POLI 422 - Cai: The Resistance of Chinese Laid-Off Workers in the Reform Period
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Cai – The Resistance of Chinese Laid-Off Workers in the Reform Period
One outcome of Dengist economic reforms has been labour unrest.
Why has collective action repeatedly occurred in a still authoritarian regime?
(Remember that Chinese workers lack independent trade unions.) When are
workers likely to take action?
Argument: workers' action is a result of two interactions: 1) between workers and
the government, and 2) between workers themselves
Collective action likely to occur when workers expected to succeed.
Workers should be able to co-ordinate; this is likely when mechanisms that allow for
mobilization are possible.
Worker resistance did not stop reform because they mainly targeted small SOEs
rather than larger ones, which made it difficult to take forceful action.
Collective action in China “consists mainly of a formal presentation of grievances
and demands by workers... protests and demonstrations” (2). The target is
frequently local rather than central government. Local governments are constrained
in their ability to wield force; this provides opportunities to the workers.
Opportunities for Action: Constraints on the Local Government
Unemployment insurance system was not adequate for SOE reform. A significant
number of workers have been disadvantaged. Yet, not all workers dissatisfied with
reform have acted -> reform cannot be the sole motivation for collective action.
Because SOEs lack ability to solve problems faced by LOWs (Laid-Off Workers),
LOWs typically target local governments; they usually only succeed when the
government faces constraints and must make concessions.
The constraint is this: local governments cannot repress citizens at will so long as
their demands are legitimate and their action is peaceful. This is because the
hierarchical structure of the Chinese political system would allow petitioners to go
above local governments in the case of abuse, and the local governments would
subsequently be punished. As a result, local governments may be pushed to make
Since the reform period, central government has adopted a policy of holding top
local officials responsible for social instability.
However, if the local government believes the protests are a political threat then it
can easily resort to repression (June 4th; Falun Gong, etc.)