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Against the Law

Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Against the Law
    Book Description:

    This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories,Against the Lawfinds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. Providing a broad political and economic analysis of this labor struggle together with fine-grained ethnographic detail, the book portrays the Chinese working class as workers' stories unfold in bankrupt state factories and global sweatshops, in crowded dormitories and remote villages, at street protests as well as in quiet disenchantment with the corrupt officialdom and the fledgling legal system.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94064-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    • 1 Chinese Workers’ Contentious Transition from State Socialism
      (pp. 3-33)

      For more than a week in mid-March 2002, tens of thousands of workers marched through the streets of Liaoyang, an old industrial town in China’s northeastern rustbelt. Some carried a huge portrait of the late Mao Zedong that was mounted on four shoulder poles and accented by a red ribbon knot fastened on the top of the frame. While some people passionately sang the “Internationale,” an old woman cried aloud, “Chairman Mao should not have died so soon!”¹ Fueled by simmering anger at the corrupt local government and pressed by economic difficulties after their state-owned enterprises went bankrupt, workers from...

    • 2 Stalled Reform: Between Social Contract and Legal Contract
      (pp. 34-66)

      The Chinese transition from state socialism has been analyzed in terms of the transformation in property regime, fiscal reform, enterprise governance, economic decentralization, and so on. To this list, this book contributes an additional element—the commodification of labor. Just as it was central to the advent of capitalism in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe, labor commodification is a constituent process of China’s turn to capitalism. Karl Marx famously pointed out that a most revolutionary change occasioned by the advent of capitalism is the rise of labor as an object for sale. Like other kinds of commodities, the human capacity to labor...


    • 3 The Unmaking of Mao’s Working Class in the Rustbelt
      (pp. 69-122)

      In his dilapidated apartment, with all windows shut and electricity cut off, fifty-year-old Zheng Wu sat on his bed as if the world had frozen in time. Gazing at an old television set and a clock that had long since stopped working, he was bitter and angry about his pitiful conditions after “having worked his entire life for the Revolution” as a factory hand in a rubber plant in Tieling, a medium-sized industrial city in Liaoning. Suffering from a chronic ulcer and arthritis, he had been released from work since 1991, and as his plant went downhill, he saw his...

    • 4 Life after Danwei: Surviving Enterprise Collapse
      (pp. 123-154)

      We saw in the last chapter the various kinds of protests workers staged to demand government action to solve their livelihood problems. But the puzzle remains: how did workers survive long periods of unemployment, wage arrears, and pension nonpayment? Alternatively put, why is there not more militant resistance, given the pervasiveness and severity of economic difficulties in the rustbelt as a whole?

      To answer these questions, this chapter depicts core features of workingclass life after the collapse of the socialist work unit. First, it explains the social reproduction of labor power, or the ways in which livelihood resources are found...


    • 5 The Making of New Labor in the Sunbelt
      (pp. 157-203)

      On the afternoon of May 9, 2002, the courtyard outside the Petition Department of the Shenzhen City Labor Bureau was crowded with young workers still in their blue uniforms, with factory identity cards pinned to their shirt pockets. They were ordinary workers and line leaders of a Hong Kong–owned electronics plant making hair dryers and toaster ovens for export to the United States. After the company announced a “wage reform” that substituted piece rates for hourly wages, workers walked out of the factory on May 7 and marched to the Labor Bureau in Nanshan district in Shenzhen to launch...

    • 6 Dagong as a Way of Life
      (pp. 204-232)

      Given the pernicious working conditions and the common problem of wage default affecting tens of millions of migrant workers in southern China, why has labor rebellion largely remained tame and nonmilitant? Are there other factors besides state repression that have contained the rebellion of the new generation of workers? On a more mundane level, how do workers survive during periods of unemployment and nonpayment of wages?

      This chapter answers these questions by examining migrant workers at the moment of the reproduction of labor power and consumption, to supplement the previous analysis of labor politics at the points of production and...


    • 7 Chinese Labor Politics in Comparative Perspective
      (pp. 235-262)

      The haunting parallels between these two depictions of working-class life, one in mid-nineteenth-century Manchester and the other in twenty-firstcentury China, underscore both capitalism’s historic global sprawl and workers’ common predicaments. In the world’s many rustbelts, too, workers’ experiences with unemployment and plant closure bear striking similarities. Whether it is the closing of a steel mill in the American Midwest in the 1980s or the bankruptcy of a state-owned textile factory in northeastern China in the 1990s, deindustrialization has inflicted similar collective injuries on blue-collar communities. Consider these two workers, worlds apart yet almost identical in their consternation and indignation.


  8. Methodological Appendix: Fieldwork in Two Provinces
    (pp. 263-266)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 267-296)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-314)
  11. Index
    (pp. 315-325)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 326-326)