- Hegemonic Transformation: The State, Laws, and Labour Relations in Post-Socialist China by Elaine Sio-Ieng Hui
Elaine Sio-Ieng Hui
NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
vii + 262 pp., $109.99 (cloth); $84.99 (e-book)
Hegemonic Transformation by Elaine Sio-Ieng Hui is a much-needed analysis of how Chinese migrant workers' class consciousness is shaped by the post-Maoist Chinese state's efforts to reproduce capitalist hegemony in the Pearl River Delta. This book provides a rich account of how this occurs via (1) a refreshingly in-depth theorization of the concept of hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci and contemporary Marxists have developed it, and recent debates on the role of the Chinese state in economic development; and (2) a participant-observation qualitative methodology that encompassed Hui's own involvement in a Pearl River Delta labor NGO as well as scores of interviews with Chinese migrant workers, labor NGO activists, trade union officials, lawyers, and labor scholars.
Hui argues that the Chinese state has carried out a "top-down passive revolution" that has aided the capitalist class in securing hegemony via both coercion against and consent from China's working class (4). Hui rightly argues that the current literature on Chinese development fails to capture how the party-state has "mediated conflicting social relations . . . so that it could push capitalist economic reform through" (16). She turns to a Gramscian understanding of hegemony, which simultaneously takes seriously Marx's conceptualization of the capitalist state as an instrument of the capitalist class and that capitalist hegemony is accomplished not only through coercion but by winning consent from the working class. Where Gramsci's theorizations were obscure (due to fascist Italian censorship), Hui draws heavily from the work of EP Thompson and Nicos Poulantzas to discuss how hegemony recognizes the state as "relatively autonomous" even as it shores up capitalist class domination and simultaneously, through multifarious channels including the law and civil society, secures the consent of the working class.
What stands out about Hui's theoretical exposition is her thoroughness as she reviews relevant debates within Marxism and neo-Marxism (unlike too many "theoretical discussions" that cursorily mention large works once in their first ten pages before moving on to other big names). She does this not only to clarify her own theoretical position but to demonstrate that the understanding of what is referred to as "hegemony" in much of the literature on Chinese development is either incomplete or outright mistaken.
The heart of the book is drawn from a large number of interviews with (country-side-to-city) migrant workers, whom Hui met through her own involvement in a labor NGO that educated migrant workers about the rights they had in the workplace according to Chinese labor law. Hui regards labor law as a terrain on which capitalist hegemony is reinforced, which produces both the basis for working-class consent and the potential for resistance to the exploitative relations of production migrant workers encounter in the Pearl River Delta region, the heart of foreign export production and surplus accumulation in China. Hui argues that while the labor-law system aids China's capitalist class in [End Page 183] securing legal hegemony, it is also a consequence of working-class struggles and a tool workers can use (within limits) to win concessions and enforcement from both bosses and Party bureaucrats.
The attitudes of the Chinese migrant workers Hui interviewed and with whom she spent a lot of time fall into five types spanning affirmation to outright rejection of capitalist legal hegemony: "affirmative, indifferent, ambivalent, critical and radical" (106). While (ironically for a professed communist country) only one category of Chinese migrant worker rejects capitalist legal hegemony straight up ("radical"), the remaining workers—that is, the majority—accept, to varying degrees, capitalist legal hegemony. Hui does not treat attitudes as static categories; instead she sees them as influenced and transmuted by migrant workers' experiences with both labor law and (individual and collective) industrial disputes. Hui lets the workers' words clarify how so. The one constant in their lives is the experience of exploitation and violations of labor...