ZHONGSHAN, China — It is labor revolt by text message and video upload, underwritten by the Chinese government.
The 1,700 workers who went on strike at the Honda Lock auto parts factory here are mostly poor migrants with middle-school educations (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ battery) .
But they are surprisingly tech-savvy.
Hours into a strike that began last week, they started posting detailed accounts of the walkout online, spreading word not only among themselves but also to restive and striking workers elsewhere in China (Sony VGP-BPS8 battery) .
They fired off cellphone text messages urging colleagues to resist pressure from factory bosses. They logged onto a state-controlled Web site — workercn.cn — that is emerging as a digital hub of the Chinese labor movement. And armed with desktop computers, they uploaded video of Honda Lock’s security guards roughing up employees (SONY VGP-BPS8 battery) .
“We videotaped the strike with our cellphones and decided to post the video online to let other people know how unfairly we were treated,” said a 20-year-old Honda employee who asked not to be named because of the threat of retaliation (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ battery) .
The disgruntled workers in this southern Chinese city took their cues from earlier groups of Web-literate strikers at other Honda factories, who in mid-May set up Internet forums and made online bulletin board postings about their own battle with the Japanese automaker over wages and working conditions (Sony VGP-BPL9 battery) .
But they have also tapped into a broader communications web enabling the working class throughout China to share grievances and strategies. Some strike leaders now say they spend much of their time perusing the Web for material on China’s labor laws (Sony VGP-BPL11 battery) .
Wielding cellphones and keyboards, members of China’s emerging labor movement so far seem to be outwitting official censors in an effort to build broad support for what they say is a war against greedy corporations and their local government allies (Sony VGP-BPL15 battery) .
And it might not be possible if the Chinese government had not made a concerted effort in the last decade to shrink the country’s digital divide by lowering the cost of mobile phone and Internet service in this country — a modernization campaign that has given China the world’s biggest Internet population (400 million) and allowed even the poorest of the poor to log onto the Internet and air their labor grievances (SONY VAIO VGN-FZ4000 Battery) .
“This is something people haven’t paid attention to — migrant workers can organize using these technologies,” said Guobin Yang, a professor at Barnard College and author of “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.”
“Usually we think of this kind of thing being used by middle-class youths and intellectuals,” Professor Yang said (ASUS Eee PC 1000HE Battery) .
The Web and digital devices, analysts say, have become vehicles of social change in much the way the typewriter and mimeograph machine were the preferred media during the pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989 — before the government put down that movement in the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that left hundreds dead (Dell Inspiron 6400 battery) .
A looming question now, in fact, is whether and when the government might seek to quash the current worker uprisings if they become too big a threat to the established social order. Already, the government has started cracking down on strike-related Web sites and deleted many of the blog posts about the strikes (Toshiba PA3399U-2BAS Battery) .
The instant messaging service QQ, which is accessible via the Web or mobile phone — and was perhaps the early favorite network of strike leaders because of its popularity among young people — was soon infiltrated by Honda Lock officials and government security agents, forcing some to move to alternative sites, strike leaders say (IBM ThinkPad T40 Battery) .
“We’re not using QQ any more,” said one strike leader here. “There were company spies that got in. So now we’re using cellphones more.”
Analysts say they were smart to change.
“QQ offers no protection from eavesdropping by the Chinese authorities, and it is just as well they stopped using it,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a China specialist and fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. “QQ is not secure. You might as well be sharing your information with the Public Security Bureau (Sony VGN-FZ460E battery) .”
But the activists say they are getting around some of those restraints by shifting to different platforms (including a Skype-like network called YY Voice) and using code words to discuss protest gatherings (Dell Inspiron 6000 battery) .
For years, labor activists have been exposing the harsh working conditions in Chinese factories by smuggling cellphone images and video out of coastal factories and posting documents showing labor law violations on the Web. New and notable is that these formerly covert activities have become open and pervasive (Dell Inspiron E1505 Battery) .
Last month, for example, when a string of puzzling suicides was reported at Foxconn Technology near here, one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, there were online video postings reportedly showing security guards manhandling workers (Fujitsu Lifebook S6120 battery) .
And several people claiming to be Foxconn workers posted their pay stubs online showing that their overtime hours exceeded the legal monthly limit. In Zhongshan, where many of the Honda Lock strikers returned to work at least temporarily on Sunday and Monday while wage negotiations continued, the workers followed a basic model established by those who went on strike last month at a Honda transmission factory in the city of Foshan (Apple M9848LL/A battery) .
The Foshan strike leaders organized and communicated with more than 600 workers by, among other means, setting up Internet chat rooms on QQ.
“I created one myself the night before the strike, and that had 40 people,” said Xiao Lang, one of the two Honda strike leaders in Foshan. Mr. Xiao was fired by Honda soon after leading the walkout. “We discussed all kinds of things on it,” he said of the QQ chat room, “such as when to meet, when to walk out and how much pay we want (Apple A1281 battery) .”
Workers at other Honda factories say they followed the Foshan developments online and began considering their own actions.
The Chinese government allowed the state-run media to publish and broadcast news about the first Foshan strike. But when the strike news went viral, the government issued a notice virtually banning coverage. The workers’ own communications effort, however, never let up (HP PAVILION DV3 Battery) .
Those in this same generation of Chinese workers who are less willing to accept the wages and working conditions of their predecessors are also among China’s first digital natives. One of the strikers here in Zhongshan, who is in his early 20s, said he had been using computers since the age of 7 (HP PAVILION DV2 Battery) .
He learned to upload videos to sites like Youku.com and 56.com. He reads news on Baidu.com.
He has written blog posts about the Honda Lock strike and articles on a QQ space, and said some of his comments had been picked up by the foreign news media, helping to draw even more attention to the Honda Lock strike. Meanwhile, he said, the Chinese state-run news media had ignored telephone calls he placed in hopes of drawing further coverage (HP PAVILION DV9700t Battery).
The Honda Lock workers here await the results of a government-led negotiation for higher wages and better working conditions. Even though last weekend they were offered wage increases of only 11 percent, many of the workers say they are still confident they will get a raise of as much as 50 percent — to as much as $234 a month — just as the Honda workers in Foshan did (ACER Aspire 3000 Battery) .
“This couldn’t have happened if we didn’t hear about how they were doing things in Foshan,” said the worker who has used computers since age 7. “We followed their lead. So why shouldn’t we get the same pay raise as they did (ASUS A3000 Battery) ?”