Written by Chen Feng.

In the past two decades, China has witnessed a recurring wave of labour protests, as the country’s economy grows in a remarkable pace. From a historical perspective, labour turbulence in China appears to be nothing unusual; it is an inevitable response to capitalist industrialization that is inherently conflict ridden. As Marx predicts, capitalist development tends to homogenize the economic structure of nations with enormous variations in history, culture, and social context, and almost universally produces labour resistance. What makes China unique, however, is that while capitalist development led to national labour movements in all major countries in the western and non-western worlds organized and based on class solidarity, labour activism in China has remained unorganized, disorganized and scattered.

Several notable characteristics of Chinese labour activism can be identified. First, it is spontaneous. This does not mean that worker actions are completely without coordination and organization, which are necessary for any collective action. “Spontaneity” means that worker actions were not launched by trade unions or any pre-existing labour groups. Rather, they were initiated by individual activists who were often directly involved in the dispute. Second, workers’ claims are enterprise-specific and their mobilization rarely goes beyond the factory gate. Third, worker actions are non-cumulative and non-sustained. “Non-cumulative” means that worker actions do not produce any sort of organization that could continue to exist afterwards and that activism evaporates with the settlement of the dispute or repression. “Non-sustained” refers to the fact that labor actions are often short-lived. While worker actions here and there may force concessions from employers and the government in specific disputes, they are unlikely to converge into a movement capable of influencing the balance of power in industrial relations.

Why has the 30-year capitalist economic development not generated an organized labour movement in China? The condition of a country’s labour movement must involve multiple causes. I would argue that if the emergence of labour movements in a society is premised on workers’ ability to organize and to act collectively, the Chinese state has effectively undermined such ability by enforcing a bifurcated strategy, a strategy that restricts workers’ collective rights (i.e., the rights to organize and strike) on the one hand, and confers them individual rights regarding wages, contracts, benefits, and working conditions on the other. The strategy deprives workers of the rights that would enable them to act in organized ways to make collective demands. But it also serves to reduce workers’ motivation to organize by offering extensive individual economic rights.

How is the Chinese government able to implement such a bifurcated strategy? Two factors are important, one temporal and the other institutional. From the temporal perspective, the stage of state building in the labour sector at which a working-class movement arose is crucial for the subsequent development of state-labour relations. China’s lack of organized labour movements is attributable to the presence of a powerful Leninist labour institution predating the rise of labour conflicts, in contrast with the experience of western nations and developing authoritarian states. In the west, labour movements emerged at the time of the minimalist liberal state: the lack of state institutional intervention in industrial relations and the prior existence of basic civil liberties provided preliminary social conditions for organized labour movements. In the authoritarian developing world, despite being repressive, the state’s weak organizational capacity to penetrate society left a certain amount of space for labour movements. In both social contexts, in other words, organized labour movements emerged as de facto powers that predated state building in labour relations. This shaped the pattern of state-labour interaction and the trajectories of labour movements in both western nations and developing authoritarian states. Institutionally, after protracted working-class struggles from the mid-19th Century, western democracies incorporated labour movements into the political system by institutionalizing workers’ collective as well as individual rights. Authoritarian developing states, on the other hand, either suppressed labour movements with violence or co-opted and depoliticized them, and subordinated them to firm state control. It was political democratization that paved the way for a full development of labour rights in these countries.

China differs from both types of state above in that its capitalist development since the 1980s occurred at a different stage of state building in labour relations. The party-state had already had a strong presence in the labour sector as an institutional component of the Leninist political system, as the market reform began to change labour relations and bring massive labour conflicts. This pre-empted organized labour mobilization at the initial stage of capitalist development. Indeed, the state’s political and organizational control decisively undermined SOE workers’ ability to seek solidarity and instigate concerted actions against policies most detrimental to their economic interests. The establishment of labour-intensive industries in coastal areas in the early years of the reform also relied on the state to maintain the investment environment for foreign capital by keeping workforces silent.

While the “temporal advantage” provided the state with the preemptive power to prevent labour movement at the initial stage of the economic transformation, it also allowed the political authorities enormous leeway to experiment with and build new institutions to accommodate the emerging market-based labour relations. Conjoining with the Leninist organizational control of labour unions is the state’s active legislation on workers’ individual rights. The Labour Law of 1995 and the Labour Contract Law of 2008 codify individual rights on contract, wage, benefit, overtime fees, various compensations, and so on. Built on these two primary laws was a body of ordinances and rules aimed to protect these rights. The government also established procedures and mechanisms to settle disputes over these legal rights. Corresponding institutions are assigned responsibilities for enforcing laws on individual rights. The courts and arbitration commissions have played a key role in settling labour disputes. To expedite dispute settlement, the government has also established an extensive network of mediation. Not only have many more agencies, such as labour bureaus, trade unions, courts, and community organizations been called upon to play a proactive role in mediating labour disputes, a new institutional arrangement called “grand mediation” has emerged.This arrangement integrates civil, administrative, and judicial mediations into an institutional platform that allows collaborative efforts across local agencies to intervene in labour disputes. The whole institution of labour conflict resolution, in short, functions to individualize labour disputes.

However, the bifurcated strategy is inherently problematic. Despite broad legislation on individual labour rights, rights abuses remain widespread and rampant. The absence of collective rights is one of the major factors rendering workers’ individual rights vulnerable, hollow, unenforceable, or often disregarded. Workers are unable to effectively safeguard their individual rights as they lack collective power. Moreover, rapidly rising interest-based disputes have betrayed the inadequacy of the bifurcated strategy. Interest-based disputes involve workers’ demands for economic benefits beyond those stipulated by law. Those demands are collective in nature. Their emergence manifests workers’ growing dissatisfaction with existing labour standards. Interest disputes, however, can hardly be channeled into judicial or arbitration procedures. As trade unions lack independent power, they cannot play any meaningful role in negotiating wages, nor are they allowed to organize strikes. As a result, wildcat strikes have increased remarkably in the past few years, challenging the limits of the bifurcated strategy and straining the existing institution of labour conflict resolution.

Some local governments have called for establishing the system of collective salary negotiations so as to stabilize labour relations in workplaces, but show no intention of allowing workers to unionize independently. Pushing for collective bargaining on the one hand and continuing to ban the right to organize has created an impasse for the government in its bid to establish a viable and sustainable institution of dispute resolution. However, recent strikes show that workers are seeking an alternative way of representation without trade unions in collective disputes: They elect their own representatives to bargain with employers, often with the assistance from labour NGOs and concerned lawyers. It will be interesting to see if the spread of the practice of worker representatives can bring new dynamics to labour relations and encourage labour struggles for collective rights in the years to come.

Feng Chen is Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Image credit: CC by Brian Yap/Flickr.


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