycat uprisings after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the ACFTU was mobilized to “guard against and prevent any tendencies toward throwing off or weakening the leadership of the Party, guard against and prevent some people with ulterior motives from destroying stability and unity”.iii Although in theory the ACFTU represents the needs of the workers and acts as an intermediary between them and the government, in reality, the ACFTU is more a tool for the CCP than for its constituents. An allegiance to the CCP is a fundamental aspect of the organization, which ensures that workers do not demand more than what the CCP would offer. The ACTFU is an obstacle to the labor movement because it ensures that the demands brought to the CCP are never more extreme than what the CCP would be willing to deliver.

China’s irreplaceable economic ties across the globe make it unlikely that worldwide pressure from positions of authority would be willing to force China to make meaningful changes to its factory systems. Because of China’s prominent role in the interconnected world market and leadership in global exports, damaging the Chinese economy – for example, by issuing economic sanctions as a punishment for human rights violations – will eventually damage the entire global economy, and a lack of supply of manufactured products means citizens of the sanction-enforcing countries would be unwilling to support the action for long. In China’s case, the United States, as a self-proclaimed leader in promoting human rights, would be the most likely to enforce sanctions on Chinese products, but, as China’s top export destination, would be hurt the most by a damaged Chinese economy.iv It would be difficult for the rest of the world to condemn China’s inhumane conditions for workers because these violations exist at the source of China’s economic miracle, the manufacturing industry. Unfortunately for the languishing labor movement, the international community is unlikely to come to their support, as it would be at the short-term harm to their own populaces.

Global attention to human rights abuses without meaningful international action is not new for China. The strikes and continued documentation of inhumane factory practices would seemingly paint a bleak picture that would affect China’s global image, but China has emerged from similar instances of human rights abuses unscathed. The world reeled with horror when atrocities committed in an Apple factory were brought to light, leading to a fury of media attention and criticism. Despite this, Apple and the factory managers received the brunt of the criticism, while the central Chinese government’s continued inability to protect its workers was not reprimanded to the same extent.v This blame escape is consistent with historical patterns. The subjugation of Tibet has consistently been an area of human rights concern, but global attention reached a boiling point with the exiled Dalai Lama’s 1989 win of the Nobel Peace Despite the overwhelming international support for Tibetans during this period, China was seemingly rewarded with achievement of the elusive most-favored nation status under the Clinton Administration and subsequent entry into the World Trade Organization.vii In the end, promoting human rights for Tibetans came at too great an economic and diplomatic cost. Also in 1989, China faced severe economic sanctions and international condemnation after its use of the military to slaughter and imprison students during the Tiananmen Square Massacre.viii However, many feelings of this decade have seemingly waned out as the Chinese economy continued to grow and become even more interconnected with the rest of the world. It seems that China’s place on the global economic stage is too prominent to let the trivial issue of labor abuses take it down.

Even as labor strikes continue to occur across the country, these isolated strikes have not caused significant danger to the CCP’s political legitimacy or created a widespread labor movement. Although factory workers face a plethora of institutional challenges, the widespread nature of the strikes, lack of organizing and demanding power, and improbability of foreign governments to severely criticize the CCP hamper the ability to create real change through a labor movement. As China continues to take on a leadership role in sectors of global affairs, widespread strikes are unlikely to cultivate into a large-scale labor movement, and the CCP’s treatment of factory workers seems unlikely to slow China’s growth.

Sarah Stahlman is a winner of Hemispheres’ Spring 2021 Blog Contest.


Farley, Robert. “Has the ‘Free Tibet’ Movement Fizzled Due to China’s Rise?” The Diplomat, March 1, 2019.

Friedman, Eli. Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. Ithaca: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2014.

Glass, Andrew. “House Sanctions Post-Tiananmen China, June 29, 1989.” POLITICO, June 29, 2011.

“OEC – China.” The Observation of Economic Complexity. Accessed April 21, 2021.

“Strike Map.” Maps – China Labour Bulletin. Accessed April 21, 2021.

“The World Bank in China.” The World Bank. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Toh, Michelle. “Apple Says a Supplier’s Factory in China Violated Labor Rules.” CNN. Cable News Network, September 9, 2019.

i “The World Bank in China,” The World Bank, accessed March 14, 2021, ii “Strike Map,” Maps – China Labour Bulletin, accessed April 21, 2021, iii Eli Friedman, Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China (Ithaca: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2014), p.46) iv “OEC – China,” The Observation of Economic Complexity, accessed April 21, 2021, v Michelle Toh, “Apple Says a Supplier’s Factory in China Violated Labor Rules,” CNN (Cable News Network, September 9, 2019), vi Robert Farley, “Has the ‘Free Tibet’ Movement Fizzled Due to China’s Rise?,” The Diplomat, March 1, 2019, vii Ibid. viii Andrew Glass, “House Sanctions Post-Tiananmen China, June 29, 1989,” POLITICO, June 29, 2011,