Friday, April 24, 2009


Poland is banning all "authoritarian" images from clothing. That means, specifically, that I won't be able to wear my Che T-shirt there, as Che was a communist and communism as a whole is now not allowed as an element of Polish fashion... unless, I suppose, the designer can avoid the label of "propaganda" by putting an asterix next to, say, a hammer and sickle, with a note describing the horrors of the gulag or the limits of Cuba's parliament or the shortcomings of a command economy or something.

Are Trotsky and Stalin memorabilia to be treated the same, though? Are there gradations to Poland's rules? If so, are the gradations based on the degree of political liberalism espoused by a given communist luminary, i.e. could I wear the T-shirt of a political reformer like Gorbachev or Zhao Ziyang? Or are the rules based on theory versus action, i.e. could I wear a T-shirt with Marx and Engels or Gramsci but not Lenin? Was Lenin a complete authoritarian or did his successors just mess things up? What is Poland's verdict on the Cultural Revolution---democratic excess or authoritarian purge?

Wait, isn't banning certain political images... authoritarian?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sign of the times

The All China Federation of Trade Unions-affiliated Workers Daily carried the headline above in an issue I picked up on a plane in China. The bold text reads (roughly) "Closely Unite Ourselves with Enterprises." Which, coming from a trade union, is disappointing.

On the surface, this sentiment is not that far from the thinking that lies behind the United Auto Workers' recent concessions: the economic crisis changes everything. But the UAW's concessions were concessions, and extraordinary ones at that, not a reversion to established form, as in the ACFTU's case.

The second part of the headline is more interesting: "Shaanxi Union Deeply Advances 'Mutually Agreed Upon Actions.'" "Mutually agreed upon actions" (gongtong yueding huodong) is the rallying cry of a new, national program by the ACFTU, wherein, according to a recent proclamation, the union will "both protect employees' rights and promote enterprises' interests" (see this article).

In a conversation with a Chinese union organizer recently, I got a sense of how this kind of engagement can, sometimes, pack a punch, when the whole idea of real unions is new: the company hashes out a collective contract and then finds the workers helping with efficiency in other areas; the company then sees the union as a real force of its own, capable of sticking up for workers and pulling things off production-wise that even the company can't. A different sort of dance follows.

But that's all premised on the rights-protection portion of "mutually agreed upon actions" having some substance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Iron Man returns

I will do a bunch of posts in a flurry soon (I've been out of the country and they've backed up). However, before I do anything that takes much thought, I thought I'd plug the upcoming film "Tie Ren" ("Iron Man"), which is slated for May Day. A section on the project has been set up at Workers' Daily here.

Basically, "Tie Ren" is about the great Daqing "model worker" Wang Jinxi, known as "Iron Man Wang Jinxi." With state-owned enterprise workers facing new pressures (see the recent CLB report on lessons not learned from the first round of SOE reforms) and jobless migrant workers returning to the countryside by the millions, it is the perfect time for a tribute to labor as a pillar of the country.

The fact that the film is being advertised as a part of the PRC's 60th anniversary celebrations is important---viewers will be reminded that the country was founded in part to further the interests of working people.

Some may also be reminded of the great wave of strikes that hit the northeastern rustbelt in 2002, during which several hundred beleaguered oil workers gathered to protest at a statue to Iron Man Wang Jinxi in Daqing (thousands more may have joined them if not for local government threats). As Timothy Weston writes in "The Iron Man Weeps", workers in Chongqing that same year hoisted a banner that read, "Iron Man, Iron Man look back, corrupt officials are at your back. Iron Man, Iron Man look ahead, your kids live by begging."