Edited by Teresa Wright
Chapter 8: Worker protests and state response in present-day China: trends, characteristics, and new developments, 2011–2016
This chapter examines the causes, trends, characteristics, and strategies of ongoing worker protests and state response in China, with a focus on the developments under the economic downturn and rising labor unrest since 2010. Drawing on the author’s fieldwork and secondary sources, the chapter analyzes representative cases of collective worker protests in manufacturing and service sectors between 2011 and 2015. Specifically, it examines: the changing composition of the workforce; the development of workers’ demands and their ability to organize; the tactics they utilize; and the ways in which workers’ protests have interacted with the official trade union and state labor laws and policies. Chinese workers have gained growing workplace bargaining power amid demographic shifts, a growing labor shortage, and changes in economic structures and state labor laws and policies. As such, workers have become more emboldened to redress grievances and demand better pay and working conditions from their employers. The protagonists and demands of labor protests have become more diverse as well. Furthermore, with the support of labor rights groups and the rapid development of social media in China, workers are increasingly well-organized, and they are able to stay united and elect their own representatives to engage in collective bargaining. The escalation of labor unrest in a wide range of industries has forced the Chinese government to oscillate between repression and accommodation, placing more pressure on the official trade union to reform and to be more responsive to workers’ grievances in order to better preempt strikes and maintain stability. Yet, at the same time, the Chinese government remains firmly in charge, and it has taken an increasingly repressive approach to worker activists and labor rights groups in the face of China’s recent economic downturn. These findings reveal important insights into the forms, expressions, potential, and limits of ongoing working-class resistance in present-day China, and how labor protest might progress in the coming decades.
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