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Trade Unions and the Quadripartite Interactions in Strike Settlement in China*

  • Feng Chen


Although the Chinese government has claimed to be pursuing tripartism for labour relations, the non-judicial resolution of interest conflict in enterprises is largely a process of quadripartite interaction. In addition to the government and employers, the trade unions and workers are separate players: labour strikes in China are always launched by unorganized workers rather than by trade unions, whose task is to defuse the situation. Such a quadripartite process is dominated by the government, with the trade union playing a mediating role, not only between workers and the government but also between workers and employers. The process involves certain explicit and implicit rules, as well as distinct dynamics. This research examines the institutional and social basis of quadripartite interaction and how it led to the settlement of strikes. It demonstrates that although it can effectively defuse workers' collective action, a quadripartite process of conflict resolution reflects a low degree of institutionalization of industrial relations in China.



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I am grateful for the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University that provided generous funding for this research. My thanks also go to Qiao Jian for his sharing with me his insights into this topic in particular and China's labour issues in general as well as his valuable research assistance.



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1 Cai, Yongshun, State and Laid-off Workers in Reform China (London & New York: Routledge, 2004); Chen, Feng, “Industrial restructuring and workers' resistance in China,” Modern China, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2004), pp. 237–62; Lee, Ching Kwan, “Pathways of labor insurgency,” in Perry, Elizabeth and Selden, Mark (eds), Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 4146;

2 Gallagher, Mary, “Use the law as your weapon: institutional change and legal mobilization in China,” in Diamant, Neil, Lubman, Stanley, O'Brien, Kevin (eds), Engaging Chinese Law (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) and “Mobilizing the law in China: ‘informed disenchantment’ and the development of legal consciousness,” Law and Society Review, Vol. 40, No. 4 (2006), pp. 783–816.

3 Pun, Ngai, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workshop (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005); King-Chi, Chris and Ngai, Pun, “The making of a new working class? A study of collective action of migrant workers in south China,” The China Quarterly, No. 198 (2009), pp. 287303.

4 Chen, Feng, “A subsistence crisis, managerial corruption, and labor protest in China,” The China Journal, No. 44 (2000), pp. 4163 and “Privatization and its discontents in Chinese factories,” The China Quarterly, No. 185 (2006), pp. 42–60; Lee, Ching Kwan, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006); “The revenge of history: collective memories and labor protests in northeastern China,” Ethnography, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2000), pp. 217–37; and Hurst, William and O'Brien, Kevin J., “China's contentious pensioners,” The China Quarterly, No. 170 (2002), pp. 345–60.

5 For the discussion on the legal procedures for labour dispute settlements, see Ho, Virginia Harper, Labor Dispute Resolution in China, China Research Monographs, No. 59 (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asia Studies, University of California, 2003).

6 For a comprehensive but concise discussion on strikes, see Hyman, Richard, Strikes (London: Fontanta Collins, 1977).

7 For this issue, see Chen, Feng, “Individual rights and collective rights: labor's predicament in China,” The Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 40 (2007), pp. 5979.

8 Hanami, T. and Blanpain, R. (eds), Industrial Conflict Resolution in Market Economies (Deveter, Netherlands: Kluwer Law and Taxation Publishers, 1984), p. 8.

9 For the judicial process of labour disputes settlements in China, see Gallagher, “Use the law as your weapon” and “Mobilizing the law in China”; and Ho, Labor Dispute Resolution.

10 Hanami and Blanpain, Industrial Conflict Resolution. Also see Welz, Christian and Kauppinen, Timo, “Industrial action and conflict resolution in the new member states,” European Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2005), pp. 91105.

11 Simon Clarke et al. have discussed the similar situation in Vietnam. See Clarke, Simon, Lee, Chang-Hee and Chi, Do Quynh, “From rights to interests: the challenge of industrial relations in Vietnam,” Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2007), pp. 545–68.

12 For the classic analysis of the tripartite industrial system, see Dunlop, John, Industrial Relations System (New York: Holt-Dryden, 1958).

14 Taylor, Bill, Kai, Chang and Qi, Lo, Industrial Relations in China (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003), p. 210.

15 The official document for the establishment of the “Tripartite Meeting System” can be found at

17 Clarke, Simon, Lee, Chang-Hee and Li, Qi, “Collective consultation and industrial relations in China,” British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), pp. 235–54.

18 Clarke, Simon and Lee, Chang-Hee, “The significance of tripartite consultation in China,” Asian Business Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2002), pp. 6180.

19 State-owned enterprises should not be regarded as a distinct party, as they are still under the effective influence of the government.

20 Chen, Feng, “Between the state and labour: the conflict of Chinese trade unions' double institutional identity in the market reform,” The China Quarterly, No. 176 (2003), pp. 1006–28.

21 Strikes unauthorized by trade unions are called “wildcat strikes” in Western industrialized countries and are illegal. Some Chinese labour scholars use the same term to describe strikes in China. However, since Chinese trade unions can never authorize a strike, because there is no legal right to strike, it does not make sense to distinguish “wildcat” and “legal” strikes in the Chinese context.

22 For discussion on the development of Chinese trade unions, see, for example, Chan, Anita, “China's trade unions in corporatist transition,” in Unger, Jonathan (ed.), Associations and the Chinese State: Contested Spaces (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008), pp. 6985; Howell, Jude, “All-China Federation of Trade Unions beyond reform? The slow march of direct elections,” The China Quarterly, No. 196 (2008), pp. 845–63; Feng Chen, “Between the state and labour.”

23 In the interview, one enterprise union cadre pointed out that there are only two parties in China's labour relations: the government and employers, given that the union is just part of the government. But some Chinese scholars characterize China's labour relations as a “tripartite plus one” (i.e. the government, trade unions, employers plus workers) structure.

24 For discussion on local governments' suppression of popular protests, see Cai, Yongshun, “Local governments and suppression of popular resistance in China,” The China Quarterly, No. 193 (2008), pp. 2442.

25 See Chen, Feng, “Union power in China: source, operation, and constraints,” Modern China, Vol. 35, No. 6 (2009), pp. 662–89.

26 Ibid.

27 See Feng Chen, “Between the state and labour.”

28 Collier, Ruth and Collier, David, Shaping the Political Arena (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), p. 52.

29 “Dalian kaifaqu waizi touzi qingkuang jieshao” (“An introduction to FDI in the DLDA”),

30 FDI from Asia (Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) accounted for 17.5%, from the United States and Australia 16%, and from Europe 9%. Ibid.

31 Laowugong refer to those people who are not registered residents in cities where they find employment, and are often unskilled workers with a very short or even no contract. The majority of this group of people used to be called “peasant workers” (nongmingong).

32 However, the minimum wage of the DLDA before the strike was 500 yuan.

34 Zhan Yanhui, “Dalian rizi qiye lianhe bagong shijian diaocha” (“An investigation into strike incidents in Japanese-owned enterprises in Dalian”), Fenghuang zhoukan (Phoenix Weekly), 14 February 2000.

35 For the role of worker leaders in labour protests, see Chen, Feng, “Worker leaders and framing factory-based resistance,” in Kevin O'Brien (ed.), Popular Protest in China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 88107.

36 Investigative report by the DLDA Trade Union.

37 Interview, 3 August 2006.

38 Zhan Yanhui, “An investigation into strike incidents.”

39 Investigative report by the DLDA Trade Union.

40 Interview, 3 August 2006.

41 Investigative report by the DLDA Trade Union.

42 Interview, 3 August 2006.

43 Interview, 1 August 2006.

44 Zhang Yanhui, “An investigation into strike incidents.”

45 Ibid.

46 Interview, 3 August 2006.

47 Interview, 1 August 2006.

48 One of the enterprises hit by the strikes reduced the post-strike wage (700 yuan) to 650 yuan after the government announced the minimum wage. This caused a new strike on 2 August 2006.

49 Ibid.

50 Interview, 3 August 2005.

51 For a discussion on the duration of strikes in some industrialized nations, see Jackson, Michael, Strikes: Industrial Conflict in Britain, USA, and Australia (London: Wheatsheaf Books, 1987), pp. 7275.

52 Being unable to handle “group incidents” would damage their political career.

53 Interview, 1 August 2006.

54 Wright, Erik Olin, “Working-class power, capitalist-class interests, and class compromise,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 4 (2000), pp. 9571002.

* I am grateful for the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University that provided generous funding for this research. My thanks also go to Qiao Jian for his sharing with me his insights into this topic in particular and China's labour issues in general as well as his valuable research assistance.

Trade Unions and the Quadripartite Interactions in Strike Settlement in China*

  • Feng Chen


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