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Between the State and Labour: The Conflict of Chinese Trade Unions' Double Identity in

Market Reform
Author(s): Feng Chen
Source: The China Quarterly, No. 176 (Dec., 2003), pp. 1006-1028
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and African Studies
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Between the State and Labour: The Conflict
of Chinese Trade Unions' Double Identity in
Market Reform*

Feng Chen

Abstract Chinese official union's reactions to labour contentions can be explained

by its double institutional identity as both a state apparatus and the labour organiza
tion. Before the reform, the union did not confront tense conflicts between its double

identity, as
its representation function was absorbed
by the paternalist state. As the
state retreats from socialist paternalism, the union finds that its double identity
becomes contradictory. What role the union is apt to play in any particular dispute
issue is determined by whether and to what extent its double institutional identity is
in conflict. Specifically, three patterns of the union's roles can be identified:

representing, mediating and pre-empting. State corporatism remains the fundamental

institutional parameter that shapes the union's behaviour. A combination of state

corporatism binding the union and rampant capitalist assaults on workers tends either
to produce more spontaneous protests or to force workers to seek independent
organizing outside the ACFTU framework.

Market reform since the 1980s has fundamentally changed China's

industrial relations. It has given rise to tensions between labour and the
state on the one hand, and between labour and management on the other,
as it has taken away state workers' rights under the old system, and has
subjected workers in all types of enterprise (state, collective, private and
foreign) to independent but often arbitrary managerial power. Labour
rights are eroded and in fact ruthlessly violated from factory to factory.1
As a result, labour disputes and unrest have become widespread. Accord
ing to an official estimate, each year during the period 1992-97, about 2
million people were involved in labour disputes individually and 1.26
million collectively.2
In this intensified industrial conflict, what role has the Chinese official
trade union - the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)
played? Is it able to represent and defend workers' interests? To answer
these questions, the focus should be on state-union relations rather than
on union-management relations. In an emerging capitalist economy,
labour's adversary is management, but the extent to which and the means
by which unions can represent labour to counter management are deci
sively defined and circumscribed by the state. Indeed, it is the state that

* For like to thank the Research Granta Council, Hong

generous financial support, Iwould
Kong and Faculty Research Grants at Hong Kong Baptist University. I am also grateful for
Chen Shengluo's research assistance.
1. See, for example, Anita Chan, China's Workers under Assault (Armonk, NY: M.E.
Sharpe, 2001).
2. Research Office, ACFTU, 1999, p. 40.

? The China Quarterly, 2003

Between the State and Labour

makes rules specifying who can do what to whom.3 State-union relations

are thus central to any assessment of union power vis-?-vis managerial

power, as well as to an understanding of unions' role in China's industrial

Sharply different views exist regarding China's state-union relations.
Critics regard the ACFTU as a pliable instrument of the state whose
priority is to serve the state's goals rather than labour interests.4 Trade
unions cannot object to state policies that are biased against workers, nor
can they mobilize workers against rights abuses by management as this
may disturb industrial peace, scare foreign investors and ultimately thwart
social stability. Another view sees some ongoing changes in the ACFTU,
particularly its local branches, arguing that trade unions have become
more representative of their memberships and more independent of state
control.5 The difference between these two views clearly lies in their
inclinations to locate trade unions in distinctive arenas - the state or
society. The first view emphasizes the trade union as a part of the state,
while the second tends to regard it as becoming the representative of a
social group.
Empirical data suggest a more complex situation than these two views.
About 20 years ago, scholars described unions in communist states in
terms of "classic dualism,"6 meaning that they had to perform a dual
function of acting on behalf of the nation's collective good while
protecting workers' rights and interests.7 This notion is still useful for
characterizing the ACFTU's current position in Chinese politics. The
ACFTU can be viewed as an organization that is situated in both the state
and society, and has a double institutional identity of being a state
instrument and a labour organization in new industrial relations. How
ever, while earlier studies recognized the inherent contradictions embod
ied in "classic dualism," they could not anticipate tensions between the
two sets of functions that arise only as the state begins to pursue
market-driven reform. Indeed, under the old system, the ACFTU seldom
confronted such tensions since its representation function was actually
absorbed by the paternalist state. Market reform has changed state-labour
relations. As the state retreats from socialist paternalism, sacrificing
workers' interests for the sake of restructuring the economic system, the

3. Frances Fox Pi ven and Richard Cloward, "Power repertories and globalization,"
Politics & Society, Vol. 28, No. 3 (September 2000), p. 416.
4. The most critical views can be found in China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based
dissent labour publication.
5. For example, Yunqiu Zhang, "From state corporatism to social representation," in
Timothy Brook and Michael Frolic (eds.), Civil Society in China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe,
1997), pp. 124-25.
6. Alex Pravda and Blair Ruble, "Communist trade unions: varieties of dualism," inAlex
Pravda and Blair Ruble (eds.), Trade Unions in Communist States (Boston: Allen & Unwin,
1986), pp. 1-22.
7. Anita Chan, "Revolution or corporatism? Workers and trade unions in post-Mao
China," in David Goodman and Beverley Hooper (eds.), China's Quiet Revolution:
New Interaction between State and Society (New York: Longman Cheshire, 1994),
pp. 162-193.
The China Quarterly

ACFTU that its double

finds identity, or dual function, is becoming
increasingly contradictory. Some studies have noticed the dilemma for
trade unions caused by the tension inherent in this double identity during
the reform,8 while others point out unions' need of "reorientation" in the
new economic relations.9 However, how Chinese unions have actually
responded to this institutional dilemma is not well addressed.
This article seeks to answer several questions. In labour disputes,
under what circumstances are state-controlled unions (referring to
branches of the ACFTU at various levels) able to perform functions of
labour representation, and what makes them do so? To what extent, in
other words, do unions in China reflect "society"? When do unions act
like a union and when do they act as a state apparatus, and why? When
and how do unions manoeuvre around and balance their twofold func
tions? I would argue that the role unions are apt to play in any particular
dispute issue or on any occasion is determined by whether and to what
extent their double institutional identity is in conflict. In some areas,
unions find parity between their two identities as well as institutional
space for their representative role. In other areas, tensions between the
two aspects of their identity restrict the space for their representative role
and force them to act on behalf of the state, though in some limited way
they may be able to exploit the duality of their institutional identity for
the benefit of workers. Yet in other areas, acting as a state apparatus is
unions' only choice. Thus, regarding unions' responses to labour con
tention, three patterns can be identified: representing, mediating and
This study first analyses the institutional parameters that cause tension
between the two aspects of the ACFTU's identity. It then explores how
its branches handle the internal tension of the union's double identity by
examining their responses to three contentious circumstances in industrial
conflict: legal contention, collective action and independent organizing. It
shows that unions are less hesitant and sometimes quite active to rep
resent individual workers and even worker collectives in labour disputes,
as long as their claims are made through state-sanctioned channels. When
worker discontent bursts into spontaneous collective action, however,
unions usually avoid representing, opting instead for mediation. Finally,
if workers choose to form their own organizations independent of official
unions, the latter would firmly adhere to the state's position and spare no
effort to forestall, co-opt or prevent them. The article concludes by
discussing the implications of the tensions between the two faces of
unions' identity for China's labour politics.

8. See Gordon White, Jude Howell and Shang Xiaoyuan, In Search of Civil Society:
Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), ch.
3; Jude Howell, "Trade unions in China: the challenge of foreign capital," in Greg O'Leary
(ed.), Adjusting to Capitalism: Chinese Workers and the State (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe,
1998), pp. 150-171 ;"Looking beyond incorporation: Chinese trade unions in the reform era,"
Modes en D?veloppement, No. 25 (1997), pp. 73-90.
9. Ng Sek Hong and Malcolm Warner, China's Trade Unions and Management (New
York: St. Martin Press, 1998), p. 7.
Between the State and Labour

Changes and Continuities: State Corporatism and State-Labour


China's state-union relations are often examined from the perspective

of state corporatism. This refers to a form of institutional arrangement in
which "corporations" are "created by and kept as auxiliary and dependent
organs of the state."10 Under this type of institutional arrangement, the
state defines terms and conditions for its engagement with social groups.11
"Representative organizations" serve the state's goals and function to
pre-empt any horizontal coalescing of class interests.12 As China's sole
legal union organization with its numerous branches in provinces, munic
ipalities, counties, districts, industrial sectors and enterprises, the ACFTU
is such a state-corporatist institution used by the state to exercise control
over industrial workers. Trade unions under a state-corporatist structure
were formally assigned a dualistic function of implementing state indus
trial policies and protecting workers' interests. Practically, however, state
corporatism in China is effectively biased against unions' representative
and defence role. It was assumed that in a socialist society, where labour
was no longer pitted against capital and workers were presumably
represented by the "worker's state," unions' original purpose of repre
senting and defending labour interests was essentially redundant and even
However, if the state incapacitated unions' representative function, it
had to accommodate labour interests through some other institutional
arrangements. State corporatism, after all, does not totally rely on co
ercion. China's corporatist state reduced pressure for representation by
instituting a paternalist labour regime that obviated the need for union
representation since it intertwined, confused and compromised represen
tation of the state, of management and of labour interests.13 Specifically,
the paternalist labour regime guaranteed workers' fundamental economic
interests - work, social security and health care - which became available
to workers inmost industrialized countries only through protracted labour
movements in history.14 Indeed, in a state that embodied workers' aspira
tions and ensured their well being, unions seemed to lose their class
constituency and hence representative role. Such a labour regime was the
key to the maintenance of pre-reform industrial order, though it did not
prevent workplace tensions.15

10. Philippe Schmitter, "Still the century of corporatism?" in Philippe Schmitter and
Gerhard Lehmbruch (eds.), Towards Corporatism Intermediation (London: Sage, 1986),
pp. 7-52.
11. Richard Baum and Alexei Shevchenko, "The 'state of the state'," inMerle Goldman
and Roderick MacFarquhar (eds.), The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reform (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 348.
12. Daniel Chirot "The corporatist model and socialism," Theory and Society, No. 9
(1980), pp. 363-381.
13. Greg O'Leary, "The making of the Chinese working class," in O'Leary, Adjusting to
Capitalism, p. 52.
14. Gosta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1990).
15. Workplace tensions under that system were instead linked to state policies that led to
divisions between activist and non-activist, skilled and unskilled, permanent and temporary,
1010 The China Quarterly

Nevertheless, with the disintegration of the paternalist labour regime

during reform, as well as industrial restructuring that fast differentiates
the interests of the state, labour and management, the old structure of
state corporatism has become strained. One major sign is that the inherent
tension between the ACFTU's dualistic function has become open,
intensified and, indeed, has gained a new meaning. This new tension has
stemmed from two related changes that disadvantage workers. First,
through measures ranging from "smashing the iron bowl," "the labour
contract system" and "the reform of three systems" (employment, wages
and insurance), to the most recent wave of lay-offs, the state took away
much of state workers' entitlement, which is now regarded as incongru
ous with and actually obstructive to a market economy that the state has
desired to establish. By doing so, the state has effectively dismantled the
paternalist labour regime and withdrawn from its "patronage" role in
relation to the working class.
Secondly, capitalist development pursued by the state has created an
"antithesis" to workers. This process two dimensions.
has First, the
reform of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) has differentiated the interests
of labour and management, producing antagonism between them. Reform
policies, such as the industrial contracting system, the separation of
ownership and management rights, the labour contract system, and the
shareholding system, have created quasi-capitalist labour relations in
SOEs by significantly enlarging managers' power and allowing them to
enforce the rule of the market with a heavy hand, often at the cost of
labour interests. Labour rights have been eroded, and those remaining are
increasingly hollow as workers lack the means to enforce them. Secondly,
accompanying the expansion of private economy and foreign investment
is a rapid growth of exploitative practices that victimize workers. Many
private and foreign owners fail to meet job-safety standards, ignore health
and safety codes and enforce overtime. These practices are frequently
ignored or even sanctioned by local governments that prioritize the
attraction of capital.
Both these changes have caused widespread labour disputes, which put
unions under pressure. Workers want unions to speak for them but are
dissatisfied with their performance. A national survey by the ACFTU in
1992 found that 56 per cent of the respondents believed that unions had
failed to function. In a 1997 survey by the same organization, 53 per cent
of workers still gave a low evaluation of unions' role. Some local surveys
registered similar results from an even higher percentage of respondents.
For example, a 1995 survey in Tianjin found that about 80 per cent of
workers were unsatisfied with unions' performance.

footnote continued

or local and migrant workers. These policies fragmented the shop-floor workforce and
frustrated one group or another. See Andrew W?lder, Communist Neo-traditionalism: Work
and Authority in Chinese Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); and
Elizabeth Perry, "Labor's battle for political space: the role of worker associations in
contemporary China," in Deborah Davis et al. (eds.), Urban Spaces in Contemporary China
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 302-325.
Between the State and Labour

Under the pressure coming from below, the voice within the ACFTU
that calls for representation is growing. "Without representative and
defence functions," as one top ACFTU official explicitly claimed, "the
existence of the union is unnecessary."16 Union cadres from the ACFTU
to its subsidiary branches have shown their desire to perform these
functions.17 "We owe workers so much. If we do not represent them, what
use does the union have?" said one union official in Shanghai.18 Gongyun
yanjiu (Labour Movement Research), an ACFTU journal, now publishes
more and more articles by union cadres and labour researchers that
openly express their frustration and dissatisfaction with the current state
of trade unions. They criticize unions' role as "ambiguous" and their
status as "dependent," and complain that unions' rights stipulated in the
Trade Union Law are "unenforceable" and "amount to nothing." Some
even imply that the socio-economic basis for officially run unions (guan
ban gonghui) no longer exists with the abandonment of a planned
economy, and call for "a redefinition of unions' status and role" in the
On the part of the state, maintaining industrial peace has been a
profound challenge during economic transition. In order to mitigate the
impact of marketization on labour relations and manage intensified
industrial conflict, the state adjusted the old state-corporatist structure in
which trade unions had largely been irrelevant, and opened up some legal
and institutional space for unions' role in labour disputes. The Trade
Union Law introduced in 1992 and amended in 2001 and the Labour Law
introduced in 1994, for instance, are major forms of legislation that, at
least formally, provide unions with legal bases to defend workers'
interests. Governmental regulations on collective contracts and the settle
ment of labour disputes give unions a legitimate niche in tripartite
interactions. Trade unions at different levels and in different industrial
sectors are to a into
incorporated, varying degree, policy processes
involving labour affairs. Unions benefit from these limited structural
readjustments of state corporatism that legitimize "contained con
tention,"20 allowing them to represent workers within officially recog
nized processes of making claims and legally prescribed grievance
However, while both changed industrial relations and the readjustment
of state corporatism helped develop unions' autonomous voice and

16. Zhang Junjiu, "Gonghui yao zai guoqi gaige zhong shixian wu tupo yi jiaqiang" ("The
trade union should realize 'five breakthroughs' and 'one enhancement' in the reform of
SOEs"), in Gonghui ruhe canyu guoqi gaige (How the Unions Participate in the Reform of
SOEs), Gongyun ziliao bianqi bu (the editorial department of "Labour Movement Reference
Materials"), 1999, p. 183.
17. I interviewed a number of union cadres from ACFTU and
provinces, municipalities
enterprises in 1998, 1999 and 2000, and got such an impression.
18. Interview, January 2000.
19. An Zhili, "Guanyu gonghui shehui diwei de jidian sikao" ("Some reflections on the
social status of trade unions"), Gongyun yanjiu (Labour Movement Research), No.2 (January
1996), pp. 7-10.
20. Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 30.
The China Quarterly

enhance their institutional identity, the state-corporatist structure contin

ues to constitute a decisive constraint on unions' claims, options and
strategies in their representation efforts. Organizationally, unions remain
subjugated to state dominance and their cadres are still state nomenklat
ura. Thus, unions' representative role cannot be at odds with state policy
and priorities. Although unions may be able to stand for workers in some
specific cases of dispute, they cannot resist or challenge the state's labour
and industrial policies that have adverse effects on workers. Instead, they
are expected to accommodate workers to the state's development strat
egy. In terms of the strategy they adopt in industrial conflicts, unions are
confined to certain limited avenues sanctioned by the state and are
prohibited from organizing or mobilizing workers against management,
even if the latter commit rights violations. While unions may be sympath
etic about workers' claims regarding their rights, they are restrained from
representing the workers once these claims turn into collective action.
What unions are expected to do is placate discontented workers and
prevent or defuse any confrontational labour action. They are also
responsible for putting off or pre-empting independent unionism, in the
form of either the official unions' deviation from state control or spon
taneous organizing from below. Just as the state cannot tolerate any
"collective alternatives," which could mean an opening up of "political
choice to isolated individuals,"21 independent unionism is perceived by
the state as politically destabilizing and even threatening to the regime.
This perception has obsessed political leaders since the Polish Solidarity
movement of the 1980s,22 and was heightened in the 1990s as the state
became more concerned with socio-political stability during the economic

Representing Workers in Legal Action

Since the reform, labour disputes have taken place between workers
and management over a wide range of issues, including contracts, wages,
benefits, pensions, unemployment compensation and working conditions.
To maintain industrial peace, the state has gone to some effort to
institutionalize conflict resolution through legislation and institutional
building. Several laws and regulations were introduced to lay down the
legal foundation of a national labour dispute arbitration system, which is
composed of some 3,000 labour dispute arbitration committees at county,
city and provincial levels.
The system creates mechanisms of "contained contention" and pro
vides institutionalized channels for dispute resolution. The purpose of
such state-sanctioned contention, however, is to channel discontent into
the confines of localized disputes and pre-empt labour agitation. On the
other hand, the new institution of conflict resolution has encouraged

21. Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1992), pp. 54-55.
22. Jeanne Wilson, "The Polish lesson: China and Poland 1980-1990," Studies in
Comparative Communism, Vol. 23, Nos. 3-4 (1990), pp. 259-280.
Between the State and Labour 1013

workers' "rightful resistance,"23 and supplied them with alternative ways

of redressing rights violations in workplaces. Indeed, most dispute cases
in the past few years have originated from complaints by workers. The
number of formally arbitrated disputes nation-wide for 1994, 1995, 1996
and 1997 were 19,098, 33,030, 48,121 and 52,000 respectively.24 The
number had reached 55,244 for the first half of 1999, a figure that
included about 4,000 collective disputes.25
Unions played an active role in handling labour disputes, as they were
mandated by the state to do in order to stabilize labour relations. The
Trade Union Law stipulates that official unions must participate in the
mediation of labour disputes that occur in the areas of their jurisdiction.
Specifically, as related governmental regulations go further, union repre
sentatives chair mediating committees in enterprises, and are members of
tripartite arbitration committees at county, city and provincial levels. In
principle, unions are supposed to act as a mediator between workers and
management rather than as a contender on behalf of workers when
handling cases of dispute. The ACFTU declares that its guiding principle
for all of its subsidiary organizations is "defusing contradictions,
strengthening unity, promoting production and stabilizing situations."26 In
practice, however, there is growing evidence that unions are willing to
confront management for the sake of workers so long as workers' claims
do not go beyond state-sanctioned procedures.
A common means employed by unions to intervene in labour disputes
on workers' behalf is legal contention, which is made possible under the
current legal framework of dispute resolution. The Trade Union Law
grants unions a legitimate niche in which they can "represent and defend
workers' lawful interests" (hefa quany?). The Labour Law, by codifying
"labour rights" and a wide range of protections for workers, helps unions
identify the cases where they could justifiably step in. To strengthen
unions' role in legal contention, the ACFTU issued "Trial Methods on
Unions' Participation in Labour Disputes Settlements" in 1995, which
stressed the necessity of unions' provision of legal assistance for wronged
workers, and called for the establishment of unions' own legal agencies
to represent them. The ACFTU established its own legal department and
by 1998, over 20 provincial, municipal and city unions had established
legal assistance centres. The data from the ACFTU show that in the past
decade, local unions intervened in 300,000 cases, in many of which they
represented workers in litigation.27

23. Kevin O'Brien, "Rightful resistance," World Politics, Vol. 49 (October 1996), pp. 32,
24. Research Office, ACFTU, Zhongguo zhigong zhuangkuang diaocha 1997 (Survey of
the Status of Chinese Staff and Workers in 1997) (Beijing: Xiyuan chubanshe, 1999), p. 111.
25. Qiao Jian, 1999-2000 nian: Shiji zhijiao de Zhongguo zhigong zhuangkuang (The
Status of Chinese Staff and Workers from the 20th to the 21st Century) (Beijing: Zhongguo
shehui chubanshe, 2000).
26. Research office, ACFTU, "Zhongguo gonghui wushinian de fazhan" ("The develop
ment of China's trade unions in 50 years), Gongyun yanjiu (Studies of Labour Movements),
Nos. 16-17 (August 1999), p. 37.
27. Ibid.
1014 The China Quarterly

Typical cases where unions step in are those involving individual

workers' disputes with management in which a violation of labour rights
is obvious. For example, a young worker from a chemical factory in
Kunming, Yunnan province was severely burned by sulphuric acid during
working hours in July 1992. Not only did the factory management refuse
to pay his medical fees, but it also sued him for damaging equipment and
demanded that he pay compensation of 40,000 yuan. The worker turned
to the municipal union of Kunming for help, which fought hard on his
behalf for more than two years until the factory withdrew the case and
agreed to pay him compensation of 120,000 yuan for industrial injury.28
In another case, a handicapped female worker in Shanghai received a note
from her employer in April 1997 asking her "to take a few days' break
and wait for a new job assignment." She was not called back during the
next two years, during which time she received no allowances for her
livelihood. After a fruitless attempt to get her job back, she turned to the
district arbitration committee, which, however, proved unhelpful. With
legal assistance from the municipal union, she then took the case to the
court, and, after two court appearances, she finally won back all her
wages and benefits, and secured a good retirement arrangement.29
The ACFTU sometimes directly intervenes in local cases in order to set
things right. In one high profile case, an electric instrument and meter
plant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, withheld the wages of two sisters
named Chen for four months from November 1992 to April 1993 as
"deposits." Upset with this situation, the Chen sisters decided to quit. The
plant filed a lawsuit against them, demanding 5,000 yuan in compensation
from each for "leaving the plant without authorization," and won the case
at a county court. Assisted by lawyers from the municipal union of
Ningbo, the Chen sisters appealed, but lost again. When they appealed for
the second time, the legal department of the ACFTU intervened. A letter
of opinion from that department was sent to the Supreme Court, request
ing that the case be re-tried. The Supreme Court suggested mediating the
dispute first, ordering the Provincial Supreme Court to try the case again
if the mediation failed. Under pressure from above, the plant gave up the
demand for compensation from the Chen sisters but refused to pay them
their wages that it had withheld. Staff from the ACFTU continued to
press the case until the two sisters received all back payments.30
Compared with the number of reports on unions' role in dispute cases
in which claimants are individual workers, cases where they represent
workers in collective disputes are limited. However, unions have not
completely evaded collective disputes, though they have been very
cautious when dealing with such cases, inclining to take on those brought
to them through official grievance procedures and/or in which managerial

28. Zhou Wanling, "Laodong zhengyi de yufang he chuli qude mingxian chengxiao" ("The
progress in preventing and settling labour disputes"), Gongyun yanjiu (Labour Movement
Studies), Nos. 16, 17 (August 1998), p. 37.
29. The case is from a circular published by the Legal Department of Shanghai Municipal
Union, 1999.
30. Zhou Wanling, "The progress in preventing and settling labour disputes," p. 37.
Between the State and Labour

malfeasance was
unmistakably against the Labour Law. In one case, a
state-owned watch factory in Shanghai collected funds from workers,
promising to return the money at 15 per cent interest in one year. But it
failed to keep its word and refused to pay back 500,000 yuan to 34
workers on the grounds of "poor operations." Disgruntled, the workers
lodged a collective complaint (jiti shangfang). The legal department of
the Shanghai Municipal Union took on the case and brought the factory
to court. When the factory ignored the court decision in favour of the
workers, the union pressed for coercive action from the court.31
In another case, a collective-owned brick factory in Liaoning trans
ferred its ownership rights to another collective enterprise, which, by
agreement, was to pay pensions for 213 retired workers for three years.
Later, the second enterprise contracted the factory out to an individual
who also accepted this condition. But he broke the agreement and
significantly reduced the amount of the retirees' pensions. Workers
lodged a complaint to county, municipal and provincial unions. Backed
by the provincial union, the county union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the
retirees against the contractor and won the case.32
The ACFTU has also intervened in collective disputes. In one case, 37
migrant workers in a small mine in Xinjiang were denied payments for
two years and filed complaints in vain. When the incident was exposed
in Workers' Daily, a vice-chairman of the ACFTU ordered the local
union to intervene. After tense negotiations between the union and the
"superior agency" of the mine, an arrangement was made to pay the
miners' outstanding wages.33
A large number of similar cases show that unions are less hesitant now,
and on some occasions are even very persistent, in pressing for dispute
cases, so long as claimants are individuals or the breach of workers'
rights is largely beyond question, and, in the meantime, their claims have
been made through official channels. In order to resolve such cases, legal
procedures need only be applied, just like with any other legal case.
Litigation outcomes are usually in favour of workers since the majority
of dispute cases result from rights abuses by management where the
workers are obvious victims. From unions' perspective, to be active or
even aggressive in such cases can enhance their image as worker repre
sentatives but will not risk causing political repercussions. Unions also
benefit from legal contention in terms of their organizational expansion
and public visibility. For example, the Shanghai Municipal Union estab
lished 30affiliated legal assistance centres in districts, counties and
industrial sectors, and recruited a number of legal staff. It solicited media
coverage of selected cases and the process of the trials, with the self
declared purpose of advocating "social justice" and carrying out "legal
education." By doing so, the union's role, as one official in charge
claimed, has become quite "well known" in society.34

31. Interview, Shanghai Municipal Union, 27 December 1999.

32. Gongren ribao (Workers' Daily), 17 January 1999.
33. Ibid.
34. Interview, Shanghai Municipal Union, 27 December 1999.
The China Quarterly

However, despite unions' growing assertiveness on behalf of workers,

their efforts are still too limited to combat widespread violation of
workers' rights. This is not only because there are too many cases yet to
be redressed, owing to workers' ignorance of their legal rights or their
timidity in bringing abuses to light,35 but also because workers are in an
unequal position in the dispute resolution process. To win a case, a
worker has to furnish evidence of abuse or breach of contract - an
extremely difficult task, especially as many workers do not possess a
copy of their contract and do not have access to documents of the
enterprise in which they work. This certainly discourages workers to
press their cases.

On the unions' part, they do not intervene in all cases and their legal
representation is selective in two senses. First, they are apt to take up
cases in which rights abuses are evident and indubitable. As one official
in the legal department of Shanghai General Trade Union acknowledges,
they only take up cases that they believe are "absolutely winnable" and
avoid those "complicated ones" for which the collection of evidence may
be difficult.36 Secondly, unions tend to choose to represent the claims of
individuals or a small number of workers, but avoid standing up for larger
groups of workers who take collective action against the encroachment of
their interests in industrial restructuring, such as management shake-up,
merger or bankruptcy of the enterprise. Representing workers in open
protests creates an image of organized action, which is politically risky
and, indeed, the last thing unions want to be part of. Organized action per
se, no matter what the reason for it, its basis and its targets, is taboo in
society, especially when such action is directed at the government.
Finally, unions' role in labour disputes has become particularly restric
ted because of widespread ineffectualness of their organizational cells in
enterprises. The state-corporatist structure defines an important feature of
unions in China: their influence stems not from organized labour but from
their institutional status in the state structure (this is indeed a paradoxical
phenomenon given that unions' relationship to the state constitutes a
fundamental on them as well). As a de facto
constraint part of the
structures level - the ACFTU
government, all union above the workplace
- are
and its provincial, municipal, district and industrial branches able,
to a varying degree, to intervene in or exert pressure on enterprises within
their jurisdictions in cases where rights abuses occur, and seek resolutions
in favour of workers. Enterprises cannot completely ignore them and
sometimes have to take them seriously, not because they represent the
power of organized labour but because they are from "above" and have
the mandate as well as the resources to pursue cases. Even local or
lower-level governments cannot turn a deaf ear to the opinions from the
ACFTU or higher-level unions (for example, county governments cannot
ignore what provincial unions say).37

35. Anita Chan and Robert Senser, "China's troubled workers," Foreign Affairs,
March/April 1997, p. 112.
36. Interview, Shanghai Municipal Union, 27 December 1999.
37. Interview, ACFTU, 15 June 2000.
Between the State and Labour 1017

However, although workplace unions are formally part of the ACFTU,

they are organizationally subordinated to management. This creates a
formidable obstacle to their representative function, resulting from time to
time in their silence and complicity in managerial violations of workers'
rights. If they are seen to be at odds with management and seek to redress
abuses, they could face retaliation and harassment from the enterprise, a
risk that cadres from unions above the enterprise level would not face.
Many such cases can even be found in the official media. For example,
the union chairman at an SOE in Xi'an opposed the manager's proposal
that workers who failed to buy shares in the enterprise be arranged for
xiagang (laid off). He was dismissed.38 The union chairman at another
SOE in Jinan, Shangdong province accused the manager of corruption and
extravagant spending of company funds for his private benefit that had
caused wage arrears for workers for months. He was removed from his
post by the management.39 In a third case, in a hotel at Qinhuangdao, the
union head (concurrently the vice-general manager) carried out his duties
by holding a meeting of staff representatives to discuss a controversial
housing issue, but without informing the general manager. Not only was
he dismissed from his post, but his work contract was also terminated.40
In other words, while unions above the workplace level can count on
their institutional status to intervene selectively in labour dispute cases,
workplace unions are considerably restricted in their effort to stand for
workers and check management as they are practically subjected to the
latter. Such effort, when made, relies on the commitment and courage of
individual unionists to seek justice. There are some reports of unionists in
enterprises fighting hard for workers' interests by appealing to government
agencies and courts, with the ordeals lasting for years.41 But these efforts
are just personal crusades against injustice rather than unions' organiza
tional actions. Whether they can succeed is largely contingent on the
mercy of those "superior agencies" (shangji bumeng) (including unions
above the workplace level and government organs) willing to step in.
In sum, legal contention is a "trouble-shooting" strategy that aims to
remedy rights abuses in the workplace on a case-by-case basis, rather than
to shape labour power capable of preventing or minimizing these abuses
in the first place. In fact, by treating rights abuses as, or converting them
into, legal issues, this union strategy evades deeper structural problems and
serves to prevent workers' complaints from being politicized.

Mediating: Unions in Worker Collective Action

In many places, labour disputes have compelled workers to take to the

streets. An official estimate, which could be conservative, indicates that
in 1995, labour-related demonstrations involved more than 1 million

38. Gongren ribao, 9 August 1999.

39. Ibid., 10 July 1999.
40. Gongren ribao, 17 January 1998.
41. See, for example, Gongren ribao, 1 July 1998, 24 April 2000, 8 August 2000 and 25
August 2000.
The China Quarterly

people in more than 30 cities.42 In 1998, the number

of workers partici
pating in such demonstrations reportedly leaped to 3.6 million.43 Of
course, workers' collective action under China's state corporatism by no
means reflects organized labour power. Most demonstrations are spon
taneous. Labour mobilization by unions is still inconceivable in China's
industrial conflicts.
However, workers' collective action often puts trade unions in an
awkward position. They cannot simply turn a deaf ear to workers'
demands, but nor can they openly support any contentious method of
making claims. However, it may be worth noting that the ACFTU did
seek to extend the unions' role into the domain of collective action by
calling for the legalization of the right to strike. This right was revoked
in the 1982 Constitution as it was perceived by the government to be
detrimental to stability and production.44 In 1988, when industrial conflict
increased, the ACFTU drafted a document entitled "Some Basic Ideas of
Union Reform" and submitted it to the Party leadership. Pointing out that
strikes actually occurred even without legal protection, the ACFTU
proposed in this document to legalize them in a new Trade Union Law,
expected to be on the legislative agenda in the next National People's
Congress, and even suggested some proactive roles for unions in such

When workers' are infringed and the matter cannot be resolved through the
just rights
channels of grass roots democracy, unions have the right to lead masses to expose
and report [rights abuses] and carry out various forms of legitimate struggle [hefa
douzheng] to defend workers' legitimate rights.

The phrase "various forms of legal struggle" implicitly encompasses

"strike." The proposal was brought to the CCP Secretariat for discussion,
and, not surprisingly, was denied for the reason that the legalization of
strikes could only induce more strikes.45 As a result, the Trade Union
Law, passed by the NPC in 1992 after over 40 revisions, stipulated that
there could be no such thing as the right to strike. This not only ruled out
collective action as a legitimate form of union strategy, but it also meant
that unions did not have a legal basis to support workers' spontaneous
collective action. Unions were actually expected by the state to forestall
any forms of collective action in the first place. In this sense, the
occurrence of workers' collective action becomes an indicator of, among
other things, unions' inability to channel worker discontent within the
state-sanctioned framework, as well as to restrain workers' behaviour.
Since collective action is the most unequivocal expression of labour

42. FBIS-CHI-96-007, 18 April 1996.

43. South China Morning Post, 26 March 1999.
44. Zhang Youyu, "Guanyu xiugai xianfa de jige wenti" ("Several issues on the revision
of the constitution"), in Zhang Youyu, Xianfa wenji (Collected Works on the Constitution)

(Beijing: Qunzhong chubanshe, 1982), p. 14.

45. The above account is based on Chen Ji's work, Gaige zhong de gonghui he gonghui
de gaige (Trade Unions in Reform and the Reform of Trade Unions) (Beijing: Zhongguo
gongren chubanshe, 1999), pp. 142-43. Chen Ji was the former Director of Research Office,
Between the State and Labour

demand on the one hand, but is detested by the state on the other, unions
become sandwiched in between. But they are compelled to comply with
the state's priorities first. Thus, in the event of workers' collective action,
the unions' duty is, "together with enterprise administrations, to resolve,
through consultation, reasonable and resolvable demands from workers,
end incidents, and restore production as soon as possible."46 Unions'
priority, in other words, is to defuse protest situations rather than to
represent protesting workers. This orientation was clearly expressed by
Ni Zhifu, the former chairman of the ACFTU in his conversation with a
top Party leader. When asked by the leader "what will you do as a Party
member if there is a strike?" Ni replied that "I will keep to the stand of
the Party to persuade the masses."47
Thus, persuading workers to withdraw from the streets should be the
unions' ultimate goal in a protest incident. My investigations, as well as
some reports, show that the heads of unions are often the first to appear
at the protest site, attempting to sway workers and get them to leave.
Indeed, the government usually mandates them to do so. When workers
refuse to leave, unions often bustle about between local government and
the workers, passing on the workers' demands to the government, and
then informing the workers of the official stance. Such a process clearly
highlights unions' baffling role in China's state-corporatist structure.
Below is a description of a case I came across in 1998.
One day in August 1997, a number of angry workers from a factory
(which I will refer to as WCT for the sake of anonymity) in Luoyang city,
Henan province, marched to the municipal government to protest against
a power cut in the factory housing compounds, deliberately caused by the
local electric supply department after WCT had failed to pay its bill for
months as a result of financial difficulties.48 Privately, the head of the
factory's union showed her support to the workers and promised to speak
for them. When they forced their way into the government compound,
they found that they were simply ignored nobody came out to listen to
their complaints. Unsure of what to do next, the workers phoned the
union head and asked her to come and give them advice. She refused,
telling the workers that it was "not convenient" for her to be present
unless she had permission from higher authorities (shangji lingdao).49
The union head obviously did not want to give the authorities any reason
to suspect that she was behind the protest incident.
In November 1997, hundreds of workers from the factory took to the
streets again, this time to protest against wage arrears and the manager's
corruption. As they blocked the street near the factory entrance and
paralysed traffic for hours, the municipal government became alarmed,
- the
sending three officials secretary-general of the municipal govern
ment and the heads of the city's public security and light industry bureaus
46. The Trade Union Law, art. 25.
47. Chen Ji, Trade Unions in Reform, p. 143.
48. For the causes of the protest incident atWCT, please see my article, "Subsistence crisis,
managerial corruption, and labor protest in China," The China Journal, No. 44 (July 2000),
pp. 41-63.
49. Interview with workers, August 1999.
The China Quarterly

- to the factory to find out what was going on. However, none of them
went to the scene to make direct contact with the workers even though the
workers strongly demanded to be given the chance of forming a dialogue
with the authorities. Instead, the head of the factory's union was called
upon to persuade the workers to leave. As the union head recalled:

As soon as I arrived at the scene, the workers gathered around me and asked me to
be their
representative to talk to the guanfang [the official side]. They pushed me to
the front in order to negotiate with the guanfang. That's why later it was misunder
stood that I was in command of this battle. I was the representative of the masses,
but I was also the guanfang representative because I had to transmit the higher
authorities' intention to the masses.

[Interviewer: Why didn't the municipal officials come out themselves? What was
their intention? What did you say to the masses?] What the leaders meant was that
workers should withdraw first and then [both sides] can negotiate over the conditions

[put forward by the workers]. But the workers' attitude was that of no negotiation,
no withdrawal. So I had to run back and forth between the workers and the
authorities .... I was in an awkward On the one hand, I had to defend the
workers' but on the other hand, I had also to defend the overall
legitimate rights,
interests of the country. Neither of these two "defences" could be abandoned. How
could I defend [both interests]? Mediating was the only thing I could do.50

If the union head did anything on the workers' behalf, it was that she
on their two demands to the - that livelihood
passed key government
allowance be immediately delivered and that the corrupt manager be
- in the sent a clear to
severely punished and, meantime, message the
authorities that unresponsiveness to workers' demands would only pro
tract the stalemate. On the other hand, she also warned workers not to
escalate the action by marching to one of the main roads in the city, as
some workers claimed that they would if the government failed to
respond to their demands by six o'clock in the afternoon. "If you block
that road,"51 she told the workers, "you will get the worst of it I bet the
police will arrest you for disrupting the public order and put you in
detention for 15 days." This warning, as she argued later in the interview,
"was totally in the workers' interests."52 The workers took her advice, but
refused to leave the street adjacent to the factory until the municipal
government finally accepted their demands after a ten-hour stalemate.
Indeed, as the above case shows, in their position of having to mediate
between the state and the workers, unions are quite confused about their
role and their relationships with both workers and the government. This
is vividly illustrated by the following dialogue that appeared in the
Chinese Labour Bulletin (the interview was conducted with a union cadre
after a labour protest)53:
Interviewer: Did the union try to persuade workers to leave on behalf of the

Cadre: No! How can we act on behalf of the government?

50. Interview, August 1999.

51. The road is the most important communication line that runs through the city east to
west. If blocked, traffic in the whole city would be paralysed.
52. Ibid.
53. = 1528.
Between the State and Labour 1021

Interviewer: Then did you represent the workers?

Cadre: The workers did not properly understand certain policies. We needed to

explain certain things to them.

Interviewer: So
you did persuade workers on behalf of the government, right?
Cadre: We explained some policies to the workers. As a union, we need to defend
the interests of the country as a whole, as well as the workers' interests.
Interviewer: What will you do if there is conflict between these interests?
Cadre: If there is conflict, we must defend the overall interests of the country.
Interviewer: You mean you won't defend the workers' interests?
Cadre: We will defend the workers' interests on the condition that we are to
the overall interests of the country.
Interviewer: What are you going to do now as the interests of the workers in this

factory are in conflict with the overall interests of the country?

Cadre: There is no conflict. [What the enterprise has done] is for the development of
the enterprise, as well as in the workers' interests.
Interviewer: If there is no conflict, why did the workers block the streets?
Cadre: They did not understand [the policies]. Haven't I explained this to you


However, since "defusing" is a process in which unions have some

discretion to try various means to see if they work, it gives unions limited
room to play a proactive role. Some unions attempt to speak for workers
by seeking to push the official limit on labour action. On 3 June 1996, one
state-owned molybdenum mine at Yangjiazhangzi, Liaoning province
was forced to close down because of financial difficulties.54 Over a
thousand angry workers were planning to demonstrate with banners
reading: "We want food! We want jobs!" Some workers proposed to
block a main road in the area. "Since our rice bowl has been broken, what
else have we to fear?" they shouted. Facing the imminent danger of over
a thousand workers pouring into the streets, the union of the mine was
called in to defuse the crisis. The union showed strong sympathy towards
the workers. It concluded that their demand for food was reasonable and
legitimate, and, therefore, their desire to hold a demonstration, so long as
itwas in keeping with official procedure, was justified. The union offered
to apply for the demonstration on the workers' behalf, and, in the
meantime, urged the workers not to take any action before the application
was approved. The union also suggested that the workers send represen
tatives to report their situation to the ACFTU and the General Company
of Nonferrous Metal, the mine's superior agency.
The way the union proposed to handle the crisis provoked criticism.
Some people asked: "How can a union apply for a demonstration? Isn't
this directed against the government?" "What kind of role is the union
really playing?" However, the mine's union won the support of its
superior, the municipal union, which put forward two explanations. First,
siding with the workers was critical in order to win their trust, and only
with their trust could the union persuade them to channel their discontent
into the official grievance procedure. Secondly, if the union did not speak

54. The following account is based on reports from Li Yonghai (ed.), Huludao zhi lu (The
Hulu Island Model) (Beijing: Zhongguo wenshi chubanshe, 1998), pp. 164-66, 290-92.
The China Quarterly

for the workers at that moment, the workers would have to find their own
mouthpiece. That would not only challenge the legitimacy of the official
union but could also change the "nature" of the incident. In other words,
the municipal union justified its support of the workers as being necessary
to defuse labour militancy and ensure its control over workers.
When the union reported its position to the municipal Party committee,
however, the latter rejected the idea of allowing the workers to demon
strate, fearing that this might further provoke workers' militancy and lead
to disorder. It called on the union to take a firm stand with the Party. On
the other hand, the Party committee approved the union's proposal to
send four representatives (led by the head of the mine's union) to the
ACFTU to lodge a complaint, a concession that gave the municipal and
mine's unions a chance to persuade the workers to give up the idea of
holding a demonstration. With the intervention of the ACFTU and the
General Company of Nonferrous Metal, the crisis finally ended with
some economic compensation being given to the workers.55
The awkward position that unions find themselves in during workers'
collective action reflects the state's unwillingness to allow organized
labour demonstration against either management or the state, even for
purely economic reasons. It is true that with the rapid increase in
spontaneous popular action in Chinese society, in the form of demonstra
tions, protests, collective complaints and so forth, the state has been
compelled to accept them as a component of a "normal society." How
ever, it is far from ready to see such forms of action as being organized
and as a way of articulating workers' interests.

Pre-empting Independent Organizing

If Chinese unions are capable of representing workers in legal battles
while having to manoeuvre between the government and workers who
take collective action, they never waver from a hard-line government
stance against workers' demand for independent organizing. The Chinese
state used to penetrate into every layer of society, leaving no space for
organized group interests. During the reform, some autonomous groups
emerged that have generated a scholarly debate on the prospect of
China's "civil society."56 However, the state still firmly prohibits the
independent organizing of unions. Rising to power through a strong
organization, the party-state has habitually perceived the independent
organizing of social classes as a threat to its regime. Indeed, the industrial
labour force was the most important social group that was co-opted into
the political structure through the formation of the ACFTU, as the CCP
established its urban-centred political power in 1949. By law, no union is
55. However, the crisis was only temporarily relieved. It exploded again four years later.
In late February 2000, the mine witnessed the worst labour unrest seen in China for several
after the mine declared and offered a
years. More than 20,000 people rioted bankruptcy
compensatory settlement that miners viewed as extremely unfair.
56. See, for example, Timothy Brook and Michael Frolic (eds.), Civil Society in China
(Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Gordon White, Jude Howell and Shang Xiaoyuan, In
Search of Civil Society.
Between the State and Labour

allowed to exist outside the ACFTU organizational structure. The

ACFTU is just an extended state power designed to place industrial
workers under control and pre-empt any alternative labour organizations.
The ACFTU and its actors have endeavoured to maintain this political
imperative defined by China's state corporatism and asserted their exclus
ive legitimacy by putting down any efforts towards independent organiz
ing. The case described below was briefly reported by Workers' Daily (on
29 February 2000) and led me to conduct my own investigation. In
October 1998, workers from a Taxi Company in Tongzhou district,
Beijing, launched a movement to form their own union. This company
used to be run by the district procuratorate. After the government
declared a ban on government agencies' engaging in business, the
procuratorate switched the company to the district Tourism Bureau, while
continuing to request some revenues from the company. Thus, the
company forced its drivers to turn over more fees than they would
normally have done. The drivers felt it was extremely unfair that they
were "skinned twice." Their defenceless position, they reasoned,
stemmed from the absence of a union in the company. As their demand
to form a union was ignored, the drivers chose a man named Dong Xin
as their representative to file a law suit against the company for violating
the Trade Union Law by depriving them of their right to organize.
However, the district court refused to accept the case on two grounds.
First, although organizing unions was the right of workers, it was not an
obligation of employers. So the latter's unresponsiveness to the workers'
claim did not constitute a violation of the workers' rights. Secondly, the
Trade Union Law provided no procedures for courts to enforce workers'
substantive rights stipulated in the same law.
The district union also categorically rejected the drivers' demand to
form a union on their own, stressing that organizing must be conducted
from to bottom rather than vice versa. union cadres
top Actually, eyed
Dong Xin with suspicion and thought that he might be a Walesa-like
figure stirring up the drivers. The District Tourism Bureau was prepared
to fire Dong. On the other hand, to pre-empt any independent organizing
effort, as well as to pacify the drivers, the district union decided to set up
an official union in the company, with its head being appointed. Dong,
though having just managed to keep his job, was excluded from the
leadership group of the newly established union that he had enthusiasti
cally advocated.57
Unions have also opposed and tried to prevent any attempt at indepen
dent organizing among some migrant workers in private and foreign
sectors, which the ACFTU has not yet effectively reached. Organizing is
attractive to some migrant workers as they need to find a sense of
solidarity, mutual help, communication, social networks and self
protection in an entirely new urban environment that is often unfriendly
and discriminatory to them. Nanfang zhoumo (Southern Weekend), a local
weekly paper that has gained national popularity, covered a story on 4

57. Personal communication with a labour researcher in Beijing, February 2001.

The China Quarterly

July 2002 on the association of migrant workers in Rui-an city, Zhejiang

province. An autonomous body, this association claimed to have multiple
functions, including "reflecting the will of migrant workers and defending
their interests." On 10 July 2002, another local newspaper, Nanfang dushi
bao (Southern Municipal Daily), ran an editorial openly encouraging
autonomous organizing by migrant workers. The very next day, however,
a formal statement by the General Trade Union of Guangdong province
appeared in this same newspaper, denouncing such autonomous organiz
ing as being against the law and declaring that any labour groups formed
outside the ACFTU framework were illegal. The provincial union's
response was not a surprise, as the ACFTU has a strong tendency to draw
analogies between any independent organizing and Polish Solidarity. As
early as 1995 in Shenzhen, a young woman from Hunan province
proposed the idea of establishing an association of employees (dagongzhe
xiehui), which would be a cross-enterprise group for migrant workers in
the area. When the news reached the ACFTU, the first reaction from one
high-ranking official was: "Isn't this Solidarity?"58
Despite its illegality, scattered independent organizing has emerged in
some areas where migrant workers concentrate. Their organizations take
various forms, such as an "association of fellow provincials or towns
men" (tongxianghui), a "brotherhood association" (xiongdihui), a
"friendship association" (lianyihui), a "labourers' association"
(laodongzhe xiehui), a "workers' welfare society" (gongren fulihui), an
"employees' club" (yuangong julebu) and so on. Although dissimilar to
unions in terms of their organizational formats and memberships, these
informal but cross-enterprise, -sector, and -regional organizations
(feizhengshi zuzhi),59 as they are called by Chinese academics, have
come, to some extent, to fill the organizational vacuum left by the
ACFTU's absence in the private sector and play certain roles normally
reserved for unions. For example, the protection of rights sought by
migrant workers has been the major motivation behind such efforts to
The scattered but growing trend of independent organizing is undoubt
edly one of the principal factors that have motivated the ACFTU to take
more aggressive pre-emptive action in private and foreign sectors. The
ACFTU issued two documents in 1995 and 1996 calling for the establish
ment of unions
in private and foreign-owned enterprises. Steps towards
this have accelerated in the past few years. The ACFTU even set a
numerical target, vowing that unions would be set up in 80 per cent of
what are called "newly established enterprises" (xinjian qiye), a general

58. Personal communication with a labour researcher in Guangzhou, February 2001.

59. Bai Ningxiang, "Gongren feizhenshi zuzhi: yige jixu zhengshi de shehui xianshi"
("Workers' informal organizations: a social phenomenon that is worthy of attention"), in
Haixia Hang 'an sandi laozi guanxi yu laogong zhengce (Labour Relations and Labour Policy
in the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan)(?[ong Kong: City University Press, 2001 ),
pp. 211-13.
60. See, for example, Zhongguo laogong guancha (China Labour Watch), Zhongguo
gongren de juwu zhengzai tigao (Chinese Workers Consciousness is Heightened), Duowei
News, 31 October 2000.
Between the State and Labour 1025

designation for non-publicly owned enterprises, by 2000. Following the

ACFTU's guideline, local unions have enforced a top-down strategy of
unionizing, with the aim of subjecting new unions to the ACFTU. Certain
official sources allege that unionization has been carried out in 80 to 90
per cent of private enterprises in some economically prosperous areas
since 1999.61 In Shenzhen, one of the strongholds in China for the private
and foreign-owned sectors, the municipal union managed to set up cells
in 3,000 enterprises in ten months in 2000, allegedly with 80,000
members being recruited.
It may be unfair to say that official unionizing cannot address any of
the concerns of workers. However, since it is a top-down strategy, it does
not rely on organizing and mobilizing from below. Instead, it focuses on
soliciting employers' concurrence in allowing unions in their enterprises.
As a result, it opens up ways for employers to manipulate the organizing
process and to control unions. One union head of a private enterprise in
Shenzhen, a manager in the personnel department, recalled that one day
he was called into his boss's office and, after a 30-minute talk, received
the new title of the head of the union. An announcement was then made
that a union was established and all one thousand or so workers,
willy-nilly, had become union members.62 An investigation conducted in
Tangshan city, Hebei province showed that 60-70 per cent of union heads
in enterprises are relatives of employers, and most of the rest were
appointed by the latter.63
In short, official unions act unmistakably as a state instrument when
with - the elimination or prevention of
dealing independent organizing
any deviant tendencies being their first priority, rather than the represen
tation of workers. As a labour scholar put it vividly, the official unions'
task is to "dismantle [independent] unions wherever they emerge, [and]
establish [official] unions wherever they are absent."64


The transition to the market economy has pressured the ACFTU to

stress its representational role. A certain amount of institutional space has
emerged for such a role, as the state needs unions to do more when it
comes to resolving labour disputes. Yet, unions remain a part of the state
apparatus and their role cannot be at odds with the interests of the state.
The tension between unions' double identity has forced them to balance
and manoeuvre carefully between the state and labour when coping with
labour contention. Depending on the extent of the tension, unions may
choose to represent, mediate or pre-empt in response to a particular
attempt by workers to make claims. In general, workers make two types
of demands, economic and organizational. Unions have spared no effort

61. Zhao Wei, Siying qiye gonghui gongzuo gailun (On Union Work in Private
Enterprises) (Beijing: Zhongguo jingji chubanshe, 1999), p. 95.
62. Zhongguo laogong guancha, 31 October 2000.
63. Ibid. p. 108.
64. Interview, May 2000.
The China Quarterly

to contain workers' organizational demands, which the state cannot

tolerate. How unions respond to economic demands depends not so much
on their content as on the ways in which they are made. Workers'
economic demands usually focus on legitimate compensations for their
losses caused by industrial restructuring or the abuse of managerial
power. As long as workers make these demands through official pro
cedures, unions are likely to provide support and assistance. However,
unions have refrained from standing up for workers when the latter make
similar economic demands in the form of collective action - something
the state sees as a threat to social stability.
It is important to note that even though unions come to support
workers' economic demands in certain selective ways, this by no means
suggests that they are capable of making claims directed at the state on
behalf of workers. So far, most workers' economic demands are personal
or enterprise-specific in nature, asking only for some minimal coverage
for subsistence. This may be natural, for it is difficult for the rank-and-file
workers to frame their claims beyond what they have personally experi
enced in the workplace. This is, however, where unions have failed as
they cannot link workers' conditions to larger policies that are biased
against the worker collective and seek to form labour power vis-?-vis
management. In redressing workers' grievances, unions have functioned
more as agencies of legal assistance or social work using a strategy of
problem solving on a case-by-case basis, than as labour organizations that
form, pursue, represent and defend workers' collective interests in a more
proactive way. In other words, unions' "representation" function in
industrial conflict is very similar to what some legislative scholars call
"service rather than or "allocation
responsiveness" policy responsive
ness."65 Responding to workers'
economic demands that are personal or
enterprise-specific has less risk of intensifying unions' double identity
and hence conflicting with the state.
As my findings show, while unions sometimes try to balance and
manoeuvre between labour and the state, they decisively tilt to the state
as their double identity is in obvious conflict. Indeed, institutional struc
tures of state corporatism that incorporate unions with the state apparatus
have preordained unions' options in a conflict situation. Thus, as in-
tensified industrial conflict increases the tension of unions' double ident
ity, the space for unions to manoeuvre tends to shrink. They either appear
more like a state instrument with the sole purpose of preventing or
stopping any labour action, or they simply disappear when conflicts
occur. Their "unrepresentativeness" and "unresponsiveness" have caused
backlashes among workers. For instance, angry workers in an enterprise
in Shanghai beat up a union cadre who came to the protest site in order
to scold them and tell them to leave.66 In a factory in Jiangsu province,
workers became so disappointed at the union's inaction in their protest

65. Heins Eulau and P.D.Karps, "The puzzle of representation: specifying components of
responsiveness," Legislative Studies Quarterly, No. 2 (August 1997), pp. 243^15.1 would like
to thank one of the reviewers who referred me to this article.
66. Investigation in Shanghai, July 2001.
Between the State and Labour

against a restructuring programme that they decided to set up their own

union.67 In many instances of labour action, unions have virtually been
abandoned by workers. As a protesting worker has remarked, "it is
useless to turn to unions" for support.68
The ACFTU has tried to strengthen its representing role in industrial
conflict. Its most recent effort was a push to have the Trade Union Law
amended so that it might give unions some more muscle when it comes
to representing labour. In addition to some revisions and new articles that
define "defending workers' legitimate rights as unions' fundamental and
only responsibility," and that make the Law more enforceable, a
significant amendment to Article 27 is that unions are allowed to rep
resent workers in the event of collective action in order to "talk things
out" (xieshang) with management.69 However, to what extent this article
can translate into some real power for unions remains to be seen.
It seems certain that the situation will continue in the years to come.
How big a representing role unions can play in industrial conflict is at the
mercy of the state. That is, it depends on how much political and
institutional space the state will give to unions in which to speak up and
stand up for workers. The state will not loosen its tight control over
unions for two reasons. The first is what I call "Solidarity-phobia,"
meaning that the Chinese state tends habitually to draw an analogy
between independent unionism and the Polish Solidarity movement, and
thus suspect its motivations. This fear is derived from the nature of the
traditional communist regime that perceives any organized activities
beyond its structure as subversive and threatening to the regime, and that
uses all means to suppress them. The second is related to China's
transformation into a developmental state, similar to those in East Asia in
the 1970s and 1980s, that seeks fast economic growth under authoritarian
control.70 Curbing labour is one of the most important dimensions of such
a state as it needs to please business interests and create an investment
climate for foreign capital. This dimension of the "developmental state"
is most clearly reflected in the practices of Chinese local states. There is
no shortage of evidence that local states often stand in the way of unions'
attempts to redress rights abuses in order to avoid upsetting business
interests, or are acquiescent when it comes to corporate violence against

67. China LabourWatch,, 15 December 2000.

68. Interview in Shanghai, July 2001.
Gongren ribao (Workers' Daily), 28 October 2001.
70. See, Frederic Deyo, Beneath the Miracle: Labor Subordination in New Asian
Industrialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); and "State and labor: modes
of political exclusion in East Asian development," in Frederic Deyo (ed.), The Political
Economy of the New Asian Industrialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987),
pp. 182-203.
71. Inmy fieldwork in Shanghai, a few union officials at the municipal and industrial sector
levels told me that when they took on rights violation cases in SOEs or foreign capital cases
and were fighting for workers' interests, they often faced pressure from some governmental
department (e.g. the Economic Commission), which demanded that they "stop before going
too far" (shike er zh?). They were warned that what they were doing could damage industrial
restructuring or the investment climate. I also learned from a labour researcher that in Fujian
province, an association of private business circulated a notice which said that any
1028 The China Quarterly

Thus, one should not expect that independent unionism will emerge
soon in China. This would require that unions be institutionally detached
from the state, a step that the state is far from ready to take. On the other
hand, in the light of the rapid and irreversible shift towards a capitalist
economy in which the conflict between labour and capital/management is
bound to intensify, continuing to subject unions to tight state control will
only emasculate them, alienate workers from them and deprive them of
legitimacy among their members. A combination of state corporatism that
binds unions and rampant violations of labour rights will only either
produce more spontaneous protests and militant unrest or force workers
to seek independent organizing outside the ACFTU framework. In terms
of restructuring state-union relations in the long term, an ideal scenario
would be the transformation of the present state corporatism, where
unions are a part of the state, into some sort of centralized societal
corporatism,72 where unions are partners of the state with an independent
status in a tripartite institutional arrangement. For that to happen, how
ever, the Chinese state must undergo significant political liberalization
and, ultimately, democratization. There is, therefore, still a long way to

footnote continued

"troublemaker" (naoshizhe) fired by one enterprise should not be hired by another. The notice
demanded that the enterprise that carried out the firing announce the name of the person fired
so that he or she would never be hired by enterprises that belonged to the association. The
local government did nothing to stop this practice.
72. Howard Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe,
1997), p. 73.