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Chinese Unions: Nugatory or Transforming? An 'Alice' Analysis


  • Jianwei Li
  • David Metcalf


China has, apparently, more trade union members than the rest of the world put together. But the unions do not function in the same way as western trade unions. In particular Chinese unions are subservient to the Partystate. The theme of the paper is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Issues analysed include union structure, membership, representation, new laws (e.g. promoting collective contracts), new tripartite institutions and the interaction between unions and the Party-state. We suggest that Chinese unions inhabit an Alice in Wonderland dream world. In reality although Chinese unions do have many members (though probably not as many as the official 137 million figure) they are virtually impotent when it comes to representing workers. Because the Party-state recognises that such frailty may lead to instability it has passed new laws promoting collective contracts and established new tripartite institutions to mediate and arbitrate disputes. While such laws are welcome they are largely hollow: collective contracts are very different from collective bargaining and the incidence of cases dealt with by the tripartite institutions is tiny. Much supporting evidence is presented drawing on detailed case studies undertaken in Hainan Province (the first and largest special economic zone) in 2004 and 2005. The need for more effective representation is appreciated by some All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) officials. But reasonable reforms do seem a long way off, so unions in China will continue to echo the White Queen: "The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today" and, alas, tomorrow never comes.

Suggested Citation

  • Jianwei Li & David Metcalf, 2005. "Chinese Unions: Nugatory or Transforming? An 'Alice' Analysis," CEP Discussion Papers dp0708, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  • Handle: RePEc:cep:cepdps:dp0708

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. A Charlwood & K Hansen & David Metcalf, 2000. "Unions and the Sword of Justice: Unions and Pay Systems, Pay Inequality, Pay Discrimination and Low Pay," CEP Discussion Papers dp0452, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
    2. Simon Clarke & Chang-Hee Lee & Qi Li, 2004. "Collective Consultation and Industrial Relations in China," British Journal of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics, vol. 42(2), pages 235-254, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Niny Khor & John Pencavel, 2006. "Income mobility of individuals in China and the United States," The Economics of Transition, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, vol. 14(3), pages 417-458, July.
    2. Eli Friedman & Ching Kwan Lee, 2010. "Remaking the World of Chinese Labour: A 30-Year Retrospective," British Journal of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics, vol. 48(3), pages 507-533, September.

    More about this item


    China; trade unions; Hainan Province; collective contracts; collective disputes; membership;

    JEL classification:

    • J5 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor-Management Relations, Trade Unions, and Collective Bargaining

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