In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Workers’ Politics in China

  • Introduction
  • Early Capitalism, 1895–1949
  • Working-Class Politics in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution
  • Working-Class Sociology

Political Science Workers’ Politics in China
Marc Blecher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0054


Workers’ politics in China has attracted a great deal of academic attention since the country’s structural reforms went into high gear in the mid-1990s, producing a drumbeat of protest that could potentially threaten to derail not just the country’s breathless development, but also, conceivably, the very future of the state. By contrast, in scholarship on Chinese popular politics before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and during the Maoist period, ending in 1976, workers attracted less scholarly attention than farmers—a product of the rural basis of the revolution and the country’s predominantly rural character for four decades thereafter. Yet, workers have been politically active ever since the country’s proletariat was born in the early 20th century, tracked by a small but significant literature. The burst of new scholarship, while not always locating its subject historically, is nonetheless broad in disciplinary, thematic, and geographic terms and has grown deeper and more nuanced as new sources of information have opened and the political constraints on research on workers have begun gradually to soften. And, in a most encouraging development, as comparative politics has become more theoretically sophisticated, scholarship on Chinese workers has followed suit with a still small number of studies that systematically tease out differences within China and that compare it with other countries. Thanks to Julian Kessell for outstanding research assistance.

Early Capitalism, 1895–1949

Tracing the first five decades of Chinese workers’ politics is a small but sophisticated body of historical work covering various time frames and localities: Shaffer 1981 for the earliest years; Chesneaux 1968 on a national scale for the radical days of 1920 through the cataclysmic White Terror of 1927; Hershatter 1986 for most of the period in Tianjin; Honig 1986, Perry 2006, and Smith 2002 for various periods in Shanghai; Howard 2004 for the last decade of the republic and, intriguingly, the first few years of the People’s Republic, for Chongqing; Strand 1989 for 1920s Beijing; and Tsin 1999 for 1920s Canton (Guangzhou). One important analytical theme of every one of these works concerns politicization: the relationship of parochial, factory-level, or workplace-level protest to wider political issues and movements. Another, in some sense a subset of that, is the extent to which workers acted on the basis of class (e.g., the seminal argument in Chesneaux 1968) or, as Jean Chesneaux’s subsequent and sympathetic critics (especially Hershatter 1986, Honig 1986, and Perry 1993) emphasize, on the basis of nation, gender, or locality. Dirlik 2003 sums up the historiography, arguing for a return to the insights of the early work.

  • Chesneaux, Jean. The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919–1927. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

    Classic, encyclopedic account, based on exhaustive documentary research as well as rare 1957 interviews in China. Emphasizes the role of political leadership by the Communist Party.

  • Dirlik, Arif. “Beyond Chesneaux: Workers, Class, and the Socialist Revolution in Modern China.” International Review of Social History 48.1 (April 2003): 79–99.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020859002000937

    A plea for a return to some of the insights of early scholarship on Chinese labor history that emphasized working class self-mobilization, to counterbalance recent emphases on fragmentation and political debility and dependence on the Communist Party.

  • Hershatter, Gail. The Workers of Tianjin, 1900–1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

    Rich social history, including case studies of ironworkers, transport workers, and cotton mill workers. Treats the full panoply of working-class resistance beyond just strikes.

  • Honig, Emily. Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919–1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

    The first Western monographic study of women workers in China. Demonstrates the gender dynamics of work and protest as a supplement to Chesneaux’s class-based approach.

  • Howard, Joshua. Workers at War: Labor in China’s Arsenals, 1937–1953. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

    Highly textured study of the economic, social, cultural, and political aspects of workers’ struggles. Focused on the famous Chongqing arsenals, Howard explicates the full range of workers’ self-understandings and affiliations, taking issue with Elizabeth Perry’s argument that regional loyalties were paramount.

  • Perry, Elizabeth J. Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

    Argues, contra Chesneaux, that protests were driven by workers’ own concerns as much as or more than Communist Party leadership. Views working-class fragmentation by regional origin as promoting, not undermining, workers’ solidarity.

  • Perry, Elizabeth J. Patrolling the Revolution: Worker Militias, Citizenship and the Chinese State. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

    Focuses on how a wide range of armed proletarian organizations reflected intense efforts by the state and society (workers) to influence and reshape each other, linking the whole matter to the formation and operations of the People’s Republic itself.

  • Shaffer, Lynda. “Modern Chinese Labor History, 1895–1949.” International Labor and Working-Class History 20.20 (September 1981): 31–37.

    Dates the birth of the modern Chinese industrial working class to 1895 and analyzes its earliest development.

  • Smith, S. A. Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895–1927. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822380863

    Fleshes out the complex relationship between nationalist and class-based themes in workers’ politics. Reaches back to the very earliest days of working-class formation.

  • Strand, David. Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    Rich social history of working-class life.

  • Tsin, Michael. Nation, Governance, and Modernity: Canton, 1900–1927. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    Detailed study of the complex politics of the workers’ movement in South China, reaching back to very early days but focusing on the halcyon moment of cooperation between the Communist and Nationalist Parties, culminating in the disastrous betrayal by the latter.

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