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The Making of a New Working Class? A Study of Collective Actions of Migrant Workers in South China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2009


In this study, we argue that the specific process of the proletarianization of Chinese migrant workers contributes to the recent rise of labour protests. Most of the collective actions involve workers' conflict with management at the point of production, while simultaneously entailing labour organizing in dormitories and communities. The type of living space, including workers' dormitories and migrant communities, facilitates collective actions organized not only on bases of locality, ethnicity, gender and peer alliance in a single workplace, but also on attempts to nurture workers' solidarity in a broader sense of a labour oppositional force moving beyond exclusive networks and ties, sometimes even involving cross-factory strike tactics. These collective actions are mostly interest-based, accompanied by a strong anti-foreign capital sentiment and a discourse of workers' rights. By providing detailed cases of workers' strikes in 2004 and 2007, we suggest that the making of a new working class is increasingly conscious of and participating in interest-based or class-oriented labour protests.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2009

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1 See Chan, Anita, China Workers Under Assault: Exploitation and Abuse in a Globalizing Economy (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001)Google Scholar; Lee, Ching Kwan, “Three patterns of working-class transitions in China,” in Mengin, Françoise and Rocca, Jean-Louis (eds.), Politics in China: Moving Frontiers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 6291CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lee, Ching Kwan, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)Google Scholar; and Thireau, Isabelle and Linshan, Hua, “The moral universe of aggrieved Chinese workers: workers' appeals to arbitration committees and letters and visits offices,” The China Journal, No. 50 (2003), pp. 83103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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4 Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 9Google Scholar.

5 Katznelzon, I., “Working-class formation: constructing cases and comparison,” in Katzneson, I. and Zolberg, A. R. (eds.), Working-class Formation: 19th-century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 1420Google Scholar.

6 The factory A data were based on Chris Chan's community-based fieldwork from 2005 to 2006, which was the major part of his doctoral study on industrial conflicts in South China. Data for factory B were collected alongside a dormitory research project led by Pun Ngai from 2003 and joined by Chris Chan at a later stage. Our approach was to study the unique labour regime in China's global factories, starting from the reproduction sphere and extending into the production sphere. We would like to thank our friends and colleagues who shared with us important information which formulated this article.

7 Chen, Feng, “Industrial restructuring and workers' resistance”; Diamant, Neil J., Lubman, Stanley B. and O'Brien, Kevin J. (eds.), Engaging the Law in China: State, Society, and Possibilities for Justice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Lee, “From the specter of Mao to the spirit of the law”; Lee, Against the Law; and Thireau and Hua, “The moral universe of aggrieved Chinese workers.”

8 For a thorough understanding of the concept of “cultures of solidarity,” see Fantasia, Rick, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)Google Scholar. For detailed discussions on localistic networks in Chinese factories, see Perry, Elisabeth, Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Hershatter, Gail, The Workers of Tianjin, 1900–1949 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Honig, Emily, Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919–1949 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; and Lee, Ching Kwan, Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

9 See the detail in Ngai, Pun and Smith, Chris, “Putting transnational labour process in its place: the dormitory labour regime in post-socialist China,” Work, Employment and Society, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2007), pp. 2745CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See Smith, Chris, “Living at work: management control and the dormitory labour system in China,” Asia Pacific Journal of Management, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2003), pp. 333–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Pun and Smith, “Putting transnational labour process in its place.”

12 Hershatter, The Workers of Tianjin, pp. 165–66.

13 Honig, Sisters and Strangers, p. 106.

14 See Lee, Gender and the South China Miracle; Ngai, Pun, Making in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Perry, Shanghai on Strike.

16 It was reported that 48.7% of the migrant population in Shen Zhen live in privately let “peasant” residences, see Guo Wu Yuan Yan Jiu Shi Ke Ti Zu (State Council Research Institute Project Team), Zhongguo nong mingong diaoyan baogao (The Report on Chinese Peasant Workers) (Beijing: Zhongguo yanshi chubanshe, 2006)Google Scholar.

17 For a portrait of migrant workers' urban temporary community, see Li, Zhang, Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks within China's Floating Population (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

18 Interviews in December 2005 and March 2006.

19 Chinese workers' right to strike was banned in the Constitution of 1982.

20 Our own translation, September 2007.

21 Our own translation, September 2007.

22 Taylor, B., Chang, K. and Li, Q., Industrial Relations in China (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003)Google Scholar; and Lee, Against the Law.

23 Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; Nelson, D., Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States 1880–1920 (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1975)Google Scholar; Katzneson, “Working-class formation,” pp. 3–41; and Berlanstein, L.R., The Industrial Revolution and Work in 19th-Century Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)Google Scholar.

24 Lee, Against the Law.

25 Ibid. and Feng Chen, “Industrial restructuring and workers' resistance.”

26 Lee, Against the Law.

27 Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.