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Pun Ngai, Migrant Labor in China: Post-Socialist Transformations,

Cambridge, UK, Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2016, 204 pp.
Éric Florence
Translated by N. Jayaram
p. 72-73

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  • 1  Pun Ngai, Made in China, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2005.

1Noting in the very first chapter that China’s socialist development model was challenged systematically for its inability to generate prosperity for its people, Pun Ngai proceeds to explain that she felt compelled to “explore new subjects such as migrant workers” who have paid the “historic debt” of the new economic development model of the post-Maoist era centred on labour commodification and exports (p. 17). While the condition of rural migrant workers remains at the heart of this work, it should be noted at the outset to what extent the book marks a departure from her previous Made in China,1 published in 2005, which helps explain the intellectual path she has traversed since.  

2First, while Made in China essentially relied on an ethnographic study of a specific factory in Shenzhen and sought to show how the subjectivity of rural migrant workers was constituted, Migrant Labor in China constitutes the fruits of ten years of work based on several vast research projects that the author and her team initiated and conducted in China. Among them was a major study that brought together 20 tertiary institutions from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan conducting more than 3,000 interviews with workers at the Foxconn group following a wave of suicides in 2010 at several of its factories.

3Second, in Migrant Labor in China, Pun considers both male and female workers. Moreover, while continuing to focus on the manufacturing industry, she has over the past five years enlarged her investigation to include the construction industry and its workers. Pun shows how different institutional measures and political decisions starting in 1984 allowed the development of a pyramidal system of subcontracting in which a decoupling occurs between higher levels of construction project managements (property developers and construction companies) and the implementation of projects left to different subcontractors, a system notably leading to numerous instances of non-payment of wages, the absence of contractual relations between the worker and the employer, and the impossibility of direct contact between construction workers and the boss. Pun also shows how this political economy of the construction sector shapes the ways of protestation – in general violent and often outside legal avenues (pp. 41-56). As for forms of contestation in the manufacturing sector, which is tending towards radicalisation, Pun documents how migrant workers profiting from a process of long-term accumulation of experience have managed to proactively mobilise in their daily struggles a range of increasingly vast resources, institutional and non-institutional, individual and collective. Globally, in both the construction and manufacturing industries, different forms of alliances have solidified between local state power and transnational economic forces, helping generate considerable surplus value to the detriment of workers’ security and health and in some cases even their lives.

  • 2  Pun Ngai, “Becoming Dagongmei: The Politics of Identity and Difference in Reform China,” The China (...)
  • 3  In Foxconn’s case it took the form of recourse to trainees from vocational schools, with the help (...)
  • 4  See Robin Cohen, The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour, Gower, Aldersho (...)

4Third, the voices and personalities of migrant workers are on the whole less present than in Made in China. The book pays greater attention to the structures of domination and to the political economy of the sectors studied. Perhaps this evolution in the author’s work reflects a more pronounced mobilisation of Marxist-inspired analytical tools. It appears that the lesser attention to ethnographic details in Migrant Labor in China nevertheless permits a more profound description of politico-institutional, legal, and economic configurations behind the functioning of contemporary industrial capitalism and its complex modalities of reinvention and redeployment. Of course this stress on domination was already present in the author’s previous work. In particular, her first article in 19992 minutely described the spatio-temporal control over female workers in the production regime of a Shenzhen factory, combining Foucauldian and Marxist approaches; or again her description of the triple constraints – patriarchy, Party-state, and global capitalism – fashioning the subjectivity of rural women when it comes to their decision to leave their villages. But in Migrant Labor in China, Pun goes beyond descriptions of a specific production regime or political economy of labour in Shenzhen in particular, in order to expose politico-institutional processes in the countryside and in urban zones that have led to the development of a labour market largely benefiting capital accumulation, engendering what the author terms an “unfinished process of proletarianization” enabling “a production regime within which a separation exists between the production sphere in industrial regions and social reproduction in rural areas” (pp. 33-34). Migrant Labor in China also sheds light on the transformations in contemporary industrial capitalism through the study of the Foxconn group, which represents, according to the author, an example of concentration and centralisation of capital on “an unimaginable scale,” an exemplar of “monopoly capitalism” (p. 105). Pun shows how in a context of rarefaction of labour in China’s coastal regions and a greater awareness of legal rights among workers, the IT giant (1,400,000 workers employed in China in 2010) managed to redeploy its production centres to interior regions (southwest, central, and north). This redeployment documented in the book reveals a great capacity for resilience among enterprises, especially in institutionally creating, with the active mediation of regional and local governments, new sources of labour that are more vulnerable and more easily exploitable.3 This is not without recalling similar processes studied previously at the level of history of global capitalism.4

5Finally, the book also contains interesting information on the “second generation of migrant workers” (those born in the late 1980s and in the 1990s). The absence of predictability, security, and dignity defines in a more determining manner the condition and identity of migrant workers, as well as their modes of resistance and contestation of domination structures (p. 150). The author stresses that while differences between first and second generation workers should not be exaggerated, the second generation is on the whole more individualistic, better educated, clearly more oriented towards urban culture and consumption, and animated by an experience of indignity so pronounced that they nurture neither the hope of remaining in the city nor of returning to their native villages. In Pun’s view, while the first generation of workers was characterised by the ephemeral nature of its condition, the second is characterised more by the notion of “rupture” through resentment and anger (p. 80).

6To conclude, it may be pointed out that some chapters in the book rework articles previously published in journals by updating them and rendering them more accessible to readers who are not China experts or specialists in the political anthropology of labour. This effort at readability makes this work, which clearly articulates theoretical issues and concrete human experiences, accessible to a larger public. It should interest students, researchers, and teachers in the domain of contemporary Chinese studies and human and social sciences.

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1  Pun Ngai, Made in China, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2005.

2  Pun Ngai, “Becoming Dagongmei: The Politics of Identity and Difference in Reform China,” The China Journal, No. 42, July 1999, pp. 1-19.

3  In Foxconn’s case it took the form of recourse to trainees from vocational schools, with the help of municipal authorities in charge of employment and education, thus contravening labour laws.

4  See Robin Cohen, The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour, Gower, Aldershot, 1987.

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Bibliographical reference

Éric Florence, “Pun Ngai, Migrant Labor in China: Post-Socialist Transformations,”China Perspectives, 2016/2 | 2016, 72-73.

Electronic reference

Éric Florence, “Pun Ngai, Migrant Labor in China: Post-Socialist Transformations,”China Perspectives [Online], 2016/2 | 2016, Online since 01 June 2016, connection on 06 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Éric Florence

Eric Florence is director of the CEFC (

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