Protest with a Safety Net: Rural-Urban Linkages and Migrant Labor Activism in China

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 10:45
Location: Hörsaal 10 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Shaohua ZHAN, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Rural migrant workers have accounted for most of the labor protests in China, amounting to thousands every year. Scholars are puzzled by the fact that previously relatively docile Chinese migrant laborers have recently become a main force of labor activism.  Existing studies either attributed it to the expansion of global capitalism, new generational characteristics, or to the promulgation of the new Labor Law. While acknowledging that these factors did play a role, this paper will argue and show that the protest surge has also been due to the improvement in rural economy in the recent decade. An analysis of protest data and the author’s rich ethnographic observations reveal that an improved rural economy offers a potential source of income and employment for migrant workers and their families, and provides a safety net for their labor activism in the city. In other words, migrant workers could rely on the rural economy in their home towns to make a living if they are laid off for their radical behavior. The safety net thus empowers migrant workers in their struggles for higher pay and better conditions. The rural-urban linkage in migrant labor activism has been largely overlooked in the scholarship but holds important theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, it challenges the popular view that the rural economy, by subsidizing capitalist production in the city, would suppress migrant workers’ wages and demobilize labor activism. At the practical level, it suggests that labor activists and organizations should take into account the rural-urban linkage in their strategy to mobilize migrant workers and their families.