China’s Peasants and Workers: Changing Class Identities

China’s Peasants and Workers: Changing Class Identities

CSC China Perspectives series

Edited by Beatriz Carrillo and David S.G. Goodman

The expert contributors illustrate how the development of the urban economic environment has led to changes in the urban working class, through an exploration of the workplace experiences of rural migrant workers, and of the plight of the old working class in the state-owned sector. They address questions on the extent to which migrant workers have become a new working class, are absorbed into the old working class, or simply remain as migrant workers. Changes in class relations in villages in the urban periphery – where the urbanization drive and in-migration has lead to a new local politics of class differentiation – are also raised.

Chapter 4: Chinese migrant workers: factors constraining the emergence of class consciousness*

Anita Chan and Kaxton Siu

Subjects: asian studies, asian development, asian geography, asian politics and policy, asian urban and regional studies, development studies, asian development, politics and public policy, asian politics, urban and regional studies, regional studies, urban studies


Labour protests in China, particularly among the so-called ‘new generations of peasant-workers’ (xinshengdai nongmingong), have been increasing during the past decade. Every time an explosive strike breaks out and receives publicity outside China, it stirs up excitement among labour sympathizers. Great expectations are sometimes placed on the disturbances, in the belief that it heralds a rising consciousness of collective interests among workers. Is this indeed the case? These workers are young, fresh from the countryside, heading straight from the fields into factories that are usually located in new industrial zones cut offfrom urban areas. This does not at first sight seem a likely group to exhibit any collective identity. Is this new generation indeed developing a strong working class consciousness? Exponents of the thesis that migrant workers are developing class consciousness do not contend that this is yet at a high level. Even scholars such as Ngai Pun and Huilin Lu (2010, p. 512), who optimistically point to the migrant workers’ potential to mount collective challenges, still characterize ‘the second generation of peasant-workers’, who are seen as more conscious than the first generation, as ‘gradually [our emphasis] becoming aware of its class position’.

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