Labor unrest and how China balances repression and responsiveness

Society & Culture

“It's difficult to perfectly coordinate carrots and sticks over the long haul. One of them ends up gumming up the other.” The scholar Manfred Elfstrom discusses the prevalence of labor strikes in China, and how the nominally worker-centered Communist Party both crushes organized activism and compromises in response to concerns.

jasic protest china
People hold banners at a demonstration in support of factory workers of Jasic Technology, outside Yanziling police station in Pingshan district, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong

[Editor’s note: This week, we are publishing a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast to accompany the episode interviewing Manfred Elfstrom of the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Listen to the episode here, or read the full transcript below]

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our site at We’ve got reported stories, editorials, regular columns, a growing library of videos and, of course, podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region, to China’s ambitious effort to eliminate poverty. It’s a feast of business, political and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

How does the Chinese state, led as it is by a communist party that notionally represents the interests of workers, respond when those workers protests, strike, or engage in other forms of labor unrest? How has the state’s approach evolved, and what can China’s approach to handling labor issues tell us about the way Beijing handles dissent or social disruption more generally, or even more broadly, about how authoritarian regimes approach the challenges of governance? These are just some of the issues that my guest today addresses in his new book, Workers and Change in China: Resistance, Repression, Responsiveness. The author of this excellent title is Manfred Elfstrom, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, BC. He joins me on Sinica for the first time. Manfred, a very warm welcome to you.

Manfred Elfstrom: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been listening to this podcast forever and I’m really excited to be on it.

Kaiser: We’re very excited to have you. So I want to actually start with something pretty superficial that I think I connected with instantly about your book, and that is the cover. I believe you are the first author that I’ve spoken to — and I may be wrong — but I think you are the first whose book features cover art actually painted by the author himself or herself. And the reason I connect with this perhaps is that the intro music to this show that you guys just all heard is also a song I recorded and wrote. So tell me about this cover. I mean it’s great. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it’s an oil painting of a factory at night. It’s quite beautiful, it’s a really lovely painting with a sort of industrial orange glowing sky and reflections in what’s doubtlessly a really polluted river.

Manfred: Yeah, I was an art major in college along with being a history major and some other things. And for a while at least, I tried to keep painting off and on and that image is from a photo I took, I think back in 2006 or 2007. I used to work for labor rights groups and I was in Shenzhen at that time and I had a little taxi fender bender and had to walk home to the place where I was staying and snap some pictures of some factories at night.

Kaiser: Yeah. So it’s great, I do believe that you… If anyone actually painted their cover and I’ve talked to you about your book, please correct me, but it’s great. And one should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case, you wouldn’t be going wrong. So one of the things that I really liked about the book was that, as I kind of alluded to in the intro, you were conscious throughout that it did fit into a literature about authoritarianism. So did you know, I’m curious, at the outset that your work was going to form part of this bigger picture endeavor to understand authoritarian governance, or did you think you were just simply writing a book about labor relations in China?

Manfred: It was really the latter. Like I said, I used to work for labor rights organizations before I went back to academia. And when I started grad school, my original motive for the research was just to find out what kind of impact all that activism was having on governance, what it all added up to? But as I settled on a project, I realized that I was really dissatisfied with a lot of existing work on authoritarianism more generally. There was a time, specifically, maybe in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when research on authoritarianism was dominated by what’s since been dubbed the transitology paradigm, where every dictatorship was assumed to be basically in transit to democracy via revolution, via some sort of pacted transition, but at any rate in transit.

Kaiser: Would that include both sort of the collapsists, so people who said, the brittle authoritarian who’s about to collapse, but also that kind of modernization theory crowd that said that, inevitably as per capita GDP hit this pretty low level you’re gonna see this kind of empowered, middle class and they would have democratic demands and out would go the dictator. Was that you would class in that as well?

Manfred: Yeah exactly, it would encompass all of that, and people on your program probably would tend to be naturally skeptical of arguments like that when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party about its either being about to fall from power or in the midst of some gradual evolution to democracy.

Kaiser: No, you’re right there, I think that people on our program probably might not be. But so you say that that was the dominant approach to understanding authoritarianism in the ’90s in the early 2000s and I would certainly agree. But that seems to have evolved into something else that you know kind of says, “Hey wait, authoritarianism seems to be quite resilient,” and it’s swung very much in the other direction, yeah?

Manfred: Yeah, that pendulum really has swung in the other direction. And my feeling is that too many analyses today sort of start with some sort of paradox and Beijing’s rule, like protests in an authoritarian regime or economic growth without strong property rights or whatever. And then they explained why everything makes sense and ultimately works out and the government’s favor. The way I put it in the book is that every seeming bug is treated as a feature. And the problem I think with both that resilience-focused form of argument and the old transition focus arguments is that they yield an overly static picture of Chinese society and the state, either the government’s frozen and it’s ready to crumble or merge into something else, where it’s completely on top of things. But regardless, there’s not a lot of change going on which of course doesn’t match with the experience of those of us who spent time in China or other authoritarian governments.

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s fascinating. It strikes me that I hadn’t really thought about this before but it’s kind of been a leitmotif of this whole program. I’ve talked to so many scholars about their books and they have approached this problem from lots of different angles but yeah I think that a lot of them are kind of trying to figure out how authoritarian regimes govern. It’s a big theme also in Jude Blanchette’s podcast. He really focuses on people who are the scholars who are looking at authoritarianism. But just off the top my head, I mean, I’ve got like Christian Sorace who wrote about this, Jennifer Pan and Molly Roberts’ books whom you mentioned in your book. I haven’t talked to Dan Mattingly yet but I do intend to, he talks about how NGOs are sort of enrolled in this program. Maria Repnikova talking about media. I’m sure I could go on. I mean, Judith Shapiro and Li Yifei’s book China Goes Green, about coercive environmentalism. They all add pieces to the same puzzle that you’re all working on so I think it’s really fascinating. So if you had to characterize the contribution that you hope that your book makes to this literature on authoritarianism, what would you emphasize?

Manfred: Well, I think, most importantly, it focuses on bottom-up processes of change in difficult contexts. So it starts from the shop floor and works its way up through the different levels of society, up to the halls of power, and shows how the actions of ordinary people can affect policy, both in ways that advance people’s causes and sometimes backfire.

Kaiser: And it’s not just bottom-up either. I think you look at responses to that bottom-up desire for change as well, yeah, at the interplay between the two. Would that be fair?

Manfred: Exactly, and you can look at downward pressures, you can look at upward pressures, you can look at the iterative interplay between the two. My focus just happens to be more on the pressures coming from below and it’s a little bit of a reaction to research not just on China, but on social movements in a lot of different contexts where the system is the independent variable, the cause, and what is the dependent variable, the outcome. So I’m flipping it around and looking at that other direction of causality but well aware that are pushing in both directions at once.

Kaiser: Sure. And then to approach this, you do research on two geographies specifically. You focus on the Pearl River Delta, which of course is home to all these factory-heavy cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and especially Dongguan. Dongguan is the factory capital of the world. And then also the Yangtze River Delta. So you’ve got there, not just Shanghai in its environs but also all the cities of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. And you focus specifically on Guangdong and on Jiangsu, two provinces that I think in many ways are excellent candidates. Can you explain why you chose these two in particular?

Manfred: Well, you never have a perfect comparison between two places in the country as big as China, there’s so much variation, and so many factors to consider. But I’d argue those two are as similar a pair of regions as any two that you’ll get in China. They both have large migrant worker populations. They both do a lot of export-oriented manufacturing and they’re both leading engines of China’s economy.

Kaiser: I guess the other one I would have thought would be Zhejiang instead of Jiangsu. Was there a reason you went for Jiangsu rather than Zhejiang?

Manfred: Yeah. I should be a little clearer and say that I’m really focusing on Jiangsu’s portion of the Yangtze River Delta, so I’m not focusing quite so much on say Northern Jiangsu as much as the southern part. But Zhejiang would have also been a possibility since it’s also part of that same delta. It just felt a little bit too unique and it presented a little less of a contrast to Guangdong’s portion of the Pearl River Delta than Jiangsu’s portion did, at least during the years I captured in my book. Zhejiang’s strike rate was really close to Guangdong’s, so there wasn’t that gap there. And it had also gone a lot further in terms of trade union reforms than Jiangsu had. Zhejiang also had a really complicated economic base in history, town and village enterprises were a big part of its growth, you have all those famous clusters of manufacturing, making cigarette lighters or eyeglasses or whatever, so the comparison just seemed like it would be too messy.

Kaiser: Yeah, I can see that. I mean there are some strange outlier towns in Zhejiang. I mean, the whole environs of Wenzhou are just sort of very, very different from the rest of China. You mentioned the rate of strikes and the way that you measured that. You have this data set that you’ve put together yourself and it’s got what, 1400+ actual incidents that you look at. Can you talk about the “China Strikes” dataset, as well as, so the other existing data that you’ve seen on labor unrest, other data that you’ve drawn on, and maybe you can give us a sense of the scale of labor unrest in China, both in absolute terms and maybe also in relative or even comparative terms on a per capita basis? I’m sure that there’s plenty of people who are aware of the surprisingly high frequency of actual labor incidences in China, but I guess I’m less aware of how it compares to other geographies, to South Korea or Indonesia or Thailand or what have you.

Manfred: I started China Strikes Back in 2010 and then I captured the next two years and plus worked backward to 2003, so I ended up covering the whole of the Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao era. And it’s a data set that’s online, you can go visit it at It’s based off this software the activists in Kenya came up with for tracking election irregularities.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, I remember that.

Manfred: Yeah, it’s Ushahidi is the group that put it together. I think it’s the best document of labor unrest for the years that it captures. But like you mentioned, there are a whole bunch of other protest datasets, some that have advantages that China Strikes doesn’t have. So there’s a smallish one from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for instance, that a few people have gotten their hands on. A colleague of mine, Yao Li, has collected a data set based on reports in the dissident website, Boxun. Chen Chih-Jou in Taiwan has a dataset and then there’s this massive one that a pair of Chinese researchers, working under the handle of Wickedonna, put together based on social media that just has tens of thousands of incidents and finally, Jennifer Pan and Han Zhang, have started using machine learning to identify protests in social media images and posts.

And of course, just a little after I started my dataset, the Hong Kong based advocacy group, China Labor Bulletin began their strike map which they’ve just kept updating to the present, put a lot of energy into and is probably the most useful resource at this point for just keeping your pulse on what’s going on.

Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so basically looking at all that, how does China compare to other very manufacturing-intensive geographies?

Manfred: So, it’s tricky to compare China to other places because these are of course data sets based on social media, based a little bit on state media, based on dissident sources and there’s no official count from the Chinese government of the number of strikes they have every year. The US, since the Reagan Administration, has tracked strikes involving more than 1000 people, so it stopped tracking smaller strikes. And in the book, I compare the number of incidents that were that size in China, that it’s more than 1000 strikes, according to China Labor Bulletin with the US figure and taking into account China Labor Bulletin’s estimate that they only capture about 10% of all the conflict happening, I estimate that in 2015 for example, China saw maybe 70 times more strikes than the US, even taking into account kind of much, much bigger population, I think that’s a lot more intense.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Manfred: Recently, Cornell University’s ILR School has started a strike map to fill in the gap in reporting on the US so this might be something that worth revisiting. Maybe regardless, I think the main takeaway is just that strikes are really common and somewhat normalized in China. So you’ll maybe recall that there was a strike by bus drivers in Singapore from the Chinese Mainland a few years ago. And this was a really big deal in Singapore because there hadn’t been a strike in the country in about 25 years. But when they interviewed the drivers, the drivers didn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. They thought it was a natural response to the problems they faced and that’s how they had dealt with things back in China before they came to Singapore.

Kaiser: I’m curious, does the growth of incidences of unrest in China outpace the actual growth of the number of workers or the number of factories or other measures by which the number of laborers actually grows?

Manfred: I don’t know how it matches up with the number of laborers, but all of these datasets basically follow fairly believable patterns, so there were a lot of protests after the layoffs, following the 2008 financial crisis. And then there were protests but around higher wages, again in 2010, when the economy was doing really good. And my dataset in particular roughly follows the ups and downs of formally adjudicated employment disputes, cases brought to mediation and arbitration in court which the Chinesegovernment does report in its labor statistical yearbook. It may be that this is just a function overall of China’s continued industrialization. But even so, growing unrest is a concern I think for the government.

Kaiser: So we’ve talked a little bit about one of the R’s in your very alliteral title, we’ve talked about resistance. But you also look at repression and responsiveness. So let’s talk about repression and how you measure that. You settled on what I thought was an interesting proxy which is spending on the People’s Armed Police, the Wujing. Can you talk about the pros and cons of that choice of measuring it? First of all, those budget numbers are pretty widely available are they? And then secondly, how well do you think it maps against other possible measures of repressiveness?

Manfred: So the Wujing numbers are available publicly through 2009 at the provincial level, and then after that they just give on national aggregate. So there are limits to how close I could bring the analysis up to present. There’s certainly other ways of capturing things like repression. I have a paper with Yao Li in The Journal of Contemporary China where we focus on the likelihood of a protest resulting in arrests or police violence as a different measure of repression or at least overt repression instead of spending. And then we further test how well spending is correlated with repression.

Kaiser: Just to spoil, how well does it correlate?

Manfred: It correlates poorly in the Hu-Wen era but well in the Xi era. That is places that invested more in the police under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were less likely to crack down in a heavy-handed way on protest but more likely under XI, but interestingly we find the inflection point was back in 2009 on toward the end of Hu and Wen’s era, rather than when Xi came to power.

Kaiser: That just kind of raises the question though, how do you define what a repressive response is? You talk for example about how there’s kind of preemption that’s done, it’s a common approach in the Yangtze River Delta, and does that count as a repressive response? Or I mean, if you try to sort of head something off before it actually turns into a full-blown strike and you’re using, for example, technological surveillance, is that repressive? That you would think would help the correlation because some of that Wujing spending is going into things like facial recognition technology.

Manfred: Right, and there’s been a real proliferation of these kinds of sophisticated techniques of keeping track of people in China. I’ve even heard of governments looking at spending data on online websites to get a sense of potential outbreaks of strike activity. I would classify all of that as repression but some of it’s obviously softer and less intrusive than others. And just to go back a little bit, the reason I focus on spending rather than number of people beaten up or whatever, is that my ultimate interest is in repressive capacity and also responsive capacity like the long term consequences of building these forms of capacity for the government. And so spending on the People’s Armed Police doesn’t mean people being beaten up or confronted in the here and now, but sort of an investment in that kind of reserve ability to confront workers when the situation gets out of hand.

Kaiser: Yeah, by all sorts of different means and yeah, I completely, I think that’s a very, very valid way to go about it. You also have to measure responsiveness so can you talked about how you quantify that? And again, why you found and used as a measure the outcomes of adjudications in labor cases? And you use that as sort of, when they went either a push or when it kind of went in favor of the workers, you kind of chalked that up in the responsiveness column, yeah?

Manfred: Yeah, so one of the reviewers from my book actually pushed back on this a little bit and said, “Why didn’t my, in parallel with my measure of repression, use spending on courts instead as my measure of responsiveness. And the reason I use pro-worker or split decisions and mediation and arbitration in court is my feeling is that ruling more in favor of workers means a greater ability to overcome the influence of different powerful local economic interests and I treat that as kind of a skill in and of itself.

Kaiser: So Manfred, your main finding, I mean, let’s cut to the chase really quick, is that there is both more responsiveness to the issues raised by labor and more extensive more sophisticated repression. I think that for a lot of people who spent time looking at China, that is a finding that is not going to surprise people, it’s gonna make a lot of sense, and it won’t be all that jarring to you. So there will be people who think, “Hey that seems very contradictory, or paradoxical,” but hey, I know that when I am asked, is A happening or is B happening, my answer as often as not is just, “yes.” Is Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive really about reducing graft and bribery or is it about purging his political foes? Yes. Is the current, what we’re calling the “Red New Deal” aimed at strengthening the party’s hold on the levers of economic and cultural and political power, or is it aimed at addressing genuine popular grievances that have been variously expressed by the masses? Yes, right? But I mean let’s assume that many of the people listening aren’t so used to this and they see a more accommodating approach to restive labor and a more coercive or repressive approach as fundamentally irreconcilable. When the two things are both happening, what does that actually look like? How do repression and responsiveness interact?

Manfred: Well, at the site of a particular protest, it might mean the government leaning on a company to make some sort of payout to the workers, to tamp the whole thing down. But at the same time, police coming around to the people they think were the ringleaders of the strike and detaining them or pressuring them to back off or accept whatever the company has to offer. In the bigger picture, zooming away from any particular factory, it means spending again, a lot on the police, it means reorienting the official trade union apparatus to being a little more proactive, a little more open to workers. It means passing new labor laws like China did most dramatically back in 2008, it means a whole range of different things and all of this happening at once. And I agree, in a way, this all makes sense, doesn’t every government employ carrots and sticks? And I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, I don’t know if you listen to it.

Kaiser: Oh, I love that podcast, yeah.

Manfred: It’s really good. And all the episodes discussing all these Czarist initiatives like the Stolypin Reforms and how they were paired with the infamous Stolypin Necktie or gallows for radicals, all those episodes really remind me a lot of today’s China. But what I think is unique about autocracies like Czarist Russia or China today is that they need to deploy these things at the exact same time. So the two Stolypin moves came right together. Whereas in the U.S., you have things like the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, and then you had the New Deal opening up to unions in the 1930s, you didn’t have both things happening at the same time.

Kaiser: But more like pendular swings back and forth between repression and responsiveness.

Manfred: Exactly.

Kaiser: Yeah. It also strikes me that you convey a sense of particular urgency for China and dealing and with the stakes being especially high when it comes to China and the need to handle labor unrest. And you gave a talk that I listened to at USC that Clay Dube organized, it was fantastic. I’m paraphrasing here but you talked about how China as a, you called it a “post state socialist autocracy,” that has these hollow trade unions. You talked about just now the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and it has this nominal commitment to egalitarianism, right, it’s a communist party, it’s the workers’ party, right? And it’s got this, you termed it a conspicuous fusing of economic and political power, and yeah, all countries have that but in China and is particularly kind of flagrant, right? So can you unpack this a little bit, explain how these things combined to make the stakes so you know particularly high in China when it comes to labor movements?

Manfred: Yeah, so all of their authoritarian governments, whatever their historical backgrounds, have weaker institutions like courts and elections for keeping social disputes at arm’s length. So every challenge they run up against is just absorbed right into the body of the state in a way that it isn’t necessarily in a liberal democracy. So China’s got that for starters. And then on top of that, it has those things you just listed. It fuses its economic and political power in this really obvious way, not hidden through lobbying and smoke-filled rooms but just right out there in the open. It has these independent trade unions that Chalmers Johnson I think describe really nicely with this phrase, preemptive organizations are sort of there to preempt labor unrest or at least to preempt the formation of independent unions and they do a good job of preempting independent trade unions but they can’t go the extra mile and win worker’s trust.

And then finally have this gap between the old ideals of these countries and their current realities which is an even more dramatic gap when a nominally socialist or communist party is still in power under a market system. They also, I think it should be admitted, have some strengths like they can pass down directives easily, they have organs for delivering some imperfect justice or kind of incomplete coercion, and they have some good labor laws on the books. And all of that, I say sort of adds up to a distinctive approach to labor unrest.

Kaiser: Yeah, you also mentioned three characteristics that I thought were really, I mean you put your finger right on it, that really distinguish China and its approach to industrial relations. I mean these three give it a uniquely Chinese thing. One is this outsized role of state-owned enterprises, right? The second is the hukou system, which still persists, right? And then, of course, I think you just talked about the trade unions, which whenever I’ve asked my older Chinese relatives about it, because I have, for example, one of my wife’s uncles is a trade union rep. And basically, it seems to me that their function is to hand out cooking oil around the holidays. I mean, I don’t see what else they actually do. It’s really kind of… I’ve tried to, over baijiu on Chunjie or whatever, I’ve tried to pin him down and ask him about this but he didn’t have much to say. Yeah, got to hand out that oil.

Manfred: Yeah, I mean they have interesting roots, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. They’re formed out of these really radical unions of the pre-Revolutionary era and in the 1950s and again in the 1980s they made cautious bids for a little more autonomy. But basically they’ve sort of stuck to this transmission belt role where they’re supposed to bring down the party’s directives to workers, and to a lesser degree, pass along workers’ grievances and just by law and by the instinct of the people involved in the trade union system, the focus has always been on maintaining production above all else and they’re basically treated like a department of the government and people are routinely cycled from the trade union to other areas of public policy in a city or a province.

Kaiser: Would it be something you would be able to measure — whether the absence of let’s call them “rea”l trade unions in China, does that absence tend to increase the number of active labor resistance, as I would imagine? Or does it somehow decrease because we do have the All-China Federation of Trade Unions that is trying to kind of placate and head off worker unrest?

Manfred: I guess conceivably, you could look at the density of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in a given province and strike rates there and that would be an interesting analysis. Some people have looked more broadly at authoritarian and democratic countries and how they’ve responded to foreign direct investment, and they found generally that — and I’m thinking of work by Emmanuel Teitelbaum and Graham Robertson here — they found that, generally, you see more strikes in authoritarian settings than democratic ones. Both of them respond with more activism, one that is foreign direct investment but more so in authoritarian settings. And their argument is just that they have weaker trade unions for channeling people’s grievances and pushing them into a sort of normal political process.

Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I imagine that the state must look at the history, they look at the mid-1980s and the risers Solidarnosc in Poland, they must be pretty afraid of independent trade unions as well.

Manfred: Yeah, and I think the phrase that was used back then was the “Polish disease.” So they were really conscious of that, and they were also conscious of experiments like Yugoslavia’s back then which greater shop floor democracy and they tried to pick up some bits and pieces of that with things like the staff workers representative congresses in Chinese big state-owned enterprises, but they never took it very far.

Kaiser: So maybe this is a little bit of a spoiler here, but you have your doubts as to whether these two countervailing forces of repression and responsiveness can really continue to coexist. I mean, that’s something that you do address directly in the conclusion of your book. I think your explanation of how and why they actually undermine one another was really concise and really pretty compelling. Can you explain how you see this playing out the way that the one undercuts the other?

Manfred: A number of scholars people, like Liz Perry or Sebastian Heilmann or Yuen Yuen Ang, who you had on your show recently, have shown just how incredibly adaptive the Communist Party has when it’s faced with a range of different challenges. And it’s conceivable, I suppose, that China’s leadership will grow out of its confrontation with its workers too and it’ll come out of all this a lot stronger. But I argue in the book that the state will be warped more likely, it’ll just have to make a bunch of suboptimal choices. And the metaphor I use is a tree growing around rocks and under power lines and trying to find its roots and loose soil, et cetera. And the reason is that prioritizing building up repressive and responsive capacity inevitably comes at the expense of other priorities that the state has like welfare spending or say maybe even defense spending to some degree.

Kaiser: Yeah. Famously, they’ve been spending more on domestic security than on the military, right?

Manfred: Exactly.

Kaiser: I mean everyone that’s glanced at China knows that stat, right?

Manfred: And the responsiveness, in particular, frustrates the Party’s business allies that it cultivated in the early reform era, which that combo of the repression and the responsiveness at once encourages and then frustrates and angers workers. So it doesn’t win the party some sort of new class base to replace the old one. And I guess just more generally, it’s difficult to perfectly coordinate carrots and sticks over the long haul. One of them ends up gumming up the other. There are aspects of these different regional models of handling industrial relations in China that conceivably could offer a path forward, but I think they’d require some real daring that the Chinese leadership hasn’t shown yet.

Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So Manfred, I think we have a pretty good idea of the sort of shape of your argument. Your book opens with an account of labor actions at two Taiwanese-owned shoe factories in Dongguan across roughly the same span of time that your book covers, right? I think the way that these transpired, the protests and strikes themselves, as well as the responses from the state, I think they capture pretty well in microcosm, what the book argues. So maybe it would be good for us to talk about these shoe factory strikes in Xing Ang and Xing Xiong, I guess, I don’t know the Chinese characters for them so I’m guessing where the…

Manfred: Yeah. These strikes have a special place in my heart because I was working with a little group called China Labor Watch at the time that the first of them occurred and paid really close attention to it as it unfolded. So the first strike was back in 2004, and it was fairly spontaneous. Workers’ wages had been delayed and delayed and then you had foreign customers of the factories of Xing Ang and Xing Xiong and their owner, Stella, this Taiwanese company. Foreign customers, pushing different corporate codes of conduct, that restricted hours and ways of just cut the workers pay even more, and they exploded and rioted and sabotage equipment and sprayed fire extinguishers around and flipped over the company’s vehicles.

And in the aftermath of it, and it took a while for the government to restore order, they put a number of the workers, who the factory had identified as ringleaders, whether they’d really committed in the criminal acts or not, they put the number of these workers on trial. But the workers were let go on appeal, when the famous human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng took up in their case and when a bunch of groups, based abroad, put pressure on the Chinese government and put pressure on the brands sourcing from these factories. So that’s the sort of initial incident in 2004 that I sort of watched as it unfolded way back when.

And then if you fast forward to 2015, you have another strike at the same factories. And this time it’s not about unpaid wages work or some of the other things that were in the background at that original incident like poor quality food and lousy dormitories and physically abusive managers, but it’s about a housing subsidy that workers weren’t paid that back in 2004 would have felt like a detail. When they struck in 2004 [Ed: should be 2015], the police were very efficient, they arrived quickly they kettled the workers, surrounded them with police dogs. The labor NGO that tried to get involved was quickly pushed off the scene. Gao Zhisheng, of course, was no longer around to take the workers’ case, he’d been put to jail, released, put back in jail. And so in a certain way, the workers’ situation had really regressed compared to 2004.

But on the other hand, the government in 2015, strong-armed Stella, this parent company, to pay out the workers their housing subsidy in cash. And when one of the factories went bottom up a few years later, they were given a generous severance package that went a little bit beyond what was required by law. And just the fact that they were focusing on housing subsidy years later and not these very basic labor conditions showed how much things had also improved.

Kaiser: Yeah, so it really is, I mean it’s a perfect microcosm it kind of tells the story in miniature, right?

Manfred: Yeah, and I don’t know if we were going to get to this some other way, but you can see a similar dynamic playing out right now with, for example, these delivery workers protests.

Kaiser: Yeah, I did plan on asking you about that and about some of the other things that I think illustrate some of the points people are having. For example, when we were talking just now about the embarrassing hypocrisy of this not only Communist Party state that represses actual workers, people fighting on behalf of workers, I thought immediately of the Jasic case and then the support that he got from these Peking University Marxist study groups and we’ll talk about that as well. So we’ll put a pin in that and come back to it in just a bit. But I want to look at the two geographies that you focus on, Guangdong and Jiangsu. You’ve made an argument for the similarity between the two and yet we see quite a bit of regional variation, right? There’s a lot more labor actions on a per capita basis in Guangdong than you see in Jiangsu. Is that correct?

Manfred: Yeah, and that’s sort of the key difference to my mind.

Kaiser: Yeah. And so what explains that? Is just the policy predilections of local leaders? Is there something cultural to it? I remember we were talking the other day and you were saying every time you asked why, people seem to reach for cultural explanations, that’s interesting.

Manfred: Yeah, and that was true of Jiangsu officials and Guangdong officials and even some activists in both of the places. So officials in Jiangsu would talk about how they have this more civilized and harmonious approach to resolving social conflicts and their counterparts down in Guangdong wouldn’t dispute that, but they’ve talked about they’re more down to earth and less stuffy and more accessible style. So maybe I’m too quick to dismiss these kind of factors. My instinct though is that they might matter more on the margins. And if there’s some sort of big strike and unrest in Jiangsu. Their leaders would end up being pushed in the same direction as Guangdong, so whether that’s their original instinct or not. And the migrant workers in both places presumably don’t feel the pull up that culture so much since they’re after all from somewhere else.

Kaiser: That’s true, they are from somewhere else but, still there’s these persistent regional stereotypes right I mean, the people in Guangdong, in the PRD more generally, they’re known to be hot-headed. They don’t take things lying down. They’re ornery. Whereas, the kind of more genteel population, not just officialdom but presumably in the mild and climates of the Yangtze River Delta. Yeah, I can see why you would resist those sorts of explanations, it’s just so funny to me that these provincial stereotypes are just pervasive everywhere. What about other things, I mean, other factors, I mean, that you might have looked at, like ownership and management of factories, does it matter whether it’s SOE or private or foreign-invested or what have you? I mean, does the nature of the capital seems to matter? I mean, for example, everyone talks about how these Taiwan-owned factories were the worst, it’s the worst to have a Taiwan laoban. I mean, they were like cruel and capricious and domineering, whereas they didn’t jiǎng dàolǐ (讲道理) in the way that like a Japanese laoban would.

Manfred: Right. Yeah, and I’ve always heard these things too. And when it comes to Taiwanese managers, in particular, the explanation I’ve heard, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, is that a lot of them are former military officers or at least they have a soldiers background of some sort and they bring that kind of martial approach to things to the shop floor. I think a lot of those things matter. I think they mostly matter in terms of spurring or dampening unrest so they affect that side of the equation and less the government’s response to it.

Kaiser: There’s a really interesting point that you raised, though, about the bureaucratic incentives that leaders in the provinces or in the municipalities face and why that makes them so fixated on dealing with labor resistance. It’s not just this abstract commitment to social harmony, they actually have real KPIs. Can you talk a little bit more about that whole review process that officials undergo and why that compels them to really prioritize addressing these labor issues?

Manfred: I describe these bureaucratic incentives as the conduits that carried the spark of labor insurgency up through the system to the top. And as lots of other observers of China have discussed, officials in China, at different levels, are measured according to a whole range of different criteria from environmental protection to in the past at least, on the implementation of one-child policy, to of course a GDP growth. But maintaining stability is one of the things that is sometimes called a one-vote veto of their performance. So if they really do badly on stability, it cancels out any of their other achievements and it’s one that’s pretty easy to measure. So the incentive for an official is to show that they’re taking the matter seriously.

Some officials might want to rise up in the hierarchy and so this is a part of their scheming to move up in the ranks. For other officials, staying home is fine enough but they don’t want to deal with the embarrassment of being singled out in front of their colleagues for bad performance on stability where they don’t want some bonus taken away from them, et cetera. So they have every reason to prove to their superiors that they’re taking it seriously but I argue that it takes a different form in different settings. So where you have intense unrest, an official can’t reasonably be expected to put the genie back in the bottle right away, but they can demonstrate some creativity and grit in the face of this challenge. So that means engaging in reforms that they wouldn’t otherwise but also coming down really hard on organizers. Whereas in places where unrest isn’t so intense, the incentive is to keep things at a low boil and not let unrest crop up in the first place. And so they’ll be a lot more risk averse and they won’t try out new reforms that might introduce conflict where there isn’t that much already.

Kaiser: Yeah. So Manfred, you distinguish between different types of resistance, acts of resistance. You have, what you call more contained labor demands, you have transgressive and boundary-spanning labor demands, right? So what action falls into which type seems to me is also going to depend on where the boundary itself is. So if it’s boundary spanning, that it very clearly depends on where that boundary is. And my sense is that, that boundary has most certainly shifted over time and we were just talking about the 2004 Xing Ang and Xing Xiong strikes and how the first ones were about sweatshop stuff and the second was about sort of perks, about housing subsidies. The boundary shifts. So you mentioned, for example, how surprisingly progressive, actually, labor policy has become in the Pearl River Delta, including, I mean coming, as you say, quite close to recognizing the actual right to strike. So how has this boundary shifted, and has it shifted generally in a favorable direction from the point of view of labor activism? And have those shifts endured or, I guess, I’m curious, have they been rolled back as so many other things have been under Xi Jinping?

Manfred Yeah, that’s a great question. I think these things are a little bit dependent on the local context. So in some small town somewhere in China, a strike, just by itself, might be considered very disruptive and it calls for a lot of concern on the part of local officials. Whereas, it might be treated as fairly routine in Guangdong. So with that caveat, I think there are some things we can clearly say are contained, like petitioning through normal petitioning channels, litigating, working through sort of networks and your work site, and then there are things that are clearly a transgressive like a building strike actions across multiple worksites or bringing in outside organizations or raising demands that touch on institutional stuff like union reforms and that kind of thing, and then there’s all this stuff in between that I borrowed from another scholar, Kevin O’Brien, and describe as a boundary-spanning.

When I first started this research, I think I would have given a really optimistic response to your question and said that more and more things that were once treated as transgressive are now maybe boundary spanning or treated as sort of contained by officials and just the push and pull of industrial relations that are familiar in other countries are becoming just normalized in China. Now, maybe I wouldn’t give quite as optimistic of a response, I think there has been some slippage in recent years and things that we’re starting to be dealt with as just purely economic disputes have been given sort of a political sheen again.

Kaiser: Sure, that’s in recent years for sure and I think we pointed to the Jasic case which I want to ask you about in just a second but maybe what about in recent months, we have seen Xi Jinping revive this phrase, common prosperity. We’ve seen all these regulatory actions that are taken extensively in the interest of labor, of the laobaixing. Specifically, you’ve seen, for example — okay maybe these aren’t laborers as this is affecting what the Supreme People’s Court did declare 996 work schedules illegal. They’ve been pushing, and we mentioned this before, these gig workers, the platform economy companies like Didi and Meituan to really revamp the way that they treat these gig workers and to provide social insurance for them and to other perks that they would never attempt to doing. What do you make of all of this? I mean, is this being viewed positively by labor activists in China and outside of China? People like in the China Labor Bulletin?

Manfred:So some of these moves, I think, are really significant. In particular, making some of these delivery workers get counted as employees rather than just contractors. That’s of course something that different parts of the United States have tried to pull off too and have encountered a lot of pushback from the industry. So some of these things really are meaningful and other parts I think are a little bit superficial. For example, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions has once more been asked to step in and it feels like the dynamic is basically Xi Jinping saying, “There’s a problem here, the Union deals with workers, it’s the union’s administrative jurisdiction. So go fix things union.” It’s a little like having an annotation department deal with a sewer problem or whatever. There’s no idea of the unions are fundamentally changing its role as a part of this bigger common prosperity agenda, it’s still just them stepping in reactively to tamp something down.

Manfred: And I guess, alongside these moves, which I think are generally appreciated by labor activists, there’s been continued and maybe intensified crackdown on people doing organizing at the street level. So when it comes to delivery workers, for instance, the activist Chen Guojiang, or Mengzhu, as he is called, was detained for providing a platform for organizers, workers, delivery workers to share grievances and a Ph.D. student who is studying these workers was recently detained as well.

Kaiser: Yeah, I read about that.

Manfred: So you do see that undertow again of oppressiveness even as you have these moves forward.

Kaiser: Yeah, you’re really on to something there. Speaking of Xi Jinping, we talked earlier about how this mix of repressive and responsive approaches may warp the system and contain the seeds of — maybe destruction is a little overstated, but we’ve talked about some of these factors that shape the mix of responsive and repressive capacities in these different situations. But in your chapter on elite politics, you suggest that the individual leader, for example Xi, could really affect this mix. I mean, in the time that you were writing about, during the era of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, maybe it was because of the particular faction that they come out or whatever, but they were very much concerned about rising urban- rural inequalities, they did a lot to address the plight of migrant workers and it was kind of kinder, gentler period, maybe? How much of this is the leader himself?

Manfred: Yeah, and in some ways I think that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were more ready to really stick their fingers into festering social contradictions than Xi Jinping has been, and more willing to take the risk of empowering different social groups in the process of resolving problems. I think leaders do matter and the precise mix of increased investment and responsive capacity or increased investment of repressive capacity that will sort of fluctuate back and forth with changes at the top. But I think they’re sort of basic trends that continue across these leader shifts. I mentioned that a paper I have with Yao Li that suggested the repressive turn happened even before Xi Jinping came to office just a little after the Olympics. And I know you’ve, yourself, pointed to just a change in China’s posture more generally around that time. And there were serious instances of repression way back under Jiang Zemin when state-owned enterprise workers took to the streets in a public way. So I think there’s a lot of continuity there even if leaders do affect the sort of basket of policy responses.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely. We talked about the Jasic strike of July 27, 2018 in Shenzhen, and the whole fallout from that leading up to this crackdown on the Peking University student-organized Marxist study groups, one in particular that had supported the strikers. This really seems to drive home your point earlier about how China, as this post-state socialist country, faces real pressure on this issue and how the hypocrisy is we’re kind of laid quite bare. Can you talk a little bit about that? I know that it’s beyond the purview of your book itself but this is certainly something you can keep an eye on for sure, yeah?

Manfred: Yeah, for sure. And I have a book chapter about the Jasic strike on an upcoming volume edited by some of the editors over at Made in China. So it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Kaiser: Oh, that’s a good home for it. I think that’s a really good journal, that’s a perfect place to put that piece, I have to say. I love those guys.

Manfred: They do wonderful work, they do absolutely wonderful work.

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s a great journal.

Manfred: I think the Jasic strike’s a really good example of a truly transgressive contention in the Chinese context, not in the sense that the incident itself was so transgressive, we talked about it as a Jasic strike sometimes as shorthand, but there wasn’t actually a strike, there was just a series of protests by workers who’ve been trying to set up a trade union branch in their factory at this Electronics Factory in Shenzhen. But it was transgressive because it brought in all these new groups and broke down these boundaries that the party, generally men just to maintain in society. So in particular, you had dozens of Marxist students coming from different parts of the country and renting rooms in Huizhou, near the side of this factory in Shenzhen and mobilizing to support the workers. You had retired party members, state-owned enterprise workers are throwing their lot in. The closest thing to a real movement you’ve seen in a while.

You even had sort of a branding of the whole incident with these T-shirts and Twitter handles and everything, showing sort of a sketched image of the protesting workers and the slogan “solidarity is strength.” And that maybe, it wouldn’t be that challenging in, for example, the United States, when I was in college, we protested and supported different groups and it barely made the local paper, and we protested in the same numbers. But it was seen as a real challenge for the Chinese government and the workers were detained. Some trade union officials who’d given the workers advice about forming a union were brought in for questioning, and students were of course plucked off their college campuses and disappeared into vans. So yeah, I think it really shows the kind of punch these issues have for the Chinese government.

Kaiser: For sure. Manfred, it was such a great pleasure to talk to you about this book, which I just cannot recommend more highly. It’s just a very, very good contribution to the literature, certainly helped shape my understanding of what’s happening. So I commend you on this excellent book. Let’s move on to recommendations. I want to quickly remind listeners that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and that the best way that you can help us out really is to subscribe to the Access Newsletter, our daily updates on all things that are happening in China. It’s put together with love and care by Jeremy and his team, Lucas and Jiayun especially, so check it out. If you are interested in a group subscription to it, if you’re listening in, you’re a part of an embassy or NGO or a university department and you’re looking for a group subscription, contact, he can set up. Something real good and cheap. Meanwhile, let’s move on to recommendations and Manfred, why don’t you kick of off? What do you got for us?

Manfred: I have a pair of books I wanted to recommend, and I hope the first one hasn’t been recommended on the show before and it’s a book from 2012 by Elizabeth Perry called Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition. That’s the first book. Has it been recommended before?

Kaiser: No, it has not been. But Liz has been on the show before and yeah, I love her, she’s one of the true greats of our field.

Manfred: She really is and it’s a really wonderful book that’s just a great example of the kind of scholarship she does because it focuses, as the title suggests, on the Anyuan mine and organizing that happened there involving Mao and Liu Shaoqi and Li Lisan, who ended up being one of the first leaders of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, incidentally. And they all play like a different role than you’d expect. So Liu Shaoqi is the one with the personality, cult that he’s building up around him while Mao is sort of pragmatic organization. Man, it was a really neat book with a lot of surprises in it.

Kaiser: Well that is certainly a surprise. I once described Liu Shaoqi is Bert to Mao’s Ernie. That’s fantastic. Great, that’s the first book, so Liz’s book on Anyuan.

Manfred: And the other book is also a book about mining but in Appalachia in the States and it’s called The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom. And it’s by James Green and that’s from 2015, and it’s just a really vivid history of the mine wars of the early 20th century and it gets you really rooting for some of the characters again, much like Liz Perry’s book characters like Mother Jones or Frank Keeney, the mine leader who was behind the big battle of Blair Mountain when you had something between 8,000 and tens of thousands of armed miners marching through the woods. You get to know people like that and the two books together I think kind of speak to each other in a nice way.

Kaiser: Well, that one sounds fantastic, I will almost certainly read that one. Thank you, excellent recommendation. I have something a little less ambitious, it’s just a podcast, the Ezra Klein show, generally, but particularly an episode that Ezra did with Adam Tooze, the economic historian who’s been on our show a couple of times and who really ranks among my favorite public intellectuals just for his dazzling perspicacity and his ability to synthesize across a broad range of disciplines and topics. So listen to that one, which incidentally, he never mentions China but have a listen, be thinking China the whole time and see what you come away with. I mean, because I did that on the recommendation of a friend of mine, and if you have ideas of what I might mean by what I’m hinting at here, drop me an email, I’d be really curious to hear what our listeners have to say about this.

So that’s my recommendation, Ezra Klein. I just think Ezra Klein is brilliant. I’ll never be the interviewer that he is but he’s just got a fantastically subtle mind. I love the guy.

Manfred, thanks once again. The book is called Workers and Change in China: Resistance, Repression, Responsiveness, and it really does make such an excellent contribution to literature all about authoritarian governance and Manfred, I look forward to having you back on the show.

Manfred: I really enjoyed the conversation and look forward to talking again sometime.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina is a proud partner of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We’d be delighted if you drop us an email at Or just as good, give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter on Facebook at @supchinanews, and make sure to check out the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week. Take care.