Sean Cooney, Peter Gahan and Richard Mitchell
China has a paradoxical place in contemporary labour law. At times it has been the bête noire of labour scholars, combining the worst excesses of raw capitalism with political authoritarianism; its workers abused, exploited and voiceless. Worse still, it has been accused of lowering working conditions internationally, through competitive pressures or even directly in its offshore employment practices. On the other hand, China stands out from many countries with declining labour market institutions by its recent vigorous pursuit of formalization, enforcement, and collective negotiation, apparently (as yet) without major adverse labour market consequences. Progressive labour law reform is a matter of keen political and scholarly interest and increasingly sophisticated debate. Many new measures are innovative and based on multiple regional experiments. These circumstances suggest that the country could be a site for the successful production of new legal norms, which may be transferrable to other jurisdictions. China’s ambiguous contribution to transnational labour law reflects the distinctive internal dynamics of its recent economic and political history, such as the pursuit of social stability through the deployment of pervasive party-state controls. This chapter reviews the interaction between key stages of China’s labour law evolution and external developments. It does not chart the emergence of a definitive ‘China model’ of work law but rather describes certain striking initiatives based on a distinctive approach to the production of labour regulation. It examines the ways in which developments in China have affected – and have the potential to affect – debates on labour norms in other countries.