China's Troubled Workers

SWEATSHOP SOCIALISM

For financial managers monitoring trade from the tall towers of Wall Street, China's high-growth economy inspires awe and investments. To the men and women employed on the factory floor of the People's Republic, however, the economic scene looks grimly different. China's workers are in trouble, some in deep trouble.

Since their inauguration in 1978, Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms have wrought vast changes in the nation's labor force. While diversifying the types of enterprises in China, the reforms have exacerbated labor problems across all of them: state-owned firms, joint ventures, urban, township, and village collectives, domestic private firms, and foreign-funded enterprises. A key innovation of Deng's "socialism with Chinese characteristics" was that some people would "get rich first." But most workers, the supposed "masters" of the country, are still waiting for their share.

Some economists claim that the workers' day will come with further growth, but double-digit growth rates do not necessarily translate into a better life for workers. After a decided improvement in living standards during the first half of the 1980s, income inequality has widened, with workers' social status declining apace. In 1978, 27 percent of the members of the National People's Congress were worker representatives. Their numbers declined to 15 percent in 1983, 12 percent in 1988, and 11 percent today. Worse yet, many so-called worker representatives are now from the managerial ranks, rather than model workers as in the Maoist days.

Nor is the worker's voice likely to become more influential when the next Congress takes office in 1998. In state enterprises, where the Communist Party has a large membership base, the party committees have been emphasizing recruitment of managerial and technical employees, not ordinary workers. In enterprise-level work councils, still touted as prime vehicles for worker participation, worker representatives are heavily outnumbered by managers, professionals, and technicians.

Reality contradicts the ideological pronouncement that managers and workers alike are members of the working class. Feng Tongqing, a teacher at Beijing's central training center for union officials, observes in his book Speaking Without Reservations:

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis