The Master in Bondage
Factory Workers in China, 1949-2019
Huaiyin Li


chapter abstract

This book explores how Chinese workers formed identities, performed in production, and participated in factory governance during the Maoist and post-Mao era. The source materials used in this study include interviews with 97 retirees from industrial enterprises in different sectors and localities, original documents on factory management from the Nanjing Municipal Archives, and Chinese-language publications of government documents and statistics. The themes of this book include substantive governance, work-unit equilibrium, and the impact of enterprise reforms on workers in the post-Mao era.

1The Making of the Masters:
chapter abstract

A sophisticated set of measures was practiced to shape workers' identity throughout the Maoist decades, including the classification of family backgrounds, the stigmatization of "Elements of the Five Categories," the application for party membership, the awarding of political honors and titles, and the periodically held political study sessions. While these practices ostensibly served the official purposes of indoctrinating workers with the Party's ideology and cultivating their correct political consciousness, in reality, they functioned primarily as the pragmatic instruments to discipline the workers; for that end, the Party's pure as well as practical ideologies were reduced to nothing less than the measurable working ethics. More important, while those measures "failed" in cultivating workers' "redness," they nevertheless proved to be largely effective in disciplining them in production.

2Beyond Masterhood and Democracy: Worker Participation in Factory Governance
chapter abstract

Throughout the Mao era, another set of institutions was implemented in every state-owned enterprise for workers to participate in factory governance, thus manifesting their status as the masters of the factory and promoting democracy in enterprise management. These institutions, including the staff and workers' congress (SWC), the trade union, and the system of appeal by letter and visit, largely "failed" because ordinary workers had little chances to participate in the enterprise management process through these channels. Nevertheless, these institutions served a practical purpose, that is, to allow workers to express their day-to-day concerns and grievance regarding working and living conditions. When combined with the use of informal practices, these institutions turned out to be effective by and large in addressing the concrete, everyday issues in the workplace and beyond and thereby maintaining workers' morale in production.

3Everyday Power Relations in State Firms
chapter abstract

Factory cadres held power and influences over the workers not only because of their appointments by the superiors but more importantly due to workers' recognition of their capabilities and cooperation at the workplace. While the cadres were likely to protect a select group of workers who showed personal loyalty to them, they had to avoid overt favoritism and the subsequent damages to their reputation among the workers. The latter, on the other hand, showed no hesitation to confront a wrongdoing cadre and defend themselves, because of their secured, life-time employment that emboldened them as well as their advantage in a political discourse that invariably targeted the misconducts of the cadres. Thus, instead of one-sided dependency of workers on cadres, what prevailed in power relations on the shop floor was the one of symmetricity and interdependence between the elites and the rank and file.

4Worker Performance in Everyday Production
chapter abstract

Worker performance in everyday production was subject to the influences of two sets of factors, namely, formal institutions (such as the enforcement of work disciplines, the pressure of political campaigns, and the awarding of honorary titles, etc.) and informal institutions (self-perception, group identity, peer pressure, and mutual surveillance, etc.). The interaction between the formal and informal factors gave rise to a changeable set of work norms that defined what the workers thought to be a decent job, which subsequently shaped their choices of action for routine tasks. While most of them avoided outright slacking, the lack of direct link between effort and reward also accounted for their unwillingness to work hard, hence the emergence of an equilibrium that explained the overall stability of labor productivity in most of the industrial enterprises throughout the Maoist years.

5The Frustrated Masters: Workers before and during the Cultural Revolution
chapter abstract

Striking disparity existed among the workers of different residential and contractual statuses. Marginalized workers thus demanded higher wages and the conversion of their status into permanent workers after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, despite the state's quick suppression of these requests as the "wind of economism." Those who participated in seizure of power soon found that their "masterhood" was short-lived; representatives of worker rebels were marginalized in the newly established revolutionary committee in every factory and completely excluded from it when the Cultural Revolution was over. The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on the existing equilibriums in labor relations and factory politics. However, as the turmoil of radicalism subsided in the early 1970s, the dual equilibrium was gradually restored in the rest of the Maoist era.

6The Master of One's Own Labor Only: Workers in the Reform Era
chapter abstract

The work unit equilibrium yielded to a new dynamic in labor relations and factory politics in the post-Mao era, when the institutions that had sustained the equilibrium malfunctioned or disappeared in a series of reforms leadings to the privatization of most state-owned enterprises. Shirking and decline in labor productivity became a severe problem, while favoritism and clientelist ties also prevailed in state firms undergoing enterprise reforms. After the privatization of most state firms, the relationship between enterprise managers and workers was simplified into that between the bosses and employees. The institutional tools that the workers had used to express their grievances lost much of their functionality or collapsed; in their stead was the establishment of the new governing bodies in privatized firms, in which the ordinary employees were completely underrepresented and marginalized.

chapter abstract

The various institutions for worker participation in factory governance in Maoist China failed to meet their ideological goals, but they functioned to serve important practical purposes, such as turning the workers into a well-disciplined labor force, addressing their everyday concerns and grievances at the workplace and beyond, and thereby maintaining their morale in production. Departing from the received wisdoms that patron-client networks prevailed in cadre-worker relations and that slacking was widespread in everyday production, this study shows that the interaction between the formal and informal institutions tended to generate an equilibrium in power relations and work norms to constrain both the cadres and ordinary workers. It also offers a new interpretation on the origins and dynamics of enterprise reforms and their impacts on labor relations from the 1980s through the 2010s.