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[Excerpt] The twenty years since 1989 have brought two major developments in worker activism. First, whereas workers were part of the mass uprising in the Tiananmen movement, albeit as subordinate partners to the students, labor activism since then has been almost entirely confined to the working class. While the ranks of aggrieved workers have proliferated (expanding from workers in the state-owned sector to include migrant workers) and the forms and incidents of labor activism have multiplied, there is hardly any sign of mobilization that transcends class or regional lines.

Second, we observe that a long-term decline in worker power at the point of production – power that was previously institutionalized in skill hierarchies, union representation, democratic management, permanent or long-term employment, and other conditions of service constitutive of the socialist social contract - is going on even as workers gain more power (at least on paper) outside the workplace. New labor laws have broadened workers' rights and expanded administrative and judicial channels for resolving labor conflicts. These legal and bureaucratic procedures have atomized and depoliticized labor activism even as they have engendered and intensified mobilization outside official limits.


Suggested Citation
Kwan Lee, C. & Friedman, E. (2010). China since Tiananmen: The labor movement [Electronic version]. Retrieved [insert date], from Cornell University, ILR School site:

Required Publisher Statement
© Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Final version published as: Kwan Lee, C. & Friedman, E. (2010). China since Tiananmen: The labor movement. Journal of Democrarcy 20(3), 21-24.