Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book explores exploitation and injustice among migrant laborers in contemporary China. With a problematic rural sector and an expanding urban industrial one, many of China’s rural residents continue to migrate to cities for wage-labor opportunities. These migrants work in a variety of heavy and light industries as well as in the service sector. Due to their official status as temporary residents, they are over-exploited by urban employers, who take advantage of their immediate economic needs, their lack of formal political power, and their position as a stigmatized underclass. Pai’s book offers an engaging and readable account of what she calls this “scattered sand.”
The readability of the text reflects Pai’s extensive work as a freelance journalist. She has written for The Guardian, the UK Chinese Times, and the Southern Weekend (China’s premier progressive newspaper), among others. She clearly records her impressions of rural and urban areas, and interviews an interesting array of labor migrants. She travels informally and does not use journalistic credentials; people talk to her quite candidly, enabling her to navigate around issues of censorship. She uses her interviews with individual migrants as starting points for an overview of the problems facing migrant labor today.
The general outlines of these stories – employers and urbanites who take advantage of migrants by fining workers, paying a fraction of normal wages, refusing to pay overtime, and sometimes refusing any payment at all – are familiar and have been covered elsewhere (Solinger 1999). Other writers have covered the lack of sick leave, insurance, or retirement as well as the unsafe and hazardous workplaces of China’s new industry (Chan 2001). But Pai brings the continuing coverage of these injustices up to date, showing how the global recession and mass layoffs are affecting labor conditions, how capital is moving further inland and westward to find cheaper labor sources, and how ethnic minorities are increasingly becoming part of the migrant labor force. For example, she documents the important story of Shen Wei (a member of the Yi ethnic minority) and his struggles in the well known labor markets of Dongguan and Guangdong as well as in the lesser known inland market of Chengdu, Sichuan.
Pai identifies the conditions of these struggles with the lack of independent labor unions that might represent migrants and other workers, whether Han Chinese or ethnic minority. She blames this lack on the failures of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and on the ineffectiveness of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), neither of which she sees as representing the true interests of migrant workers. She argues that the government-affiliated union simply serves as an administrative arm of centralized economic planning, and hence of industry.
ACFTU is largely a ‘paper union’, playing a bureaucratic role and colluding with employers… The nomination of union representatives is based on negotiations between the trade union bureaucracy and the employing business, which jointly vote for the committee, who then elect a chairperson. Workers are left out of the entire process. (211)
The union thus has the contradictory role of symbolically representing workers while at the same time maintaining low wages and suppressing workers’ rights in the interest of industrial and economic growth. The Party’s orthodox view is that higher wages, overtime, and pensions – as well as improved workplaces – can only come through further development of industry’s productive forces.
Here the book makes an important contribution to documenting migrant workers’ spontaneous struggles for justice, outside the context of viable and/or independent labor unions. As she argues, many workers know they are exploited and find ways to struggle. Pai describes workers who seek better wages and working conditions through collective activism, spontaneous sit-ins, demonstrations and roadblocks, and informal strikes as well as petitions and arbitration. In this sense, being unorganized does not necessarily mean being “scattered.” Migrants share worker identities and do form protest groups, but their forms are not always well understood by outsiders, who view Chinese laborers as passive and docile.
The book could do a better job capturing the distinctive form of these often spontaneous labor struggles. Other books discuss these struggles with more depth, although they are more difficult for the general reader. For example, Ching Kwan Lee (1998, 2007) and Pun Ngai (2005) explore how female workers in factory dormitories created networks – new forms of intimacy and solidarity based on affiliations like provincial dialect or hometown – that can enable collective struggle. Pun Ngai argues that the Chinese dormitory system in which companies provide housing for employees allows a distinctive form of worker organization. These deeper texts, based on more extensive research, take us further into understanding the distinct experience of Chinese labor struggle today. Surely, the culturally specific acts of Chinese class struggle under the CCP and the ACFTU require further documentation, research, and analysis.
Finally, Pai’s book brings the reader head first into the contemporary dilemma among leftist thinkers in the West trying to analyze and understand the CCP. In Western journalism, the critique of socialist authoritarianism is commonplace. In both highlighting the injustices of the market economy and placing the blame on the undemocratic tendencies of the CCP, this book is as allied with socialist economics as it is with liberal politics. Pai sees the lack of individual rights, free speech and organization, rule of law, and ability to participate in electoral democracy as the central problem with Chinese socialism. In her view, liberalism, and not the continuation of social ownership via party/state control of the economy, is what can improve the conditions of labor – higher pay, legal protections, and better working environments – and lessen the disparities of the market economy. She de-emphasizes state control, social ownership, and ultimately, the communist goal of a future classless society, rather than imagining how a “new grain might break through an old husk.” Yet, it might be instructive to note that protesters themselves rarely place the blame so generally on the party, but rather target local officials and a lack of implementation of existing legal protections.
In conclusion, Pai’s book documents exploitation and injustice among migrant laborers in the context of the contemporary Chinese political economy. With a readable style and migrant narrative driving the text, she explores exploitation in the workplace and the creative ways that Chinese migrant laborers struggle for justice. Her critique is liberal and has implications for our understanding more socially democratic ways forward for exploited workers. Her book is part of that forward movement.
Reviewed by Michael L. Zukosky
Department of Geography and Anthropology
Eastern Washington University
Cheney, WA 99004
Chan, Anita. 2001. China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy.
Lee, Ching Kwan. 2007. Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lee, Ching Kwan. 1998. Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pun, Ngai. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham: Duke University Press.
Solinger, Dorothy. 1999. Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market. Berkeley: University of California Press.