Last month a 23-year-old factory worker suddenly pushed the emergency stop button on his assembly line and yelled to the other workers, “Let’s go on strike!” After years of low pay and weeks of vain attempts to find other discontent workers willing to step up and become leaders, Tan Guocheng decided to single-handedly initiate the unprecedented strikes at Honda’s plants in China.
But what was almost as rare as the breakout of the high profile strikes, was the willingness of a low level Chinese worker to put himself on the line and lead a charge against higher ups who had wronged him. His actions have few modern precedents in China and would previously have been unimaginable to most Chinese laborers. But this instance of a single unknown David initiating a domino effect and bringing a corporate Goliath to its knees has made business leaders, as well as the Chinese government, unusually nervous.
Chinese-run businesses often rest on a very hierarchal and authoritarian framework that mirrors the country’s government structure. At the top, the company leaders rule, unquestioned, and enjoy the bulk of the power and benefits. Lower down, there is a clear hierarchy in which there’s no question who’s superior (in every sense of the word). At the bottom, the workers are expected to obey every decision of their superiors without complaint or suggestion.
This system stems from very deep-seeded cultural values. One of Confucius’ most famous writings described “filial piety” where there are several key vertical relationships of authority in which the lower person must unquestionably obey the higher. In Chinese businesses if someone is in a subordinate position, they often feel that no matter how badly they’re being treated, it isn’t their right to complain.
While most Chinese wouldn’t declare their devotion to Confucian ideals, the attitude of having strictly vertical relationships has been practiced and enforced for centuries and is seen as a way to keep order and stability. A prominent cause for conflict in Chinese businesses is when there’s uncertainty about who has seniority over whom.
But even those who do wish to ignore cultural norms and speak out usually run into trouble. Any attempt at usurping a boss’s authority is usually met with disdain or dismissal at best; verbal or physical intimidation at worst. Seeking legal redress in these situations isn’t a viable option for most workers either. While China’s legal system has made notable progress in recent years, it’s still unreliable and is easily manipulated by those with money or the right connections. Even in cases where successful legal action is possible, potential plaintiffs worry that they’ll forever be branded as a troublemaker when seeking future employment.
When I worked in a Chinese company in Nanjing, the Chinese employees were routinely docked significant pay for dubious reasons, required to work unpaid overtime, and even overtly sexually harassed by bosses. They all hated the company and knew the bosses were wrong, but still none of the employees were willing to do anything more than curse the bosses behind their backs. When I asked why they didn’t stand up to the bosses or band together to demand better treatment, they said things like, “It won’t make any difference” or “I would be crazy to do that.”
With the perceived odds stacked so highly against them, Chinese workers are usually more than willing to remain passive when being wronged. From a mistreated worker’s perspective, suicide is often even a more realistic solution than confronting or organizing against bosses directly.
This is why the case of Tan Guocheng is so remarkable and why his sudden influence is making many throughout China nervous. He’s a clear example in China that rebelling against higher powers isn’t necessarily hopeless. In Honda’s case, they eventually succumbed to giving employees significant raises. For business leaders who’ve been hording profits, it’s a scary premonition of what could happen to them.
The state media widely reported the initial Honda strikes in order to show that they sympathize with laborers, but now they’ve toned down the coverage after seeing the strikes expand well beyond the initial Honda plant. However, Tan Guocheng’s name has remained conspicuously absent from the coverage by the Chinese media throughout the events.
He’s shown courage and success in fighting higher powers uncharacteristic of Chinese in the lower echelons of society. But much like many Chinese businesses, the government’s power relies on passive compliance to unpopular policies. So his example is not a welcome one.
Recently China has had a string copycat incidents by disgruntled workers including the Foxconn suicides and schoolyard stabbings. Tan Guocheng just may prove to turn the tide of these incidents into something positive and embolden Chinese to actively air their grievances and demand more from their bosses, and maybe even their leaders.