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Changes and Continuity: Four Decades of Industrial Relations in China

Sunday 19 August 2018, by Chris Chan

China’s economic reforms started exactly forty years ago. Labour scholars today are debating the extent to which labour relations and the labour movement in China have changed, and where they may be heading. Positions are polarized between pessimists who emphasise the structural power of the market and the authoritarian state, and optimists who envision the rise of a strong and independent labour movement in China. In this essay, Chris King-Chi Chan advocates for a different approach.

The year 2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of China’s economic reform programme initiated in 1978. [1] The rise of migrant workers’ strikes since early 2000s and the efforts of the Chinese government to rebalance and reregulate workplace relations have created fertile ground for labour studies and labour activism in China. One of the key debates in this scholarly/activist community concerns the extent to which labour relations and the ‘labour movement’ in China have changed, and where they may be heading. Pessimists highlight the structural power of the market and the ability of the authoritarian state to undermine worker solidarity and collective action, while optimists envision the ongoing emergence of a strong and independent labour movement in China, supported by labour NGOs and international civil society.

In the midst of this debate, on 3 December 2015 there was a major crackdown on labour NGOs in Guangzhou and Foshan. Between 2012 and 2015, most of the affected NGOs had been active in assisting the collective struggles of workers by promoting collective bargaining. Some labour lawyers and academics referred to this new type of NGO as ‘labour movement-oriented NGOs’ (gongyunxing NGOs) to distinguish them from ‘social service-oriented NGOs’ (fuwuxing NGOs) and ‘legal rights-oriented NGOs’ (weiquanxing NGOs) (Duan 2015; see also Franceschini and Lin’s essay in the present issue). This crackdown was a major setback for Chinese activists who had worked to build a labour movement from the ground up. For scholars, by the time their studies on labour movement-oriented NGOs were published, these organizations had essentially ceased to exist.

Does this portend a gloomy future for Chinese workers? To respond to this question, I advocate a Marxian approach built on two observations (see for example Chan 2010 and 2012; Chan and Hui 2017). First, class struggle between capital and labour around the issues of production, which is constrained by global political economy, defines the history of China’s integration into global capitalism. Second, the state remains a contested terrain of class struggle in China. It is only through a worker-centred and historical approach that we can understand the rapidly shifting landscape in contemporary China, and what the future may hold.

Harmonious Labour Relations

Since the early 1990s, China has established itself as a ‘world factory’, with the cities in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) as its powerhouse. [2] Major ethnographic research conducted in the PRD has found that the politics of place and gender were often exploited by management to maintain class domination and despotism throughout the 1990s (Lee 1988; Pun 2005). But labour relations have undergone change in the new millennium. Politically, after President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao took office in 2002, a series of socioeconomic reforms were introduced in the name of building a ‘harmoni