The Arab Spring's Chinese roots... and future?

The technological weapons of the Arab Spring were paradoxically produced by the mass exploitation of Chinese workers.

    Poor working conditions at companies like Foxconn are a reflection of the demand for cheap prices [GALLO/GETTY]

    Irvine, CA - One year into the revolutionary wave of pro-democracy protests across the Middle East, Arab activists, scholars and commentators continue to debate the root causes and dynamics behind the so-called "Arab Spring". But one thing most everyone agrees on is the importance of new media technologies in enabling young activists to outsmart, out-organise and outmanoeuvre once seemingly all-powerful governments.

    The first generation of internet technologies - email, chat rooms, list-serves, search engines, and the online availability of sources of information and knowledge that previously were largely kept from public view - enabled the unprecedented transformation of small, often underground activist communities into virtual public spheres. Despite the best efforts of governments across the region, these "immaterial publics" proved hard to police, and ultimately impossible to censor or shut down.

    Their virtual nature enabled activists, within individual countries and across the region, to communicate, strategise and coordinate with each other as well as with supporters globally. What could be termed new Media 1.0 encouraged not merely the sharing of new ideas but the building of new identities and solidarities that grew more robust and powerful with each passing year.

    The second generation of increasingly wireless, internet-related technologies - smart phones, lap tops, miniature video cameras, and the myriad vehicles for instantaneous communication offered by social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter - took the connectivity of virtual public spheres to new and politically explosive levels. Specifically, they enabled activists to move from the chat room to the streets by prying open to public display the violence that previously was visited upon activists and ordinary citizens behind closed doors, or in view of only small numbers of people.

    The ability to record and transmit anywhere, in real time and without censorship, meant the underground was suddenly everywhere - the political margins could suddenly move into the mainstream.

    The Arab world would never be the same.

    Enabling a war of manoeuvre

    The great social theorist Antonio Gramsci famously described how the monopoly of violence enjoyed by modern states made it very difficult for workers to defeat oppressive political and economic systems via head-on, frontal assaults on state power. Rather, a lengthy "war of position" between governments and oppositional socio-economic forces, fought in in the ideological trenches of civil society, constituted the most likely path to achieving hegemony, and ultimately political power in modern societies.

    Technology has long been the hand-maiden of civil society and the public sphere, the two inescapable if problematic institutional foundations of revolutionary social change. In the 1970s, the fax machine and cassette tapes aided the Iranian Revolution; the former played an important role in the Tiananmen protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall as well in 1989.

    Almost twenty years ago, in the first post-Cold War rebellion against neoliberalism, Mexico's Zapatistas used fax machines and the still young internet to declare "our word is our weapon". Two years later they led more than 100,000 supporters from the heart of the Lacandon Jungle to the centre of Mexico City.

    Today, their revolutionary progeny in the Arab world brought far larger numbers to the streets in a matter of days after posting calls on Facebook, and without firing a shot. They coupled words and images to create ever more visceral and compelling narratives, which helped break through the walls of fear so carefully constructed by their governments during the previous forty years.

    With the New Media 2.0 technologies, activists acquired the power not merely to conquer and hold cyber space, but physical space as well. In so doing they enabled a previously unimaginable head-on assault on the legitimacy and even viability of the existing political systems.

    Put simply, the new generation of social media technologies upended Gramsci's equation, creating a new calculus for contesting power whose laws are just beginning to be understood.

    The revolution's victims?

    Arab activists could not have achieved their stunning successes without Blackberries, iPhones, laptops and the other weapons of contemporary revolution. But what few have noticed - or at least wanted to think about - is that the spread of these technologies across the Arab world is the result of intense and often crushing exploitation of the millions of workers on the other side of Eurasia who produce the devices that have enabled the revolutions. The economies of scale and efficiencies in production technologies that have put prices for computers, HiDef video cameras and smart phones within the reach of middle and working class Arabs have pushed the workers that produce these products to the edge.

    "The reality is that the technologies that we use are part of the global capitalist network, which means that ultimately the issues facing protesters in Cairo or Shenzhen are rooted in the same larger processes."

    - Ralph Litzinger, Duke University

    Mohamed Bouazizi was the last of three Tunisians who committed suicide in 2010 in protest against a life without hope. In Egypt, four self-immolations preceded the call to Tahrir on January 25, 2011. In China, 18 workers at just one Apple production complex attempted suicide in 2009-2010. Many more have threatened suicides, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers have staged labour actions to protest on-going violations of workers’ rights throughout the country.

    Of course, millions of workers have little choice but to go to that edge - according to numerous reports by Chinese and foreign activists, journalists and human rights groups, workers will grudgingly accept mandatory and unpaid overtime, 18-hour days spent standing until legs swell, the use of toxic chemicals and other violations of international (and often Chinese) labour laws. They do so because the wages, however low by Western standards, are better than what could be earned in other jobs. But this doesn't justify the conditions under which they are forced to work, or the fact that they suffer as corporations like Apple are making unprecedented profits from the devices these workers build.

    Outlawing 'Jasmine'

    The paradoxical links between the Arab Spring and the on-going problem of workers' rights in China was not lost on scholars and activists working in and on China. Ralph Litzinger, a Duke University anthropologist who studies labour issues in China, explained:

    When we get all excited about the Arab uprisings but we don't really want to know who and what produces the things we're holding in our hands. We want to get on with the business of revolutions and to be constantly reminded of the way things are made? Heavy metal runoff into rivers and ground water, and harsh labour conditions, etc. That stuff stands in the way of the revolution, illuminating a fundamental contradiction that slows down its momentum. But the reality is that the technologies that we use are part of the global capitalist network, which means that ultimately the issues facing protesters in Cairo or Shenzhen are rooted in the same larger processes.

    Litzinger continued. "I joke with friends in China that we're sitting around doing all this planning with our iPhones, Blackberries, Androids, and the like, sharing information and commenting on articles? We're using the very technology that we're denouncing. And they say, 'What choice do we have?'."

    Certainly, the Chinese government is very aware of the links between the two plight of Arab and Chinese workers and activists. During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions people couldn't even type the word "Jasmine" into Chinese search engines or use it in blogs.

    "The government is very paranoid," Litzinger went on, precisely because it can see that thanks to the same technology that helped enable the Arab revolutions, workers in China are now getting more connected than ever before, and able to bypass attempts to censor or block what is happening across the country.

    "How can I worry about Chinese workers when the maid workers across the road just hanged herself or was beaten by her employer? Every day the newspapers are filled with such stories and hardly anyone cares."

    - Anonymous activist

    It seems, we agreed, that Chinese activists are in a similar position to Egyptians or Tunisian a few years ago - activist and solidarity networks are become denser, best practices for protesting and otherwise resisting abuses from land expropriation to exploitative working conditions are being shared, and slowly but surely Chinese society is gaining the experience and courage to challenge a seemingly powerful state, with labour activists providing the crucial early experiences that will likely shaped a combined environmental, labour and perhaps pro-democracy movement in the coming years.

    For Arab activists, one fight too many?

    It would be ludicrous to suggest that Arab activists, or Occupy activists for that matter, stop using their smart phones or laptops because of the abusive and exploitative practices that go into making them. But at the same time, if the plight of abuse systems in China and in Egypt are ultimately tied to a larger global systems of political and economic power, shouldn't Arab activists be recognising the plight of Chinese and other low-wage Asian workers who produce the tools of their revolutions?

    I put this question to a leading cyber activist based in the Persian Gulf, who has also worked on the rights of migrant workers in the region. "You won't see many people in the Gulf caring about Chinese workers," she explained. "We have super-exploited workers here, people who are providing the most basic services we survive on - maids, construction, nannies - and our way of life can't exist in this way without them.

    "Even for an activist," she continued, "how can I worry about Chinese workers when the maid workers across the road just hanged herself or was beaten by her employer? Every day the newspapers are filled with such stories and hardly anyone cares."

    It's true that activist groups are overwhelmed across the Arab world just dealing with issues such as political detainees, torture, corruption and lack of democracy. But these problems are clearly linked, the activist argued, declaring the revolutions won't ultimately succeed if they don't include issues like migrant workers and other marginalised communities.

    "How many times can we read about these abuses before the issue requires its own revolution?" The growing links between Arab activists, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, and the Occupy movement attest to the global nature of the struggles for justice, dignity, and democracy around the world. All are in some ways a response to the dominance of neoliberal economic policies, which began to be felt in the Middle East in the latter part of the 1970s, not long after their impact was first felt in the core countries of the West.

    There's no reason why Americans can't show a similar regard for the Chinese workers who have made their lives so much richer by their sweat and toil.

    Joining the Global Struggle

    So it’s natural that sooner rather than later, as technological developments make the "Great Fire Wall" of China increasingly porous, Chinese workers will become more integrated into the increasingly institutionalised global civil society networks, both strengthening and drawing strength from them. Indeed, the growing alliance between environmental and labour activists in China (where environmental degradation is directly related to abusive labour practices) is at the frontline of pro-democracy activism.

    But as a recent New York Times exposé of abusive labour practices at Apple's main manufacturer Foxconn concluded, ultimately Chinese workers will have little ability to fundamentally improve their situation as long as Western - far more than Arab - consumers demand constant innovation and cheaper prices. "And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."

    Only two per cent of respondents to a recent poll even cited labour conditions as an issue influencing their purchase of an Apple - one seventh the number that wished iPads, iPods and iPhones were even cheaper (a wish that could only be granted on the backs of even more exploited Foxconn employees).

    Of course, last November, few if any Americans would have gone out of their way to support Arabs struggling for democracy and dignity against the regimes their government has invested in so heavily. And yet today progressive politics in America stands reborn largely thanks to the inspiration provided by the Arab revolutions. So there's no reason why Americans can't show a similar regard for the Chinese workers who have made their lives so much richer by their sweat and toil.

    In my next column, I'll explore just how difficult it is today to translate concern into action, as it remains extremely difficult to determine which if any computer and mobile phone companies show more regard for the workers who make their products than Apple.

    Difficult, but not impossible.

    If the information I've found can be made more readily available, and consumers of computers and other hi-tech devices begin show the kind of concern for the welfare of workers at Apple plants as the consumers of sneakers and sports clothing have shown about the workers who make Nike or Champion, the technologies that have enabled the Arab spring and the global revolution against neoliberalism more broadly might soon be produced a bit more fairly and in a manner that not only strengthens the rights of workers in China, but allows the newly emerging democracies in countries like Egypt and Tunisia to compete for hi-tech manufacturing jobs in a slightly more even playing field.

    Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books) and the forthcoming The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh (University of California Press).

    Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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