The Return of Strikes in China

Since China’s market reform in the 1980s, the “world factory” has witnessed waves of strikes in the manufacturing sector, especially in the 2000s and early 2010s. However, factory strikes overall have declined in number and scale since 2016, and the centre of strikes has also shifted from manufacturing to service sectors, particularly the platform economy, and from coastal cities to China’s inland. What contributed to this new wave of factory workers’ strikes? And, what do the platform workers’ strikes tell about the state of workers’ movement in China?

The Revival of Industrial Strikes

2023 marks a new peak in strike activity since 2016. The number of factory strikes increased notably, and most strikes happened in the coastal regions, especially in the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta. According to the China Labor Bulletin, there were 434 factory strikes in 2023, compared to 37 in 2022 and 66 in 2021. Among the 434 cases, about 80 percent were in the southeast coastal region.

How do we explain this increase in factory workers’ strikes in 2023? Based on our analysis of the China Labor Bulletin’s China strike data, over half of the recorded actions in manufacturing were caused by the relocation or closure of low-value-added factories. Several factors can explain this wave of factory relocations in the post-Covid period.

First, the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated capital relocation. COVID heavily hit those factories at the bottom of the global supply chain, and they have not seen increased volumes of orders after the end of the “Zero COVID” policy. Under such pressures, factories relocated to regions with lower wages to cut down costs. Some factories that have relocated part of their operations over the past decade are now relocating entirely.

Second, the pandemic triggered a restructuring of the global supply chain. Covid showed big global brands that heavy dependence on suppliers from China was not a good idea. This motivated these brands to look for suppliers elsewhere. Most spectacularly, in 2022, the “Zero-COVID” policy led to a large-scale workers’ protest at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, the largest iPhone assembly factory in the world. This delayed the release of the new iPhone model, leading Apple to accelerate its shift of production out of China to diversify the supply chain.

Third, since the end of the 2000s, local governments in coastal regions have encouraged low-end manufacturing industries to relocate elsewhere to promote industrial upgrading. In 2023, Guangdong’s provincial government issued almost ten blueprints and guidelines to encourage factory relocation and promote “more advanced, more intelligent, and greener” manufacturing. These factors combined to create a mass exodus of low-end manufacturing capital from coastal China, particularly the southern Pearl River Delta.

According to Chinese labor law, employers are obligated to pay severance if they lay off workers. However, given the diminishing profits, employers used various strategies to reduce relocation costs in 2023. Some bosses secretly shipped machines away or simply disappeared. Workers are thus denied severance pay and sometimes even not paid their wages and social insurance. On China’s version of TikTok, Chinese workers call this phenomenon “bosses running away”. Sometimes, workers returned from their Sundays or holidays to find out their bosses had already run away. During the National Day and Lunar New Year holidays, workers expressed their worries in short videos about the possibility of their bosses running away.

Another typical strategy for employers to avoid severance pay is to subject workers to a “five-day a week, eight-hour a day” schedule. The standard working day is a historic victory of the international labor movement, but today it has a different meaning in the Chinese context. In China’s manufacturing sector, workers usually receive very low base wages and must rely on overtime work to earn enough wages to make a living.

When employers reduce or eliminate overtime, workers cannot earn enough incomes. In doing so, employers are effectively forcing workers to quit voluntarily, thus avoiding making any severance pay. These employers use this tactic to relocate their factories elsewhere without technically “laying off” workers. Employers also give workers more days off to reduce the monthly wage further. Some factories make workers work only for two or three days a week and pay them only 70 or 80 per cent of the minimum wage. Some factories simply suspend production and extend days off for several months.

These strategies enabled bosses to circumvent or reduce severance pay. They also put workers in highly precarious situations. With China’s ongoing economic downturn, finding alternative employment that pays well has been very difficult for workers. Therefore, factory closures and relocations triggered many wildcat strikes in 2023.

In response to employers’ strategies, workers staged actions and posed demands within and beyond the law. First, to pressure employers for severance pay, workers blocked the shipping of machines out of their closed factories. Second, workers recognized the extended days off and the cancelled overtime as employers’ tricks, fought against the “five days, eight hours” schedule, and demanded overtime hours. Third, workers demanded that employers raise base wages, so that they do not need to depend on overtime pay. Fourth, in some cases, workers recognized that their bosses were suppressing their wages to cut down severance pay and demanded severance pay beyond what the law stipulates.

For example, in November 2023, Bao Chen Corporation, one of the world’s largest shoe manufacturers, shut down its factory in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, and increased its investment in India. Under the pressure of workers’ strikes, the factory agreed to pay the workers severance compensation as regulated by law. However, the severance payments were significantly reduced due to the sharp reduction in workers’ wages from over 5,000 RMB (or 690 USD) to around 2,000 RMB (270 USD) over the past year. The workers were dissatisfied with the compensation plan and continued to strike.

In sum, workers demonstrated a strong willingness to counter employers’ offensives. Many workers gained and shared experiences participating in collective actions from the previous strike waves. In the 2023 wave, they used diverse tactics to pressure their bosses, including work stoppage, assembly, sit-ins, blocking factory entrances, guarding machines, and suicide attempts. Workers also tried to get multiple levels of government involved and delivered complaints to the ACFTU, Labor Bureaus, the Department of Justice, and Social Security Bureaus. Workers’ resilience was evidenced also by the duration of their actions, with some struggles lasting for several months.

However, this strike wave also had limitations. First, the dramatic shrinking of the size of the manufacturing workforce limited workers’ bargaining power. The participants in factory strikes in 2023 usually numbered somewhere between dozens and hundreds, compared to those before 2016, in which tens of thousands of workers participated. Second, because many factories were going through a contraction of production, workers were striking against factories where production had already been reduced in scale or suspended. These strikes could not seriously hurt the bosses economically. Third, since 2015, the Chinese state has become more authoritarian, weakened labor rights protection, and stepped up repression of labor activism. Governments aligned themselves with employers to suppress workers’ actions. In the strike wave of 2023, we also hardly saw any involvement of labor NGOs.

In a strike at an auto parts factory in Shenzhen, the government agencies and the trade union quickly stepped in, ostensibly mediating the dispute but supporting the boss. The district labor inspectors declared that workers deliberately disrupting production will be dismissed and detained. To sustain their protest, hundreds of workers from this factory walked out together and took the subway to the city government headquarters. But when they got off the subway, the police blocked them and bussed them back to the factory. Workers in the manufacturing sector faced more hostile circumstances in their struggles.

Platform Workers’ New Tactics

Over the past few years, a growing number of workers entered platform sectors due to factory closures in manufacturing and massive layoffs in sectors like IT and real estate. In 2018, there were 2.7 million delivery workers on Meituan, China’s biggest food delivery platform, and in 2023, this number increased to more than seven million. The same trend also holds for rideshare drivers. Therefore, there has been a sizable influx of platform workers, but the customer base is shrinking during the economic downturn. Arguably, China’s platform sectors reached “saturation” in 2023.

Some observers have argued that, compared to factory workers, platform workers face greater barriers in collective organizing. This is because platform workers are more dispersed spatially in their labor process, making it harder for them to build lasting relationships. This makes communication and coordination more difficult.

However, in 2023, China’s platform workers engaged in sporadic struggles despite these challenges. In October, about 50 workers in Qing’an County, Heilongjiang Province, staged a protest against Meituan. In August, Meituan workers in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, went on strike. In April, hundreds of Meituan’s food delivery workers in Shanwei City, Guangdong Province, struck for more than a week, attracting national and international attention.

The Shanwei food delivery workers’ strike is worth unpacking since it was one of platform workers’ longest and best-known strikes in recent years. The total number of Meituan’s station-based food delivery workers in Shanwei was between 800 and 1,000. In early April of 2023, Meituan’s local managerial agent cancelled a range of workers’ subsidies and lowered per-order unit rates. Offline conversations then started among Meituan workers within their stations and teams to discuss how to fight back.

Some workers proposed to go on strike because of a successful precedent several years earlier. They set up a WeChat group and asked their teammates to join the group to indicate interest in striking. Through kinship and friendship networks, workers also added co-workers from other teams and stations, who then spread the word among their teammates. Cuiyuan Street was Shanwei’s busiest business area, and many delivery workers waited to pick up their orders. While waiting there, workers talked to co-workers about the possible strike and invited them to join the WeChat group. Within days, the WeChat group grew to hundreds of workers. By mid-April, a ton of offline, person-to-person organizing had happened, even though no one had said anything in the WeChat group.

Through offline conversations, workers decided to start striking when it rains. This was because Meituan usually receives a greater volume of orders when it rains, so striking then would hit Meituan the hardest. This was communicated unevenly among workers offline through their teammate networks and kinship and friendship networks across teams.

On April 19, it rained. Workers posted messages like “It’s raining now, I’m no longer taking orders” in the WeChat group. Dozens of these messages flooded the group, so everyone knew the strike had begun. Workers not in the WeChat group also learned that a strike was happening because they were assigned an impossible number of orders as more and more workers logged off. Many of them stopped working because it was impossible to complete these orders. Some workers estimated that at the end of Day One, 70 per cent of Meituan’s station-based workers in Shanwei were on strike.

On the night of Day Two, Meituan shipped hundreds of workers from the surrounding regions into Shanwei to break the strike. These strikebreakers were paid a base stipend of 200 yuan daily and unit rates almost three times as much as Shanwei workers. This further angered local workers in Shanwei. Workers estimated that, from Day Three onward, only 30 local workers most loyal to the management were not on strike. Everyone else was striking. The strikebreakers did a poor job of keeping the Meituan operation going. They didn’t know the intricacies of Shanwei’s local geography and were very slow in delivering orders. Many soon felt exhausted and preferred receiving only the base wage and spending their day playing video games in Internet cafes.

Then, neighbourhood committees and the police started to call the local workers and pressure them to return to work. One worker said he received a call from the police, caved into the pressure and decided to return to work. But his teammates soon found out on their Meituan app that this worker was crowned the “best performer” in the ranking system and, therefore, must have been scabbing. This worker was then scolded by his uncle, a worker on the same team actively organizing strikes. He was berated by the other teammates as well. This worker then went back on strike.

In this case, peer pressure among co-workers neutralized the pressure from state authorities. After the strike began, the WeChat group became a vibrant space where workers discussed the next steps. Workers decided not to elect representatives to bargain with the management because they feared that the representatives would face retaliation. Instead, team leaders communicated workers’ demands to the management. On Day Eight, the management caved in, reinstating all the subsidies and restoring unit rates to pre-existing levels.

However, the strikers formulated a more ambitious and egalitarian demand during the strike, abolishing all tiers, which could also better unite workers. Before the strike, many subsidies had been for tier-A workers only, whose unit rates had also been higher. Workers demanded that the subsidies be applied to all station-based workers and that unit rates be equalized. These demands were not met. This drove a wedge between the strikers. Tier-A workers mostly returned to work on Day Eight and Nine, but many workers on lower tiers stayed on strike. Over the next couple of days, the management lured workers back to work through daily bonuses. By Day Eleven, about 80 percent of the strikers had returned to work. The strike effectively ended on Day Fourteen.

The division among the strikers during the last phase of the strike had a lasting impact. More than half a year later, during a dinner party, some workers still complained that the tier-A workers betrayed them and swore that they would never go on strike again with these traitors. After the strike, the management also reshuffled stations and teams in Shanwei much more frequently to disrupt the teammate networks that were so pivotal in organizing and sustaining the strike.

Several aspects of this strike are notable. First, when platform workers are primarily local residents of a relatively small city, dense personal networks among workers can serve as important conduits to organize a spatially dispersed workforce in their labor process. Second, in this case, the platform algorithm ironically ended up helping the workers spread and sustain their strike. Third, we can also see that workers’ solidarity is fragile, and overcoming the management’s strategy to “divide and rule” remains a crucial challenge for collective action.

China’s strike wave, driven by both factory and platform workers in 2023, provides both inspiring and sobering lessons. As the economic downturn severely affected workers’ livelihoods in various ways, workers demonstrated a strong resolve to fight back and demand what they deserved. But at the same time, the power of workers’ struggles – which remain more or less sporadic and improvised – was constrained by bosses’ manoeuvres, the government’s actions, and structural changes in the economy. To counteract these barriers would require more elaborate and sustainable ways of organizing and a stronger and broader sense of class solidarity. How to achieve these within a fiercely anti-organizing political environment stands out as a pressing question for Chinese workers.

*We thank David for contributing crucial information to this article.


Simon Han is a labor researcher from China.

Jessica Song is a labor researcher from China.