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 5: Industrial restructuring and class transformation in China

Joel Andreas

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


It is difficult to adequately depict the sweeping changes that industrial restructuring has wrought in urban China since the early 1990s. Over 60 million workers have lost what they once thought were permanent jobs in state-owned enterprises, and tens of millions of rural migrants and a new generation of urban youth are now competing for employment in much more volatile labour markets. But these numbers can hardly convey the fundamental social transformation brought about by the dismantling of workplace-based communities around which urban residents’ lives had been organized for decades. Scholars, journalists, novelists and filmmakers have captured elements of these traumatic changes, some with poignant ethnographic accounts and others with statistical precision. The purpose of this chapter is to develop an analytical account of what has happened through the theoretical lens of class. What has taken place, I will argue, is a profound transformation of class relations brought about by the separation of labour from the means of production. As a consequence, workers in China have gained greater mobility at the cost of economic security, inequality has greatly increased, and labour relations have become much more coercive. The analysis draws on concepts developed by Marx and Weber as they struggled to comprehend the momentous changes produced by the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe during the nineteenth century, a process that has important parallels in China today.

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