China's workers exploited

Reworking China's Proletariat

Sally Sargeson

The working conditions, attitudes and identities of China's workers have been transformed in the transition to capitalism. Once celebrated as the 'vanguard of the revolution' and 'masters' of the socialist enterprise, they are now referred to as obstacles to modernisation and flexible factors of production. State policies and management strategies expose workers to fierce labour market competition, job insecurity, strict discipline, intense productivity pressures, and status and regional rivalries. In turn, contract and temporary workers' perceptions of the disjuncture between their past and present situations, between rhetoric and reality, inform diffuse attempts at collective organisation and resistance.

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Sally Sargeson presents the first major study of the impact of market reforms on the recruitment and working conditions, relationships, identities and attitudes of China's new proletariat. Her detailed ethnographic fieldwork in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, forms the basis for a theoretical analysis of the interconnections between the development of capitalist relations of production and class formation in China, and state power, place and particularism.

The author argues that the terms under which contract and temporary workers are employed in China's capitalist firms are shaped by state policies and bureaucratic practices, and by localism and social guanxi networks. Yet the activities and power of state officials, and the cultures of localism and guanxi are simultaneously being transformed by their articultation to new relations of ownership, production and accumulation

This book will be of interest to everyone concerned with contemporary China's political economy, as well as precesses of socialist transition, working-class formation, and the representation of collective identities.

ISBN: 0-333-71985-9
Available from the publisher

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Adapted from
© 1999 Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA, 6150, Australia. Disclaimer

Rumblings in the proletariat

IF THERE is one word that the contract and temporary workers of Hangzhou continually use to describe their situation it is exploitation, says Sally Sargeson, the author of a ground-breaking book on the Chinese labour market.

  The word seems too tame when details of their life emerge in an interview with Dr Sargeson, a research fellow at Murdoch University's Asia Research Centre.

  Dr Sargeson is discussing her research on the non-tenured workers, often migrants from rural areas, who are at the bottom of the heap, and who make up about 20 per cent of the workforce.  Her book, Reworking China's Proletariat, has just been published by Macmillan ...

Rumblings in the proletariat
Michael Day

  The book has won an accolade from Stanford University sociology Professor Andrew Walder as "the best ethnography of factory work yet produced on the country (China)". ...

  Dr Sargeson, a fluent Mandarin speaker, had unparalleled access to factories and workers ...

  ... consider the setting ... in joint venture factories (some with foreign investment, others claiming it for tax reasons) and in semi-privatised township and village enterprises.

  Workers often sleep two to a bed in crammed single-sex factory dormitories.  They have 12-hour shifts with minimal breaks.

  If married, their spouses may be living in other parts of the city and their children stay with grandparents in far-off villages. A six-day working week and two weeks holiday a year offer little time for family life.

  Work is carried out in often appalling conditions, says Dr Sargeson, who observed it at close quarters for a year in the relatively prosperous capital of Zhejiang province in 1992-1993.

 "They sit there, hunched over doing detailed work with their fingers, and it is mind-numbingly boring with no change year in and out," she says.

 Pay is by piece-work and women receive about 65 per cent of the pay given to men for the same toil. The workers know they are lucky to find a job in a nation where 30 to 40 per cent of the agricultural workforce are surplus to requirements and where there is a floating workforce of about 100 million.

  ... squalor ... second-class citizens ... inequalities ... autonomous trade unions ... illegal ...

  "People aren't unhappy with reform per se but they are unhappy that there is no equality of opportunity and that opportunity is dispensed through a network of power and privilege, through the Communist Party, the Government and connections with big business."  -- © The West Australian, July 7, 1999, p 17.

Dr Sargeson's e-mail:

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