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Corpus - Au-delà des frontières, sept sociologies du travail

Changes in the world of work in China: from observations to theoretical questions

Gilles Guiheux
Traduction(s) :
Les mutations du monde du travail en Chine : du constat aux questions théoriques [fr]


This article reviews the transformations of the Chinese labor scene since the 1990s: the disappearance of the old working class, the emergence of a new working class from the countryside (the peasant-workers or mingong), and, more recently, the consequences of the tertiarization of the economy and the flexibilization of employment. It highlights the main questions debated in academic literature. Conflictuality and workers’ resistance to domination by capital has led to various interpretations. The very existence of a Chinese working class, in the Marxist sense of the term, is still a highly debated question.

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  • 1 The Great Leap Forward (1957–1960) was an attempt to adapt the Soviet model to Chinese specificitie (...)

1When the Communist Party came to power in China in 1949, the working class was marginal and the population was overwhelmingly rural and peasant. However, the Party rapidly began to conform to Marxist orthodoxy. In the urban China of the planned economy, the workers, whose numbers were growing rapidly, became the dominant figure in the working world. They constituted a privileged segment of society, economically, socially, and politically. While the 1950s were marked by a strong dynamic of movement from the countryside to the cities, the introduction of the population registration system (the hukou) in the wake of the Great Leap Forward1 in 1958 had the effect of immobilizing society. The workers of state-owned enterprises were paid the highest wages, enjoyed good social security coverage, and were housed by the work unit (the danwei) that employed them. Heroes of the new socialist China, they are the ones who built the bridges, made the locomotives and machines that enabled the country to catch up and enter modernity. It is from their ranks that the Party recruits many of its members. This leading position of the working class is even enshrined in the 1954 Constitution, Article 1 of which states that “the People’s Republic of China is a socialist state of people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance between workers and peasants.”

2Although the 1982 constitution still opens with this same article, the social contract between the Party and Chinese society has been radically revised following the launching of the policy of reform and liberalization. No one still maintains that the People’s Republic is “working-class led.” Since the 1990s, the rising middle classes have been at the heart of the Chinese economic, social, and political project. As the main beneficiaries of continued rapid growth, urbanization, and the consequent improvement in living conditions, they have become the regime’s main political constituency. The working class of the socialist era—the period 1949–1979—has been sacrificed in favor of state industrial reform, and a new working class has emerged as a result of the globalization of the Chinese economy.

  • 2 This is the case of Tong Xin, a sociologist at Beijing University and director of the Research Cent (...)
  • 3 This is the case of Shen Yuan, professor of sociology at Tsinghua (see Lee and Shen 2009).

3We have chosen to cite only English-language publications. Some of these are by sociologists based in Chinese universities,2 but it should be noted that the sociology of work has not been established as such in the People’s Republic. In the absence of a specialized journal, work issues are addressed in more general journals. Indeed, the Chinese association for labor sociologists is called the Labor and Human Resources Research Association (中国劳动与人力资源研究), as publications in China itself adopt either the viewpoint of the company—how to mobilize workers? —or that of the state—how to manage the issue of unemployment? How to control the flow of migrants? Labor issues are too politically sensitive, and the nature of the regime makes it impossible to publish works that would focus on institutional mechanisms of regulation, worker exploitation, or protest. Most of the work is descriptive and focused on migrant populations. In the 2000s, the situation improved as a result of the struggles led by the workers themselves and the intensification of academic exchanges with the outside world. Some academics engaged in public sociology of work by associating with non-governmental organizations active with working-class populations.3 But Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, followed by increased controls and repression, closed this parenthesis. If qualitative ethnographic surveys are conducted inside factories by Chinese or foreign researchers, they are only possible because they maintain networks of personal relationships that ensure access to the field.

4The first part of this paper reviews the conditions under which, during the 1990s, a new working class composed of rural migrants replaced the former working classes of the triumphant socialism (1949–1979). The second part analyzes the rise of conflictuality during the decade of the 2000s, its causes and consequences. In the final part of this article, we see a China which is now largely integrated into the circuits of globalized capitalism, where changes in the world of work are largely similar to those experienced by other capitalist economies: flexibilization and tertiarization.

1. The new Chinese working class

5Until the early 1990s, most social activity in urban China took place within the work unit (the danwei), which provided lifetime employment (the “iron rice bowl”), housing, health care, recreation, and access to scarce goods (Walder 1988; Lü and Perry 1997). In practice, there are inequalities between workers, between employees of state-owned enterprises (whose enterprises depend on central ministries in Beijing) who are better off and those of collective enterprises (which depend on local governments), and between permanent workers and temporary workers who are excluded from welfare systems. This urban employment regime gradually disappeared during the 1990s. The labor law adopted in 1994 organizes the commodification of work. The administrative allocation of jobs disappeared. Employees now sign contracts with companies whose objective is no longer production but profit-making, while at the same time taking care of their employees’ housing or health. This transition to a capitalist labor market coincided on the one hand with the reform of state-owned enterprises—bankruptcies, restructuring, and privatizations were accompanied by the unemployment of millions of workers—and on the other hand with the diversification of the forms of businesses with the appearance of the first foreign and private enterprises. While the decaying residual institutions of the old regime have persisted in a few sectors still controlled by the state—energy production or tobacco factories, for example—we have indeed been moving over a period of a few years from a socialist labor regime to a capitalist one.

The crisis of the old working class

  • 4 China Statistical Yearbook, Beijing, China Statistics Press.

6Between 1992 and 2002, the number of people employed in the state sector fell from 101 to 71.6 million, or from 73 percent to 29 percent of urban employment.4 Unemployment affected employees of unprofitable enterprises whose production has been halted, and it particularly affected the northeast of the country, the stronghold of socialist heavy industry. In the late 1990s, unemployment became the primary economic and social challenge facing the authorities. In 2002, the official figure for urban unemployment was 4 percent. Observers agree that it is actually at least double that. One estimate based on survey data in five cities suggests that the unemployment rate rose from 6.1 percent in January 1996 to 11.1 percent in September 2002 (Giles, Park, and Zhang 2005, p. 149).

7The consequence of these labor market transformations is the emergence of new urban poverty that the socialist-era control organizations—the workers’ union, the Women’s Federation, the neighborhood committees—are now in charge of. The state is withdrawing from productive activity and, at the same time, is redeploying itself to deal with new social issues (Kernen 2004, Kernen and Rocca 1999, Kernen 1999, Solinger 2002). The fight against poverty is conducted at the local level. Municipalities establish a minimum income, develop occupational work and workshops, particularly for women, and try to promote re-employment—training courses, employment agencies, incentives to become self-employed and create one’s own business (Guiheux 2004, 2003). Faced with the challenge of unemployment, China is returning its workers to their individual responsibility.

8The invention of a new social state can also be explained by workers’ mobilization (Cai 2002). Laid-off workers are fighting for reinstatement, better compensation conditions, or the payment of the minimum allowances due to them. Retired workers are demanding that their pensions be paid or that their health costs be covered.

A despotic regime of labor exploitation

9As the state sector restructured, China saw an influx of foreign capital into its coastal provinces. In the case of the southern province of Guangdong, adjacent to the British-administered territory, the state sector was still dominant in 1985, employing 65 percent of the industrial workforce and accounting for 68 percent of industrial output. In 1999, it accounted for only 15 percent of industrial establishments and one-third of the industrial workforce; 20 percent of the industrial workforce is now employed in collectively owned enterprises and almost 50 percent in private enterprises with foreign ownership. The working population itself changed, with 3.6 million registered rural migrant workers in the province, while the real figure is a possible 11 million (Lee 1999). The work of Lee Ching Kwan and Anita Chan analyzes this new landscape.

10For Michael Burawoy (1985), a hegemonic regime of production in which workers consent to their domination has replaced a despotic regime in which worker consent was acquired through inflexible discipline, the transition from one to the other being made possible by the construction of the welfare state. In China, this chronology is questioned because the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the emergence of private and foreign enterprises has led to a reinforcement of the power of managers in the factory. The Chinese case thus leads to a hybridization of categories of analysis forged during the development of the first capitalist countries (Lee 1999, Chan 2001).

11Lee Ching Kwan, whose thesis was directed by Michael Burawoy and whose publications were to play a major role in the dissemination of the British sociologist’s work in China, concludes that there has been a shift from the “organized dependence” characteristic of the socialist period to a “disorganized despotism” (Lee 1999). The possibility of dismissal and the lasting weakening of the National Federation of Trade Unions, the only authorized workers’ union, justify the term “despotism”, while the latter is described as “disorganized” because of the fractionalization of reforms carried out in an incremental and heterogeneous manner from one enterprise to another, or from one territory to another. At the heart of this despotic production regime is the new method of remuneration: wages are now calculated by piecework. In the monopoly sectors where state enterprises are not exposed to competition, they can still pay high wages and the institutions of the party and the union are preserved. “Organized dependence” persists.

12At the other end of the spectrum are foreign private companies, relocated from Taiwan or Hong Kong. It is here that “disorganized despotism” is most acute, where legislation on social insurance or workers’ union and party rights are least respected. Often local leaders, anxious to stimulate economic activity within the territory they administer, collaborate with foreign investors to exploit the workforce. In her book comparing the production mode of two factories of the same company, one in Hong Kong and the other in the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen, both employing women, Lee Ching Kwan insists on the absence of a linear transition from despotic to hegemonic rule in the era of globalized capitalism. She insists on the necessity of privileging the local level over the national one when analyzing the strategies of labor control.

13Anita Chan, born in Hong Kong, trained in Great Britain, and practicing in Australia, devotes her book to exporting companies inserted in transnational value chains. It is a synthesis of several years of investigations conducted in the first capitalist enclaves on the country’s coastal fringe (Chan 2001). Based on specific cases, the author inventories the forms of exploitation of the workers: prohibition to drink and to go to the toilets, public humiliation and physical violence, obligation to pay a cash deposit, confiscation of identity papers, closing of the dormitories, sexual harassment, systematic non-payment of overtime, low wages. Anita Chan refers to a “disciplinary” work regime (Chan and Zhu 2003). Analyzing corporal punishment and strategies for controlling workers’ bodies (authorized break times, limited space for movement, etc.), and drawing inspiration from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and punish, she compares the practices in force in factories to the disciplinary mechanisms used in the factories and prisons of 18th century Europe. These quasi-military practices were initiated in factories with Taiwanese and Korean capital, often run by demobilized former army officers, and then spread to the rest of the Chinese economic system.

The new working class: migrants

14The commodification of labor has been accompanied by a loosening of the administrative system of population registration (the hukou), so that surplus workers from the countryside now come to the city to seek employment without the status of urban citizens, since they are still considered rural and remain registered in their home village. For Martin K. Whyte, the permission to move to the cities is for Chinese capitalism the equivalent of the liberalization of the serfs in Europe or the enclosure movement in Britain (Whyte 2010). As part of the old working class is sacrificed, a new major social figure emerges: the migrant worker. These “peasant workers” (nongmin gong) numbered 10 million in 1982; they doubled in 1989, and 70 million in 1996. In 2019, official statistics estimate this population at 290 million people.

15The first generation of migrants, born before 1980, is ready to accept the worst working conditions for minimal remuneration. They are the ones who are massively hired on construction sites and build Chinese cities. Others are drawn into the dormitories of the factories in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong or in the lower Yangtze Valley, often working for export. In this respect, Chinese industry invented an original work regime. Unlike what capitalism, in its paternalistic forms, produced in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, employers in China are indifferent to the question of the reproduction of labor power. The migrant workers housed in dormitories on the production site itself are single people hosted for short periods of time. The device that combines on the same site a place of work and a place of residence does not aim at offering decent living conditions to families, but at increasing the power of control over the daily life of the workers in order to maximize their use. Chris Smith and Pun Ngai coined the concept of the “dormitory labor regime” to refer to this novel social form of production, which has been widely used (Smith and Pun 2006, Pun and Smith 2007). Inspired by the Marxist tradition, Michael Burawoy, the radical geographer David Harvey, as well as Michel Foucault, these two authors draw attention to the spatial dimension of dormitory factories in order to better understand the mechanisms of power, surveillance, and control of labor.

16Pun Ngai, a Hong Kong researcher who did her thesis in London, published Made in China in 2005. The book is a milestone in terms of both its subject matter and its method. It focuses on the most subordinate fraction of the new labor force, the young single women who leave their inland villages to work in the factories on the coast, women who are subjected to a high degree of exploitation in the factory and to a strong stigmatization in the urban space. The book is the result of eight months of ethnographic observation in an electronics factory in Guangdong province where Pun Ngai worked in 1995 and 1996. Combining a Marxist analysis in terms of class struggle with Foucauldian analyses of subjectivity and governmentality, the author shows how these dagongmei (“working girls”) are both victims of domination and engaged in a process of resistance and self-assertion. The sociologist pays particular attention to the bodies in the face of the disciplinary power of the factory, which exploits the divisions between these women from the countryside who speak different dialects. The author also mobilizes James Scott to describe their “art of resistance”.

17Political science is also interested in migrant workers. Although they are the main contributors to China’s double-digit economic growth, they remain second-class citizens (Solinger 1999, Froissart 2013). The maintenance of the hukou system institutionalizes the segmentation of the labor market that participates in the exploitation of migrant labor. Remuneration of labor by transnational capitalism is at a minimum in urban factories, while the reproduction of labor power remains the responsibility of the countryside. This is the originality of China’s trajectory: while all countries that have undergone rapid industrialization have experienced a phase of mass migration from the countryside to the cities, in the case of China, these workers are not allowed to become urban. Industrialization and urbanization are disconnected.

2. Resistance and mobilization

18In the decade of the 2000s, the rise of working-class conflict led to lively debates as to its causes and consequences. The main question was whether there is a real Chinese working class, thus reopening a debate that had already begun in relation to China’s early modernity. While the historian Jean Chesneaux (1962) believed that China in the 1920s had a working class in the sense of Marxist orthodoxy, the more recent work of Alain Roux (1993, 1995) has shown how much this class, close to its peasant origins and framed by the underworld, was fractured and divided by effects of gender, occupation, and local origin.

The rise of conflictuality

19In the 1990s, former state sector workers, especially in the northeast, mobilized against the closure of their establishments and the conditions of their compensation. Collective actions involving several thousand workers, in the form of demonstrations or occupation of public buildings, usually forced the local authorities to intervene and give in. But what about the migrant workers exposed to multiple abuses: non-payment of their wages or social insurance, abusive dismissals, accidents, and illnesses at work, etc.? Numerous studies have shown that their actions, which were initially defensive, have become offensive—or pro-active in the sense of Charles Tilly (1978).

20For a long time, the only way for workers to protest the conditions that were imposed on them was to leave their employer, the choice of exit to use Albert Hirschman’s terminology (Unger and Siu 2019). In fact, the turnover of the workforce is very high, up to 100 percent. It is most often the day after the Chinese New Year holiday that workers, having returned to their villages, do not return to their employers. The protests then focus on short-term objectives: payment of wage arrears or the fight against speed-up in work rhythms. Many observers agree that conflictuality has changed both in nature and scope.

  • 5 The information can be found in the China Labour Statistical Yearbook (中国劳动统计年鉴). For the state of (...)
  • 6 See

21Measuring conflictuality is difficult when the right to strike does not exist in the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless, for more than a decade (1993–2005), the Ministry of Public Security published an account of “collective incidents” including strikes, demonstrations, riots, petitions, and other forms of civil unrest. Nationwide, 8,700 incidents were recorded in 1993 (the first year the figures were published), 32,000 in 1999, 58,000 in 2003, and 87,000 in 2005 (the latest figure published). Another indicator, that of labor disputes handled by court arbitration committees, is published annually.5 In 1996, there were 48,121 disputes involving 189,120 people. In 2008, following the financial crisis and the layoff of tens of millions of workers, there were 693,465 conflicts, twice as many as the previous year, involving 1.2 million people; then the figure drops and rises again from 2011 to 828,410 cases in 2016. Another source of information is the accounting, as well as mapping, of strikes maintained by the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization that relies on both Chinese media and relays within the labor community.6 These data suggest an increase in conflicts.

22The nature of the demands has changed (Pringle 2016). Previously, actions were brief and aimed at soliciting local governments to pressure companies to respect the minimum wage, pay back wages, and pay compensation in case of closure. Strikes are now aimed at forcing employers to negotiate on wage levels or social security contributions and reflect a growing capacity to organize. Protests used to be about defending individual workers’ rights; now they are demanding collective bargaining.

23Indeed, several events commented on in the national and international media constitute turning points. First, in early 2010, there was the episode of suicides at Foxconn, Apple’s Taiwanese subcontractor located in both Guangdong and inland provinces (Chan and Pun 2010). The company had 900,000 employees, 85 percent of whom are migrant workers. Thirteen workers committed or attempted suicide between January and May 2010. The Chinese press reported on these tragic events and many observers blamed the low wages that force workers to work overtime in order to earn a sufficient income. Indeed, the share of wages in the Chinese GNP had dropped from 56 percent in 1983 to 36 percent in 2005.

24In May 2010, a Honda factory in Foshan, Guangdong, experienced 19 days of strikes. At the end of the conflict, not only did the strikers obtain a wage increase (+30%) but also the election of new representatives. This strike is considered as a major event in the emergence of a workers’ movement: on the one hand because of its spreading effects in all Honda factories in China (in Guangdong and Hubei provinces) and on the other hand because the General Secretary of the Party of Guangdong province recognized shortly after that the union should better defend the workers’ interests. In the following months, some local governments allowed direct elections of workers’ representatives.

25In the spring of 2014, 60,000 workers struck in several shoe factories in Dongguan, Guangdong. They were protesting unpaid social security contributions. The Taiwanese employer, Yue Yuen, is an industry giant, manufacturing 300 million pairs per year for Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Converse, Asics, or even Puma. After several days of chaotic protests and the arrest of some workers, the administration finally ordered Yue Yuen to pay the back dues due. Several elements attract attention: the unusually high number of workers involved, the support shown by university students from the neighboring city of Guangzhou, the collaboration of non-governmental organizations that helped the strikers to write petitions. This struggle to have social security contributions paid by employers in accordance with the law is in fact new. Until then, many workers indeed preferred minimizing their contributions to the social welfare system and maximize the wages they received. For Chan and Hui (2017), the episode suggests that workers aware of their social rights are now willing to take action to enforce them. Even if they are singularly longer than before—several weeks or even several months—these episodes remain circumscribed in duration and do not lead to the emergence of a social movement as such. They do, however, testify to a renewal of the forms of social protest— “factory walks” (gongchang sanbu) in the absence of strike rights and the use of social networks—and an ability to attract media attention (Béja 2011).

The causes of conflictuality

26Several factors help explain this rise in conflictuality. The first factor is a generational effect. The second generation of migrants, those born after 1980 who, since 2017, make up more than half of the migrant population, has very different characteristics from the first. Coming from much smaller families than their parents because of the one-child policy, they benefited from the attention of the entire family during their childhood. They are much better educated than their elders. In 2019, 56 percent of all migrants had completed middle school, 17 percent had graduated from high school, 11 percent had a higher education degree. Most of them (80 percent) were married. Familiar with modernity—they are internet and cell phone users—they have no experience in working the land because they went straight from school to the factory. They have no intention of returning to the village but hope to become urban dwellers, which explains why the term “peasant-workers” (nongmin gong) has been replaced by “people from outside” (wailai renkou). Unlike their parents, they hope to rise in the social hierarchy and are not satisfied with the difficult working conditions and remuneration that are their lot.

27Second, labor market conditions have been shifting in favor of workers since 2004 in coastal China. While the demand for workers is still massive because of the increase in the number of industrial establishments, the improved economic situation in the countryside means that they are no longer willing to accept work under any conditions. The increase in wages also enabled migrants to bring their families to the city where they now aspired to settle permanently, making them less mobile. Every day after New Year’s Eve, the press comments on the difficulties companies have in recruiting.

28The emergence of non-governmental organizations to defend the interests of workers is also contributing to a reversal of the relationship between labor and capital. They are developing in a context of openness of the Chinese government to civil society and to financial contributions from abroad, particularly from Hong Kong. The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao government itself (2003–2012), in the name of the official discourse on the “harmonious society”, promoted the right to work, and these organizations seized the opportunity offered. The NGOs offer services to workers (leisure activities, training, and legal advice), conduct social surveys, and promote and defend public policies. They also have their limitations; they focus on individual action and are sometimes seen as serving the state to mitigate conflict. In the early 2010s, some NGOs moved away from being solely focused on service delivery and advocacy to becoming true labor organizations. Some labor NGOs have moved away from a focus on social groups, service provision, and fragmented legal advice to actively promote a new model of industrial relations around labor representation and collective bargaining practices. In some cases, they assist workers in devising strategies to engage with their employers, the official union, and local authorities (Froissart 2018, Franceschini and Lin 2019). Workers gain a better understanding of the employment system through these NGOs, their contacts with academics, students, or lawyers, and their mastery of social networks and new media.

The thesis of worker empowerment

  • 7 For example, Anita Chan, Pun Ngai, Jenny Chan, or Chris Chan whose works have been frequently cited (...)

29Many researchers—some of whom are personally involved in non-governmental organizations7—maintain that the new working class is now capable of initiating transformations of its condition. They defend the thesis of the agency or empowerment of the working class. Previously isolated and uninformed, workers can put into practice a vocal strategy. Workers equipped with cell phones can communicate with each other from a distance. They know the working conditions in other factories and can learn from the experiences of others. They are also aware of labor laws and know how to identify whether their own employer is complying with the legislation. Tensions in the labor market put them in a better position to demand better working conditions and higher wages. Leaving one’s employer and moving to another city is an increasingly unviable strategy when both members of the couple work in the same locality, have purchased housing on credit, and whose children attend school locally.

30Moving from the analysis of the forms and causes of worker mobilization we continue with the analysis of the consequences for state and employer action. Some authors argue that the rise in conflictuality has led to a whole series of new public policies designed to improve the situation of the working class. Chan and Hui, for example, defend a Marxist analysis of the state as an actor that is neither all-powerful nor independent, that is favorable to the interests of capital without being the direct instrument of capitalists (Chan and Hui 2017, Chan 2019).

31In 2004, a decision was made to strengthen the regulation of the minimum wage, which had been relatively ineffective until then. The minimum wage is local, and must be revised at least every two years. It now applies to all employees, regardless of the type of employer, whether they are full-time or part-time, and must be between 40 and 60 percent of the local average monthly wage. In fact, between 2003 and 2012, the real wage of workers grew at an annual rate of 10.8 percent (Naughton 2012, 21).

32In January 2008, a new Employment Contract Law came into force, which is undeniably in favor of employees, who are given more legal protection, both when they are hired and in the event of dismissal. It also gives a more important place to workers’ union and collective bargaining. The law requires a written contract for the hiring of any employee. It provides that the employee must be paid for overtime worked. The law increased the complexity of administrative procedures prior to the collective dismissal of at least 20 employees or at least 10 percent of the workforce and it increased the number of cases in which the employer must pay termination benefits to employees. With the new law, not only has there been an increase in the number of cases of termination giving rise to the payment of compensation, but, contrary to what was in force at the time, the employer can no longer freely dismiss an employee on the vague grounds of incompetence. The law also gives more power to the single union. It provided for collective agreements by sector of activity, but also by geographical sector, grouping together several industries, which meant that companies with different activities could sit down together at the negotiating table with employee representatives. The law thus illustrates the authorities’ desire to give more power to employees and their representatives, and thus attempts to remedy the credibility crisis of Chinese workers’ union (Cai and Concialdi, 2006).

33Other reforms have enriched the legal framework. In 2008, a law on arbitration and mediation of labor disputes came into force, which favors conciliation procedures between the parties involved. In 2011, a new law on social insurance extended to all workers the obligatory benefits of five types of insurance—retirement, unemployment, health, work accident, and maternity—and improved the rights of transferring such benefits within the system.

34The same argument is developed to explain the emergence of collective bargaining. Chloé Froissart, for example, based on an analysis of thirty conflicts between 2010 and 2014, demonstrates that the apolitical attitude displayed by the actors allows them, in the name of rational and pragmatic considerations that the Party can hardly disavow, to gradually change the modes of representation and conflict management (Froissart 2014, Froissart, Liu and Meng 2019). The author concludes that collective bargaining emerged without workers’ organizations independent of the official union being institutionalized.

35Most of the work is qualitative and based on case analyses. A recent article by Manfred Elfstrom (2019) conducts a quantitative study. The author cross-references a corpus of strikes, protests, and labor riots over the period 2003–2012 with the evolution of budgetary expenditures and court cases handled. On a provincial basis, the author shows that there is a significant correlation between an increase in protests on the one hand and an increase in military expenditure (and therefore in repression) on the other, as well as in mediation, arbitration, or court decisions, whether they are favorable to workers or neither favorable nor unfavorable. His argument is therefore that workers’ resistance leads to both increased repression and better recognition of workers’ demands.

36Faced with a working class that was increasingly aware of its rights and mobilized, the Chinese state carried out several legal reforms and tolerated the emergence of collective bargaining between employers and workers’ representatives. During his presidential term, Hu Jintao made concessions. Since the advent of Xi Jinping in 2012, the political environment for all those working for workers’ rights, from nongovernmental organizations to students, scientists, and lawyers, has deteriorated significantly. The party-state has taken over the space previously conceded. Repression has led to the disappearance of almost all the most active workers’ NGOs engaged in both protection of rights and collective bargaining. To resolve conflicts, the authorities now rely primarily on violence and coercion.

3. Flexibilization and tertiarization

37Over the past decade, the sociology of work in China has studied the changes in the working world: the arrival of temporary workers—agency workers and trainees—and the rise of the service sector, which accounts for most new blue-collar jobs in trade, personal care, and the platform economy.

The new workers: agency workers and trainees

38Faced with rising demands, employers have found ways to contain labor costs. Since the beginning of the 2010s, subcontracting and the recruitment of student interns have developed massively. As part of a reorganization of the sector, the construction industry, which includes many state-owned or parastatal companies, developed subcontracting early on with the establishment of a pyramid of actors: a property developer who is responsible for obtaining the land and designing the building, a construction company that manages the project, and a myriad of subcontractors who provide both materials and labor (Pun and Xu 2011). In order to maximize the profits of the former, the remuneration paid to the latter is extremely limited, so that the final subcontractors often cannot afford to pay the workers at the end of the construction project. Although many of the leading players—developers and construction companies—are public, the sector has long been the first to be affected by wage arrears or non-payment. As a result, the sector has also had contact with the justice system and with violent or desperate actions by workers such as suicides or murders. Today the use of agency workers has spread to many industries, including automotive, general manufacturing, logistics, transportation, cleaning, and security, posing new challenges to legal protections for workers (Zhang 2015).

39The use of interns is one way of containing labor cost growth and to have a flexible workforce. A survey conducted between 2011 and 2014 in several provinces (Guangdong, Sichuan, Henan) shows that the employment of interns has become an integral part of the relationship between Chinese capital and the state (Chan, Pun, and Selden 2015, Smith and Chan 2015). In the summer of 2010, across China, Foxconn employed 150,000 student interns from vocational schools. This flow from vocational schools to factories is arranged by local governments, often in violation of legislation. Foxconn is negotiating directly with governments to gain a new source of workers paid below the minimum wage.

Service workers

40While the share of manufacturing industry in employment is declining (28 percent in 2019 according to the World Bank), the share of services is growing steadily (46 percent), accounting for most new jobs. Sociologists are logically interested in the working conditions in the sector. In 2008, Amy Hanser published an innovative work on commercial employees. Her ethnographic research—combined with interviews—took her to three types of shops typical of urban China: a market of small individual traders selling low-priced goods, a state-owned department store from the socialist era still frequented by the working class, and a department store belonging to an international chain serving a very high-end clientele. Inspired particularly by Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction (1979), the author shows how class and gender identities are produced during commercial interactions or how relations between employees and customers, or between employees and their managers, participate in the construction and reproduction of social hierarchies. The analysis of gender and class inequalities is conducted against the experience of everyday life as a space where they are performed.

41Eileen Otis (2008) is specifically interested in women and the production of gender identities and the new forms of control of work in the service sector. Also based on an ethnographic survey, she compared the working conditions in two luxury hotels, one in Beijing and the other in Kunming, the capital of the southern province of Yunnan. While both establishments belong to the same international hotel chain, the differences in working conditions are referred to as the characteristics of the local market. Looking at service activities, unlike manufacturing, where production is spatially distinguished from consumption, the author shows how there is an effect of local space on labor relations. In Beijing, female employees enact a “virtual personalism” characterized by a strong distance from customers while manifesting a false intimacy with them, mobilizing practices imported from the US. In Kunming, the employees act out a “virtuous professionalism” in order to point out that they do not offer the sexual services that travelers often seek in this southern province.

42The emergence of an urban middle class is accompanied by a transformation of lifestyles. Many households employ domestic workers to take care of the elderly, children, or simply to maintain the domestic space. In 2014, more than 20 million people, almost exclusively women, were domestic workers. Tong Xin (2018) looks at the forms of employment as well as the forms of organization of these new urban care workers. Often recruited by agencies, they reside with their employers, which limits their ability to defend their interests, while their activity without an employment contract is often informal. At the same time, non-governmental associations work to make them aware of their rights and help them organize. Other subaltern urban workers are the subject of studies: street vendors who must contend with commercial police charged with regulating their activity (Hanser 2016), or cab drivers who strike to demand to be decently paid in the face of growing competition from platform operators (Choi 2018).

Workers in the platform economy

43Platform workers are a new object of research, even more strategic as the sharing economy has been officially designated by the authorities as the new engine of growth. In 2018, there were 75 million self-employed service providers of platform companies,8 two-thirds of whom are migrants from rural areas. The sector, concentrated in the hands of China’s two internet giants, Tencent and Alibaba, is not free from resistance and protests.9 Delivery service workers are particularly prone to exploitation, paid below the minimum wage, for long days without ever receiving overtime bonuses since they are not salaried.

44A recent (2017–2018) survey of delivery workers combines ethnographic observation and interviews (Sun 2019). The mode of operation is no different in China from the rest of the world. Delivery workers work far more than the legal 8 hours per day, in part because the time they wait for orders is not counted as part of their work time. Unlike in manufacturing, there is no distinction between private time and production time. Delivery workers spend a large part of their day playing online, smoking, chatting on street corners while waiting for orders. Work is omnipresent in the lives of the deliverymen as their phones accompany them everywhere. However, the author also shows how the delivery drivers develop strategies to subvert the algorithms of the platforms: creating orders to get bonuses, exchanging between them the races in order to minimize the delivery time, not following the route recommended by the algorithm but designing their own route. One of the original features of the sector in China is that platforms impose penalties on independent workers (Yu 2018). This is the case with Didi (passenger transportation) as well as with meal delivery companies. The fear of punitive measures is enough to induce workers to perform the service according to the platform’s requirements.

The debate on the casualization of the workforce

45Where does the Chinese working class stand? The debate remains heated to this day. In a 2016 article, Lee Ching Kwan energetically criticizes the previously mentioned worker empowerment thesis. She argues that there is no concrete evidence of a growing capacity of workers to mobilize. In the absence of an accounting of episodes of conflictuality, most studies remain qualitative, based on the study of this or that strike, of this or that factory, and therefore partial. The authors who conclude that the working class is on the rise are showing “subjectivism”, “voluntarism”, and “false optimism”, projecting their wishes onto reality. Echoing Guy Standing’s (2011) analysis that internal divisions within the working class between regular and non-regular workers are now more important than the conflict between labor and capital, Lee Ching Kwan sees Chinese workers, as elsewhere in the world, as caught up in a movement of casualization. She takes up the same argument in a renewed way in an article devoted to precarity in China since 1949 in a diachronic perspective (Lee 2019).

46Directly targeted by this critique, Chris Smith and Pun Ngai (2018) refute the proposition and confirm their Marxist view of the Chinese working class. According to them, the heterogeneity of forms of employment, the lack of rights, the fragmentation of workers in the labor market or in the sphere of production can certainly slow down the formation of a working class, but cannot prevent the emergence of class consciousness and identity. Moreover, for these authors, the hypothesis of a category of precarious workers is false because, in China, all workers are in a situation of insecurity. If we can speak of precariousness in a dynamic sense, notably because individuals circulate between types of employment, the essentialist term precariat is misleading.


47At the end of this overview, the sociology of work in China seems particularly rich. During the years 1920–1940, China’s first period of modernity, the labor question was debated by historians. Communist China (1949–1979) was an object for political scientists, who were concerned with the relationship between society and the state, and the specific ways in which urban populations were managed in the workplace. The time for sociologists came when it became possible to conduct surveys in China itself from the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s. They were then able to enter the factories. The first subject was the virtual disappearance of the former working class. The second was the conditions of emergence of a new working class in the context of the generalized commodification of work and the possibility for rural people to come and try their luck in the city. Dialoguing with international literature, the sociologists showed how the Chinese working class has been caught up in the relations of exploitation and domination characteristic of globalized neoliberal capitalism.

48At the same time, the authors have tried to show that original social forms specific to China are emerging, hence the success in the literature of the concept of the dormitory work regime. The originality of the Chinese case lies in the unfinished proletarianization of the working class, which retains a link with the countryside. The maintenance of the hukou system is the subject of intense academic debate, in which economists play a leading role. The difficulty in talking about China is also due to the heterogeneity of production regimes between state-owned enterprises, private enterprises, foreign enterprises, large and small establishments, wage earners and self-employed, the formal and informal sectors, coastal and inland provinces, etc. On the scale of a country the size of a continent, production regimes that have succeeded one another in the history of advanced capitalist countries coexist: pre-industrial craft forms, Fordist and post-Fordist forms. The debate on the best analytical tools to understand the contradictions of Chinese capitalism remains open.

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1 The Great Leap Forward (1957–1960) was an attempt to adapt the Soviet model to Chinese specificities in order to accelerate economic development. The priority given to heavy industry, inspired by Stalinism, was costly in terms of investment and neglected the country’s main asset, its large workforce. The latter was massively mobilized by large political campaigns. The episode resulted in the largest famine of the 20th century.

2 This is the case of Tong Xin, a sociologist at Beijing University and director of the Research Center for Workers and Labor in China (北京大学中国工人与劳动研究中心).

3 This is the case of Shen Yuan, professor of sociology at Tsinghua (see Lee and Shen 2009).

4 China Statistical Yearbook, Beijing, China Statistics Press.

5 The information can be found in the China Labour Statistical Yearbook (中国劳动统计年鉴). For the state of the debate on statistics produced in China, see Plekhanov 2017. The difficulty of their use lies particularly in the opacity of the conditions of their production and the impossibility of verifying them.

6 See

7 For example, Anita Chan, Pun Ngai, Jenny Chan, or Chris Chan whose works have been frequently cited here.

8 Sharing Economy Research Center of the State Information Center (國家信息中心分享经济研究中心), Annual Report on China’s Sharing Economy Development (中国共享经济发展年度报告), 2019.

9 See the strikes mentioned in the China Labour Bulletin: ; .

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Gilles Guiheux, « Changes in the world of work in China: from observations to theoretical questions »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 29 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Gilles Guiheux

Cessma, Université de Paris, Institut Universitaire de France

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