East Asia, Images

Labour Strikes in China

The China Labour Bulletin website provides maps displaying incidents of labour strikes that have occurred in recent years. While of course these should be viewed with a hefty grain of salt, they may be worth scrutinizing all the same.

This image below shows the number of strikes in general that have occurred since 2011: as you can see, they have been becoming a lot more common since the beginning of 2014.

since 2011 map

Yet this may be somewhat misleading: nearly half of the strikes indicated in the map above are thought to have had fewer than 100 people participate in them. It may be better to look just at the number of larger strikes that have occured, as the following two maps do:

1000-10,000, 2011.png

more than 10,000 persons since 2011

4 out of the 7 labour strikes involving 10,000+ people since 2011 occured in Guangdong province, according to the China Labour Bulletin

These maps above show that the larger strikes, with 1000-10,000 people and 10,000+ people, respectively, occured most often in 2014, unlike the smaller but more numerous strikes that occured most frequently in 2015 and so far in 2016. Since 2015 there have not been any strikes involving more than 10,000 people, according to the China Labour Bulletin.


Now let’s have a closer look at the differences between China’s many provinces. Below I have tried to graph the number of strikes that have occurred in each province, first since 2011 and then since 2015:


2015Guangdong, China’s most populous province, finished at the top of both graphs, while Tibet, Qinghai, Hainan, Tianjin, Ningxia, Gansu, and Xinjiang finished at the bottom of both graphs. All of the provinces of China are more or less in the same position in both graphs, in fact. And there are no major regional patterns that can be gleaned clearly from either list.

1000 - 10,000 since 2015.png

Labour strikes since January 1, 2015 involving at least one thousand people. Guangdong had 27, followed by Jiangsu with 9 and Shandong with 8.

What if we adjust the figures to take into account the population size and GDP of each province?  Then we get the following graphs:

2011 pop

2011 gdp

Here Guangdong and Tibet again finished at the top and bottom of both graphs, respectively. Ningxia, however, which had finished fifth from the bottom before adjusting for population and GDP, has now moved up to second from the top. Ningxia is China’s third least populous province (the two Tibetan provinces, Tibet and Qinghai, are the least populous), is one of China’s five “autonomous regions” (the others are Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Guangxi), and, along with Xinjiang, has by far the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants of any province in the country.

In the adjusted-for-population graph, China’s relatively small and wealthy “direct-controlled municipalities”, namely Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing, were much higher up than they were on the adjusted-for-GDP graph, with the exception of  Chongqing. (Chongqing is quite a bit less urbanized than the three others are). Shanghai and Beijing were third and fifth, respectively, while Tianjin, which was the least strike-prone of any province when adjusted-for-GDP, was close to the middle of the pack when adjusted-for-population.

Another big change was Hainan, China’s southernmost province and only island province (not counting Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan), which was third from the bottom before adjusting for population size or GDP, but fourth from the top when adjusting for GDP and eighth when adjusting for population size. Shanxi and Shaanxi, meanwhile, two neighbouring provinces located in and around the mountains of north-central China, moved from around the middle of the pack to near the top once adjusted for GDP and population.


Shanxi in particular is China’s major coal producing region, and the coal industry has come under a lot of pressure in recent years, which may help explain Shanxi’s high position on both of these graphs. (Shaanxi too is a top coal producer. Inner Mongolia, though, China’s second biggest coal producer, is admittedly near the bottom of the GDP-adjusted labour strikes graph). Shanxi has also been arguably the main provincial target by far of Xi Jinping’s intense “anti-corruption” campaign.

Still, these graphs again do not prioritize large strikes over smaller ones. Below, then, are the strikes with between 1000 – 10,000 participants that have occured since 2011. Since there have been very few strikes with more than 10,000 participants, the 1000-10,000 category accounts for an overwhelming share of the large labour strikes that have taken place:

1000 since 2011

1000 since 2011:pop

1000 since 2011:gdp

The graph showing labour strikes with more than 1000 people since 2011, adjusted for GDP size, is I suspect the most important one. The population-adjusted graphs tend to somewhat misleadingly overemphasize the wealthiest provinces, like Shanghai or Tianjin, since they have lots of per capita economic activity and therefore also lots of per capita labour strikes. The graphs that are not adjusted at all skew in favour of populous provinces, meanwhile. The GDP-adjusted graphs, though, are perhaps the most indicative of provinces in which there may be growing social challenges to China’s political or economic establishment.

Notably, this GDP-adjusted graph is also the only one in which clear regional divisions can be seen. Apart from Guizhou, nine of the ten westernmost provinces in China- Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan,  Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Gansu – are in the bottom thirteen provinces of the list, and six are also in the bottom seven of the list. Seven of the top nine provinces on the list, meanwhile, are seven of China’s eleven eastern coastal states. These also happen to be the seven most southern coastal states on the Chinese mainland.

Beijing and the provinces around Beijing, like Liaoning, Hebei, Henan, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shandong, are near the bottom or the middle of the list. Shanghai on the other hand, as well as two of the three provinces that surround Shanghai, namely Jiangsu and Anhui, are quite close to the top of the list. Guangdong, which is the most populous province in China, remains far ahead at the top of the list. Three of Guangdong’s four neighbouring provinces, namely Jiangxi, Guangxi, and Fujian, are at the top of the list as well.


Remarkably, Guangdong’s GDP-adjusted figure for large labour strikes is roughly twice as high as any other province and five times the nationwide average. Guangdong has also been home to four of the seven labour strikes in China involving more than 10,000 people since 2011, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Given Guangdong’s enormous size and revolutionary history, this may be worth noting.


The other biggest outlier is the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which apart from Guangdong had by far the most large strikes adjusted for GDP size. Heilongjiang has been a major oil and coal producing province, which may partially help to explain this. Strikes in the province have been putting its governor Lu Hao, the youngest provincial governor in the country, under a lot of political pressure of late.

Heilongjiang’s position also highlights an interesting trend: China’s most peripheral provinces, like Tibet, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Yunnan, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Hainan, and Jiangxi, are either at the very top of the list or at the very bottom of the list. Heilongjiang itself has the longest international border in China outside of the three “autonomous regions” of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. Heilongjiang’s border with Russia is only slightly shorter than the entire US-Mexican border. Hopefully Donald Trump will move there once he loses the election this year,  and trouble America no more.

The China Labour Bulletin maps also zoom in to show which cities the strikes occured in, and gives basic information about them. For example:


It also breaks down the strikes by the response they are thought to have received, in five categories: “police”, “arrest(s)”, “government mediation”, “negotiation”, or “other”. According to the site, “Guangdong also led the country in the number of police interventions in labour disputes, accounting for about 19 percent of the total 831 incidents in which police were deployed and 24 percent of the incidents in which arrests were made”.

“Worker protests accounted for 38 percent of all mass protests by Chinese citizens last year, according to statistics published on the well-respected Wickedonna blog.”

To close, here are the numbers of strikes of all sizes since the beginning of 2015, adjusted for provincial population size and provincial GDP size. Guangdong is finally not at the top of either:

2015 pop

2015 gdp

But if you look only at large strikes since 2015, then Guangdong is back on top:

1000 - 10,000 since 2015.png

Labour strikes since January 1, 2015 involving at least one thousand people. Guangdong had 27, followed by Jiangsu with 9, Shandong with 8, and Sichuan with 5. There have been no strikes with 10,000+ people since the beginning of 2015, according to the China Labour Bulletin

East Asia

China’s Hidden Regionacracy, part 1: China’s Borderlands


How can one measure China’s economic stability? In the West, it is common to look to Hong Kong and Tibet as litmus tests of the strength of the central Chinese government. While it is true that both Hong Kong and Tibet are very important places, their combined populations do not account for even one percent of China’s overall inhabitants.

To get a better sense of China’s stability, then, one must also examine the other areas of China where the dictates of the central government are most likely to be resisted. Arguably, these include the following six regions: Southwestern China (namely, the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou, plus the “Autonomous Region” of Guangxi), Southeastern China (the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan), Northeastern China (the provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin), the Sichuan plateau (the province of Sichuan and “Direct-controlled Municipality” of Chongqing), and the “Autonomous Regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

These regions have a total population of over half a billion. They are home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so ethnic minorities, 300-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, 20-30 million Muslims, 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and tens of millions of family members of the vast worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Together, these regions form a cordon around the flat, triangle-shaped Chinese heartland that extends for more than a thousand kilometres from Beijing to Shanghai, where most of the rest of China’s population lives. Several other provinces, meanwhile, such as Shanxi, Gansu, Hunan, and the Hui Muslim “Autonomous Region” of Ningxia, arguably fall somewhere in between China’s central and peripheral territories, from both a geographical and political perspective.

Along with the high-altitude Tibetan(-Qinghai) Plateau and the Chinese Himalayas, these six peripheral regions possess by far the most rugged, expansive, and insular terrain within China. Their territories consist either of:

  • subtropical hills and mountains (throughout most of Southeastern and Southwestern China)
  • vast semi-desert plateaus (in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia)
  • enormous mountains (in Xinjiang, where mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies)
  • mountainous or hilly islands (within the archipelagic coastal waters of Southeastern China, in places like Hong Kong, Macau, Hainan province, Xiamen, Zhoushan, Pingtan County, and nearby Taiwan)
  • mountain-enclosed riverlands (in Sichuan and Northeastern China)

Not surprisingly, Chinese central governments, whether they are controlled by ethnic Han Chinese as is the case today, or else by outside invaders like the Manchu or Japanese as was the case for most of the past half-millenium, have almost always had trouble subduing most or all of these areas.

Indeed, China’s peripheral regions contain all of China’s land borders, which are the longest in the world, more than two thousand kilometres longer than all of Russia’s land borders and well over double the length of the continental United States’. These borders remain almost impossible for the Chinese government to fully control, not only because of their incredible length and difficult terrain, but also because they are located an average of between one and a half thousand and three thousand kilometers away from the Chinese heartland. Only two significant railway lines cross the western half of this enormous distance as of yet.

Complicating matters further, China’s borders are shared with fourteen different countries, nearly all of which possess either ethnolinguistic or religious ties with the areas of China they are adjacent to. These include:

  • the long Himalayan border that separates Tibet from India, Nepal, and Bhutan, across which the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leadership resides
  • the even longer border that seperates Inner Mongolia (where more than one-fifth of the population are ethnic Mongols) and Xinjiang from the country of Mongolia (which in turn shares a three and a half thousand kilometer-long border with Russia)
  • the Manchurian-Korean border, where China is terrified of millions of refugees flowing in from North Korea in the event of a disaster there, and where nearly two million people living in the Manchurian provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin are already Korean
  • the twin Siberian borders with Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria; Xinjiang’s borders with Khazakstan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, where, as in Xinjiang, a plurality of the population is Muslim and/or ethnolinguistically Turkic
  • the southeastern and southwestern Chinese borders with Southeast Asia, throughout which there is a diaspora of tens of millions of southern Chinese, and where ethnic minority populations span both sides of China’s borders with countries like Myanmar and Vietnam.

As the economies of these peripheral Chinese regions as well as China’s neighbouring countries emerge, as in recent years many have begun to do at a faster pace than the Chinese economy has as a whole, they may deepen this array of cross-border relationships, and in turn could undermine efforts by China’s central government to enforce national unity within the huge Chinese economic and political system. The Chinese have certainly been worried about their neighbours within the relatively recent past: China sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its citizens during the Korean War in the 1950’s and then thousands during the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979, which, as a point of comparison, may be more casualties than the United States has suffered in all of the wars it has ever fought put together.

Since the 1980’s, however, as the China-US alliance took root and the Chinese economy began rapidly expanding, and as the economic growth of most of China’s neighbours collapsed in the early 1990’s (Japan and the Soviet Union), late 1990’s (South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and British-era Hong Kong), or during the the 2008 global recession (Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and North America), while around the same time the power of China’s English-speaking rivals became preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the 2000’s, China has not had to worry about its borderlands nearly so much.

This is not to say that these regions were problem-free during this period. The Chinese government has in fact been concerned with many of them, including, for example:

Yet all such risks proved to be manageable ones, eased as they were by the amazing Chinese economic boom that was then still in full swing, and by the fact that China, which until 2010 still had an economy thought to be smaller than Japan’s, had not yet attracted the full attention of other powers intent on containing it.

Lately, in contrast, just as the United States has been disengaging from Afghanistan and Iraq and the economies of the US and Britain have begun speeding up again following their multi-year post-recession slog, and just as Japan, which continues to have the third largest economy in the world by a large margin, has finally begun to rebuild its will to implement an aggressive economic stimulus program and outwardly post-pacifistic foreign policy, many of China’s peripheral provinces and most of the countries surrounding China either grew or accelerated their economies at a faster pace than did the overall Chinese economy, which has slowed significantly in recent years.

In some of these areas, for instance on both sides of the border between south-western China and northern and eastern India, growth in 2014 accelerated at a much faster pace than in China as a whole. While China’s overall economic growth nevertheless remains quite strong compared to most of the rest of Asia and the world – at least, according to Beijing’s own official estimates, which admittedly are dubious – this constellation of recent trends does not bode well for its central government going forward.