In order to contextualize the gross injustice of equating Shenzhen urban villagers with neidi farmer-workers, as well as to understand the rhetorical force of this symbolic equivalence, it is important to keep in mind ongoing problems with defaulted wages throughout China. According to Xiong Ju (熊炬) their are four kinds of bosses who cheat workers out of wages:
1. Real Estate Developers who buy land and have a contractor employ workers to build the housing, intending not to pay workers in a timely fashion. Instead they wait until the housing is finished, prices have risen, and only after selling the property do they pay their workers. They cheat the workers out of the interest on their salaries.
2. Big and little labor contractors who exploit workers at every level, passing the buck when problems arrive, defaulting on debts, and then runs away, so that the workers have to suck up the loss because they can’t find the responsible party.
3. Deliberately obnoxious bosses who scream and abuse workers until the worker can’t endure any more verbal abuse. Then when the worker walks off in anger, the boss has an excuse not to pay wages.
4. Physically abusive bosses who beat workers into leaving good enough alone and escaping with their lives.
However, this past Labor Day, the Chongqing police came through for 61 workers who hadn’t been paid for almost half a year and were owed over 800,000 rmb in back wages. A particularly smarmy labor contractor had hired enforcers to keep the workers working and silent about owed wages. On April 30, a Chongqing patrol came across several enforcers beating workers who had gone to ask for back wages. This led to a May 1 police action, where the offending contractor and his cronies were arrested and subsequently, after investigation, back wages paid.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this story because if the enforcers were beating the workers during the day, it means that they were confident that nothing would happen to them. Moreover, according to the report, the beatings had been going on as long as the defaulted wages. I’m curious about how this story could be kept a secret and then wonder how so much money was brought together so quickly; surely there’s more to the story.
That said, here’s the point about Shenzhen. When 61 Chongqing farmer-workers are owed 800,000 rmb for half a year of back wages, then Shenzhen local villagers who want more than two million in compensation packages do seem grasping and unreasonable. Moreover, the so-called black-hearted labor contractors do make wealthy real estate developers appear generous and benevolent. In Shenzhen today (and throughout the rest of China) there’s real anxiety about justice for farmers in between these two extremes.
On the one hand, most urbanites agree that farmers are being exploited and should have better benefits and regular wages. On the other hand, there’s also a sense that farmers shouldn’t have as much as rich urbanites; in places like Dachong farmers are seen as becoming uppity. In other words, there’s anxiety about the hegemonic “common sense” that makes farmers less valuable than urbanites. Thus, substituting Shenzhen locals for neidi farmers in arguments about rural urbanization enables the exploitation of neidi farmers to vanish into contempt for locals, which in turn makes it easier to stomach stories about exploitation, owed wages, and beatings of other farmers who are making claims on urbanites in other places. This slippage also naturalizes stories about threats against Shenzhen holdouts, such as Aunt Peng in Buji — as if this is what happens to farmers who challenge the status quo.
Photos and details of the Chongqing action, here.