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

4.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520250970
ISBN-10: 0520250974
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Editorial Reviews


"An ethnographic and analytic masterpiece. . . . Few sociological studies have combined structural and existential, object and subjective truths so memorably as this one."--"London Review of Books"

"This beautifully written book will catalyse further important debates on the class dimensions of labour protest."--"Labour History"

From the Inside Flap

"For anyone interested in the world of labor today, there is no more important case than that of China. Ching Kwan Lee's rich ethnographic account takes us inside the largely hidden world of labor protest in the world's largest, most dynamic economy. Her nuanced comparison of the Chinese 'sunbelt' and 'rustbelt' and her emphasis on the centrality of the law and the discourse of legal 'rights' to Chinese labor politics are especially compelling. Against the Law is a thoughtful, provocative book that deserves a prominent place on every labor scholar's bookshelf."—Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers And the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

"Based upon impressive ethnographic research in multiple Chinese settings, this book reveals key regional differences in patterns of protest among China's restive workers. Professor Lee's important findings not only complicate our understanding of labor unrest; they also carry significant implications for the development of citizenship and legal reform in contemporary China."—Elizabeth J. Perry, author of Patrolling the Revolution

"The book is based on simply the best field research yet done on Chinese workers' politics. Prof. Lee has gotten down and dirty with a wide range of workers. The interviews that make up so much of the rich narrative alone are worth the price of the book and the time invested in reading it. But there is more: the analysis is important, persuasive, balanced, and clear. It rings true."—Marc Blecher, author of China Against the Tides

"This is an amazing book that will have a dramatic impact on people's view of China, exposing the underside of China's incredible growth, and the human sacrifice that may be as great as 'The Great Leap Forward' or Mao's Cultural Revolution. What we witness here is the Chinese working class being present in its own unmaking and remaking, its struggle to come to terms with the present through the lens of the past, and, finally, its uncertain hope for the future. This is one of the most important books I've read in years!"—Michael Burawoy, Department of Sociology, University of California Berkeley

Product Details

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (June 7, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520250974
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520250970
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
In socialist China, workers' real wages were 35 per cent higher in 1970 than in 1952 and workers had better food, housing, medical care, education and training opportunities than ever before. From the 1950s to the 1980s, 94 per cent of city workers were covered by free medical care.

Now, with the return of capitalism, "the new generation of workers ... unambiguously confront domination by the capitalist class." Capitalism brought privatisation, which brought corruption, as officials, cadres and managers stole and sold public goods. Capitalism also brought layoffs, land thefts, non-payment of wages and pensions, and longer hours.

There were 27 million unemployed in 2002, up from under 7 million in 1993. In 2006, fewer than 30 per cent of unemployed men and 25 per cent of unemployed women got unemployment benefits. In 2000, the state forcibly took the land of 40 million villagers, leaving them without land, jobs or social security.

In 2000, 14 million workers in China's state and collective enterprises were owed wages, up from 2.6 million in 1993. In 1996-2001, in Shenyang, 26.4 per cent of retired workers were owed pensions. 100 million (internal) migrant workers made up 57.5 per cent of China's industrial working class: 75 per cent of them had been owed wages. In Guangdong in 2001, 80 per cent of migrant workers worked more than 10 hours a day, most for between 12 and 14 hours.

As Lee concludes, "Overall, the uneven transition of welfare from a work-unit-based entitlement to a universal human right has led to a general deterioration of workers' livelihoods, especially in the 1990s." Lee writes of workers' `powerlessness'; not so - workers always have the power, if they choose to use it.
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Format: Paperback
"It is right to rebel," the Chairman famously stated in his Quotations thereof. Here Professor Ching Kwan Lee gives us an overview of two concepts of labor rights in modern China, in two widely-separated provinces, representing two distinct periods of Chinese industrial development. China's "rustbelt" and "sunbelt" are in fact quite parallel to the US, in geography and modes of expression. The first is ensconced in older ideas of class and social entitlement, the latter seeing itself in terms of citizenship rights and equal protection under the law. The first emphasizes traditional unionism; the latter spontaneous, individual-motivated activism. Yet both merged in a single stream of national protest in the 2000s.

What the author has in fact rediscovered is the classic controversy between the "me-tooism" of "bourgeois citizenship," exemplified in the American labor movement, as opposed to the hard and narrow classism of Marx. The irony is that in China and other post-socialist states it is the Marxist tradition that represents labor conservatism, with rights-based activism as cutting edge radicalism. Yet there is no Great Wall between the two forms of consciousness or protest, as the patriotic labor militant at the conclusion testifies on p. 261. It's quite possible for a unified movement to develop that combines both class consciousness and demands for individual rights and liberties. Were this to bear real fruit it would transform China as profoundly as Mao's revolution.

Unfortunately, we still know relatively little of what ferments beneath the state-and-capital facade of modern China. What we do know comes from a handful of bicultural researches like this author, or foreign businessmen who happened to personally witness the protest movements as they developed.
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Against the Law opens with two kinds of spontaneous labor protests in China: thousands of workers marching through the streets of Liaoyang, an old industrial town in China's northeastern province of Liaoning, to demand payment of back wages, pensions, and unemployment allowances owed them for months; and an orderly delegation of migrant workers picketing in front of a courthouse in Shenzhen, capital of the Guangdong province in the south, awaiting a court hearing in a lawsuit against their employer. Why do workers in the decaying industrial rustbelt take to the street so readily while workers from export-oriented factories in the sunbelt instinctively resort to the labor bureaucracy and the judicial process before staging protests? And why have worker protests been contained at the local level, leading neither to the formation of a national labor movement nor to representative organizations?

To answer these questions, Ching Kwan Lee conducted fieldwork in the two provinces, gathering data from in-depth interviews with worker representatives and participants in protests, strikes, petitions, and lawsuits. In the rustbelt, she founds what she labels "protests of desperation," in which veteran state workers, staking their claims on moral and legal grounds, primarily take their grievances to the street. They leverage a strategy of political bargaining by shaming local officials and disrupting traffic and public order, and make only occasional and individual forays into the legal system. Rhetorically, workers' insurgent claims draw on political discourses of class, Maoism, legality, and citizenship. Such protests coexist with a survival strategy that relies on the remnants of socialist entitlements, primarily allocated welfare housing, and on informal employment.
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