Beyond the Iron Rice Bowl
Beyond the Iron Rice Bowl
I . Socio-Economic Transformation, Industrial Relations and Regimes of Production in China
As China has become one of the largest manufacturing economies in the world, a better understanding of labor relations in key industries and factories in China is important . This is particularly true in the light of the ongoing reform of labor laws, the attempts by Chinese trade unions to expand their presence in multinational enterprises, and the social upheaval that has rocked key exporting industries in the wake of the global recession which began in 2008 . We have to understand why labor relations in China have proven remarkably stable in spite of the massive social changes during the recent two decades . But we also have to take a sharper look at the prospects and conditions for reforming trade unions, for labor organizing in the growing non-union sectors of the Chinese economy, for collective bargaining, and for democratic workplace representation .
Given this purpose, the conceptual framework of this report will be outlined in the following chapter . We start from theoretical reflections, linking and 'marrying' Chinese and Western perspectives on industrial relations research and establishing the general framework we use to interpret current labor relations in China . We then trace key tendencies of economic restructuring, determining the development of labor relations in the leading sectors of the Chinese exporting economy . Having established this background, we develop a typology of regimes of production, providing the basic framework for comparative studies of the regimes of production presented in the following three chapters .
1 . Changing Labor Relations - Conceptual Approaches and Perspectives
Debates on the reform of labor policies are a persistent topic among labor experts in China, although not highly publicized and mostly disregarded by Western media . These debates focus on the question of how to create tripartite mechanisms including management, trade unions and government, to ensure harmonious labor relations in an advancing industrial economy . Many aspects of these debates seem surprisingly familiar to Westerners . Chinese scholars often resort to concepts of tripartism, corporatism or social partnership as they developed following the birth of modern industrial relations systems during the New Deal period in the U .S . and Germany's seminal works council legislation in the early 1920s . Western-based academics have also used such concepts to analyze the current changes in Chinese labor relations
- sometimes coupled with the hope that labor systems rooted in European or Japanese coordinated market economies may promise a better future to Chinese workers than the market liberal U .S . model .
However, such an analysis has to deal with two basic difficulties . First, Chinese trade unions (as well as employers' organizations) mostly lack popular legitimacy and independence from government and capital . These are the basic conditions for representing workers' interests within tripartite systems of bargaining and policymaking . Second, and perhaps more important, the restructuring of labor relations in China is increasingly taking place under those Western and Japanese models of production and labor management-cooperation that have undermined the prevailing forms of collective representation, industry-wide bargaining and job security . That is, they have broken up the foundations of what was known as the post-War social contract in industrialized countries . In spite of the truly unique characteristics of China's transformation, globalized patterns of capitalist organization and control have raised some very familiar bread-and-butter problems of trade unionism and labor organizing .
Coverage of labor issues in Chinese mainstream media is dominated by neo-liberal rhetoric adopted from Western business schools . Yet the more s