Over the past decade, an old word once used in the Maoist gulags has come back to China. It is "gulaosi" - and it is used to describe the men and women who are literally being worked to death producing clothes, electronics and toys for you and me.
Wie Meiren was a standard-issue gulaosi, the kind you can find in every Chinese town. She was a 32-year-old woman with three kids who left her hungry village and travelled to Dongkeng, where she got a job assembling the toy cars for the British kids' market.
There, she was expected to work 360 days a year, from 7.30am to as late as 9.30pm, with only a half-hour break for lunch and fines for taking too long on the toilet. As in many Chinese factories, military drills were often yelled: "Long live the company!" If anybody argued back to the managers, they could be punched in the face.
One day, Meiren had a family crisis at home. She was forbidden by her bosses from going to take care of it - so she became angry and fainted. She forced herself to keep going to work for the next fortnight, but eventually she became so exhausted she collapsed - and died before she reached the hospital. The autopsy indicated gulaosi - heart and organ failure caused by extreme exhaustion.
Some 50,000 fingers are sliced off in China's factories every month. Tao Chun Lan was a 20-year-old woman from Sichuan province at the heart of China who moved to Shenzhen and got a job working in a handicrafts factory. One night, she discovered the factory was filling with smoke - and the workers were locked inside. Some 84 workers were burned or trampled to death. Lan jumped out of a window, irreparably damaging her legs. She has received no compensation. "They don't care if I am crippled for life," she says.
Last year, the Chinese dictatorship announced a new draft of labour laws designed finally to allow Chinese workers like her - too late - some basic rights.
The new law would permit people like Lan and Meiren to join trade unions. It would give them the right to a written contract. It would give them the right to a severance payment. It would give them the right to change jobs freely. Where previously China's labour rules were diffuse, dispersed and barely enforced, now they would be drawn together and backed with big fines.
The dissident-killing Chinese Communist Party didn't propose this change out of a sudden flush of benevolence. They did it because the Chinese people have in increasing numbers been refusing to be tethered serfs for the benefit of Western corporations. Last year, there were 300,000 illegal industrial actions in China, a huge spate of "factory kidnappings" of managers, and more than 85,000 protests.
The Chinese people were showing they did not want to leap from a Maoist gulag to a market-fundamentalists' sweatshop. They demanded a sensible compromise: strong trade and markets to generate wealth, matched by strong trade unions to stop markets devouring them. They want an end to grinding poverty, but one that doesn't kill them as they get there.
But they bumped into a huge obstacle. Groups representing Western corporations with factories in China sent armies of lobbyists to Beijing to cajole and threaten the dictatorship into abandoning these new workers' protections.
The American Chamber of Commerce - representing Microsoft, Nike, Ford, Dell and others - listed 42 pages of objections. The laws were "unaffordable" and "dangerous", they declared. The European Chamber of Commerce backed them up.
This is not the first time big business has militated to prevent basic freedoms from being extended to China. Bill Clinton came to office promising "an America that will not coddle dictators, from Beijing to Baghdad", and at first, he acted on this rhetoric, issuing an executive order that decreed trade with China could only grow if China in tandem increased its respect for human rights. Enraged American business executives subjected him to nuclear-strength lobbying - so Clinton ditched his executive order after a year.
Ever since, Western governments have been justifying business with the Chinese dictatorship by saying our corporations and trade would inevitably and inexorably bring greater freedom to China.
But now the corporations that they claimed would bring freedom and democracy are in fact lobbying to crush freedom and opposing the plain democratic will of the Chinese people. As James Mann, the former Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Beijing, puts it after years of observing the behaviour of big business in China: "The business communities of China and the United States [and, he might have added, Europe] do not harbour dreams of democracy. Both profit from a Chinese system that permits no political opposition, and both are content with it."
Their lobbying seems to have paid off. The (unelected) Chinese National People's Congress is due to vote on the new labour laws in the next month or so, but the proposals have already been massively watered down.
Scott Slipy, the director of human resources for Microsoft in China, bragged to BusinessWeek, "We have enough investment at stake that we can usually get someone to listen to us if we are passionate about an issue."
It seems that Maoism is fine so long as its dictatorial urges are put to the service of Bill Gates and other billionaires, rather than one psychotic dictator.
These Western corporations are explicitly seeking a China where a tiny number of extremely rich people are free to organise, but the vast majority of poor people are physically prevented from doing so by the state.
Of course, these market fundamentalist economists claim this situation is in fact good for the Chinese people, because this system is the best way to enrich them. The obvious response is: let them decide. If they don't want to join trade unions, if they don't want workplace protections, nobody will force them. But give them the freedom to choose. Or are these economists saying the Chinese people are too stupid to know their own interests?
The American and European campaigns showing that we are not all willing to accept their serfdom and profit from it have already had successes. The European Chamber of Commerce has been shamed into retracting its initial opposition to the laws. After lobbying from trade unions and human rights organisations, Nike has now denounced the position of the American Chambers of Commerce to which it belongs and backed the law. The remaining Wal-Martian corporations need to be damned one by one - and subject to legal sanctions - until they relent and accept the rights of Chinese workers.
For the sake of millions of people like Lan and Meiren, we need to show these corporations that we refuse to shop until they drop.
© 2007 The Independent