The transformation of labor relations in China's emerging market economy

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The economic reforms in China have set in motion a process of change that is transforming Chinese society and politics in fundamental ways. Gradual reforms in China often lead critics to argue that little substantive change has actually occurred with respect to labor relations in China. However, the transformation of labor relations in reform-era China has been fundamental and deep, and this transformation plays a crucial role in the quiet revolution currently underway in the Chinese economy and in society at large. From the changes in the workplace to the new institutional contexts in which firms are situated, the current position of labor in China marks a radical break from the past. An explanation of these changes must strive to integrate three levels of analysis. First, state level institutional changes, led by reform-minded leaders, have driven this process forward. Second, a rights-based labor regime is emerging in factories through on-the-ground pressure from foreign investors. Third, at the individual level, workers are no longer tied to their workplaces; fluid labor markets, and opportunities elsewhere, afford workers a bargaining power that was previously impossible in China. The emergence of a rule of law society in general provides a context within which changing labor relations in China are situated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-170
Number of pages32
JournalResearch in Social Stratification and Mobility
Issue numberC
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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