Tea Leaf Nation

Zhou Decline Watch: Expanding the Purge?

Tracking the downfall of one of the most feared men in China.

In Chinese, just like in English, there are many gradients of unprecedented. Po Tianhuang, which literally means to "break the scarcity of heaven," is one of the strongest. 

Read more from FP on Zhou Yongkang

Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the midst of what is probably the biggest anti-corruption campaign since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. He is almost certainly going after China's former security czar Zhou Yongkang -- the first time an official who served in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China's top ruling body, has been targeted. Xi is also fighting graft in the military. The case against Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, who was quietly dismissed from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's military, in 2012, may turn into the biggest corruption scandal in PLA history -- it is extremely rare for the ruling Chinese Communist Party to publically accuse top Chinese military figures of corruption.

Amidst the unprecedented crackdown, rumors of a new target has begun to float around the Internet: He Guoqiang, formerly China's top anti-corruption official, who served with Zhou on the PSC from 2007 to 2012. The rumors appear to have started with a corruption probe of Song Lin, the former head of one of China's most powerful state-owned enterprise, China Resources. "By investigating Song Lin it looks like the leadership has decided to go after He Guoqiang," Hong Kong based anti-corruption activist Li Jianjun told the Financial Times. Song, the FT reported, citing people familiar with the matter and Chinese media reports from outside of China, is "closely associated" with He's son. Duowei, a New York based Chinese-language news site with a decent record of anticipating Chinese political scandals, claimed in an April 23 story that He's absence means he may be in trouble. 

It's important to emphasize allegations of He's involvement are still at the level of rumor. Like almost all retired Chinese officials, He has kept a low profile -- he has not made a public appearance since 2012 --and his absence from the spotlight doesn't mean he is being investigated. His name could drop from the discussion. But if Xi is really trying to make the case that no one, not even former members of the PSC, are above scrutiny, maybe he thinks breaking just one precedent is not enough. 

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