Teacher Strikes In China

Teachers in China are joining other workers in protesting their compensation and working conditions, reports the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights-monitoring and research group founded in Hong Kong in 1994 (CLB’s executive director, Han Dongfang, is a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors).

Throughout the past three months there have been at least 30 strikes by Chinese teachers. In the map below, which is taken from the CLB article, the numbers are strike frequencies. Many of them occurred in smaller cities and higher-poverty inland areas. For example, last month, over 20,000 teachers went on strike in cities and districts surrounding Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

The article notes that low (and/or unpaid) salaries are a recurrent theme in the protests, but there are a couple of other issues on the table that may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. education policy.

For example, pension uncertainty is one of the most common complaints in these strikes, particularly in smaller, less economically developed towns and cities. Teachers at state-run schools are civil servants; accordingly, local governments are supposed to be making their pension contributions. Some of these local governments, as reported in an article about the strikes in the New York Times, have implemented policies by which teachers must contribute part of their salaries to their pensions.

There is also some dissent about efforts on the part of some state-run schools to introduce teacher performance pay systems, under which, according to CLB, a proportion of teachers’ earnings (around 30 percent) are withheld, and only paid if the teachers’ students meet certain targets.

Finally, the CLB notes that, in the past, Chinese teachers have been reluctant to go on strike because of the negative impact doing so would have on students. The sharp increase in protests over the past few months may be a signal that the dissatisfaction with stagnant pay and pension uncertainty has reached a point of critical mass.

The teachers may also have been emboldened by the recent wave of Chinese organized labor protests and action in other sectors of the economy, which you can learn about by watching our event (July 2014) on China’s labor movement. One of the panelists in this event was the aforementioned Han Dongfang.

Among the most powerful parts of his presentation was his stark description of the international perception of Chinese workers, and the effects this has. He said, "The world has its own impression of Chinese workers, which is true over the past 35 years. […] We are cheap, and, most importantly, we have no rights." Han went on to explain that, in his view, this general portrait of Chinese workers as "helpless and hopeless" -- as victims -- is demoralizing, both in China and to workers in other nations.

Regardless of what one's opinion about the recent wave of organized labor action in China, of which these teacher strikes are a part, they may signal the fact that, in Han's words, "Now, the situation has changed."

- Matt Di Carlo