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Chinese Labour Report Summary

Project ID: 654852
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Chinese Labour (Shifting Dynamics of Chinese Labour in a Global Perspective)

Reporting period: 2015-12-15 to 2017-12-14

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

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 aims at analysing the shifting dynamics of Chinese labour activism and how these are affecting labour standards at a global level.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

"In the first two years of the action, I have been based at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), the Australian National University (ANU). In this period, I have carried out my research under the supervision of leading experts in the field such as Luigi Tomba, Anita Chan, and Jonathan Unger. I have also benefitted from the collaboration of several colleagues at CIW, all of them early-career researchers exploring different facets of Chinese politics and society. The work I have done in these two years has allowed me to expand my knowledge regarding the latest developments in Chinese industrial relations and labour activism and give what I deem a meaningful contribution to the international debate about China’s role abroad.
The main results that I have achieved so far include:
a) Publication of the monograph 'Lavoro e diritti in Cina: Politiche sul lavoro e attivismo operatio nella fabbrica del mondo', Il Mulino, Bologna, 2016;
b) Publication of the co-edited volume (with Kevin Lin and Nicholas Loubere) 'Made in China Yearbook 2016: Disturbances in Heaven', ANU Press, Canberra, 2017;
c) Publication of the co-edited volume (with Nicholas Loubere) 'Made in China Yearbook 2017: Gilded Age', ANU Press, 2018 (forthcoming);
d) Publication of the co-edited volume (with Christian Sorace and Nicholas Loubere) 'Afterlives of Chinese Communism', ANU Press, 2018 (forthcoming);
e) Publication of the peer reviewed paper (with Kaxton Siu and Anita Chan) 'The ""Rights Awakening"" of Chinese Migrant Workers: Beyond the Generational Perspective', in Critical Asian Studies 3/2016, 422-442.
f) Publication of the peer reviewed paper 'At the Roots of Labor Activism: Chinese and Cambodian Garment Workers in Comparative Perspective', Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2018 (forthcoming).
g) Publication of the peer reviewed paper (with Elisa Nesossi) 'State Repression of Labour NGOs in China: A Chilling Effect?, The China Journal, 2018 (forthcoming).
h) Publication of eight issue of 'Made in China: A Quarterly on Chinese Labour, Civil Society, and Rights', an open access electronic journal that I started under the aegis of of this project (
i) Organisation of a workshop on 'Discourses and Practices of Human Rights and Labour Rights in China', held on 9-10 March 2017 at CIW.
j) Organisation of the international Summer School 'Labour and Rights in an Era of Global Precarity: Views from China’ at Venice International University, Venice, in July 2017.
k) Organisation of the international Summer School 'Chinese Labourscapes: Transregional Perspectives on Work and Right’ at the CISL Training Centre, Florence, in July 2018.


Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

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. Published every three months, the publication has been steadily growing in size from short issues with three or four essays penned by junior scholars to longer issues with no less a dozen essays penned by a mix of both early-career and senior scholars. Our subscription base—i.e. the number of readers who have subscribed to receive 'Made in China' in their e-mail box—has also grown to over 1,100 recipients, with average of more than 4,000 downloads per issue. Readers include scholars, policy-makers, journalists, trade unionists, NGO practitioners, and students from all over the world. The articles that appear in the journal go through internal peer-review by members of the editorial board. 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 2017, the first edition of the Yearbook had been downloaded 6,928 times (2,581 times in its entirety, and 4,347 only one of its 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 eleven times in the 2017 edition of the Annual Report of the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

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