- State and Laid-Off Workers in Reform China: The Silence and Collective Action of the Retrenched
The number 724 weighs throughout Yongshun Cai's State and Laid-Off Workers in Reform China (herinafter Workers) as the author's carefully measured assurance of validity, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The comprehensive survey of 724 laid-off Chinese workers provides Cai with a solid foundation for his subsequent analysis. This subsequent analysis evaluates the various responses to retrenchment common to former employees of state owned enterprises (SOEs). In the mid- to late nineties, Chinese society underwent a profound transformation when the central government instituted a series of reforms aimed at SOEs. These reforms, intended to enhance the competitive advantage of SOEs in the newly exposed global marketplace, resulted in the retrenchment of almost 50 million people nationwide.1 Cai's survey was taken at the height of this period, when Chinese citizens-especially laid-off workers-felt the effects of reform most severely.
Workers's analysis accompanies comprehensive survey results that explore the effects of lay-offs across a spectrum of responses. The author attempts to illustrate that, despite the span of this spectrum, response to retrenchment reflects two central concerns. The first concern is about the conditions for creating or dissuading [End Page 370] worker solidarity and the second is about the relationship between workers and their targets in the wake of the reforms. Cai observes that, in most cases, the target is the local government, whose past and predicted future response is an important part of the conditions for silence and collective action. Contrary to what common perceptions of repressive regimes might suggest, Cai emphasizes the boundaries of government reaction in China, explaining not only why but how those boundaries came to exist. Further, Workers explains collective action in terms of the aggregate results that the author claims have given the retrenched at least a small hand in charting the course of government policy.
Aside from its breadth and depth, however, it is important to be mindful of the methodology used to administer the 724 survey when approaching Cai's analysis of the results. Stretching across eight provinces that span all of China's regions, Workers takes on the geographical balance necessary to achieve adequate coverage of the affects of centrally instituted reform. Workers seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of the variant responses to retrenchment. This is effectuated by assessing worker response under wide ranging circumstances, ensuring that the primary constant is the commonality of status as a laid-off worker and not membership in a certain class of laid-off workers. Cai accomplishes this by reaching out to workers not only from diverse geographic areas, but also from diverse socio-economic arenas. The 724 survey was administered for each province in cities where income was generally higher than other locales and in counties where income was generally lower than other locales, accounting for both the high and low ends of workers within the socio-economic spectrum.
There is however, a semi-constant of deprivation that might affect the integrity of Cai's results. Five of the eight provinces surveyed are among China's ten provinces with the highest number of laid-off workers. This is important to note because provinces with higher numbers of laid-off workers have workers who have experienced a greater degree of deprivation: less subsidies, less help from the government in procuring new forms of employment, and less likelihood of finding reemployment. Workers embraces this bias, however, with Cai citing that the interest of his study is to "examine an individual's reaction to deprivation."2 Despite Cai's explanation about the purposefulness of this bias, it is important for the reader that a higher level of deprivation felt by the individual, and additionally felt by an individual's community, might significantly alter not only the surrounding society's attitude toward collective action, but the diversity of individual attitudes toward collective action necessary to...