In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor and Labor Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Labor Process, Factory Regime
  • Labor Relations and Class Politics
  • Labor Conflicts and Labor Unrest
  • Labor Unions and Conflict Resolution
  • State Control and Labor
  • State and Labor NGOs
  • Digitalizing Labor and Platform Work
  • Gender

Chinese Studies Labor and Labor Relations
Pun Ngai, Kaxton Siu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0196


In the role of “the world’s factory,” China has been exporting its manufacturing products for four decades. Globally, Chinese products have been filling up the shelves of supermarkets and shopping arcades. An adequate understanding of the changing conditions and agencies of the subjects producing these products—Chinese labor—is necessary to comprehend the most dramatic and compressed socioeconomic and political transformation in the past half-century. This bibliography includes journal articles and monographs, examining the swift transformation of Chinese labor and labor relations since the economic reform in the early 1980s. Topics include labor process, factory regimes, class politics, labor unrest, relationships among the state, labor and labor NGOs, gender, and the newest form of labor in the Chinese economy—digital labor and platform work.

General Overviews

This section includes a collection of major works from the leading scholars of Chinese labor. These books and papers review important historical trends of Chinese labor over the past decades and provide insights into general and key issues in this field. Andreas 2019 provides a broad look on how market reform in China created numerous “laid-off” workers from the state-owned enterprises and the change in industrial citizenship. Chan 2001 depicted how the violations to labor rights became a visible issue in the 1990s. Alongside the decline of the old social contract, the spotlight gradually shifted to the young migrant workers exploited by transnational capital in the export-led development. The researches done by Friedman and Lee 2010 and Friedman 2014 show how the state tried to contain the growing labor unrest of these migrant workers by legalization and institutionalization. Given the transformation of the political economy, new research focuses emerged, such as informal employment by Kuruvilla, et al. 2011 and Pun 2016, monopoly capital as represented by Foxconn by Pun 2016 and Qiu 2017, and changing work and living conditions of migrant workers by Unger and Siu 2019. This section includes a study of workers in Tiananmen protests, Walder and Gong 1993, and a yearly report on China labor relations by Qiao 2019 that can provide insights to updated labor issues.

  • Andreas, Joel. Disenfranchised: The Rise and Fall of Industrial Citizenship in China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190052607.001.0001

    This book offers a detailed account of the rise and fall of industrial citizenship in China since 1949. Industrial citizenship means recognizing workers as legitimate stakeholders and enabling them to participate in decision making. The author narrates the change from the “participatory paternalism” in Maoist China to the “market despotism” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaving the state sector workforce widely unemployed and “disenfranchised” from industrial citizenship.

  • Chan, Anita. China’s Workers under Assault: Exploitation and Abuse in a Globalising Economy. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

    This book is a pioneering study of the violation of labor rights in the market reform of China, providing rich case studies in a variety of settings, including state enterprises, urban collectives, township and village enterprises, domestic private enterprises, and foreign funded enterprises. The book is organized according to the violations of different types of labor rights, such as occupational safety and the right to organize.

  • Friedman, Eli. Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7591/9780801470516

    Drawing upon a Polanyian theoretical framework of countermovement, this book argues that while leaders at the center and in some provinces and municipalities intended to respond to the rising labor insurgency with concessions, the state could not institutionalize the countermovement labor demands because of the strong alliance of local state and capital and the “appropriated representation” of the official trade unions that did not really represent the workers. This book offers a theoretically innovative analysis of labor politics in China.

  • Friedman, Eli, and Ching Kwan Lee. “Remaking the World of Chinese Labour: A 30‐Year Retrospective.” British Journal of Industrial Relations 48.3 (2010): 507–533.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2010.00814.x

    This paper reviews the working-class politics in China by focusing on the two key processes: commodification and casualization. The authors argue that (1) these processes have resulted in the destruction of security enjoyed by workers in the planned economy, producing significant but localized resistance; (2) the state attempted to contain labor resistance through a legal framework; (3) the imbalance of power at the point of production presents an obstacle to the Chinese state as it departs from an export-led development model.

  • Kuruvilla, Sarosh, Ching Kwan Lee, and Mary E. Gallagher, eds. From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    This edited volume focuses on a key issue in labor studies: informalization. A large proportion of Chinese labor is estimated to be informally employed. The articles in this collection analyze this issue by examining the responses to this trend from the state, capital, and workers. It includes (1) discussion on the state’s policies such as the 2008 Labor Contract Law and pension policy, (2) case studies of various industries, and (3) analysis of the relationship between informal workers and unions/NGOs.

  • Pun, Ngai. Migrant Labor in China. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016.

    This book is an updated synthesis of several huge research projects by the author and her colleagues, based on extensive in-depth interviews and ethnographic fieldwork conducted over several years. Drawing upon a Marxist framework of class analysis, it attempts to make sense of the formation of the Chinese working class from the first generation of migrant workers to the second, covering the struggle of informal construction workers, a dormitory labor regime, monopoly capital, and the radicalization of collective labor action.

  • Qiao, Jian. Report of China Labour Relations 2019 [中国劳动关系报告(2019)]. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2019.

    The report addresses a wide range of issues regarding labor relations under the rapidly changing state, market, and civil society background. Apart from providing a historical overview of the changing labor relations brought about by the economic reforms in the 1980s and rapid urbanization, it also discusses updated issues such as labor conditions regarding the Belt and Road Initiative, the emerging platform economy in China, and the “China–United States trade war.” In Chinese.

  • Qiu, Jack Linchuan. Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

    This book provides a critique of the alienating consequences of digital capitalism. Foxconn, a major manufacturer of Apple devices worldwide, is one of the largest employers in Mainland China. Mostly focusing on Foxconn and drawing upon interviews and news analysis, the author examines how corporations and governments collude to build systems of domination and exploitation of workers, whose production feeds the world’s addiction to iPhones and other commodities. The narrative includes bold parallels with the history of the slave trade, suggesting that technological development does not necessarily lead to progress in human conditions.

  • Unger, Jonathan, and Kaxton Siu. “Chinese Migrant Factory Workers across Four Decades: Shifts in Work Conditions, Urbanization, and Family Strategies.” Labor History 60.6 (2019): 765–778.

    DOI: 10.1080/0023656X.2019.1645313

    The authors show that, unlike the migrant workers in the early 2000s, many of the migrant workers now are older, married, and have children, and would like to settle permanently near their workplace with their families, despite obstacles, such as the difficulty in obtaining an affordable urban education for their children. The authors argue that more Chinese migrant workers may choose the option of “voice” in the face of labor disputes rather than the regular “exit” option, given their new conditions and tendencies.

  • Walder, Andrew G., and Xiaoxia Gong. “Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation.” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 29 (1993): 1–29.

    DOI: 10.2307/2949950

    This paper tells the historical stories of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation in the Tiananmen protests. The workers’ organization is one of the most important episodes of contentious politics in China’s modern history. The authors narrate its development and activities as an organization and highlight its distinctive political mentality: a populist, anti-elitist mentality.

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