Should China’s Labour Go Its Own Way?

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Over the past four decades, East Asia’s labor force has grown significantly, with China alone contributing over 400 million workers to the global economy, leading some to view China as a battleground for globalization. However, amidst this expansion, labour issues persist, sparking a movement that challenges conventional norms. Is China’s labor landscape evolving into a new paradigm?


Over the past four decades, the labour force in East Asia has increased from 764 million to 1,200 million. China itself added more than 400 million people to the globalised economy. Some commentators have imagined China to be the new battlefield to combat globalisation initiated in the 1980s. Thus, if wages were to rise and Labour were to secure better conditions, this would impact the rest of the world by the sheer scale of numbers. Failing in its own regions, Western Labour, however diminished, feels it has something to offer China, akin to a mentor. Have Western activists, hopeful for ‘political change’, consistently misunderstood modern China and its historical context?


Is there a Labour Movement in China?

Over the course of its breakneck industrialisation, there have been serious problems in China. In 2011, an academic based in the West reported that “about two hundred million Chinese workers work in hazardous conditions. There are about seven hundred thousand serious work-related injuries”[1]. Along with others, he anticipated a tectonic ahead: “The so-called ‘mass incidents (a term used by the Chinese government to refer to a wide range of social protests including strikes, sit-ins, marches, rallies and riots) increased from 8,700 in 1993, 60,000 in 2003, to 120,000 in 2008. It is estimated that in recent years, the annual occurrence of mass incidents has stayed about 100,000”[2].

Another ventured: “The Labour movement is gaining pace, against all the odds” [3]. A smattering of incidents has become part of the folklore of a narrative, breathless in anticipation of an upheaval.

“In May 2010, two thousand workers at Honda auto part suppliers went on a strike for higher wages, better conditions, and a union election. This … triggered more than one hundred secondary strikes in nearby plants. The workers won huge wage raises……  At Foxconn the same year, a dozen workers jumped off the windows of their dormitory, trying to commit suicide. Strikes at other Foxconn factories followed. In 2014, the largest shoe manufacturer in the world, Yue Yuen, witnessed a massive strike where forty thousand workers demanded better pay and pensions. All this was done without official trade union representation or support. The official ACFTU was essentially a bystander.” [4]

Then, we have the case of the Shenzhen Jasic Technology Company in May 2018. Workers made complaints to a local labour bureau regarding their conditions. Unusually, they received support to form their own union. Politics students of a nearby university took up the case, spreading to other educational institutions.[5] This nexus of students and workers was seen as a potential game-changer.

As for the official All China Trade Federation Union (AFTFU), it has initiated some top-down reforms. On top “local arbitration commissions have sometimes adopted conciliarity approaches and even won cases for workers.”[6] The opposition to this comes from local governments geared to the push for economic growth, where labour is a cost. Labour unrest, in this frame of mind, is a threat to stability.

Taking a step back, the question is: does class consciousness exist today in China, the factory of the world? This then follows to wondering why it has not followed the Western model.

“During neoliberal development, many Asian economies experienced a labour paradox. This paradox refers to the fact that Asia’s economic ascent with an explosive quantitative increase in the labour force producing goods for global capitalism did not result in a coherent working class that resembled the industrial working class that had emerged from the core of global capitalism during the ‘golden days’ of the 20th century.”[7]

The key difference to the earlier Western era is how capitalism has evolved territorially. Not only were jobs offshored from the West, but the West also manifested itself into intricate webs of production across supply chains. A single product would be formed across several countries. In other words, multinationals, using the information technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution, spread their footprint and production process. This ‘transnational labour regime’ or TLR[8]means Organised Labour in any one country only directly works on one segment of the supply chain.

Added to subcontracting, this is a very different scenario from that of the early to mid-twentieth century. It also means that factories can be closed in one ‘difficult’ location and decamp to a more advantageous one. Coordinating Labour activity across borders is inherently tricky. Capital can offer much-needed jobs to a new region in Asia, but it demands a cost reduction. This means Labour giving way on regular hours, pay, overtime, holiday leave, workplace welfare, pensions, trade union membership and collective bargaining rights.

With the backdrop of labour shortages, wages for manufacturing workers have been consistently rising. Essentially, workers are demanding pay rises in their individual workplaces. Crucially, “little existence of a self-assertive labour movement at a higher level than the single workplace exists in contemporary China”.[9]

The key difference to the earlier Western era is how capitalism has evolved territorially. Not only were jobs offshored from the West, but the West also manifested itself into intricate webs of production across supply chains. A single product would be formed across several countries. In other words, multinationals, using the information technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution, spread their footprint and production process. This ‘transnational labour regime’ or TLR means Organised Labour in any one country only directly works on one segment of the supply chain.


Are Some Changes Afoot?

The digitisation of the Chinese economy, the shift up the value chain, and the expanding size of its enormous white collar/middle class, are all leading to a different labour structure. The nature of work itself is changing. External observers who imagine a rise of traditional proletarianism based on a ‘proper job’ (preferably industrial) will now have to imagine how this will play out in the ‘new normal’ of precarious work. Gig workers account for more than one in five of the total workforce.

This has not gone without notice. “China’s Trade Union Law was amended in 2022 to ostensibly allow gig workers to form unions.” In 2021, internet platforms were “ issued policy guidelines directing internet platforms providing food delivery services to ensure workers receive minimum wage, are not subjected to excessive working hours, and comply with specific safety guidelines”. As for the notorious 9-9-6 work culture, where employees are expected to work from 9AM to 9PM, six days a week, “China’s top court declared the widespread ‘996’ work schedule to be illegal under Chinese labour law“[10] How this is implemented on the ground remains to be seen.

Migrant labour and its lack of rights under the Hukou registration system has been an object of foreign attention for decades. Two things stand out here. Firstly, despite its unfairness in terms of disparity between migrants and permanent urban labour, it is largely responsible for the lack of the types of slums which have mushroomed in South Asia on the back of uncontrolled migrant labour there. Secondly, the Hukou system is now being loosened, giving rural-origin workers the option to choose. Nevertheless, “the new normal regime of precarious work suggests that simply removing the barriers to permanent urban citizenship will not spontaneously produce an urban working class.”[11]


Hanoi Offers a Political Clue

Vietnam’s Communist Party continues to rule the fast, developing country. It offers a pointer to any evolution in its gigantic northern neighbour. In 2015, Vietnam was the most strike-ridden country in the region, “home to a long tradition of underground organising and revolutionary culture, a tradition of informal actions outside the legal framework”.

Most labour disputes seem to occur in multinational companies, and mostly in textile, footwear and leather enterprises. Unofficial representatives lead strikes, which tend to last up to three days. “The rise in power of workers’ grassroots militancy over the last fifteen years in Vietnam has taken place outside the framework of official trade unionism”. Under the 2019 Labour Law, workers are now legally allowed to establish ‘Internal Employee Organisations’ or IEOs, independent of official trade union structures. [12]

“Since existing, wildcat forms of resistance have worked, workers are not demanding independent unions or WROs; such demands have come from capital…. The development of WROs has not come from the grassroots, has not been a development built on wildcat militancy, but is a reaction against such militancy. The excitement and optimism about the proposed reforms from pro-labour quarters may, therefore, be misplaced”. In the textile and garments sector, the majority of workers are domestic migrants. The turnover rate is high, which mitigates against stable structures.

As for an overt Labour entry into the political arena, the following encapsulates official attitudes: the Hanoi government, in the Communist Review 2022, stated that “it is necessary to have a good solution to control the scope of operation of IEOs in terms of space (within each enterprise) and activities that must be limited to labour relations. Do not allow these organisations to develop into political forces, especially opposing political forces”. In other words, flexibility is possible in labour relations as long as it does not attempt a dramatic re-configuration of national politics.



A recent interview with a militant Western activist sums up the foreign disappointment: “In China, after the migrant worker strike at Honda in Guangdong in 2010, many expected the formation of a new migrant working class that would be able to play a significant role in challenging capitalist relations in the country and beyond. Wang Hui’s pieces seem to be written in the spirit of his time as he hoped for a re-politicisation of social struggles, and he thought this had to happen through intellectual activists stepping in to represent working-class interests …. Today, left-wing and feminist circles are on the defensive”.[13]

Another ventures: “Is….  there is an anti-capitalist proletarian agency in the making? ….. Can they develop a new social imaginary while forging a transformative political programme? Are Chinese workers, after decades of hold-ups, finally on their way to conscious class struggle? Or is their movement at low tide? …. The riddle remains whether and how a defeated Chinese working class can remake itself. … If class consciousness is contingent on both ideological education and organised struggle, then, by definition, workers cannot be a ‘class for itself’ without a party of their own.”[14]

Given the escalating geopolitical tensions, with a multi-year campaign by Western administrations placing restrictions on Chinese technology and exports, along with Taiwan, such external intervention to ‘raise labour welfare’ will be treated with suspicion. Surveys indicate overall satisfaction with the central government.[15] There is little appetite among Chinese people for new political parties to emerge, for example, from the Labour Movement.

The issues of “Common Prosperity”, income inequality and a transition to ‘high-quality development’ all suggest a new paradigm in the offing, where the position of worker-consumers must become central. China is transforming from an economy where domestic demand used to take a back seat to cheap labour exports. Now, the purchasing power of workers, as consumers, has to rise. This implies intense debates and deliberations within current governance structures over the methods to reach the stated goals of 2035 and 2049. National political discourse will coincide with labour pressure at the enterprise or local consumer level.

External onlookers advocating Western-style independent labour unions as a stage to launch new political parties should accept this is a dead-end. In any case, this is counterproductive. Moreover, the jury is out in Asia as to Labour politicisation fundamentally improving labour welfare, especially in India (and perhaps even South Korea).[16] Indeed, rather than China, external energy could be re-directed towards the Indian subcontinent, which is likely to receive much of the low-level manufacturing jobs from China. China’s Labour will find its own way.




[1] Ming Li. P182

[2] Ming Li. P182

[3]China’s growing labour movement offers hope for workers globally. The Conversation. Apr 16 2015

[4] Behemoth: A history of the factory and the making of the modern world

[5] P227. Revolution and counter-revolution in China. Lin Chun.

[6] P223. Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Lin Chun.

[7] Asian Labour Movements in the Age of Decaying Neoliberalism. Dae-Oup-Chang, Oct 26, 2022

[8]  Asian Labour Movements, Dae-Oup-Chang

[9] Beyond Proletarianization: the everyday politics of Chinese migrant labour. Made in China, Dec. 2018.

[10] China

[11] Beyond Proletarianization: the everyday politics of Chinese migrant labour. Made in China, Dec. 2018

[12] Towards an independent workers’ voice in Vietnam? Anne Cox & Stephane Le Queux. 28 Sep 2023. Labour and Industry, Vol 33, 2023.

[13] The Left in China: A conversation with Ralf Ruckus. 16 Aug 2023.

[14] Revolution and Counter-revolution. Lin Chun.

[15] Long-term survey reveals Chinese government satisfaction — Harvard Gazette











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