zhangInside China's Automobile Factories

The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance

By: Lu Zhang

258 pp.
$95 hardcover
2039 ebook (https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/inside-china-s-automobile-factories)
Cambridge University Press


In Inside China's Automobile Factories, Lu Zhang explores the current conditions, subjectivity, and collective actions of autoworkers in the world's largest and fastest-growing automobile manufacturing nation. Based on years of fieldwork and extensive interviews conducted at seven large auto factories in various regions of China, Zhang provides an inside look at the daily factory life of autoworkers and a deeper understanding of the roots of rising labor unrest in the auto industry.

Combining original empirical data and sophisticated analysis that moves from the shop floor to national political economy and global industry dynamics, the book develops a multilayered framework for understanding how labor relations in the auto industry and broader social economy can be expected to develop in China in the coming decades.


Honorable Mention, 2015 Distinguished Scholarly Book Award, Section on Labor and Labor Movement, American Sociological Association

Reviews & endorsements

 "Lu Zhang's highly readable and insightful book offers a fascinating perspective on the recent wave of strikes in China's vast and growing automobile industry, drawing on extensive fieldwork in seven different auto factories. Highlighting the militancy of young, highly educated temporary auto assembly workers, who live in factory dormitories and often use social media as an organizing tool, Zhang shows how they leverage the ideological legacy of state socialism to challenge the logic of profit maximization in the world's most dynamic market economy. It is difficult to imagine a more intriguing case study of twenty-first-century labor unrest." 
Ruth Milkman, Graduate Center, City University of New York.

 Contents: http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Chinas-Automobile-Factories-Resistance/dp/1107030854?tag=duckduckgo-d-20

 Introduction: http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Chinas-Automobile-Factories-Resistance/dp/1107030854?tag=duckduckgo-d-20 

Perspectives on Work book review by Thomas Janoski: 

 Lu Zhang obtained access to the shop oor and many managers in seven automobile plants in China, resulting in a work of tremendous breadth and comparative sociology of industrial relations in China. She interviewed a total of 200 workers, forty-eight managers, and thirty party and union cadres representing about 50,000 workers from Changchun in the far north, Shanghai in the middle, and Guangzhou in the far south In the process, she gives us an invaluable view of the inner workings of auto plants under Chinese and joint American, Japanese, and German ownership. Zhang is an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.

This is notable on two counts. First, ethnographies are rarely this large in terms of interviews (i.e., 278), and second, getting inside auto or other plants in China can be quite difficult. She was able to make her rst contacts in a state-owned truck plant in her hometown by a close relative who had contacts with senior management.

From there, she gained access to other plants through a train- ing seminar on team leadership. It helped to be a native doing a dissertation at an American university because this was intriguing to workers, and that she was attached to a party-state committee connected to each venture. Such access is rarely granted to critical researchers, and the ways she negotiated it are remarkable.

The book uses theory largely based on a number of contradictions in labor politics. Though Ching Kwan Lee’s book Against the Law also covers labor conflict, Zhang argues against Lee’s focus on “cellular activism” as inherently limited in gaining larger organization due to the fear of control by the authoritarian party-state regime. Instead, she argues that grassroots actions can cause major changes at the national level even without formal organization in unions (the party- state union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions [ACFTU] remains a state- and often rm-dominated entity). 

Unlike “cellular activism,” Zhang sees a conflict between the basic logics of profitability and legitimacy. Relying on the need for the government to maintain industrial order based on a certain amount of market free will, the state can be pressured to protect workers and increase their pay by tacitly supporting sit-down and other strikes for higher wages. A socialist legacy of protecting workers can play into this legitimacy factor, but it also helps if these companies are joint ventures with foreign ownership and investment.

This theory follows from Beverly Silver’s concept of work- place bargaining power and its relation to marketplace and structural bargaining power. This is buttressed by “the paradox of labor-force dualism” that creates a large group of temporary workers who are paid less and have little job security, which then becomes a center of discontent and even protest.

In chapters 2 and 3 Zhang examines the long-term restructuring and transformation of the auto industry in China. It moves from the First Automobile Works in the 1950s through the Dongfend Motor Corporation to the first German auto plants. Two later groups—Chang’an and the Shanghai Auto- motive Industry Corporation—are added as joint ventures with a variety of companies after the Company Law of 1994. This brought 2010 Chinese automotive production to nearly 15 times its level in 1994; it is now the largest in the world.

Two further chapters look at the structure of the labor market and the organization of production in the factory. This chronicles the rise of labor dispatch (temp agencies) as providing flexibility through temporary workers. The formal workers most often have degrees from China’s modern vocational and technical education system.

Old temps were peasant workers, but new temporary workers are urban workers with fewer skills and students who must who work as interns in order to graduate. In most plants, temporary workers are one-third of the blue-collar labor force. This makes their discontent independent of the Houkou passport system that relegates migrant workers to secondary status 

Zhang then looks at the organization and order of the factory. Much of the production follows the just-in-time lean production approach, which makes production particular- ly vulnerable to stoppages. There is some job rotation and multi-skill training, but most groups have a handful of jobs, and there is a tendency to use “human wave tactics” of throwing workers at problem areas.

Working conditions are intense, with long days and much overtime. There is an internal labor market system, but tempo- rary workers are excluded from it. Some socialist paternalism exists in the form of “heart-to-heart talks” and “thought work” among ordinary workers. The ACFTU union at the enterprise level is viewed by workers as incapable of representing worker interests (but with the 2007 law it does play a role).

In chapters 5 and 6, Zhang examines compliance and resis- tance in the auto factory. Most protests come from temporary workers who can close down a plant due to the vulnerability of just-in-time methods. This is important, because permanent or formal workers are not very solidaristic with temporary workers.

Following Michael Burawoy’s work, Zhang views permanent workers as being subject to hegemonic consent, making them unlikely protesters, but temporary workers are largely independent of this process. Instead, they are becoming more and more independent and likely to protest their conditions. Worker resistance goes from the effort to bargain, manipulation of worker-participation programs, pilferage, and sabotage, to open protest and sit-down strikes. The new generation of temporary workers is especially active since they are urban and similar to the permanent workers. This makes their low pay and job insecurity untenable.

In the last two chapters, Zhang looks at the making of the Labor Contract Law of 2007, involving the party-state, management, and the workers themselves. The input of workers is striking in that mass incidents in short-term strikes (8,709 in 2007) and labor disputes (350,182) have increased dramatically.

Further, when the government solicited worker input on legal changes in a one-month period, they received 550,000 online opinions. Employers also expressed their views for continued flexibility and had an effect on legislators, who significantly tempered the original version of the bill. Zhang phrases this as the negotiation between capital accumulation and labor legitimacy. While the law had some effect, its implementation is still a work in progress, but some further progress toward enforcing regulations is being made.

This account almost makes politics in China look like a democracy, which it clearly is not. Zhang ends up seeing three scenarios: (1) continued exploitation of temporary workers, (2) a more mature lean model based on the Japanese pattern using fewer temporary workers, or (3) a new social contract between the party-state, labor, and capital that will balance worker and employer interests.

Given the 35 percent cost advantage that employers enjoy in China, there is certainly room for some improvement of labor conditions through scenario three. Zhang gives a great deal of credence to contextual factors unique to China, but she does provide an example where worker protest and organization (short of or in spite of unionization) gave considerable powers of the weak and led to important social change. For its depth and conclusions, this book has the hallmarks of being a classic.

Thomas Janoski

Thomas Janoski is a professor of sociology and director of the Quantitative Initiative in Policy and Social Research at the University of Kentucky. Among his recent books are The Causes of Structural Unemployment (Polity, 2014 with David Luke and Chris Oliver); Dominant Divisions of Labor (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014 with Darina Lepadatu); Diversity at Kaizen Motors (Ameri-can University Press, 2013, with Darina Lepadatu); The Ironies of Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Citizenship and Civil Society (Cambridge University Press, 1998). He is also a co-editor of The Handbook of Political Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2005). In fall 2015, a special issue of the International Journal of Sociology that he edited on “Lean Production around the World” will be published.