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Labor-related civil society actors in China: a Gramscian analysis

Abstract

Focusing on labor non-governmental organizations and labor lawyers, this article examines the class roles of China’s labor-related civil society actors (CSAs) in migrant worker resistance. This article calls into question the intuitive sentiment in scholarship that by engaging in collective labor actions, China’s CSAs are axiomatically advancing worker interests. It builds on criticism of the mainstream approach towards civil society and on Gramsci’s insights on civil society and organic intellectuals to construct a typological spectrum to evaluate labor-related CSAs. Based on in-depth interviews, participant observations, and documentary research, this article contends that China’s labor-related CSAs can be classified as unqualified organic, semi-organic, or organic intellectuals of workers, hinging on their commitment and ability to 1) challenge the kind of common sense associated with capitalist economic relations; 2) challenge the kind of juridico-political common sense the state reproduces; 3) construct a kind of good sense and enhance workers’ class consciousness and political consciousness; and 4) build up workers’ collectivity, spur workers to take concerted actions and engage in system-transforming initiatives.

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Diagram 1

Notes

  1. Franceschini (2014) estimates that there are a few dozen and Fu (2017a) suggests there are 72 LNGOs in China.

  2. Franceschini (2014) suggests there are 30 to 50 LNGOs in the PRD; the estimation of Froissart (2018) is 35; Chen and Yang (2017) suggest 51; and Xu (2013) suggests 30 to 35.

  3. This negligence is partly a reaction to Marx and Engel’s view of civil society, which was criticized for reducing civil society to an economic sphere (Cohen 1982). However, the literature on global civil society (GCS) has examined the economic traits of GSC more thoroughly. See, for example, Katz (2006) and Munck (2010).

  4. Marxist thinkers have different opinions on the relations between intellectuals and the working class. For instance, Engels and Marx (1975) believed that critical intellectuals help develop the proletariat’s theoretical consciousness. Lenin (1973) held that cadre-intellectuals and political parties are crucial for workers to develop revolutionary consciousness. Gramsci maintained that intellectuals belong to various economic classes, as explained in this article. Poulantzas (1978) saw intellectuals as petty bourgeoisie. Wright (1978) argued that intellectuals play an ambiguous role and occupy contradictory locations within class relations. Gouldner (Gouldner 1975 & 1979) viewed intellectuals as the New Class, yet a flawed universal class.

  5. LNGOs, like any organizations, are made up of people with diverse backgrounds and ideas. However, due to internal diffusion of practices and values (Strang and Soule 1998), organizations often have a certain degree of internal cohesion.

  6. Analyzing reformism, Lenin underscored, “the Marxists wage a most resolute struggle against the reformists, who, directly or indirectly, restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms. Reformism is bourgeois deception of the workers, who, despite individual improvements, will always remain wage-slaves, as long as there is the domination of capital.” (Lenin 1977a, p. 372) I use the term “reformers” in similar, but less value-laden, ways. In this article, “reformers” refers to those who back workers’ struggles within the established juridico-political and economic systems, rather than support their struggles against such systems.

  7. Here the term “revolutionaries” echoes how it is used in many Marxists writings (e.g. Lenin 1973 & 1977b; Gouldner 1975 & 1979; Draper 1977, and Boggs 1979). In essence, in this article “revolutionaries” refers to those who seek to support workers’ struggles against the established juridico-political and economic systems, rather than reforming those systems.

  8. LNGO (2), (3), (8), (9).

  9. Labor lawyer (2).

  10. https://www.cecc.gov/resources/legal-provisions/constitution-of-the-all-china-federation-of-trade-unions-amended accessed November 9, 2017.

  11. Such as Xiao Xiao Yu Labor Services and Yi Zhuan Yi Wa Migrant Workers Cultural Development Center. See CANGO Annual Report 2015, http://www.cango.org/upload/files/Annual%20%20Report%202015(1).pdf, accessed on October 14, 2016.

  12. Ibid.

  13. http://www.gdftu.org.cn/gyys/links/cydwwz/201208/t20120821_310365.htm, accessed on October 14, 2016.

  14. Ibid.

  15. The information on Legal Center’s activities is obtained from its annual report for 2014, 2015 and 2016, its website, and Interviews 48 & 49.

  16. In 2016, it handled six collective disputes. See Legal Center’s annual report for 2016.

  17. From 2013 to 2015, I participated in a research project that studied social insurance-related strikes, including this shoe factory strike. The research team conducted informal interviews with 20 workers during the strike and formal interviews with 15 workers after the strike. Also see interviews 33 & 34.

  18. My own emphasis. I had a copy of this open letter.

  19. My own emphasis.

  20. From 2012 to 2013, I participated in a research project that investigated post-strike workplace relations in Guangdong. The research team interviewed 10 workers from this factory. Also see interviews 1, 44, 47 & 51.

  21. China Collective Bargaining Forum, December 2011, p. 6.

  22. The training was held in December 2012 in Shenzhen.

  23. The training was held in November 2012 in Shenzhen.

  24. In 2017, China’s GDP per capita ranks 74 and the U.S.’s ranks 8. See http://statisticstimes.com/economy/countries-by-projected-gdp-capita.php accessed on 18th December 2017.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (RG003-A-17) and the Career Development Award, the Center for Global Studies, Penn State University. An earlier version of this paper was presented in the XVIII International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology, the Global Transformation of Work: Market Integration, China’s Rise, and Labor Adaptation Conference organized by the Rutgers University, and the Working Paper Series organized by the School of Labor and Employment Relations in Penn State University. The author would like to thank the participants of these meetings and Prof. Andreas Bieler for their valuable comment on the draft of the article.

Funding

This work was supported by Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (RG003-A-17) and the Career Development Award, the Center for Global Studies, Penn State University.

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Correspondence to Elaine Sio-ieng Hui.

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Appendix 1: List of interviewees

Appendix 1: List of interviewees

Interview number Labor-related CSAs City based Interviewees Date of interview
1 LNGO (1) Shenzhen Staff 1 20 September 2012
2 LNGO (2) Shenzhen Staff 1 7 October 2012
3 LNGO (2) Shenzhen Staff 2 19 November 2012/ 1 December 2012/ 24 May 2015
4 LNGO (2) Shenzhen Staff 3 23December 2012
5 LNGO (2) Shenzhen Staff 4 21 October 2012
6 LNGO (2) Shenzhen Staff 4 23 December 2012
7 LNGO (3) Dongguan Staff 1 16 December 2012
8 LNGO (3) Dongguan Staff 2 16 December 2012
9 LNGO (3) Dongguan Staff 3 29 October 2012
10 LNGO (3) Dongguan Staff 4 29 October 2012
11 LNGO (3) Dongguan Staff 5 29 October 2012
12 LNGO (4) Shenzhen Staff 1 12 June 2015/ 7 July 2018
13 LNGO (4) Shenzhen Staff 2 12 June 2015
14 LNGO (5) Shenzhen Staff 1 14 April 2013
15 LNGO (6) Shenzhen Staff 1 20 May 2013
16 LNGO (6) Shenzhen Staff 2 20 May 2013
17 LNGO (7) Guangzhou Staff 1 16 April 2015
18 LNGO (7) Guangzhou Staff 2 25 April 2015
19 LNGO (8) Guangzhou Staff 1 12 June 2016
20 LNGO (8) Guangzhou Staff 2 28 May 2015
21 LNGO (8) Guangzhou Staff 3 27 January 2013
22 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 1 5 May 2015/ 10 October 2015
23 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 2 6 May 2015/ 10 October 2015
24 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 3 24 May 2016
25 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 4 13 January 2013
26 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 5 24 May 2016/ 24 May 2018
27 LNGO (9) Guangzhou Staff 6 24 May 2018
28 LNGO (10) Guangzhou Staff 1 11 October 2012/ 23 May 2015
29 LNGO (10) Guangzhou Staff 2 11 October 2012
30 LNGO (11) Guangzhou Staff 1 2 May 2015/ 23 May 2018
31 LNGO (11) Guangzhou Staff 2 19 May 2018
32 LNGO (11) Guangzhou Staff 3 22 May 2018
33 LNGO (12) Shenzhen Staff 1 12 June 2015
34 LNGO (12) Shenzhen Staff 2 19 May 2018
35 LNGO (13) Guangzhou Staff 1 31 May 2018
36 LNGO (13) Guangzhou Staff 2 31 May 2018
37 LNGO (14) Dongguan Staff 1 15 March 2013
38 LNGO (14) Dongguan Staff 2 15 March 2013
39 LNGO (15) Huizhou Staff 1 22 January 2013
40 LNGO (16) Shenzhen Staff 1 15 April 2014
41 LNGO (17) Shenzhen Staff 1 2 June 2015
42 LNGO (18) Shenzhen Staff 1 28 June 2018
43 LNGO (19) Shenzhen Staff 1 22 May 2018
44 Rights lawyer (1) Shenzhen   14 September 2012
45 Rights lawyer (2) Shenzhen   9 April 2013
46 Rights lawyer (3) Shenzhen   20 September 2012
47 Legal assistant (1) Shenzhen   14 September 2012/ 30 October 2015/ 2 June 2018
48 Legal assistant (2) Shenzhen   23 June 2018
49 Legal assistant (3) Shenzhen   23 June 2018
50 Hong Kong labor activist (1) Hong Kong   23 October 2012/ 15 April 2013/ 4 June 2018
51 Hong Kong labor activist (2) Hong Kong   24 September 2012
52 Hong Kong labor activist (3) Hong Kong   7 October 2012/ 4 January 2015
53 Hong Kong labor activist (4) Hong Kong   29 January 2013
54 Hong Kong labor activist (5) Hong Kong   6 July 2014/ 17 May 2018
55 Hong Kong labor activist (6) Hong Kong   13 June 2015
56 Hong Kong labor activist (7) Hong Kong   18 May, 2018
57 Hong Kong labor activist (8) Hong Kong   18 May, 2018
58 Hong Kong labor activist (9) Hong Kong   18 May, 2018
59 Hong Kong labor activist (10) Hong Kong   19 June 2018
60 Hong Kong labor activist (11) Hong Kong   11 July 2018
61 Hong Kong labor activist (12) Hong Kong   19 June 2018
62 Hong Kong labor activist (13) Hong Kong   11 July 2018
63 Worker (1) Dongguan   24 March 2013
64 Worker (2) Shenzhen   13 January 2013,
65 Worker (3) Dongguan   16 December 2012
66 Worker (4) Shenzhen   25 November 2012
67 Worker (5) Shenzhen   1 December 2012
68 Worker (6) Shenzhen   20 May 2013,
69 Worker (7) Shenzhen   21 October 2012
70 Worker (8) Dongguan   16 December 2012
71 Worker (9) Guangzhou   1 June 2015
72 Worker (10) Guangzhou   1 June 2015
73 Worker (11) Guangzhou   1 June 2015
74 Worker (12) Dongguan   29 November 2012
75 Worker (13) Shenzhen   25 November 2012
76 Worker (14) Shenzhen   21 October 2012
77 Worker (15) Dongguan   16 December 2012
78 Guangdong provincial trade union official (1) Guangzhou   27 December 2012
79 Guangdong provincial trade union official (2) Guangzhou   7 December 2012
80 Guangdong provincial trade union official (3) Guangzhou   23 April 2013
81 Shenzhen district level trade union official (1) Shenzhen   21 April 2013
82 Shenzhen city level trade union official (1) Shenzhen   13 March2013

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Hui, E.Si. Labor-related civil society actors in China: a Gramscian analysis. Theor Soc 49, 49–74 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09372-2

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Keywords

  • China
  • Civil society
  • Gramsci
  • Hegemony
  • Labor NGOs
  • Organic intellectuals