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Reviewed by:
  • Industrial Relations in China
  • Kun-Chin Lin (bio)
Bill Taylor, Chang Kai, and Li Qi. Industrial Relations in China. Chelten-ham (UK) and Northampton (MA): Edward Elgar, 2003. 264 pp. Hardcover $95.00, ISBN 1-84064-578-4.

Readers will find this book extremely useful as a close reading of the policies of the central government of the People's Republic of China and the principal institutional legacies of socialism as pertaining to state-sector employment and workplace management. The authors—noted scholars in Hong Kong and mainland China—provide expert guidance in sorting through two decades of adjustments, both dramatic and subtle, in policies and institutions that many China observers may not have had the patience to follow or the open-mindedness to interpret without a presumed bias against China's conservative policy makers. The authors point out that despite broad continuities in the reform logic of the party-state, the actual formal organization, rules, and norms of industrial relations have begotten inconsistencies that work against the emergence of a basic model that approximates class relations and labor management in the West or Japan. This conclusion is perhaps lacking in drama for informed students of Chinese political economy; however, the chief contribution of this volume is the way that it unpacks the national image to expose contradictory forces and heterogeneities in outcome at the ground level. In the end, I find the authors' method of disaggregation restrictive and their analysis wanting in empirical support, but the general objective of their project is valuable nonetheless.

I take issue with the authors' conception of a systematic approach in studying industrial relations, and with their analytical focus on the centralized state in ordering relations among its local political agents, managers, and workers. Throughout the volume they consistently criticize the existing area-studies literature for falling short of producing a general framework for understanding emerging institutions—one that would bridge macro- and micro-level analyses that have conventionally been kept relatively uninvolved. [End Page 249]

By "systematic," the authors refer to a comprehensive coverage of three aspects of industrial relations—the main actors, their arena of interaction, and issue areas of direct relevance to labor management—and the central policies and institutional adaptations that have shaped these aspects during the reform era. Part 1 lays out the evolving institutionalized roles of the government, managers, workers, and trade unions—with very few surprising finds to offer a serious challenge to our presumption of top-down paternalistic relationships. Part 2 traces with clarity and attention to detail the processes of participation, labor conflict and settlement, and collective contracts.

This framework falls short of being systematic on two counts. First, it implicitly accepts as the starting point the definitions, relationships, and typologies inherent in the former socialist system, which in turn was linguistically derived from Marxist hermeneutics. For example, the introductory chapter adopts a neo Marxist structuralist conception of the state as possessing relative autonomy from the economic classes and displaying its own imperatives as a social force. Discussions of the application of corporatism, neo-traditionalism, and convergence theories to the contemporary Chinese setting follow this conception and thus lack original and deeper critical insights.

Later in the book (see in particular chapter 4 and the Conclusion), the authors attempt to deal with the operational tensions stemming from the rigid political definition of the working class and some administrative attempts to reclassify and redefine classes to better fit the reform agenda. However, they do so without probing deeply the actual realities of work and production relations that underlie sociologically and anthropologically informed studies of the reform era by Yang (1989), Ruan (1993), Zhou (1993), Lee (1999, 2000), Chan (2001), and Solinger (2002), and studies of the Maoist era by Perry (1994) and Perry and Li (1997).

Second, the authors unduly privilege formal institutions and political relationships continuous with the decades of the command economy, including trade unions, "democratic" representative bodies, and central ministries. The chapters on trade unions, while admirably thorough in their detailed descriptions of their statutory roles and relationships, offer little clue as to whether the trade unions could ever carve out a significant post-socialist niche in labor relations. The authors...


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