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Research Highlight

Mingwei Liu, China

Chinese Trade Unions in Transition: Changing Roles, Challenges and Opportunities

ChinaFaced with a serious survival crisis, Chinese unions have been trying to adapt to the new economic and political environment through reform. Particularly, recent changes and developments, especially at the local level, suggest that Chinese trade unions may be beginning the transition toward more representative organizations suitable for an increasingly market-based economy.

To understand just how the Chinese trade union movement is changing, and to evaluate the nature and trends of such change, I traveled from the north to the south of China to study various levels of ACFTU (All China Federation of Trade Unions).

  • National level: I visited the headquarters of ACFTU in Beijing, conducting interviews with researchers and officials at the research section, grass root organization section and legal section. Because of this I was able to know the policy and considerations of the top level of ACFTU. Moreover, through some connections, I got some internal data, reports, and information of ACFTU which were very helpful for my project. I also visited the legal section of the Department of Labor and Social Security, and the employers’ work section of China Enterprise Confederation. Through in-depth interviews with officials in these two institutions, I got some new insights from the government and the employers’ perspective.
  • Local level: I focused my field research on Chinese local trade unions, i.e. trade unions at the city level, county/district, town/street and even village/community levels - since from a long-term point of view, the development of local unions, would be the energy and hope, of trade union reform in China. I conducted in-depth interviews with trade union officials and staff in eight cities (including Changchun, Dalian, Beijing, Xinyang, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Xuzhou), six districts/counties (including Economic Development District of Dalian, Bao’an District of Shenzhen, Shunde District of Foshan, Nanhai District of Foshan, Yiwu, and Wenling), seven towns/streets (including Shawan, Jiujiang, Longjiang, Guanlan, Xixiang, Xinhe, and Zeguo), and five villages/communities. These first-hand experiences gave me a valuable chance to see and understand what is happening in Chinese local unions.
  • Enterprise level: I also did interviews in four enterprises with the chairmen of enterprise trade unions and workers. It is important to know the profile of unions in workers’ eyes.

ChinaFrom my field research this summer, a basic conclusion that can be drawn is that Chinese trade unions are slowly adapting to the changing economic environment, however, the rigid political system makes such adaptation a kind of self-repair within the existing system.

Under current political system, such adaptation can be of help to maintain social stability and play some roles to protect workers’ rights. However, in the long run, such adaptation might only solidify the state-run nature of Chinese unions which would seriously hold back the emergence and development of genuine, independent unions.

- Mingwei Liu

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