Tea Leaf Nation

The World's Largest Union: A 'Capitalist Running Dog'

Some Chinese say their massive trade union isn't standing up for worker rights.

China boasts the world's largest trade union, but its labor movement may still need a bit of help.

Well into its second week, a shoe factory workers' strike in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan -- possibly one of the largest strikes in recent Chinese history according to U.S.-based NGO China Labor Watch -- shows no sign of reaching a resolution. Since April 14, more than 40,000 employees at the Dongguan plant of shoe manufacturing giant Yue Yuen have gone on strike to protest what they claim are underpayment of social security benefits as well as labor contract abnormalities. But one item on the list of worker demands may come as a surprise: The right to elect union leaders.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU, is the world's largest trade union, strictly speaking. It has 280 million members, according to Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, but its power and size don't necessarily translate into gains for China's labor force. Union leaders are appointed rather than elected, and legal restrictions on Chinese workers' rights to collective bargaining and striking are significant. As China's only legal labor union, the state-controlled ACFTU has sometimes attracted criticism for prioritizing economic development over worker concerns, as well as for trying to prevent social unrest by seeking harmony between labor and capital rather than fighting for worker demands.

The local union representing the Yue Yuen workers did not exactly win worker hearts and minds, by its own admission. The Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, an ACTFU regional affiliate that is responsible for negotiating on behalf of Yue Yuen employees, complained in an April 20 post on Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform, that "since the work stoppage occurred, Yue Yuen Shoe Factory trade union officials have had to deal with the pressure of being called 'labor traitors' and 'lackeys,'" as the officials have "tried to guide workers to return to their posts and continue production" while working to "peacefully resolve the incident."

The responses of many angry commenters appeared to confirm the local union's contention about its own unpopularity. "You've just proven yourselves to be labor traitors," wrote one user. "The labor union's responsibility isn't to make workers resume production, it's to help workers protect their rights." Another user wrote that the insults were "deserved -- what have you done for us recently?" One  woman observing the mess from Beijing, whose Weibo byline includes the phrases "Long live Chairman Mao, long live the Communist Party," complained that labor unions have become "capitalist lackeys." Another avowedly Maoist user called the union a "capitalist running dog." The ACTFU did not respond to an email request for comment.

Chinese workers nonetheless have reason to be hopeful. Wages in China are projected to increase 10 percent in 2014, and a worsening labor shortage due to demographic changes driven by decades of China's one-child policy, as well as growing labor demands from the burgeoning service industry, means workers may have more bargaining power than any time in the past three decades of China's rapid economic expansion. But if workers do manage to leverage their increasing advantage in the labor market, it is likely they will have only themselves, not trade unions, to thank.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Justin Bieber Just Accidentally Offended 1.3 Billion People

Chinese pile on after the pop star unwittingly visits a controversial shrine. 

Justin Bieber has once again displayed his talent for seemingly effortless international gaffes. The 20-year-old Canadian pop princeling, who last year wrote "hopefully she would have been a Belieber" in the guestbook on his visit to the Anne Frank House, has now posted a picture of himself visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead that include 14 convicted war criminals from World War II. The photo stirred up anger among citizens of Japan's humongous neighbor, who resent their brutal treatment at Japanese hands during World War II and what Chinese view as Japan's occasional attempts to whitewash that history. Bieber seems to have come upon the shrine by chance while in the Japanese capital of Tokyo; he wrote apologetically on Instagram, a photo-sharing site, "While in Japan I asked my driver to pull over for which [sic] I saw a beautiful shrine. I was mislead to think the Shrines [sic] were only a place of prayer." Not so, he soon learned. "To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry." He concluded, "I love you China and I love you Japan."

The pop star's inadvertent photo-op (at least it wasn't a selfie) at a locus of contention in China-Japan relations boasts almost immaculately poor timing. On April 21, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni, which Chinese state media agency Xinhua deemed a "slap in the face," and on April 22, around 150 Japanese lawmakers and one cabinet-level minister paid their respects at the shrine, further fueling resentment.

Chinese netizens reacted to Bieber's impromptu Yasukuni visit with anger and snark. Some took shots at Bieber's intelligence, with one user of blogging site Douban writing, "He probably thought it was Japan's biggest sushi shop." On Weibo, China's Twitter, one user wrote, "Previously, he was a young genius. Now he's a born idiot." Referring to Bieber's comment about loving both China and Japan, another Weibo user proffered a translation of Bieber's online apology: "The context is 'I love renminbi, I love the Japanese yen.'"

Speaking of lucre, in late 2013, Bieber performed in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Dalian, and Shanghai, where some VIP tickets purportedly sold for as much as $1,400. If Bieber plans to perform in China again, he may find a somewhat less rapturous welcome next time.

Photo: Getty Images