China’s changing working class

Charlie Hore reviews five important books on China’s labor movement

Against the Law

The Challenge of Labour in China:

Strikes and the Changing Labour Regime in Global Labour Factories

Trade Unions in China:

The Challenge of Labour Unrest

Insurgency Trap:

Labor Politics in Postsocialist China

Scattered Sand:

The Story of China’s Rural Migrants

Earlier this year, the South China Morning Post—the Hong Kong equivalent of the New York Times—ran an interview with Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin, which began by asking, “Why are we seeing an increased number of strikes and worker protests in China?”1 His answer is worth quoting at some length:

One of the key reasons is simply that strikes are much more visible. Just about every factory worker, especially in Guangdong, has a cheap smartphone and can post news about their strike and the response of management and the local government to it on social media and have that information circulate within a matter of minutes.

This enhanced visibility has also encouraged more workers to take strike action. They see workers from other factories or workplaces that are in exactly the same position as them taking strike action and they think, “We can do this too.”

And the fact that there are so many strikes means that workers have less to fear by staging protests, there is safety in numbers and in many cases, they have nothing to lose by going out on strike.

Younger workers, especially, have higher expectations and are no longer willing to tolerate the abuse and exploitation their parents had to endure. In the early days of China’s economic growth, workers from the countryside were lining up to get jobs in the cities; today there is a shortage of workers and as such, workers have greater bargaining power and they are better able to utilise that power effectively.

China rising
China’s rise as a major world economic, political, and military power is one of the defining features of the twenty-first century. Already the world’s second-largest economy, economists now argue about exactly when—not if—China will overtake the United States, an argument that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago.2

One of the key drivers of that rise has been a fundamental transformation and reshaping of the Chinese working class. In the course of a generation, several hundred million former peasants have become urban workers, mostly in cities that grew up overnight, providing a seemingly bottomless well of labor for the exporting factories that have made China the new “workshop of the world.” 

The particular nature of the new industries has meant that workforce has been made up of mainly young people, about a third of them women, though because jobs are heavily gendered, in some cities as many as 70 percent of migrants are women. Only about a third of migrant workers actually work in manufacturing, with the rest working mainly in construction, transport, as street traders, and providing “household and other services” (“other services” often being a euphemism for sex work).3 However, as the largest single occupational group, and the most prone to collective action, they are the group most often studied.

The unparalleled growth of the Chinese economy has been accompanied by a similar growth in migrant workers’ combativeness. In recent years, a number of strikes and protests have made headlines around the world—the 30,000 Yue Yuen footwear workers earlier this year,4 the coordinated strikes across the auto industry in 2010,5 and the Foxconn workers’ suicide protests.6 As the article quoted above makes clear, those are the tip of an iceberg.

In fact, since the late 1990s, migrant workers have fought numerous battles against attacks on them and (less often) for higher wages and better conditions, struggles that have been too little recorded outside specialist publications. It is telling that one of the authors reviewed here still felt it necessary to write in 2009 that “the stereotype of Chinese workers as passive victims of capitalist globalization and authoritarian government does not fit the reality of industrial relations in China.”7

However, over the same period, something like eighty million former workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have lost their jobs in a massive restructuring of traditional industries that dwarfs anything seen in the West. Again, this has disproportionately impacted women, with almost two-thirds of the jobs lost being women’s, and women’s average urban wages falling to just 70 percent of men’s in 2000.8

Understanding the very contradictory nature of change and workers’ struggles in China is crucial for socialists, and the aim of this article is to review some of the recent literature on both workers and wider social movements in order to pick out some of the most useful titles to recommend.

The first book that everyone interested in this topic should read is a much older one though. Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law (Berkeley: University of California, 2007) is in many ways the foundation stone of modern China labor studies, and several of the books reviewed here see it as a key reference point. The British left academic Perry Anderson said of it, “Nothing like it has appeared since E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class”—possibly a slight exaggeration, but it gives some sense of the book’s scope.9 

Ching wasn’t quite the founder of modern China labor studies—that honor probably belongs to the Australian writer Anita Chan—but Against the Law is the first full-scale study of the Chinese working class as a whole.10 The book contrasted what she described as the “rustbelt” of state-owned industries, mostly in central and northern China, with the “sunbelt” industries growing up in China’s South. But her focus was firmly on workers’ resistance, illustrated by example after example from her very detailed field research. 

At the time, this was still mainly expressed as resistance to attacks on living standards, or atrocious working conditions—“defensive” rather than “offensive” struggles, or as she put it, “protests of desperation” and “protests against discrimination.” In showing workers as actors rather than simply victims, she highlighted the important victories that had been won, and brought to light some of the near-insurrectionary battles waged by state-sector workers following mass layoffs. Much has changed since the book was written, but it remains an inspiring and thought-provoking read.

Shenzhen—the heart of China’s “export miracle”
The first three books reviewed here are all academic studies of militancy and organization among migrant manufacturing workers in southern China, though with very distinct approaches. The Challenge of Labour in China is likely the most straightforward, being a study of workers’ experiences and resistance in Shenzhen, and in one factory in particular. 

Shenzhen is in many ways an exemplar of the new China, having grown from a population of some 30,000 people to over eight million in under twenty-five years. As early as 1993–94 there was a wave of strikes among migrant workers for wage rises to cover inflation, but militancy thereafter declined as a new labor law gave workers legal remedies against mistreatment. 

However, by 2004 the number of strikes surged again as workers discovered that the law gave them little real protection. Numbers are difficult to come by, but the author quotes an NGO worker as saying “at least half the workers she met had experiences of striking.” This increase in militancy coincided with, and may have been partly produced by, a shortage of labor that began in Shenzhen as early as 2003. This was a relative rather than absolute shortage, with growing numbers of peasants either staying in their villages as agricultural rates increased or going further north for better-paying jobs, but it left Shenzhen short of some 300,000 workers.

The response of the local authorities was to increase the minimum wage in 2005, and again in 2006—an increase of almost one-third in two years. A minimum-wage law was introduced in 1994, though Shenzhen’s local government had already introduced it the previous year. The theory is that the minimum wage reduces competition between employers for labor and slows down turnover as workers can’t leave for higher-paid jobs elsewhere. To what extent this works is unknown, but what is certain is that workers are very aware of minimum-wage rates. 

Just how aware workers are was shown in July 2007, when the local government followed the provincial government in not increasing the minimum wage for that year. This was met by a new round of strikes, which forced the local government to backtrack and raise the minimum rates in October. Small wonder a businessman interviewed felt that “China is different from other countries. In the West, it is the rich people who influence politics and the government fears the rich. Now, in China, it is the rich who fear the government and the government fears the poor. The poor have a high potential to threaten social stability and social order.”

The following year, of course, the world economic crash hit, with some twenty to thirty million migrant workers in China losing their jobs as plants closed, and workers losing the advantages they had enjoyed over previous years.11 Chan’s research stops before the economic crash, so his picture is one of a working class growing in militancy and confidence, with the ability to coordinate stoppages in different plants of the same company. 

However, this view is balanced by his finding that strikes left no lasting organization behind, and that strike leaders often lost their jobs following their return to work. High turnover and the effects of the hukou system (household registration that denies migrant workers the right to settle permanently in the cities) also contributed to the loss of momentum following strikes.

Chan’s account of the factory he studied is fascinating, fully alive to the contradictions of workers’ experience. He is clear-sighted about gender divisions, the role of supervisors and the minority of skilled workers in organizing strikes and protests, and the contradictory nature of place-of-origin association. These organizations of workers from the same village, county, or province are often how workers get jobs in the first instance, and they provide everyday support in workplaces and communities where workers speak various dialects or languages, have many customs, and eat very different foods. 

But they can also turn into criminal gangs, as anyone who has seen “The Godfather” knows, and Chan shows both the negative effect they have in migrant workers’ communities and how they work with lower management inside the factory. But he rightly sees all of these as obstacles to the formation of class consciousness that can be overcome, and his account of the strike is inspiring: “For those participating in the protest, the overriding sensation was that it had been fun. ‘It was fantastic. Everyone came together for fun. Wow, all of us felt great!’ Xiao Lin said. The workers were especially thrilled when they heard a rumour that the mayor had gone to the control station to take command of the police in person.”

The ACFTU—fit for purpose?
In the first years of this century, workers gradually pushed back the limits of what was possible. Although there is still no legal right to strike in China, in practice strikes will be tolerated if they stay within acceptable limits—demands on the employer over wages or conditions. Any attempt to raise wider political questions, or to talk about independent unions, will attract repression.

And yet the frequency of strikes necessarily raises the question of permanent organization if workers are to defend the gains that they win during a strike. It is thus not surprising that groups of workers try to get around this by taking over or introducing the state-run union—the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Both Tim Pringle’s Trade Unions in China and Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap look at whether this is a feasible strategy, though from quite different perspectives. 

Trade Unions in China opens with two chapters on workplace organization and workplace militancy from the Maoist era until the early 2000s, including an account of the battles around redundancy terms and agreements among workers in state-owned enterprises, from a perspective quite close to that of this journal. In those battles the ACFTU was at best irrelevant and at worst part of the problem. 

The ACFTU was, from 1949, an integral part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus of government and control, with no particular attempt to disguise this. For instance, from 1949 to 1951, CCP veteran Li Lisan was both minister of labor and chair of the ACFTU until he was fired from the union job for “economism.” Inside the individual workplace, the ACFTU was essentially a welfare organization, which worked together with the CCP and factory management as a transmission belt for the CCP’s key policies. But with the growth of private and foreign-owned or foreign-invested industry through the 1990s, ever greater numbers of workers fell outside this mechanism of control. The mass sackings in state-owned industry further weakened it, with membership dropping by sixteen million in just four years in the late 1990s.

The next chapter is an excellent (if too short) overview of migrant workers’ militancy, which extends past 2008 and so integrates the effects of the world economic crisis. Like Chan, Pringle demonstrates how the growing militancy was a conscious choice made by increasingly confident workers:

Whereas in the past a collective strike was, generally speaking, a last resort to be used only after other forms of redress had been exhausted, it is increasingly the case that workers take strike action as a more efficient alternative to formal and crowded dispute resolution procedures. In other words, they have become more militant.

At the center of the book are three very detailed examinations of particular initiatives by local ACFTU sections to make themselves more relevant to migrant workers. The most interesting one comes from the city of Yiwu in Zhejiang province, where the ACFTU set up a workers’ rights center that, on the evidence here, worked well at enforcing workers’ legal rights against recalcitrant employers. He concludes that “the YFTU [Yiwu Federation of Trade Unions] was able to make use of its status as essentially a government agency in order to exercise political and administrative leverage to persuade employers to back down.” The problem, of course, is that it was doing so on behalf of workers, but without doing anything to build workers’ confidence within the factories.

Pringle’s analysis is very even-handed, and both partisans and opponents of working with the ACFTU will find ammunition for their arguments. His conclusion, however, seems to suggest that in the short term workers have little alternative: 

The general level of worker organisation is not at the stage of presenting an organised challenge to ACFTU’s monopoly on representation. Indeed militant workers are usually very keen to avoid such a dangerous challenge in favour of calling for the open election of worker representatives. As the case studies show, the ACFTU is capable of responding to militancy at the local level, where the challenge has been most acute, by developing structures and practices that by no means overcome the limitations of state-sponsored trade unions, but which provide building blocks for the future.

In the immediate, this is undeniable. The problem, of course, is precisely the future. If organization is to be sustained, at some point it has to go beyond sections in individual factories to linking up inside the same employer or same industry—at which point the ACFTU’s structures will necessarily be a block. The auto strikers of 2010, for instance, could not have used the ACFTU to make links among various plants. But for all we might disagree with some of the conclusions, this is an extremely well-researched and well-argued contribution to the literature, which assesses the ACFTU in terms of how well it can serve as a vehicle for worker militancy. Even if we don’t like all of the answers, this book asks the right questions.

China in revolt?
Eli Friedman is probably the best known of the authors reviewed here, from his 2012 article in Jacobin magazine, “China in Revolt,” in which he argued that “More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest.”12 Unfortunately, the book doesn’t fully deliver on what the article promised, essentially because of a shift of focus: he describes his primary aim as “not to describe the dynamics of worker resistance but rather to provide an analysis of how the state, through the auspices of the unions, is responding to this conflict.”

Similarly, the “insurgency trap” of the title refers not to workers being unable to go beyond revolt to workplace organization, but rather the state being unable to reach its goals because it won’t allow workplace organization. And the analysis is caught within a larger framework that sees one of the key problems as the “commodification” of labor—the fact that workers now simply receive wages, whereas under Mao the labor market disappeared, and workers’ needs were met through direct provision: “Wage labor was greatly reduced or eliminated, and markets, to provide for most human needs, disappeared or were tightly constrained. Although there was ongoing abject poverty during this period, to the extent that people’s needs were met, this occurred through nonmarketised mechanisms.”

This is conceptually problematic, to say the least, but it’s also factually wrong. While it is true that under Mao state-owned enterprises paid a substantial “social wage” in subsidized food and housing, as well as free education and health care, these were not enjoyed by all urban residents. And even state-owned enterprise workers were still paid money wages, which they mostly spent on food (when it was available).13 There were massive waves of strikes for higher wages in 1956–57, 1974, and 1986.14

We should pause for a minute on the phrase “to the extent that people’s needs were met.” Urban incomes doubled between 1978 and 1985, and again between 1992 and 1995.15 Although the rate of increase has slowed down since then, and the share of total output going to consumption has dropped since the 1990s, it is still the case that almost everyone in China has a much higher standard of living than they had in the mid-1970s. 

I have started with what seems to me the essential weakness of Insurgency Trap, but there is much here that is useful: in particular, an extended account of one of the Honda strikes of 2010, and some remarks (more would have been useful) on the “dispatch” system of temporary labor introduced in 2008 and how this has affected workers’ ability to fight.

But much of what is useful comes when the evidence contradicts Friedman’s thesis. For instance, he spends six pages outlining the evolution of a collective agreement between the local ACFTU and eyeglass manufacturers in Rui’an city in Zhejiang province. “Faced with instability in employment relations, the union, government, and employers came together and through negotiation and compromise, reached an agreement on wage-level standards for the entire sector,” writes Friedman. “It was a true win-win-win for workers, the state and employers.” He then throws in a caveat that completely undermines this conclusion: “But on spending a bit more time in the field, I discovered there was just one problem: the contract was not being enforced.”

In several other cases, he details very innovative-sounding arrangements between union bureaucrats and either local government or employers, before speaking to workers who said they had never heard of them. He is also very good on the threat by employers that they will relocate inland in China, away from the militant coastal areas, pointing out that this will simply mean migrants being able to go home, but also positing: “It then becomes possible to imagine how workplace struggles could be linked up to community-based (reproductive) struggles over public education, social services, and usage of public space.”

If you already know something of the politics of migrant labor in China, this book will be very useful, but it does seem something of a missed opportunity. The Challenge of Labour in China and Trade Unions in China are excellent resources, which any socialist can learn from, and which I think would work particularly well read together. Insurgency Trap is more a book for specialists, the worthwhile research unfortunately tangled up in a very flawed conceptual framework. 

Scattered sand
However good an academic book may be, authors are always under a certain pressure to make political judgements in forms acceptable to the academy. As the late Peter Sedgwick once famously noted: 

This arises because the considerable time and energy spent in writing them may have to be justified to departmental colleagues or seniors, and their names may well be included in a list of published works submitted in application for a research grant or a job. (How do I know? Guess.) Titles like Smashing Capitalism or Sukarno: The Last Betrayal are therefore out. (In view of current vogues, however, such variants as Smashing Capitalism: Towards a Conspectus of the Consensus or Bargaining and Betrayal in Elite Formation: Some Indonesian Instances might well be considered.)16

Hsiao-hung Pai, the author of Scattered Sand, is under no such constraint. A socialist journalist, she is an activist writing for activists, and aiming to give readers a sense of the contradictory lives of migrant workers. When I interviewed her on her book’s publication, she told me how she came up with the title: “I used these words because I heard a lot of migrant workers using them, talking about their own movement into the cities—a spontaneous and unorganised movement. They say we’re like the scattered sands: disunited.”17

She has a chapter on factory workers in Guangdong that echoes the other books reviewed above in discussing the growing militancy and spread of strikes, with accounts of the Honda strikes and several others. And she makes the important point that the labor shortages that employers are experiencing are not just demographic: “This labor shortage certainly partly reflects the growth of labor militancy as well. Many second-generation migrant workers have become increasingly reluctant to take up the lowest-paid jobs. Although workers’ gains are a small drop in the ocean of China’s low wages and poor working conditions, they have undoubtedly set a precedent for fighting those abuses.”

In widening her focus beyond Guangdong, though, she gives some sense of the depth and breadth of that ocean. We meet—all too briefly—miners working in illegal private mines in Shanxi, workers in brick kilns on the outskirts of Tianjin, and earthquake refugees in a Sichuan labor market. All are angry at what’s being done to them, even if they don’t know how to fight back. One old man in the Sichuan labor market launches into an impassioned tirade: 

Rulers in China know about the poser of those from the countryside . . . China’s history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed, and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power. . . . We peasants brought the Party into power. Without the power of the peasantry, China wouldn’t have defeated the imperialists and the corrupt Kuomindang. . . . But once they came into power, we became burdened and exploited again!

His speech is unusual in that it indirectly attacks the central government, when the anger of most migrants is centered on local officials. Pai shows how they are closely tied to the “illegal” industrial operations, and gives example after example of them demanding bribes and illegal fees. 

She also takes stock of migration outside China, both legal and undocumented. One company alone has sent more than four million workers abroad, but many more have travelled illegally. In one of the most moving chapters, she recounts a migrant’s attempts to reach first the United States and then Britain, a man whom she met researching her first book Chinese Whispers—the True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour.18 

Chinese Whispers was inspired by and centered on one of Britain’s worst industrial tragedies for decades—the drowning of twenty-three Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004. Cockle-pickers walk miles out onto exposed sands at low tides to gather the shellfish, and it’s an extremely dangerous job if you know the land and the tides. For a group of Chinese migrant workers, who were left to work without supervision at a time when most other companies had withdrawn their workers because the conditions were too dangerous, it was a death trap. One body was never recovered, and one woman, believed to be from Shandong province, was never identified.

That international dimension is a very useful addition to her picture of the migrant experience, as are her accounts of the connections between racism and migration in Western China. Xinjiang province, where the book ends, has a majority Muslim population that is being shut out from the current economic boom: 

Peasants have been recruited from all over China, in particular from neighboring provinces, to work in the coal mines and oil fields, which are estimated to be twice as large as those in Saudi Arabia. . . . But Xinjiang’s oil industry is completely run by Han Chinese: the China national Petroleum Company recruited most of its workers from outside the province . . . and brought in Han Chinese migrant workers to construct a $14 billion pipeline that links the region’s natural gas fields to Shanghai.

It’s a sombre conclusion to an enthralling book, which shows both the possibilities of migrants organizing collectively to fight for better conditions and also the huge constraints that face them. That downbeat message is shared by all of the books reviewed here; though they have quite different views about how China’s migrant working class is likely to develop, none disagree with the conclusion drawn by Ching Kwan Lee in her pioneering study: “To date, however, workers’ insurgent consciousness exceeds their insurgent capacity. That is, their insurgent identities seem to project a universalistic and inclusive group boundary, yet labor mobilization remains mostly cellular, localized, and fragmented.”19

It’s thus hardly surprising that most of the authors reviewed should focus on the question of organization, and on the ACFTU, because going beyond that fragmentation requires some form of collective organization, and the ACFTU is the only form that the CCP will allow. The big question is of course whether the ACFTU can, at any level, be made fit for that purpose.

For the moment, both workers and the government seem caught in the ‘insurgency trap’—workers can win concessions by striking and demonstrating, but then see those eroded; while the government can neither suppress workers’ insurgency nor offer a secure enough future that it will die away. But it is important to see this dynamically rather than statically: for the last twenty years, it is workers who have taken the initiative in changing their lives, and the government that has had to respond to changing expectations. The end of the “bottomless well” of fresh migrants has given workers an additional edge in winning concessions from employers, and the wildfire spread of social media means that this generation has a far greater understanding of the world around them than their parents did.

Most importantly, the rise in workers’ activity is part of a wider increase in protest across Chinese society as a whole. The different local actions and movements do not automatically align, or even sympathize with each other, but taken together they represent a real constraint on what the Chinese government can do. Twenty-first-century capitalism is in large part defined by the fact that the most dynamic economic power on the planet is also the one that fears its own population most. The books reviewed here—Against the Law and Scattered Sand in particular—are necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got here and make sense of whatever comes next.


  1. Patrick Boehler, “Q&A: Strikes Peak in China with New Generation of Interconnected Blue-Collar Workers,” South China Morning Post, August 13, 2014.
  2. See for instance Michael Schuman, “China Could Overtake the U.S. as the World’s No. 1 Economy This Year,” Time, April 30, 2014.
  3. The China Labour Bulletin has a useful set of figures here: “Migrant Workers and Their Children,” June 27, 2014, http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/migrant-workers-and-their-children. Yan Hairong, New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008) is a detailed study of domestic workers in China, and Tiantian Zheng, Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) uses research among karaoke bar workers in north China to reveal how the sex industry works.
  4. William Hurst, “Chinese Factory Strike Portends Global Workplace Change,” Al-Jazeera America, April 28, 2014. 
  5. “Auto Industry Strikes in China,” Auto Industry Notes, October 28, 2010, http://insurgentnotes.com/2010/10/auto-industry-strikes-in-china/.
  6. David Barboza, “Foxconn Resolves a Dispute with Some Workers in China,” New York Times, January 12, 2012. 
  7. Pringle, Trade Unions in China, 8.
  8. Au Loong Yu, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility (London: Merlin Press, 2013), 145.
  9. Perry Anderson, “Sinomania,” London Review of Books 32, no. 2 (January 28, 2010).
  10.  See for instance China’s Workers Under Assault—the Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2001).
  11.  Pringle, Trade Unions in China, 93 gives a figure of “up to 26 million.”
  12.  Eli Friedman, “China in Revolt,” Jacobin, no. 7–8, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/08/china....
  13. One detailed study estimated that in 1983 the average “social wage” was 1,000 yuan, compared to the average cash wage of 865 yuan, so even taking the most rigorous definition of “subsidy,” cash wages amounted to 45 percent of the total wage. Nicholas Lardy, “Consumption and Living Standards in China, 1978–83,” China Quarterly no. 100 (December 1984). Thanks to Bill Crane for supplying a copy.
  14. The strikes are covered in detail in Jackie Sheehan, Chinese Workers: A New History (London: Routledge, 1998).
  15. Elizabeth Croll, China’s New Consumers: Social Development and Domestic Demand (London: Routledge, 2006), 33.
  16. Peter Sedgwick, “Thoughts in a Dry Season,” International Socialism (1st series), no. 31 (Winter 1967–68): https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1967/xx/thoughts.htm.
  17. Sally Kincaid, Charlie Hore, and Hsiao-Hung Pai, “China’s Scattered Migrants,” Socialist Review, December 2012.
  18. Hsiao-Hung Pai, Chinese Whispers—the True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour ([CITY]: Penguin Books, 2008).
  19. Lee, Against the Law, 239.

Issue #60

July 2008

The New Winter Soldiers

Iraq war veterans speak out
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