by GIORGIO GRAPPI and DEVI SACCHETTO
The Italian translation of this interviwe has been published in «il Manifesto», June 6, 2016
Pun Ngai is associated professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She is the author and editor of many publications on the transformation of labor in China, the multinational regime at Foxconn and the centrality of migrant labor. Her most recent publication is Migrant Labor in China: Post-Socialist Transformations (Polity Press, 2016). We interviewed her before a series of public debates on migrant labor and China in the global age that will be held in Rome (6 giugno), Bologna (7 giugno) e Padua (8 giugno).
During the past years, different research institutes have recorded a new peak of labor conflicts in China. From your perspective, what characterize the current situation of labor in China?
The most significant factor is the deepening process of social inequality, especially the issue of class that has engulfed China in the past two to three decades. On the one hand, there is new rich who topped the Fortune 500 list, and on the other, there is the rise of a new Chinese working class comprised of more than 500 million urban workers and peasant-workers, the largest working class in the world. With the downturn of economic development and over-production in China, especially since 2012 to 2013, the labor conflict obviously will arise.
Few years ago, we discussed with you the growth of a new generation of Chinese workers, young, migrants and precarious, stuck between no progress and no retreat. What is changed since then?
There is no change except the problem become more serious. After 2012 and 2013, the increase of wage in industrial zones of coastal China has been slowing down but the living costs, especially the rental costs are getting higher and higher in the urban areas. Many migrant workers could hardly set up their family in the cities, which creates the issue of split families and leftover rural children in China. In China we don’t have slums spreading in the industrial areas simply because we have the dormitory labor regime to replace the slums, but at the same time the dormitory labor regime disguises the needs of social reproduction and allow the migrant workers to circulate between factory and factory, city and city, without family and community life. This is no progress in city. For those migrant workers who would like to go back hometown, they either find their land was taken over by local government for industrial use or commercial use, or they find that the market of agricultural products is getting increasingly dominated by American products such as seeds, fertilizers, corns or beans. Hence, the rural land could hardly support the livelihood of these returned migrants. This is no retreat. This dilemma could hardly be changed without a fundamental structural change.
You analysed Foxconn for many years. How is the situation now for workers inside this kind of multinational?
Foxconn is an industrial empire, directly tied to Apple. With the decline of Apple’s revenue, and the saturation of iPhone and iPad users, the impact on Foxconn is obvious. The employees of Foxconn in China has dropped from its 1.3 million to less than 1 million. The paradox is that now the Foxconn workers do not have enough overtime work, and the wage is dropped 15% to 20% than the previous years. Because the basic wage for 8-hour work per day is too meagre, the Chinese migrant workers have to rely on their overtime work to earn their wage. The company managers now threaten to lay off workers if they are not submissive enough.
You support the idea that we need to go back to class concept. Why do you think it can be useful?
In my scholarship in the past ten years, every article I written, every talk I given, I talk about class, because class is the most basic and fundament concept for us to make sense the rapid change in the neo-liberal world. «Farewell to class» is a hegemonic western discourse what works to serve the multinational capital and the capitalistic empire, much worse, it disguises the struggle in the third world societies where the agents of historical change are still workers and peasants who were directly under the exploitation and subjugation of global capital with the support of local states. I talk about class, only because I have the vision of cancelling the existence of class as the beginning and the final of human liberation. Class is the basic concept, not only for us to make sense the composition and social strata of human society, but also the potential power of historical agents to change it. Class is hence an analytical as well as an emancipatory conceptual tool to change the world, which is increasingly controlled by transnational, and monopoly capital.
Recent news from China reports the introduction of robot in multinational enterprises, including Foxconn. Do you think this process could change the power relations inside factories?
Yes, a phenomenon for the capital to resolve the problem of over-production is to upgrade their industries and create new produce markets. Many electronic and machine factories are now producing robots and these robots will be sent to work in auto mobile, electronic and other high-value products plants in the next few years. Many local governments in Southern China even subsidized those companies that use robots. A substitution of manpower with robot eventually will have huge impact on capital-labor relationship and hence change power relation inside factories. A Chinese Luddite Movement will come if the survival of the new Chinese working class is under threat. No progress and no retreat will keep this Chinese Luddite Movement inevitable.
Different economic and institutional actors, also in Europe, see China as a new possibility to boost growth and investments. The discourse around the New Silk Road is to imagine new possibilities of development, while everywhere we hear about the new global role of China. What do you think of this dynamic?
If China can uphold the principle of socialism, like what have happened in Mao’s China, then New Silk Road is an alternative to imagine new possibility of development. If not, slogan is slogan. The Chinese capital «going out» into the world is constrained by the neo-liberal logics of economy and business, it could hardly create a better world. Many Chinese scholars would argue that Chinese capital is much better than American capital in term of providing benefits to the local societies, to me, it is only a matter of degree. The nature of valorisation of capital through capital expansion to other societies through the support of local nation-states is the same, USA, Russia or China. Overproduction in China, especially in heavy industries such as steel required capital to go overseas, looking for more chances of investment. This is not new internationalism, not at all.
What is the impact of these transformations in Chinese public opinion?
Due to strong nationalism that engulfed Chinese public opinion, most of the elites and middle-class people support these transformations. These people think that China has been poor for so many years, and now it stands up, and the elites are able to create a «Chinese Dream» in order to challenge the «American Dream». Most of the working class people didn’t have a chance to share this «Chinese Dream», but the 10% middle class or above are proud of China’s transformation into a big country.