In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Resource Management in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Chinese Studies Human Resource Management in China
Fang Lee Cooke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0188


The concept of human resource management (HRM) in China was only adopted beginning in the 1990s as a foreign import. Many domestic firms still operate in a traditional personnel management mode with limited strategic planning or HR capability, although there is a general trend by which firms are increasingly becoming more strategic in their HRM. In state-owned firms, the HR department acts mainly as the implementer of HR policies formulated and imposed by the state (employer). In domestic private firms, HR managers often play the role of administrator, following instructions from the boss. Indeed, lack of professional management is often a criticism about Chinese family-owned businesses, in which the owners run the business and make all the decisions with little consultation of those who work for the firm. It is in the foreign-funded multinational corporations (MNCs) that HRM is considered to be most systematic and sophisticated, resembling that of Western practices. Chinese culture plays a fundamental role in the management of workplace relationships. Paternalism and collectivism are seen as distinctive cultural characteristics that influence the way people behave and are managed at work. However, work ethics and expectations have changed as China develops economically and has become more open to the influence of foreign cultures, aided by information communication technology, and as the majority of the younger generation of the Chinese urban workforce are the “only-child” of the family as a result of the one-child policy enforced by the government from 1980 until the 2010s to curb population growth. Young employees are more eager to succeed, less willing to endure hardship, more assertive of their rights and interests, and less loyal to their employers, as evidenced by the high level of staff turnover. Equally, employers have become more cost-oriented, in part to deal with heightened competitive pressures. This is in part reflected in the work intensity (measured by pressure at work and long working hours) and the growing use of nonstandard employment characterized by the absence of job security, reduced social security, and the lack of career development opportunities. As marketization deepens, wealth disparity increases, and workplace relationships become more transactional in nature, the relationship between labor and capital/management has worsened in many workplaces, leading to a rising level of labor disputes. The understanding of people management at workplaces, therefore, needs to be situated in the broader context of employment relations, including the respective role, power base, and level of bargaining power of key institutional actors such as the state, employers and employer associations, and workers and their representing bodies like the trade unions. It is with this objective in mind that this bibliography of HRM in China has been compiled, taking into account aspects of functional and strategic HRM at the firm level, organizational behavior (OB) at the individual level, and workplace relationships collectively, with relevance to HRM. This broadened approach to contemplating HRM is an attempt to address the growing imbalance in HRM research that has been heavily skewed toward quantitative studies of individual behavior at the expense of in-depth studies of actions and interactions of socials groups in specific organizational settings.

General Overviews

The field of HRM research relating to China has developed since the late 1990s. It is characterized by empirical studies that are published as journal articles in business and management journals. Research interest in HRM in China has grown significantly since the 2000s, both within and outside China. The more scholarly studies have been published in English, mainly in business and management journals, edited scholarly books, and top-ranked Chinese journals. They are mostly conducted by Western scholars and Chinese scholars trained in developed countries in collaboration with scholars in China. The majority of the HRM studies published in Chinese are applications of Western conceptual models with Chinese data, although there is also a body of studies that examine the Chinese characteristics of HRM. There has been a growing and heavy influence of American positivism in the last decade or so as well. As Chinese universities are under pressure from the Chinese government to develop world-class universities, individual academics are in turn under pressure, and heavily incentivized, to publish in top business and management journals both within and particularly outside China; hence the strong interests in modeling the American positivism that dominates top journals. However, in 2020 the Chinese government changed its performance measurement criteria for universities and stipulated that publishing in top-ranked journals will no longer be the main criterion for performance evaluation. On the whole, research capacity on HRM in China has developed rapidly, as evidenced by the bourgeoning number, and growing quality, of publications in Chinese and in English journals. For linguistic and logistical purposes (e.g., through university libraries), this bibliography mainly includes English journal articles to make it more accessible to readers, particularly those outside of China. There are also a few books (edited volumes and monographs) that provide general overviews about the development and key challenges of HRM in China. Cooke 2012 is a monograph that covers both macro- and micro-level analysis and developments of HRM in China, including topics that are less well covered in the HRM literature, such as gender equality, labor regulation, and workers’ representation. Sheldon, et al. 2011 reveals some key developments in HRM in China across the country and conceptualizes them from a local level to highlight regional differences. Warner 2009 is a collection of research articles that reflect individual researchers’ interest instead of a holistic survey of the field of HRM in China at that period. By contrast, Warner 2014 offers an accessible historical account of the development of management in China. In addition, Warner and Goodall 2010 offers a detailed summary of the development of and challenges in management education and development in China since the late 1970s. It focuses on the management education system at a macro level rather than training and development practices at firm level.

  • Cooke, Fang Lee. Human Resource Management in China: New Trends and Practices. London: Routledge, 2012.

    A monograph that examines developments in a wide range of human resource management (HRM) practices in China and critically assesses the likely impacts of these practices on organizations as well as employees. Investigates the extent to which Western strategic HRM theories and initiatives can be applied to the Chinese context.

  • Sheldon, Peter, Sunghoon Kim, Yiqiong Li, and Malcolm Warner, eds. China’s Changing Workplace: Dynamism, Diversity and Disparity. London: Routledge, 2011.

    An edited volume that examines changes in work, employment, labor market, and HRM practices in various locations in China, emphasizing the fact that China is a large country that exhibits local diversities and dynamics, and that disparity exists across regions as well as social groups. Calls for a subnational approach to studying HRM in China.

  • Warner, Malcolm. Understanding Management in China: Past, Present and Future. London: Routledge, 2014.

    A generalist overview rather than a specialist monograph that is intended by the author to provide entry-level knowledge for those who are not familiar with the topic. It is a reflective account with empirical data that charts the length of China’s experience as well as the depth and breadth of the role of management in the development of modern China. It covers economy, culture, HRM and employment relations topics.

  • Warner, Malcolm, ed. Human Resource Management “with Chinese Characteristics.” London: Routledge, 2009.

    An edited volume that consists of a number of stand-alone chapters on a diverse range of topics related to HRM in China “with Chinese characteristics”—a phrase used to refer to the specific cultural, institutional, and social settings in which such management structures and processes are to be found in China.

  • Warner, Malcolm, and Keith Goodall, eds. Management Training and Development in China. London: Routledge, 2010.

    A comprehensive account of management training and development in China, contributed by internationally known scholars from a wide range of countries. Examines the Chinese response to the challenges of management training and development. Considers the development of business schools in China and the impact of foreign partnerships on their operation.

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