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Shifting Dynamics of Chinese Labour in a Global Perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Chinese Labour (Shifting Dynamics of Chinese Labour in a Global Perspective)

Reporting period: 2017-12-15 to 2018-12-14

With the financial crisis increasing the pressure on labour conditions in Europe, and with the European national economies constantly subject to the vagaries of an uncertain Chinese growth, the predicament of Chinese workers has ceased to be of interest only to China specialists and public debates on labour relations in China have assumed a particular urgency worldwide. Western fears of a loss of employment to China are often connected to a perceived low labour cost and a repressive labour regime in China. For this reason the recent growth of labour activism and the talks of ‘rights awakening’ among Chinese workers have attracted the attention of commentators and academics alike. The largely anecdotal evidence used to support this argument has become a central facet of debates about Chinese labour, both inside and outside the country. Harder questions should follow: how do Chinese workers perceive their rights? What is the local and global significance of such a generational shift, and how is it affected by a changing regulatory environment as well as by global economic conditions? How big and how significant a role do Chinese state and its agents play in shaping this perception? And, more important, how will these shifting dynamics of Chinese labour activism affect the future of China as a “world factory”? In such a context, this project analysed the shifting dynamics of Chinese labour activism and how these are affecting labour standards at a global level.
In the first two years of the action, I was based at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), The Australian National University (ANU), where I worked on my research under the supervision of prominent China scholars and established fruitful collaborations with many ther colleagues, all of them early-career researchers exploring different facets of Chinese politics and society. In the final year, I focussed on disseminating my work by giving seminars and talks at several institutions in Italy and Europe. Output of the project includes:

- Ivan Franceschini, Lavoro e diritti in Cina: Politiche sul lavoro e attivismo operaio nella fabbrica del mondo, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2016.
- Ivan Franceschini, Kevin Lin, and Nicholas Loubere eds, Made in China Yearbook 2016: Disturbances in Heaven, ANU Press, Canberra, 2017.
- Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere eds, Made in China Yearbook 2017: Gilded Age, ANU Press, Canberra, 2018.
- Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (eds.), Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi, ANU Press & Verso Books, Canberra & London, 2019 (forthcoming).
- Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere, Made in China Yearbook 2018: Running Dogs, ANU Press, Canberra, 2019 (forthcoming).

Selected Publications:
- Ivan Franceschini, Kaxton Siu, and Anita Chan, "The 'Rights Awakening' of Chinese Migrant Workers: Beyond the Generational Perspective," Critical Asian Studies, 3/2016, 422-442.
- Ivan Franceschini, "At the Roots of Labor Activism: Chinese and Cambodian Garment Workers in Comparative Perspective," Journal of Contemporary Asia, online first (2018),
- Ivan Franceschini and Elisa Nesossi, "State Repression of Labour NGOs in China: A Chilling Effect?" The China Journal, no. 80, 2018, 111-129.
- Ivan Franceschini and Kevin Lin, “A Pessoptimistic View of Chinese Labour NGOs,” in Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere (eds.), Made in China Yearbook 2018: Running Dogs, ANU Press, 2019 (forthcoming).
- Ivan Franceschini, “Outsourcing Exploitation: Chinese and Cambodian Garment Workers Compared,” in Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere (eds.), Made in China Yearbook 2017: Gilded Age, ANU Press, Canberra, 2018, 84-89.
- Ivan Franceschini “Meet the State Security: Chinese Labour Activists and Their Controllers," in Luigi Tomba and Jane Golley (eds.), The China Story Yearbook 2016: Control, ANU Press, Canberra, 2017, 65-72.
- Ivan Franceschini, “Revisiting Chinese Labour NGOs: Some Grounds for Hope?” in Ivan Franceschini, Kevin Lin, Nicholas Loubere (eds.), Made in China Yearbook 2016: Disturbances in Heaven, ANU Press, Canberra, 2017, 46-49.
- Ivan Franceschini, “Chinese Workers and the Law: Misplaced Trust?” in Ivan Franceschini, Kevin Lin, Nicholas Loubere (eds.), Made in China Yearbook 2016: Disturbances in Heaven, ANU Press, Canberra, 2017, 84-87.
My research in these years has explored several aspects related to the shifting dynamics of labour activism in China. First, through a series of surveys that I carried out in the metal and garment sectors in China, I investigated the rights awareness and legal knowledge of Chinese migrant workers. In particular, through my research, I highlighted how the way these workers perceive their rights is shaped and constrained by institutional dynamics that take place not only at the state level – such as the fact that the Chinese authorities promote a discourse of labour rights that strongly emphasises individual rights – but also at the workplace level, with the decision of the employers to resort to piece-rates instead of time-rates. Second, I put these findings into a broader perspective, carrying out a coordinated survey in China and Cambodia to compare the wage expectations and legal knowledge of garment workers in the two countries. This has allowed my to identify several factors that determine differences in the pattern of labour activism among Chinese and Cambodian workers. Third, I examined the impact of state repression on organised labour activism in China, in particular on the activities of those Chinese labour NGOs that engage in ‘rights protection’ activities or collective bargaining. Through my research, I have been able to show how these organisations are adapting to an increasingly repressive political climate. Finally, I researched how the discourse of labour promoted by the Chinese Communist Party has evolved over time, showing how key concepts of the Maoist discourse of previous decades maintain currency in the public debate in China to this day.
The results of the research have been broadly disseminated through the 'Made in China Journal', an open access quarterly which I established in early 2016. The publication includes essays penned by a mix of both early-career and senior scholars. Our subscription base has grown to over 1,500 recipients, with average of more than 5,000 downloads per issue. Readers include scholars, policy-makers, journalists, trade unionists, NGO practitioners, and students from all over the world. To maximise the impact of the publication, at the end of the year the contents of the journal also go through external peer-review to be included in the 'Made in China Yearbook', a book published open access by ANU Press. At the end of December 2018, the first edition of the Yearbook had been downloaded 10,824 times (3,061 times in its entirety, and 7,763 as individual chapters); at the end of December 2018, the second edition had been downloaded 4,825 times (1,620 times in its entirety and 3,205 times as individual chapters). The relevance of this publication is demonstrated by the fact that 'Made in China'—including some essays of mine that I published in it—was quoted several times in both the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Annual Report of the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China.