Labor activism has played a critical role in the strengthening of basic human rights protections. This chapter provides an overview of China’s changing legal and institutional environment for workers, from the pre-revolutionary era through to today. In particular, this chapter examines recent alterations to the country’s labor laws and reforms to the Communist Party-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions. Furthermore, the chapter explores shifts in Chinese worker activism along three dimensions: changing demands, changing tactics, and changing organizations. The chapter concludes by delving into questions raised by these dynamics, including the merits of rights- versus interest-based activism and institutional versus extra-institutional approaches to justice.
Labor unrest has been rising in China. Meanwhile, the nature of work has also been evolving, toward more flexible, contracted employment—and self-employment. The lives of the country’s taxi drivers are emblematic of these trends. After enjoying a relatively privileged position at the beginning of the reform era, cabbies are increasingly hired through a tangle of middlemen to whom they must pay high rental fees while working long hours and competing with illegal “black cabs” and ride-hailing phone apps. Nonetheless, drivers strike frequently, utilizing a diverse repertoire of protest tactics and drawing on strong social ties. Based on news stories and interviews conducted across the country, this chapter explores the determinants of cabbie success and failure, and the ways in which taxi activism is becoming normalized even as it is extracting concessions from the state. The chapter concludes by drawing parallels with the efforts of workers in other areas of China’s changing economy, and by considering the possibilities for organizing going forward.