The rise of China as a dominant economic and political power is a central fact of our age. That rise is premised, in part, on a relentless repression of labor. These developments take place in a period of globalization, the model of which is embodied in the World Trade Organization (WTO), which protects property rights, enforces contracts, and secures investment, but is silent on labor rights.
Jenny Chan, an assistant professor of sociology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, has done pathbreaking work exploring the emergence of a new working class in China. This is a working class of young migrant laborers from the countryside. They work long hours in low-wage jobs and live in atrocious conditions. Chan’s recent book with co-authors Mark Selden and Pun Ngai is Dying for an iPhone. I spoke to her in January. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Levinson: Despite repression, there is a long history of labor politics in China. Can you start by giving us a brief history of the last several decades of workers’ attempts to better their lives?
Jenny Chan: For a century in modern China there have been struggles over who controls the fruits of industrial and agricultural labor. First it was a struggle with the state; today it is a struggle with a mixed or hybrid regime that includes the state and private capital.
There is widespread frustration and resistance among workers. Why? Because they work twelve hours a day, and the long working hours don’t provide them with a living wage. This new working class is huge; 300 million migrant workers have moved from the countryside, most of them young people who have high hopes about making a better life in the city. They don’t want to farm like their parents. They want to enjoy urban consumption and technology. But they end up living in factory dormitories, or in other low-cost residences where it is difficult for them to even think of having a family or to sink their roots in the city. Research finds that staff turnover in electronics factories is high, and yet management is primarily concerned about manufacturing productivity and product quality. What about workers’ well-being?
Levinson: Did labor struggles become more prevalent after China joined the WTO in 2001?
Chan: Yes. As China became more integrated into transnational production and global commerce, the provinces started to mobilize even more rural workers to meet the massive demand for service, construction, and factory work in cities. Over the past two decades, there has been high mobility of both capital and labor. Asian, U.S., and European direct investment reshaped China’s growth model and expanded it, drawing more workers into the market.
Levinson: Let’s talk about your book, Dying for an iPhone, which I found to be a stag...
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