Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 521–543 | Cite as

The Contested State vs. Contentious Workers: The Symbolic Labor Politics in Transitional China

  • Xiuying Cheng


How does the Chinese state maintain its legitimacy and manage labor conflicts during its transition to market economy? Through detailed analysis of a 10-year struggle by a group of state workers to defend their pensions by active engagement with state agents, this article attempts to explore the circular feature of the state and how this circular state functions to absorb the labor contentions. This state is composed of three intersecting circles—a circle between different petition offices, a circle between petition offices and courts, and a circle between the local and the center. On the one hand, the circulation of the workers’ case in this circular bureaucratic field elongates the struggles of the workers and prevents the radicalization of their resistance; on the other hand, this circle promotes the circulation and inculcation of statist capitals among workers. This process realizes both the discursive construction of the new state and the symbolic domination of the resisting workers.


Circular state Symbolic domination Contentious politics Rule of law China 



I thank Michael Burawoy for his suggestions and directions on earlier versions of this article. I am also particularly grateful for the insights and encouragements provided by David Smilde throughout the editorial process. This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Chinese Social Science Foundation (17BSH109). The statements made and views expressed is solely the responsibility of the author.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public Administration and PolicyRenmin University of ChinaBeijingChina

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