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Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt

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This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories, Against the Law finds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories, Against the Law finds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. Providing a broad political and economic analysis of this labor struggle together with fine-grained ethnographic detail, the book portrays the Chinese working class as workers' stories unfold in bankrupt state factories and global sweatshops, in crowded dormitories and remote villages, at street protests as well as in quiet disenchantment with the corrupt officialdom and the fledgling legal system.


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This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories, Against the Law finds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories, Against the Law finds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. Providing a broad political and economic analysis of this labor struggle together with fine-grained ethnographic detail, the book portrays the Chinese working class as workers' stories unfold in bankrupt state factories and global sweatshops, in crowded dormitories and remote villages, at street protests as well as in quiet disenchantment with the corrupt officialdom and the fledgling legal system.

30 review for Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt

  1. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    This is a fascinating comparative ethnography of contemporary labor struggles by factory workers against employment conditions in China's rustbelt and sunbelt since the country's reintegration into the world economy. The two ethnographic sites represent what Lee evocatively describes as the "death of socialism" and "birth of capitalism"-- the demise of the old socialist working class tied to predominantly heavy industrial, state-owned enterprises in Northeast China and the formation of a new wor This is a fascinating comparative ethnography of contemporary labor struggles by factory workers against employment conditions in China's rustbelt and sunbelt since the country's reintegration into the world economy. The two ethnographic sites represent what Lee evocatively describes as the "death of socialism" and "birth of capitalism"-- the demise of the old socialist working class tied to predominantly heavy industrial, state-owned enterprises in Northeast China and the formation of a new working class of migrants linked to the booming export-oriented manufacturing in the Southeast. By comparing these two class actors within the same country, Lee is able to demonstrate how the simultaneous processes of deindustrialization and industrialization are generating immense paradoxes in one of the world's manufacturing powerhouses. On the one hand, workers in both places face similar conditions of employment insecurity, ambivalence about the new market economy, and frustration with bureaucratic domination, engaging in parallel modes of resistance (cellular activism rooted in specific enterprises without connections to cross-factory and cross-national work struggles) under the macro context of market and legal reforms. Workers in Liaoning and Guangdong, on the other hand, have staged contrasting patterns of protest (demands for social protection in Liaoning versus protests against discrimination in Guangdong) and class identities due to their different locations in the social structure (urban proletariat in Liaoning who came of age under state socialism and temporary migrant workers in Guangdong who have maintained dense linkages to the peasant families left behind.) The broad similarities and subtle differences among industrial workers documented in this book have enabled us to not only grasp how national state structures shape the contours of social mobilization, but also how workers differentially integrated into the new market economy have produced different understandings and moral claims about capitalism. Despite the strengths of this book, a few shortcomings merit attention. First, although Lee tries to draw out the global implications of Chinese labor politics, she has not done justice to labor militancy in other countries with similar histories of authoritarianism and development. The Korean case, which has received some coverage in her conclusion, is just one example of a lack of comparative and historical insight. Lee, instead, emphasizes patterns of labor politics in the United States, which she concedes bears less resemblance to labor contention in China. It might be more fruitful to compare China's burgeoning labor protests with those in countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia when they were at similar levels of development to contemporary China. Even more pertinent would be a comparison between China and rising labor struggles in neighboring postsocialist countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia--sites of global manufacturing expansion in the 1990s and 2000s that are consciously modeled after China's development strategy. Doing so can enable Lee to better specify the unique features of Chinese labor politics. Second, the book leaves largely unexamined the role of capital in shaping the forms of protest in both places. To what extent has "state socialism" in Liaoning provided recently laid-off SOE workers with a greater political and moral leverage than their migrant counterparts laboring in the plants owned by foreign capital? Lee provides some clues about the generational and identity differences among these two class of workers, but underplays capital-labor relations at the point of production in her otherwise insightful treatment of labor-state relations in contemporary China. She also offers little data for comparing the political efficacy of these two forms of protest targeted at different class actors: the Chinese industrial nomenkatura versus foreign capital. Have labor protests in the rustbelt been able to wrest more important concessions from the local political elites given the Chinese state's continued privileging of urban over rural development and ideological lip service to the industrial proletariat in the Northeast? Unfortunately, these questions are not addressed in a systematic way, leaving us with some understanding of how these two groups of workers differ in their social and political identities but without an account of how their protests have mattered in different ways.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea Szendi

    This book is certainly inflected with the concerns of E. P. Thompson, projected onto two sets of workers in contemporary China: the "older" generation of workers in China's diminished rustbelt, and the "newer" generation in the booming sunbelt. This contrast offers Lee a way into explore how the former's sense of itself as a working class (thanks to its respected position in the ideology of the PRC at the moment of its creation) is operating as the factories around it are disintegrating, and how This book is certainly inflected with the concerns of E. P. Thompson, projected onto two sets of workers in contemporary China: the "older" generation of workers in China's diminished rustbelt, and the "newer" generation in the booming sunbelt. This contrast offers Lee a way into explore how the former's sense of itself as a working class (thanks to its respected position in the ideology of the PRC at the moment of its creation) is operating as the factories around it are disintegrating, and how the latter - composed mostly of migrant labor - is in a complex process by which it may or may not "make" itself as a working class. It's a rich premise, but could have used a bit more overarching structure to the arguments. But, hey: Perry Anderson loved it up in New Left Review, so who am I to get fussy?

  3. 5 out of 5

    Adam Chan

  4. 5 out of 5

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  5. 4 out of 5

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  6. 5 out of 5

    Madeleine O'Dea

  7. 5 out of 5

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  10. 5 out of 5

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  11. 4 out of 5

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  12. 4 out of 5

    Ella Chou

  13. 4 out of 5

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  16. 5 out of 5

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    William Wolfski

  20. 4 out of 5

    Hai

  21. 5 out of 5

    abclaret

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mollie Pepper

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  24. 5 out of 5

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    Jaime Shabalina

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    Leta Fincher

  27. 4 out of 5

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  28. 4 out of 5

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  29. 4 out of 5

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  30. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

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