[Marxism] Background to growing self-assertion of China's workers

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Jul 24 13:54:05 MDT 2010

Although the URL leads to the interesting academic website The China Beat, I
found the item itself on the often valuable MRZine site, linked  to Monthly
Review and edited by the (I hope) unsinkable Yoshie Furuhashi.
Fred Feldman

Where to Begin: New Perspectives on Chinese Labor

July 2, 2010 in Where to Begin by The China Beat| 1 comment

By Mark W. Frazier

Studies of labor in China have taken an exciting turn in recent years with
the publication of numerous rich and revealing portraits of workers, their
jobs, and their place in Chinese politics and in the global economy. As
thousands of migrant workers employed in auto parts suppliers for Toyota and
Honda went on strike in May and June of 2010, some headlines heralded a
political coming of age for China's migrant workers. While it's too early to
assess the impact of these strikes, it is clear that migrant workers have
gained a level of organizational sophistication and political awareness to
make demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and in some cases,
elections for union representatives. All of the books cited below offer
readers who are new to the field of Chinese labor some perspective in which
to understand the strikes of 2010 and the broader place of Chinese labor in
the contemporary politics and society of China.

Frazier1A January 2010 London Review of Books article by Perry Anderson
hailed Ching Kwan Lee's Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt
and Sunbelt (University of California Press, 2007) with this accolade:
"Although quite different in mode and scale, in power nothing like it has
appeared since E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class."
Thompson's 1966 classic on late 17th-, early 18th century England brought to
light the cultural contestation and repertoires of resistance as the moral
economy of artisans and their guilds gave way to the mass production and
mechanization of industrial capitalism. In Against the Law, C.K. Lee
explores the moral economies and resistance of Chinese workers in two
domains: first among the socialist working class in the state sector of the
Northeast (the "rustbelt"), where the dismantling of the iron rice bowl
brought an end to the social contract of job security and lifetime benefits,
including housing. Lee compares the unmaking of the state socialist working
class with the making of a new working class in the foreign-invested export
sector of the South (the "sunbelt"). Here, migrant workers invoke the
state's new labor legislation and pursue claims to rights protection and
equal citizenship, in the face of widespread legal and social discrimination
stemming from the household registration system (hukou).

In both the sunbelt and the rustbelt, protests remain highly "cellularized,"
or confined to groups of workers from the same factory who present to
employers and local governments demands that are specific to their
workplace, or their cohort within the factory (e.g., unpaid pensions, unpaid
wages, overtime violations, etc.). This localized pattern of labor protest,
and how it varies, is a common theme found throughout the field of Chinese
labor. Scholars such as Elizabeth Perry have shown how fragmentation, rather
than class formation, both facilitates labor protest and influences how the
state connects with and controls labor movements and their leadership.
William Hurst's The Chinese Worker After Socialism (Cambridge University
Press, 2009) offers a regional account to this story of working class
segmentation, showing how laid-off workers and their collective action is
based on the political economy of different regions of China. Like Lee,
Hurst provides illuminating details from interviews and fieldwork among
laid-off workers who invoke different patterns of collective action and
political symbols to press their demands.

While these accounts of the unmaking and remaking of Chinese labor in the
1990s rightly stress domestic political and economic forces, several recent
books have also pursued international or external factors driving this
process. These works show how China's openness to foreign investment brought
institutions that replaced Maoist or socialist labor practices with labor
law, employment contracts, and dispute resolution. Just how all of this
happened, and why it wasn't more politically explosive, are questions
addressed in Mary E. Gallagher's Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and
the Politics of Labor in China (Princeton University Press, 2005). Gallagher
shows that timing was everything: foreign direct investment coming to China
in the 1980s created a laboratory for the reform of labor practices, and in
the 1990s the politically sensitive reforms to China's domestic or
state-owned enterprise sector could commence as this sector adopted the
labor contracts and workplace norms found in the foreign-invested sector.
Not that the process went smoothly, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
leadership managed to prevent the formation of a broad-based opposition
movement made up of laid-off workers.

The extent to which global capitalism influences labor in China is also a
theme found in The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive
Advantage (The Penguin Press, 2008) by Alexandra Harney, a Financial Times
reporter. Among much else, Harney's book shows how the regime of factory
inspections by NGOs and other international labor rights auditors is
hampered by the way in which factory owners take a clue from corrupt
accountants by keeping "two sets of factories"-one for showing to the
auditors, and one for where the actual production takes place, with rampant
labor violations and abuse.

The fields of labor history and labor studies have long been focused on
questions of class formation, identity, and how capitalism or socialism
influences workplace relations. China scholars such as Gail Hershatter,
Emily Honig, Pun Ngai, Lisa Rofel, and many others have shed light on issues
of identity and power relations within the Chinese workplace during pre- and
post-1949 China. Many recent publications pay close attention to the way
identities and interests are influenced within the micro-environment of the
workplace, with the empirical focus of the "workplace" broadened beyond the
conventional look at the manufacturing sector. Two recent collections
contain numerous chapters that explore workplace conflict and community (in
sites ranging from department stores to merchant marine vessels to insurance
sales agencies) and connect these issues to broader questions of power,
culture, and political economy. Working in China: Ethnographies of Labor and
Workplace Transformation (Routledge 2007; edited by Ching Kwan Lee) and How
China Works: Perspectives on the Twentieth-Century Industrial Workplace
(Routledge, 2006; edited by Jacob Eyferth) contain several commendable
portraits of Chinese labor based on ethnographies and
participant-observation by the authors. In a similar vein, Calvin Chen's
Some Assembly Required: Work, Community, and Politics in China's Rural
Factories (Harvard University Press, 2008), based on his experience of
working and living at two township and village enterprises (TVEs) in
Zhejiang province, offers rewarding insights into how workers experience and
interpret multiple meanings of labor, and how these change over time.

Where is all this impressive degree of collective action and assertion of
individual autonomy shown by Chinese workers leading, and how will the
Chinese Communist Party respond? The record of the Hu Jintao leadership
suggests that the CCP is capable of renewing its frayed ties with Chinese
labor, but the Chinese state is just as fragmented in its structure and
capacities as the Chinese workforce is in making demands of the state.
Dorothy Solinger's States' Gains, Labor's Losses: China, France, and Mexico
Choose Global Liaisons, 1980-2000 (Cornell University Press, 2010) provides,
as its title reveals, a valuable analysis of how China's labor unrest and
government responses to it compares with two other countries where states
have both pulled the plug on longstanding labor policies and quickly needed
to respond with new welfare measures and increased social expenditures. 
In Socialist Insecurity: Pensions and the Politics of Uneven Development in
China (Cornell University Press, 2010), I show how fragmentation in the
state has facilitated rapid increases in pension spending for urban Chinese
workers but has also aligned political interests in such a way that
expanding other benefits to the Chinese labor force will be difficult to
achieve. Another signal policy response by the CCP has been to promote the
spread of the party-controlled union (the All-China Federation of Trade
Unions) to foreign-invested and private firms, a process of "unionization"
that should always retain the scare quotes. While no book-length accounts of
this process have yet been published, Marc Blecher's 2008 article in
Critical Asian Studies ("When Wal-Mart Wimped Out") interprets the
significance and considerable irony of the ACFTU's decision to compel the
world's largest corporation and outspoken opponent of unions to organize
ACFTU branches in its sixty stores in China.

For those looking to get a sense of the arguments of scholars of Chinese
labor in chapter-length form, and for classroom use, two fine samplers of
recent social science work on various aspects of the PRC that include
chapters on labor are Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance
(Routledge, 2010, Third Edition, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark
Selden) and Chinese Politics: State, Society, and the Market (Routledge
2010, edited by Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen). In addition, several
authors discussed in this column have published chapters in an edited volume
focused on the plight of the unemployed: Laid-Off Workers in a Workers'
State: Unemployment with Chinese Characteristics (Palgrave Macmillan 2009,
edited by Thomas B. Gold, William J. Hurst, Jaeyoun Won, and Qiang Li).

Books by journalists who have turned their focus to workers and factories in
China are also excellent sources for understanding contemporary Chinese
labor issues. The personal portraits of the subjects found in Leslie T.
Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel &
Grau, 2009) and in Harney's The China Price show how migrant workers
experience the labor market of the sunbelt, and how they preserve ties to
their home communities and to one another. The sophistication and strategic
purpose with which the migrant workers navigate through various employment
channels belies the conventional wisdom of poor, undereducated migrants
pouring into coastal export processing zones desperate for any form of work.
Readers of Chang's and Harney's books, and any of the publications mentioned
above, can find many clues to explain how and why migrant workers would
eventually take to the streets as they did in spring 2010 to make
unprecedented demands on the Chinese state.

Mark W. Frazier is the ConocoPhillips Professor of Chinese Politics and
Associate Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of

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