Category Archives: Activism

Comedy as an instrument of dissent

4.Mana-Neyestani-5

ITALIAN WRITER Umberto Eco deployed an ingenious plot device when he wrote his most famous novel, In the Name of the Rose. Several deaths become connected to the contents of Aristotle’s book on comedy, of which no real copy survives but which became the centre of controversy in the medieval context of the novel.

It became a source of criticism to the dogmas of different theologies and a topic of heated discussion, which in a way sets some people of influence in danger. To protect themselves, they seek to censor the proverbial book and its defenders. Without revealing the plot of the novel any further, it suffices to say that humour is as subversive now as this work of fiction underscores. Here are some real life examples.

The Danish cartoons of Muhammad
In 2005, the Danish newspaper published a series of comic strips about the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Regardless of their content, which some critics have described as stereotypical and out of context, the reaction proves that a cultural representation like a cartoon is very powerful. The reaction was diverse and wide reaching. It started in the small acts of people who refused to sell and buy the newspaper on that day but also including protests locally and internationally, and lots of public discussion about the open criticism of Islam (as well as of the comics themselves).

1.Jyllands-Posten

 

The power of imagination: from prison to the world

Mana Neyestani is an Iranian artist who also pinpoints the political inclinations of the comic as a medium of communication. He has been in prison and is now an exile, where he started broadening his original topic –the Azeri minority in Iran – toward a broader commentary on oppression. This is some of his work.

2.Mana-Neyestani-1

This cartoon is about the effects of other countries’ sanctions about the Iranian nuclear program.

 

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About the gay couples situation in the author’s country’s social scale.

 

4.Mana-Neyestani-5

Quite eloquently, the author titled this strip: “Come out, the world is beautiful”.

 

Humour also softens the criticism that, necessary as it is, it can seem to be below the belt. In any case, the repercussions of drawing a comic go beyond a simple laugh or filling a space in the paper. They propose a vision that more often than not needs to be confronted with prevailing ideas in a society. They eventually clash, as illustrated above, but they don’t need to be reduced to countries that we particularly know for being authoritarian. We found more good examples of artists using pencil and pen (or stencil and tablet) to send critical messages. Here two Americans samples of humour as instrument of dissent.

5.Lalo-Alcaraz

By Lalo Alcaraz, Hispanic American comic artist.

 

6.Lloyd-Dangle

Lloyd Dangle’s creation, politically very engaged.

 

This article was originally published in Spanish on the website Wondrus. 

 

Written and translated by Luis Eduardo Barrueto
, a Guatemalan journalist and founder of Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers.

Photo credits:
(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt.png#mediaviewer/File:Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt.png
(2,3,4) http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2014/07/18-brilliant-cartoons-will-make-think-oppression-like-never/
(5,6) Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists
http://www.amazon.com/Attitude-The-Subversive-Political-Cartoonists/dp/B00DPOPDYQ

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The Gaza talks: who’s who at the negotiation table?

ISRAEL AND THE Palestinians reach the end of their second cease-fire in two weeks. Civilians on both sides are nervous to see what is next. As representatives of both sides continue negotiations, the most important questions are: who are they representing, and what do they want?

Palestinian parties

Most of the media’s coverage of the negotiations focuses on Hamas. In part, this makes sense – since 2007, it is the ruling party in the Gaza Strip. It is, however, not the only Palestinian party at the negotiation table in Cairo. A few months ago, Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement regarding a unity government – the Palestinian Authority, therefore, is an important player in the negotiations. Furthermore, the Islamic Jihad, the second largest group in Gaza, is sitting in as well. This faction’s ties with Egypt are currently closer than those of Hamas, but more on that later.

Considering the number of casualties among Palestinians, it seems likely that Hamas is eager to stop the violence. But as shown in between the two cease-fires, and as pointed out by Israel time and again, the ruling party in Gaza appears to have no interest in a termination of their rocket firing. In fact, Hamas sticks to its demands: a complete end to the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, including harbours, and a reopening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

The blockade started after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and gained control of the Gaza Strip. Since it was founded in 1987, Israel and most of its allies consider Hamas a terrorist organization. But as argued by Alaa Tartir in the Huffington Post, “[t]he Hamas of 2014 is dramatically different from the party of 1987 that penned a charter calling for the de facto rejection of Israel.” By participating in the 2006 elections, for example, Hamas acknowledged the Oslo Accords. Furthermore, its chairman Khaled Mash’al accepted a Palestinian state across the 1967 borders, thus indirectly recognizing the Israeli state.

Currently, Mash’al is pushing President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) so that charges can be made against Israel. However, Mash’al hereby risks an investigation into his own organization, which has also been accused of crimes against both Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Respectively, these are the firing of rockets into civilian areas, and using civilians as a human shield. Mash’al seems to be willing to take that risk.

Now that the political unity has been established, the Palestinian government is able to focus on other issues as well, such as travel opportunities for Palestinians with family members in each part of the Palestinian territories. Sources have confirmed that safe passage for civilians travelling between Gaza and the West Bank is part of the negotiations.

Israel

By not recognizing the evolution Hamas has gone through, Israel internally keeps in place an enemy that, according to polemologist Leon Wecke, plays an essential role in keeping the country together. “The Palestinian enemy plays an important role in creating a sense of cohesion in the country. It creates an opportunity to govern Israel despite large differences of opinion. Furthermore, the enemy provides part of a legitimation for the violence that is periodically unavoidable given the occupation and the nature of Israel’s government.”

Of course, current events only underline this enemy image Israelis have of Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular. The latest outburst of violence has shown that Palestinian militants are capable of entering Israeli soil through their tunnels – they managed to kill five soldiers on Israeli territory. Among Israeli civilians, this has increased the fear that at any moment, anywhere in the southern part of the country, armed militants can pop up like moles from the ground, shake off the dust and start a killing spree.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that Operation Protective Edge will not end until Israel is assured of a longer lasting end to rockets from the Gaza Strip. The Israelis will demand nothing less, but it is doubtful that Hamas will agree to disarming its militants. And although the Palestinians now have experienced that they are no match whatsoever to Israel militarily, they are as determined as they are united.

Egypt

Despite the recent change of regime, Egypt again stepped up as the prime negotiator – both cease-fires were drafted in Cairo. But are al-Sisi’s motives truly beneficial for both parties? Even before the Presidential elections in Egypt, Hamas toned down its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood – thus anticipating on the outcome of the elections. Despite these precautions, Hamas’ connections with Egypt quickly deteriorated after the new President was installed. In fact, it is safe to say that Egypt’s ties with Israel are currently closer than those with Hamas. However, al-Sisi cannot afford to lose all connections to parties on the Gaza Strip. Blogger and commentator Nervana argues that it is in the President’s interest to hold at least some grip on the Gaza Strip, but also to not have the burden of responsibility completely. Now that al-Sisi managed to host the negotiations in his capital, Nervana argues, any outcome is positive for the President. Obviously, if peace talks succeed, he can take the credit. But if negotiations fail, Egypt will not be held accountable, and al-Sisi might even be happy with a continuous occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel.

“Sisi will not just blame Israel and Hamas for the failure of the talks; he will also happily watch Israel sink more into the Gaza swamp. Israel’s occupation of Gaza will actually be Egypt’s best possible outcome. It will relieve the Egyptian authority from the headache of who and how to run the Rafah border between Gaza and Sinai, and will be perfect for Sinai’s security by ending the smuggling of weapons and militants from Gaza.”

What’s next?

The first 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas had barely ended when the first rockets flew across the sky again, in that little corner of the Mediterranean coastline. Hamas fired rockets at cities in southern Israel such as Ashkelon, Israel’s response took the lives of numerous Palestinians. The current cease-fire ends by the end of the week. Sources in Cairo revealed to several media that there might be some progress in the negotiations. Israel supposedly agreed to meet the Palestinians half-way regarding their demands on the end of the blockade and widening the distance to which Gazan fishermen can sail out. However, as the end of the cease-fire comes closer (tonight at 21:00 local time), civilians on both sides can do nothing but hold their breath, wait and see.

 Written by Lisanne Oldekamp
Photo Credit: Robert Croma

Sources

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alaa-tartir/hamas-gaza-aid-conference_b_5661217.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/05/gaza-egypt-hamas-brotherhood-elections.html#

http://www.eurasiareview.com/10082014-cairo-talks-mediation-end-game-gaza-war-analysis/

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/originals/2014/04/islamic-jihad-support-gaza-expense-hamas.html

http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-hamas-pushes-abbas-join-icc-316559675

http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/easing-blockade-may-be-cards-1975299451

 

Class Warfare in literature: the best of…

THE TENSIONS THAT result from the friction between socioeconomic disparities and status have derived not only in social conflicts, but have also built the narratives of some amazing works of literary fiction (and of other- partly fictitious but not as amazing- more complex narratives. We’re looking at you, Marx and Bakunin).

What follows is a list of literary works in which the narrative is fuelled by class warfare, and like many other lists on the Internet, it is whimsical, arbitrary, not based on empirics and potentially incomplete.

 

1. The Help6923212711_72b11d8797_b

 To some, the book by Kathryn Stockett wasn’t necessarily interesting until its star-studded adaptation hit the big screen, starring Emma Stone and Academy Award winner Octavia Spenser. The book dives, in ways that come across as somewhat comedic, into the racial conflict of the sixties between the southern upper classes and their African-American help. It is narrated in the first person using three different voices: that of Skeeter, the recent college graduate and aspiring writer; Aibileen, a housemaid and nanny; and Minny, Aibileen’s friend, who has no qualms in speaking her mind about her employers- which results in many job terminations.

emma-stone-birthday-november-6-2012-the-help-weheartit

 

Though it might be tempting to peg the conflicts in The Help as racial conflicts, they are, in reality, class conflicts: the relationship between the help and the helped are all but friendly, but through Skeeter’s eyes the audience is able to explore a paradigm shift among the young, that specially underlines the importance of allies in the fight for civil rights.

 

 

5802511972_8bab6fcbf0_b2. Les Miserables

This classic by Victor Hugo comes across as an obvious choice for a list like this, since the narrative is pretty much fuelled by how class divisions condition choices for all of the main characters, having their destinies determined by the class they belonged to. Jean Val Jean becomes a bridge over the socioeconomic abyss, since when he’s finally able to get back on his feet, he uses his newfound wealth to help those who remain at the bottom. Using Val Jean’s conversion as an example, Victor Hugo sends an important message about the roles that individual choice and personal responsibility play in breaching gaps in inequality.

 

6531185857_e288e36831_b3. A Little Princess

The story of the upper-class girl that loses everything upon her father’s death and is destined to a life of serfdom to pay off her family’s debt, describes in a tear-jerking manner the suffering of the poor and highlights how much belonging to one socioeconomic class or another is determined by chance and not choices. The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, uses the protagonist to teach a lesson on character: taking the high road should not depend on the information that appears on someone’s bank statements: it is a choice. In the way the different characters move the narrative forward, such as the wealthy neighbour, the unpleasant boarding school headmistress, the fantastic Becky or the awful baker, Hodgson also shows that no class holds a monopoly over either generous or repulsive actions.

 

3319626950_d86eab3f78_b4. The Outsiders

It is highly possible that the main reason this book made it into this list is how it is impossible to not be in awe at the fact that S.E. Hinton wrote it when she was barely 16 years old. Wrote from the point of view of the protagonist, Ponyboy, a lower-class orphan, this novel is the story of friendship marked by class conflict between lowly gang members (or greasers) and the upper-class jocks living on the other side of town. The best line in the novel Hinton borrows from the classic American poet Robert Frost, when Ponyboy reflects on how the best things in life are ephemeral: “nothing gold can stay”.

The everyday conflict between classes becomes dramatic when an innocent fight ends accidentally with a dead body: a gang member kills one of the rich kids, trying to defend himself. The final conflict makes Ponyboy reflect on deeper themes, such as suffering and death, which have no regard for social class. This realization leads to an unlikely friendship with Sherri Valance, an iconic upper-class beauty, and to realize that at the end of the day, their differences are far fewer than their similarities. To top off this masterpiece, the 1983 cinematic adaptation is chockfull of familiar faces, back when they weren’t as familiar or ubiquitous as they are today. How many can you recognize?

Written by Cristina Lopez G,  a professional eye-roller disguised as a lawyer and policy-wonk who writes. She co-edits Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers. Article and picture credits taken and translated from Wondrus,

image credits: US embassy Canada, Rick Payette, mgstanton, junibears

Calvin, Hobbes and When Comics Get Political

BILL WATTERSON  IS FAMOUS for two reasons: creating the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, and for being allergic to fame and the spotlight it provided over his career. The strip, about the adventures of a boy and his stuffed tiger, were in the pages of the most prominent newspapers in the United States and the world, everyday for years in a row.

Calvin and Hobbes lived fantastic adventures throughout 10 years, until Watterson, with nothing but a brief farewell explanation, had them sled off into retirement, saying he considered he had exhausted the format.

Watterson, a political science grad from Kenyon College, baptized his characters drawing inspiration from John Calvin, a XVI century French theologian and Thomas Hobbes, the XVII century philosopher and political theorist. Despite the inherent political influence in the name of his characters, Watterson was very careful about the purity of his strips. He mentioned on one occasion that what propelled his work forward was personal satisfaction, so it is unlikely that he saw his artwork as a medium to push any sort of agenda. As he said in his commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon college in 1990:

 

 “It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves.”

 

Despite the origins of his career taking place in the political cartooning of a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper, his own politics left very few traces on Calvin and Hobbes. However, upon paying close attention to his strips, the philosophical commentaries and social critiques the author imprinted on his stories become notorious.

 

Freedom, responsibility and political participation

 Calvin (the XVI century old guy, not our favorite 6 year old) defended his ideas against the irresponsibility of debauchery, and placed a special emphasis on individual responsibility towards the government and civic leadership. Watterson touches upon these ideas using Calvin, the character, as a medium to cynically criticize the political participation of individuals in society:

 

calvin-on-citizenship

 

Hobbes, the stuffed tiger that has been Calvin’s companion since infancy and that as a product of his imagination comes to life whenever they are alone, tends to be the less impulsive half of the duo: providing sensible comments and judicious conclusions. Through prudent recommendations that could be allusions to Hobbes’ (the philosopher) reactions to Reformist impulses which he qualified as anarchism and dangers to democracy,  Hobbes (the stuffed tiger) tries his best to rein in Calvin’s often impulsive ideas and his constant questioning of parental authority.

 

hobbes-boink

The strip is chock-full of references to free will, willpower, the role of delayed gratification and the incentives at play that condition human behavior, all of them themes that John Calvin explored in his writing, in which he understood human behavior as something predetermined.  In fact, if analyzed under the light of incentives to human behavior, many of Calvin’s antics and frolics could be taken as metaphors to our modern political economy: within every politician with good intentions lies a whimsical kid which, at the end of the day, only wants to get his way.

 

Calvin, spontaneous order and science

Whether because of his innate rebellious spirit, or for his defiant attitude towards authority and established rules, Calvin is a great advocate for spontaneous order. This can be seen in the made-up sports game Calvinball, a recurring gag throughout the strip. The sport prides itself in being the least organized of sports, according to Hobbes’ description of it and based on the sport’s official anthem:

 

Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!

 

According to Calvin, “Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball”. The rules are made up as they go, and the only consistent rule is the one indicating that the sport shall not be played twice using the same set of rules. The scoring system is as arbitrary as “Q to 12” and the only requisite for a successful game is a voluntary agreement by the parties of submitting themselves to a nonexistent set of rules in which creativity, more than athleticism, is rewarded.

Calvinball1

Shared by Calvin and Hobbes alike is their natural curiosity and a passion for science and innovation. Their capacity to wonder at the mysteries locked within nature is captured in this strip about the”Horrendous Space Kabboie”:

space-kablooie

In other strips, through irony or cynicism, Watterson’s piercing political judgments come across, as shown on this veiled critique of the shallow analysis portrayed in the media:

analisis-de-medios

The following strip debates freedom of speech and the need for it to stick despite the content of the ideas, and not only to the likable ones:

libertad-de-expresion

Calvin and Hobbes ended their run in 1995, but the ideas that Watterson let permeate through the defined personalities of his characters remain valid.

What other political ideas can you identify on Watterson’s work?

Written by Cristina Lopez G,  a professional eye-roller disguised as a lawyer and policy-wonk who writes. She co-edits Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers. Article and picture credits taken and translated from Wondrus,

Main Picture Credit: Thoth, God of Knowledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 years later, China barely remembers Tiananmen

Tank-Man1

 

ITS BEEN 25 years since the Tiananmen massacre took place in Beijing the June 4th. On that day, Chinese troops stormed in Tiananmen Square, with tanks and armored cars, killing and arresting thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protesters. Some were arrested and are still imprisoned; however, every year the Chinese government continues to detain dissidents.

Millions of people had taken part in demonstrations, demanding an end to ‘official corruption’ and calling for political reforms. According to a 1998 report by Amnesty International, since the crackdown, the party has refused to release official death toll figures, public investigations on the murders or review the cases of those still imprisoned.

It is estimated that over 250 people are still imprisoned, although the number could be much higher than the cases identified. Many of those were convicted of “counter-revolutionary” offences which since 1997 are no longer crimes under Chinese law. However, the cases of people serving sentences for “counter-revolutionary” offences have not yet been reviewed.

Today, whilst commemorating the 25th anniversary of the seven-weeks protests — starting in mid-April — the authorities have already arrested Pu Zhiqiang. The human rights lawyer was accused of “creating a disturbance” while he was attending a seminar that called for an investigation into the crackdown. Four other activists – Xu Youyu, Liu Di, Hao Jian and Hu Shigen – that took part in the same event were also arrested on the same grounds.

The danger of words
Chinese authorities also announced the detainment of the prominent journalist Gao Yu, who leaked a confidential state document, as Xinhua  — China‘s main state news agency — reported: “It’s unclear what document led to her detention,” said Maya Wang, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. “But the case highlights the dangerously vague Chinese state secrets law, in which the designation of state secrets is broad and ill-defined, and can’t be legally challenged in courts”.

Several other activists have been questioned by police, including Zhang Xianling and Ding Zilin whose sons were killed in the crackdown. Separately, a court in Shenzhen handed down a 10-year prison sentence to Hong Kong-based publisher, Yao Wentian, who was detained last year while preparing to publish a book by a dissident author.

The opposite path was granted to the activist Xu Wanping, who was released early from prison after serving nine years of a 12-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xu, who claimed not to have changed his political stance, has been deprived of his political rights for the next four years, as confirmed by the organization Human Rights in China.

To not forget
In the meantime, the world’s first Tiananmen massacre museum opened its doors in Hong Kong, on April 26th. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the new 800-square-foot museum features a collection of artifacts, written documents and nearly 1,000 archival photographs. Despite local opposition — two companies threatened legal action, citing violations of the property deed and anticipated disturbance caused by a high volume of visitors — the organizers managed to take advantage of the quasi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong which is expected to receive 45 million mainland tourists this year. “A lot of people have forgotten what has happened and mainlanders are not allowed to remember,” Cheuk-yan Lee -chairman of the Alliance- told Al Jazeera that it is still forbidden to discuss about the events of 1989.

After years of strict media censorship, seductive economic growth and endless imprisonments, Chinese authorities have managed to control the most personal space of all: memory. From blocking internet access to search terms related to the protests — to bypass internet censorship alternative names have sprung up such as May 35th, VIIV and “Eight Squared” — to using neutralised phrases while describing the events, the government has established a subtle and sophisticated system of control. Despite extensive coverage of the events from western media networks, in China itself collective memory is being suppressed through an artificial rewriting of history and reconstruction of the national identity, acknowledged Louisa Lim, NPR’s China correspondent. And this, according to Lim, was the first step towards lowering a blanket of state-sponsored amnesia.

“The Chinese people have a very strong historical consciousness but their historical memory is always selective”, wrote Zheng Wang, the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University, for Time.com. “In the past few years, I have given lectures and taught courses at several universities in China where, to my surprise, Chinese students from elite universities knew very little about this incident, even though most of them know a lot about the war between China and Japan that ended nearly 70 years ago. However, they cannot be blamed, as there is no access to open resources for them to learn the details of this event”, he added.

International boycott
In the following years after the crackdown, China faced global condemnation and its economy suffered severe consequences. Foreign loans were suspended by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and foreign governments, tourism revenue decreased from US$2.2billion to US$1.8 billion and foreign direct investment commitments were cancelled.

In order to reshape its national image abroad, the government had to embrace market forces and an open door foreign policy. However, economic liberalism didn’t come with the necessary political reforms as none of the movement’s demands has been accomplished apart from the increase in education funding and the higher salaries for intellectuals. Despite the investor-friendly image abroad, the country is still marked by political conservatism, enormous expansions of power by privileged families and much stricter media censorship. The question is, will economic modernization tempt China into democratizing its political system?

As the ‘Indignant movement’ reaches its 3rd birthday — is Spain on the brink of an uprising?

Imagen 1

FROM CIBELES TO La Puerta del Sol, thousands of people demonstrated across the city of Madrid culminating in a general assembly to celebrate the third anniversary of the biggest Spanish activist movement.

Under the slogan “No borders, no debt, no fear”, thousands of people congregated at Puerta del Sol in Madrid last Saturday to celebrate the third anniversary of the civic movement 15M. The demonstration was part of the programme constructed by the collective in which, many other activities were included.

The 15-M movement was born in 2011 to protest against the system and the Spanish government — led by at the time the socialist President José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero. It began with a demonstration on the 15th of May of that year and was followed by an spontaneous campsite in Puerta del Sol — a famous square in the capital — which was broken up by the authorities a few weeks later.

The ‘silent scream’ was a symbol of the protests in 2011.

The ‘Indignant movement’ — the name they were given since their main claim was based on the manifesto “Indignez-vous” by Hessel — has grown considerably since that day. As a result of these spontaneous initiatives and due to the high participatory percentage of people, activism was turned on in Spain. Many new collectives and platforms have emerged since then with the aim of protesting and fighting against injustice. Consequently, just in 2013, more than 4.000 demonstrations took place in Madrid, some of them marked by police brutality and detentions.

Imagen 3

Imagen 6

 

At the beginning of 2014, Human Rights Watch placed Spain among the eleven countries in the EU with serious problems in Human Rights due to: its high number of unemployed people, cuts on healthcare and other social budgets, as well as the increasing vulnerable situation of disable people and children. Furthermore, they made a call criticising the alarming number of evictions — 67,189 in 2013 — and highlighted the police brutality considered as a very problematic issue. In the same light, The Economist revealed in December 2013 that Spain was running a “high risk” of a citizen uprising due to a general malaise.

 

Music documentary 15M: “The clef is in Sol” in Portuguese and Spanish by the Action Committee -Scenic Arts- Music.

 

Text and photos by Victoria Medina.

Translated by Ana Escaso.

Strikes end, exploitation continues, workers rise

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Yue Yuen factory workers’ strike is identified by media and commentators as one of the biggest workers movements that took place in China in recent years. Cherie Chan explains the significance of the strike and its impact on the Chinese labour movement.

Last month, an estimated 40,000 factory workers in Dongguan – a city in Guangong Province of China – went on strike against Yue Yuen shoe factory, a supplier to many international brands of sport shoes such as Nike and Adidas. Striking workers complained that the Taiwanese-owned factory underpaid their pension contributions and social insurance. Workers also claimed that Yue Yuen treated them as temporary employees instead of permanent employees to evade a large amount of contributions it is obliged to pay for them.

 

Ineffective law enforcement

According to Labour Law in China, employers are obliged to pay for 11% of workers’ total salary as contribution for their social insurance, which

exploitation and inequality persists

exploitation and inequality persists

covers five areas including retirement pension, medical insurance, work-injury insurance, unemployment insurance and maternity insurance. A lot of factories in China, however, do not comply with the regulations. A Hong Kong based newspaper, Wen Wei Po reported that Yue Yuen have been applying temporary employment terms to pay for workers’ social insurance, as a result the contributions workers received from the company is 10 times less than what they are entitled to.

 

Yue Yuen Company is only one of the many foreign invested factories that underpay and abuse Chinese workers. Exploitation of Chinese labour first gained international attention in 2010, when 14 employees committed suicide in the Taiwanese-owned factory Foxconn, which is the largest electronics manufacture with customers including Apple, Dell and HP. Facing international pressure for the commitment of workers rights, Foxconn promised to raise workers salaries and improve their living conditions in the company’s residence, in order to reclaim the company’s image.

 

Lack of independent labour unions

Unlike many other western countries, Chinese workers have no representative labour unions to rely on. It is illegal to form any independent labour

unions in China, therefore the only authority workers can seek help from is labour unions managed and controlled by the government. Members of these official labour unions are not elected by workers, and they tend to forsake workers’ rights and collude with business owners in order to attract foreign investment. Worse still, local authorities and police often defend manufacturers’ interest for the sake of maintaining social stability. They thus repress any forms of workers movement by using arms and forces. The labour group, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) reported that in Yue Yuen workers’ strike, the local authority engaged with the company by sending several hundred police to suppress the strike. CLB reported that around ten protestors were arrested during the strike. Four workers were also beaten up by local police.

 

According to a report conducted by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong based NGO that promotes the rights of workers in China, 1,171 workers strikes and protests took place between June 2011 and December 2013. The number is obtained from official media coverage, so the actual number is possibly higher.

 

Suppression against labour rights groups by authority

workers unite (weibo)

workers unite (weibo)

The significant upsurge of Chinese workers’ movements in recent years unveils the dark side behind the prosperity of this economic giant, which was

hard hit by global economic crisis. Due to a decreasing demand for consumer goods, many manufacturers have to lower the cost of production to maintain profits. Some have to relocate their factories to places with lower labour cost such as Cambodia and Bangladesh. Some cannot survive through the economic downturn and succumb to closure. These failed manufacture often underpay workers an adequate amount of compensation and some even flee their factories without paying. Meanwhile, the remaining ones use legal loopholes as a way to lower the labour cost.

The lack of effective and independent labour unions encouraged the formation of non-government labour rights group, such as Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service, which provided legal assistance to the Yue Yuen striking workers. The government, however, uses various means to crack down these non-governmental rights groups. It is reported that Lin Dong and Zhang Zhiru, members of Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service and labour rights advocates, were detained by police during Yue Yuen strike.

According to the official announcement by Yue Yuen factory, the strike has already been settled last week and most workers resumed work after the company has promised to reimburse workers all the amount of underpaid insurance by 2015. However, media have suspected that the strike was ceased forcibly by police force instead of being settled with comprise between the two sides.

 

The rise of awareness of labour rights

Though being suppressed by the local authority, Yue Yuen workers’ strike exemplifies an increasing workers unity in China. According to media report, the number of worker participants increased from 1,000 on 5 April to over 40,000 within a week. The scale and efficiency of the movement is remarkable, considering that it was not organized by any effective labour unions. According to CWI, workers made use of social messaging groups to communicate and exchange information about the movement. Despite of censorship that hinders coverage of the movement by traditional media, labour groups and activists reported the stories by using the Chinese social media and platforms such as Weibo.

It is still uncertain whether workers in Yue Yuen factory would be able to get back their promised pensions and insurance. However, the strike is a successful labour movement as it has gained international media coverage and demonstrated a rising labour power. It is a heads-up to both Chinese labour, foreign-invested manufacture and the Chinese government.

Beijing should recognize that suppression is no longer an effective way to settle labour disputes in China. Foreign-invested manufacture, on the other hand, should establish efficient dialogues with workers and respect workers’ rights, which is the basic business ethics they should comply with.

Photos: Sofie Ejdrup Larsen, and Weibo.com