Japanese companies need to have a better understanding of the rapidly changing popular sentiments in China and improve communication with workers at their affiliated plants in the country, veteran journalists from local Chinese newspapers said at a recent seminar in Tokyo.

The recent wave of strikes at foreign-affiliated businesses in China — and the way some of the firms tried to resolve the disputes through government intervention — suggests that the companies lack the understanding of what their workers want, they said.

The journalists were speaking at a seminar organized by the Keizai Koho Center on July 29. Since mid-May, dozens of labor strikes hit foreign-invested companies — many affiliated with Japanese automakers such as Honda and Toyota and their subsidiaries. Most of the disputes were settled after pay raises were offered by the management.

Su Ning, director of the editorial center of the Beijing Times, said the wave of strikes that began at a Honda-affiliated plant in the southern province of Guangdong point to a lack of understanding of its workers by the Japanese management.

Wages at such plants are too low and complaints have been growing given that many of the workers at those plants are farmhands who need to remit their income back home as prices become higher due to inflation, said Guo Li, a senior reporter and editor with the Southern Weekly based in Guangdong.

Guo also pointed to a rising popular sentiment that as global growth relies increasingly on China while industrialized powers continue to struggle after the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese people should be able to have a greater say toward foreign investors.

Japanese firms investing in China, Guo said, should understand that the new generation of Chinese workers born in the 1990s are much better educated than their counterparts a decade earlier and have access to a much wider range of information. They are ready to take action to protect their own rights, including through strikes, he said.

The companies need to know it is not just the economy that has changed as a result of China’s rapid growth, but the nation’s politics and people’s rights awareness have changed, he said.

The days are gone when labor disputes can be settled through the intervention of local authorities and the foreign investors need to improve communication with their workers, Guo said. It is no longer relevant whether the local governments approve of the strikes because strikes can happen with or without official approval, he added.

This is a challenge not just for foreign-invested companies but for Chinese firms or state-owned enterprises, said Zhu Yan, executive vice president of the Global Times. Whenever these companies are involved in accidents or scandals, people will hold the management accountable, and statements by a corporate spokesman can be easily overcome by the views expressed by some powerful opinion leaders on the Internet, Zhu said.

Businesses need to be prepared for the complicated and unpredictable development of popular sentiments as the Chinese society as a whole undergoes radical changes and the long-suppressed “popular will” comes out in force, she said. Even the local Chinese media can be left confused as to what the majority opinion of the people is, she added.

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