We the Workers. Directed by Wen Hai. New York: Icarus Films, 2017. 174 minutes.
In the early scenes of this extraordinary movie, the viewers may feel like they are transported into the belly of a giant monster, a sort of iron whale that has swallowed hundreds of workers who relentlessly toil in its interior. They hammer, bang, forge, weld, and polish, and by doing so they “make” the monster. This powerful image epitomises China as the “workshop of the world,” the country that is currently feeding and producing global capitalism. The hardship of Chinese workers and the rise of labor unrest in China are extremely well documented. Books like Migrant Labor in China by Pun Ngai, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt by Ching Kwan Lee, and From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China edited by Sarosh Kuruvilla, Ching Kwan Lee, and Mary E. Gallagher analyze the rise of labor informalization in China and its harsh implications for workers, most of whom come from rural areas to sweat in cities and across the country’s massive industrial belts.1 The reality of Chinese workers’ lives on the move, across rural and urban areas, is captured by superb movies like Last Train Home by Lixin Fan.2 However, despite a few noteworthy exceptions like Tim Pringle’s Trade Unions in China: The Challenge of Labour Unrest, far less material is available on the complex ways in which Chinese labor is organizing or on the type of labor activism at its base.3 We the Workers is the movie that offers us such an insight.
After the initial apocalyptic scene we are transported into the complex, hard and dangerous world of China’s labor activism, composed of hundreds different labor NGOs, independent bureaus, and councils. The official unions remain party affiliated and hardly on the side of workers; hence activists organize in alternative ways, so they also lead a life of struggle, completely devoted to the labor cause. The documentary illustrates in detail the hardship these activists go through, and not only at the hand of employers. In fact, they are also targeted by the government and the police, possibly in collusion with local thugs hired by factory management. All characters of the story—like Zeng Feiyang, director of Panyu; Zhang Zhiru, director of Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service; and Peng Jiayong, a veteran labor organizer—have made heavy personal sacrifices to support the movement. They seem to live a life as precarious as that of the workers they represent. Undoubtedly, they are exposed to extraordinarily high levels of violence. Peng Jiayong, for instance, is brutally beaten in an attack involving local police officers who release him in the middle of the night to a group of goons who beat him up some more.
Besides being a unique account of labor organizing through the eyes of committed activists, We the Workers also provides a rare glimpse into Chinese gendered relations as they apply to activism. Surprisingly, and despite the fact that both women and men sweat for endless hours in Chinese factories, the picture of activism emerging from We the Workers is entirely masculine. The first women appear in the film only after two hours (the movie is three hours long). Patriarchal attitudes by labor activists also emerge in the documentary, for instance when lawyer Duan Yi, the director of Laowei Law Firm and expert in cases of collective bargaining, clearly states that women should not be part of strikes. Unfortunately, this perspective is not unique but simply places China in line with broader trends in Asia, where women still struggle to emerge in top union positions. However, video clips of a strike orchestrated by the activists, which are shown in the documentary, indicate that women are indeed part of the labor movement. Moreover, books like Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing Chinaby Leslie T. Chang, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace by Pun Ngai, and Gender and the South China Miracle by Ching Kwan Lee clearly illustrate the relevance of women workers in building modern China.4 So, do women workers never lead within this sphere? On the basis of the picture sketched by We the Workers, it seems so. This said, only a movement able to involve women both as cadres and as leaders can succeed in truly speaking for all workers.
We the Workers should be watched by all those interested in labor, social movements and activism, and the political economy of China. Viewers would benefit from pairing it with the texts indicated in this short review and movies like Last Train Home. Key pedagogical tropes to explore in the classroom are new versus old forms of labor activism; formal and informal social movement activism in Asia; labor, gender, and activism; and men and women and their roles in protest movements in historical perspectives.
1 Pun Ngai, Migrant Labor in China (Malden, MA: Polity, 2016); Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Sarosh Kuruvilla, Ching Kwan Lee, and Mary E. Gallagher, eds., From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).
2 Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2009), 87 minutes.
3 Tim Pringle, Trade Unions in China: The Challenge of Labour Unrest (New York: Routledge, 2011).
4 Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008); Pun Ngai, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Ching Kwan Lee, Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).