Spring 2014

China’s Workers Movement & the End of the Rapid-Growth Era

Mary E. Gallagher

China's rapid economic growth period was predicated on a development model that exploited the stark divide between its urban and rural citizens. As the workshop of the world, Chinese factories tapped the vast surplus labor of the countryside. Rural workers' expectations were low, but their desire for new employment opportunities was boundless and their numbers seemed limitless. Three decades later, these conditions have changed: workers' expectations are higher and their numbers are diminishing as the population ages. Labor disputes and strikes are endemic as the expectations and aspirations of workers outpace the nation's slowing growth rate. Compared to the anemic labor movements in the West, China's workers are emboldened, though they are still hampered by a repressive political environment and strict constraints on freedom of association. Conflict is spontaneous and settlement is ad-hoc. Like many authoritarian regimes, the Chinese Communist Party has difficulty committing to the institutionalization of labor conflict as it heightens the possibility of social empowerment. The state remains in charge, which also means that labor-capital conflict almost invariably metastasizes into a confrontation between workers and the state.

MARY E. GALLAGHER is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she is also the Director of the Center for Chinese Studies. Her publications include Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and the Politics of Labor in China (2005), From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China (edited with Sarosh Kuruvilla and Ching Kwan Lee, 2011), and Chinese Justice (edited with Margaret Woo, 2011).

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now