Christoph Scherrer (Ed.): China’s labor question. München 2011. vii+221 pp.

“China’s labor question” is a collection of papers based on presentations at a panel of alumni from a Master’s-level programme at a conference in Berlin in 2010 and has been replenished with additional invited contributions.Addressing a rapidly evolving issue of clear topical interest, the initiators of the volume have been keen to expedite publication, responding to “great interest among trade unionists and academics in learning more about workers’ struggles in China” (vi).

The initiative to publish junior researchers’ work speedily is laudable, for it is in my view an excellent element of training that allows budding researchers to gain valuable experience of publishing; for a group of young scholars, all non-native speakers of English, to cut their teeth on an English publication is the best possible preparation for the struggles of the academic world.

Considering the importance of Chinese workers for the world economy, who manufacture a large proportion of the consumer goods for the European and North American markets, the reader approaches the book with considerable expectation. Systematic syntheses, fresh views and the application of new, critical approaches to dynamically changing data on economy, work and society are certainly needed, since the scholarly field has had a hard time catching up with developments. The book, although bold and refreshing in some respects, unfortunately does not meet these expectations. The kaleidoscopic character of the book is a definite draw-back as it merely raises a large number of “challenges” without reaching a central idea of the processes of change in “labour relations.” I shall make this point with reference to two of the contributions.

The book starts out with Hansjörg Herr’s analysis of high economic growth and its consequences for employment in China. The intention is excellent, but it starts out with eerily irrelevant approaches to economic growth, like the “neoclassical model” and “new growth theory,” which are rejected for a number of reasons, partly because the theories are flawed in themselves, partly because they are not measuring the phenomena presenting themselves in China other than in very abstract terms, and partly, I would add, because economic policy making in China defeated the presumptions of conventional economic theory. The attempt to explain growth with inequality, harking back to Simon Kuznets and his famous curve, is also rejected; interestingly, Hansjörg Herr understands that “Chinese leaders even seemed to follow the idea that increasing inequality is a good thing,” but he fails to follow up on this and concludes that the Kuznets curve “does not bear up,” mainly due to points of no relevance to the Chinese case. Instead he marries Joseph
Schumpeter’s and Milton Keynes’ ideas in a “monetary development model” hoping to explain high economic growth rates in China. The model involves a cycle of credit-investment-income-savings and dictates that the productive (rather than speculative) nature of investments (as guided through the central bank) is crucial for economic growth. In the case of China, the risky reliance on international export processing incomes and the low domestic consumption rates have long been identified as potential obstacles to growth. The fact that high rates of social inequality stymy domestic consumption brings the author back to the conclusion that “the Chinese government has neglected the distribution question for too long.” The reader is left with very little understanding of China and a lot of chaff about debunked theories. And yet Herr does have a point that he could have pursued and measured: Exactly how the Chinese authorities systematically used the transition from one mode of planning to another and the manipulation of institutions like ownership (including the privatisation of state assets), household registration, land rights, enterprise reform and regulation and so on to achieve growth. That the policy since 2003 has been more focused on fairness does not indicate that the authorities are pursuing social equality, but rather that some of the inequalities arising from earlier policies have lost their usefulness and that the authorities promote other goals to consolidate economic growth, in that process not shying away from utilising other types of inequality. His bland conclusion that the Chinese success story can be ascribed to a “productive combination of government interaction and market forces” could have been the starting point and he could have used much more space on systematically discussing how the strong Chinese state managed to do what economics text books of any persuasion, even the works by Joseph Stiglitz, tell us is impossible. In stead of telling us that China’s “capitalist model is a specific and unique one,” he could have told us in what sense it is specific and what is so unique about it. Alas, he did not.

Frido Wenten’s contribution on “restructured class relations” since 1978 seeks to use a historical-materialist approach to bring out an understanding of social change. He homes in on the most important aspects that could provide answers, but fails to grasp them (and undamentally misunderstands crucial aspects). He points at the rural reforms, i.e. the introduction of the household responsibility system which between 1978 and 1983 transferred agricultural production back to rural households, he mentions the boost in rural incomes due to increase in state procurement prices and understands the rapid growth of the rural non-agricultural enterprise sector, as well as the huge rural-urban migration flows as “supply of cheap labour” to urban industry. He also understands the general issues of state-owned enterprise reform. However, he wrongly believes that the processes were “privatisation.” To the contrary, the state actively promoted the rural enterprise sector mainly as a collective sector, condoning new private enterprises as “red-cap companies,” changing the names of the “commune and brigade enterprises” into “township and village enterprises,” leading to township and town government control over the sector (the “local state coropratism,” as this has been termed by observers, dominated from the mid-1980s until sometime between 2005 and 2007, when townships and towns lost most of their economic functions). The efficiency gains the government sought to achieve in state owned enterprises had nothing to do with privatisation or capitalism, and the “DemocracyWall Movement” had no working class agenda;Wei Jingsheng’s claim for a “fifth modernisation” was for “democracy” in an ideal and broad sense and certainly not for “democracy in enterprises”; the movement learnt from not only Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc, but also studied texts by Rudolf Bahro, Milovan Djilas and many others in translations produced for exclusive use within the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party – they did not seek worker solidarity against encroaching capitalism,
but a critical understanding of power in socialist states. The idea that the late 1980s were characterised by worker activism (sparked by high inflation and also by the localised experiments with state-owned-enterprise reform in Liaoning), linking up students and workers, and ending in the “Tiananmen-massacre” compresses very diverse issues into an overly simplistic narrative of a working-class struggle that never took place. In the analysis of the state owned enterprise reform, Wenten fails to grasp the process of transition, seeing it more as a struggle than as a systemic change. Discussing the rural-urban labour migration as a major source of “primitive accumulation,” Wenten inadvertently strikes the central point, but sadly fails to make it the crux of what could have been an exciting analysis, thinking of it merely as the “subjective agency of migrant workers,” missing the point that their agency is bounded by the deliberate and careful calibration of administrative and other institutions by China’s central and local “developmental state” administrations within the parameters of their regulation of core market players. As for the Hu Jintao-era that began in 2003 and is nearing its end in 2012, Wenten believes that it mainly sought to address instability (partly due to worker activism and public protests) by backtracking and creating more social justice to make amends for the capitalist overdrive perpetrated by the Jiang Zemin leadership 1989-2002. Wenten does not systematically identify how proactive government policy making since the late 1990s and in particular during the Hu Jintao-era have gradually changed modes of capital accumulation, upgrading of technology and skills, location of industry, relations between agriculture and other sectors, and administrative and market structures of resource allocation and investment. By abandoning the basic political-economy principles of an historical-materialism approach and focusing on the affective aspects of worker activism, protest and social injustice, Wenten’s account does not reveal the direction of China’s political-economy system, but only concludes that “social conflict” will continue into the future. I shall not discuss all the contributions in the book, although several are better focused and demonstrate a better empirical balance. In any case, what can be learned from this masterclass?
– First, the authors should have let the manuscript be read by people with experience in the field of scholarship, willing to be genuinely critical, and they should have taken their advice and criticism seriously; the main lesson is that critique that allows one to change the manuscript before publication is something one learns from, while post-publication critique by reviewers only leads to grief. – Second, the authors should get to the core point and avoid empty theoretical deliberations. They should avoid using loose concepts or irrelevant theories. – Third, the authors should put away their personal sym- and antipathies, for nothing is more disturbing than misplaced solidarity and dissonant claims of unity, even if they are only hidden away in the subtext: Chinese working people can do without clammy embraces.
– Fourth, the authors should avoid poaching other people’s interview quotes, taking them out of context. In particular Wenten sins against this principle.
– Fifth, the authors should be meticulous when referring to other people’s work, avoiding to impute or infer meanings not expressed. Again, Wenten’s is prone to draw wrong conclusions from the works he refers to.
– Sixth, the authors should be dispassionate, try to see the big picture and at the same time understand the actual dynamics at play. For example: Private ownership or the household registration system are not good or bad, they are facts the significance of which changes over time and varies across situations. Collective bargaining has no intrinsic merit, for its value is entirely determined by its context. Judging phenomena in China as everywhere else, one needs to see them in context, not isolated.
– Seventh, the authors should get their work properly language edited in several iterations by people who are used to their field of scholarship.

When English is the language of publication, the citation styles and all other detail must follow English conventions, even if the publisher is in Germany. The point I want to make is that a lot of enthusiasm and hard work has gone into this book, and that most of the fundamental flaws could have been avoided by more careful processes of pre-publication peer review, editing, and better scholarly practices. For example, some of the mistakes in Wenten’s work are not uncommon among young scholars, and better advising and mentoring should have smoothed them out. I found the book hard to read and hard to review, and I considered declining to review it at all. The fact that I do review it and choose to be emphatic and blunt about its flaws is that I hope that my comments at least can be of use, for I do believe that this type of publication is important, and that in the future we can make sure that young researchers are guided and supported by critical peer reviewers, their advisors, as well as commissioning editors, language editors and copy editors to better learn the skills of publishing internationally. We need new cohorts of highly skilled researchers, and the only way to achieve that is by providing both support and criticism. Even if the publication would be delayed by a year in order for it to become academically stronger and more credible, that year would be well spent.
Flemming Christiansen, Duisburg-Essen

Quelle: Zeitschrift für Wirtschaftsgeographie Jg. 56 (2012) Heft 1-2, S. 116-118

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