When Mao Zedong’s communists took power in China in 1949, their victory was supposed to herald a Marxist proletariat revolution that would create a workers’ paradise. Or at least that’s what the toiling masses were told. Reality proved somewhat different. Workers became cogs in Mao’s soulless industrial machine, controlled by the state and trapped in grinding poverty. After the advent of free-market reforms in the 1980s, millions slaved away in dank factories for meager wages, while the country’s communist cadres protected the foreign capitalists who exploited them. Those few workers brave enough to resist were beaten into submission—sometimes literally.

But over the past few years, Chinese workers have been fighting back. At the Power-One electric-adapter factory in Shenzhen one recent Monday afternoon, dozens of workers idly languish along the compound’s roadways, fanning themselves in the stifling summer heat. The assembly lines (then in the process of being sold by Swiss…

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