Call for abstracts. Agency in an Era of Multiplication of Labour Regimes in 21st-Century China

Call for abstracts for a special issue of China Perspectives

Guest editors: Chris K.C. Chan (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), Eric Florence (The University of Liege), and Jack Linchuan Qiu (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)


In Border as Method or the Multiplication of labour, Sandro Mezzadra and Breit Neilson highlighted how the transformations of global capitalism have implied shifting forms of articulation between economic processes and state power. They also stressed that in its development, “contemporary capital, characterized by financialisation and the combination of heterogeneous labour and accumulation regimes, negotiates the expansion of its frontiers with much more complex assemblages of power and law (…)” within and beyond nation-states (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013: 5-6).

Over the last two decades, labour scholars have delved into global patterns of increasing deregulation of employment relationships, as well as corresponding processes of anomie and fragmentation of working-class politics, chiefly in Western Europe (Standing 2011; Kelleberg and Hewison 2018; Atzeni and Ness 2018). Within such scholarship, the potency and heuristic value of notions such as “the precariat”, “precarity” or “precarisation” has been and is still much debated. In many countries of East Asia, while irregular patterns of employment have originally been quite widespread, one is witnessing a “multiplication of labour regimes” (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) and a regional trend towards informalisation of labour going through increasing impredictability and experiences of “permanent impermanence” for an ever-wide spectre of workers (Lazar and Sanchez 2019; Qiu 2016; Friedman and Lee 2010; Pun 2016; Kelleberg and Hewison 2018; Chang, 2009). In 21st Century China, as Pun and Smith (2018) have highlighted, along with a more protective labour regime for part of the regular workforce, the very legislations which aim at protecting these workers also offer venues for employers to hire an increasing number of non-regular workers such as students, dispatch or agency workers and the upsurge of platform-based gig workers. Moreover, national labour regulations are usually not fully enforced by the local governments. Hence nowadays, job security in terms of labour contract (casualisation) and of provision of social welfare has not become the norm despite the setting up of the more protective labour legislation. To add to this complexity, more recent patterns of digitalisation and automation of the economy have ushered in an all-encompassing process of flexibilisation and deregulation of employment relations and have further blurred the boundaries between regular and irregular employment.

Much of the Chinese labour studies scholarship has predominantly focused on labour relations within factories[1], dealing with workers’ forms of collective organisation and the role of grassroots labour organisations in these collective actions (Lee 2007; Pun and Lu 2009, 2010; Chan 2010). The insights of this body of scholarship have been oscillating between highlighting a general pattern towards a greater capacity for workers to organise and visibilise their collective actions from the mid-1990s on, the growing class and rights-consciousness of the second generation of rural migrant workers on the one hand (Chan 2010; Pun and Lu 2009; Pun and Smith 2018; Froissart 2018; Yu and Hu 2013), and on the other hand the concurrent argument that emphasises the predicaments leaving workers in persistent overly weak position and substantially hindering Chinese workers’ capacity for collective action (Lee 2016; Franceschini 2017; Swider 2017).

This special issue will therefore notfocus on workers’ collective action and agency within factories per se. Rather, drawing from Swider’s suggestion to include the heterogeneity of informal labour into the study of working-class politics in China (2017), we seek to delve into forms of workers’ creativity and agency that go beyond chiefly workshop-based traditional forms of collective labour activism and organizing. From odd-job, domestic workers, sanitation workers, frontline production, agency and dispatch-workers, to delivery workers and high-tech programming workers, truck or taxi drivers, how do various categories of workers crave new spaces for the articulation of their everyday agency, which may include but are not limited to resistance to various complex patterns of Party-state-capital configurations?

We would like the contributors to this special issue to explore current processes of flexibilisation and informalisation in China, such as the platformisation of the economy and society. While they often generate fragmentation and depoliticisation, these processes may at once provide spaces for “transformative politics” and agency (Lazar and Sanchez 2019; Atzeni and Ness 2018; De Kloet, Poell, Zeng and Chow 2019; Swider 2017). In the present era, what forms of empowerment (individual and collective) are being crafted and struggled for, from reducing the everyday effects of systems of exploitation and domination to their minimum to more visible forms of labour politics? Whose agency matters? How do processes of precarisation and informalisation transform labour politics, and what conceptual toolkit can we utilize to study them? We also ask in which measure these politics are reinventing patterns of agency at both the individual and collective levels, and how the relationship and politics at these two levels may be conceptualised. Finally, how are class, generation, gender, and place differences articulated in these politics of labour? Under what circumstances do certain forms of agentic action erupt, even prevail? We encourage proposals that offer comparative perspectives.

Please send abstracts of 200-300 words by 29 February 2020 to the guest editors at [email protected][email protected][email protected].

Authors of selected abstracts will be invited to submit a full paper by 15 June 2020 to the guest editors of the special issue.

The special issue is scheduled to be published in a 2021 issue of China Perspectives.


ATZENI, Maurizio, and Immanuel Ness. 2018. Global Perspectives on Workers’ and Labour Organizations (Eds.). London: Springer.

CARON, Emmanuel. 2013. “Interactions Between Chengguan and Street Vendors in Beijing. How the unpopularity of an administration affects relations with the public.” China Perspectives 1: 17-28.

CHAN, Chris King-Chi. 2010. The Challenge of Labour in China. Strikes and the Changing Labour Regime in Global Factories. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.

CHAN, Jenny, Manjusha NAIR, and Chris RHOMBERG. 2019. “Precarization and Labor Resistance: Canda, the USA, India and China” Critical Sociology45(4-5): 469-483.

CHANG, Dae-oup. 2009. ‘Informalising Labour in Asia’s Global Factory’. Journal of Contemporary Asia39(2):161-179

DE KLOET, Jeroen, Thomas POELL, Guhua ZENG, Yiu Fai CHOW. 2019. “The Platformization of Chinese Society: infrastructure, governance and Practice.” Chinese Journal of Communication 12(3): 249-256.

FRANCESCHINI, Ivan and Elisa NESOSSI. 2018. “State Repression of Chinese Labor NGOs : A Chilling Effect ?” China Journal 80: 111-129.

FROISSART, Chloé. 2018. “Negotiating authoritarianism and its limits: Worker-led collective bargaining in Guangdong Province.” China Information 32(1): 23–45.

GAETANO, Arianne. 2015. Out to Work: Migration, Gender and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

KALLEBERG, Arne L., and Kevin HEWISON. 2018. “Precarious Work and the Challenge for Asia.” American Behavioral Scientist 57(3): 271-288.

LAZAR, Sian and Andrew SANCHEZ. 2019. “Understanding labour politics in an age of precarity.”Dialectical Anthropology 43(1): 3-14.

LEE, Ching Kwan. 2002. “Three Patterns of Working-class Transition in China”, InJean-Louis Rocca and Françoise Mengin (eds.) Politics in China. Moving Frontiers, New York: Palgrave, Mc Millan.

LEE, Ching Kwan. 2016. “Precarisation or Empowerment: Reflections on Recent Labor Unrest in China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 75(2): 317-333.

MEZZADRA, Sandro and Breitt Neilson. 2013. Border as Method, or the Multiplication of Labor, Durham: Duke University Press.

PUN, Ngai. 2016. Migrant Labor in China. A post-socialist Transformation, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.

PUN, Ngai and Yi XU. 2011. “Legal activism or class action. The political economy of the “no-bos” and “no-labor relationship in China’s construction industry” China Perspectives 12: 9-17.

QIU, Jack Linchuan. 2016. Goodbye Islave: A manifesto for Digital Abolition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

SMITH, Chris, and Ngai Pun. 2018. “Class and Precarity: An Unhappy Coupling in China’s Working Class Formation.” Work, Employment and Society 32(3):599–615.

STANDING, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsburry Academic.

SUN, Ping. 2019. “Your Order, Their Labor: An exploration of Algorithms and Labor on Food Delivery Platforms in China.” Chinese Journal of Communication 12(3): 308-323.

SWIDER, Sarah. 2015. “Reshaping China’s Urban Citizenship. Street Vendors, Chengguan and Struggles over the Right to the City.” Critical Sociology 41(4-5): 701-716.

SWIDER. Sarah. 2017. “Informal and Precarious Work: The Precariat and China.” Rural China 14: 19-41.

XUE, Desheng and Gengzhi Huang. 2015. “Informality and the state’s ambivalence in the regulation of streetvending in transforming Guangzhou, China.”Geoforum 62: 156-165.

YU Xiaomin and Hu Xiaojiang. 2012. “China’s Reform of the Migrant Labour Regime and the Rural Migrants’ Industrial Citizenship.” In Eric Florence and Pierre Defraigne (eds.), Towards a New Paradigm of Development in 21st Century China. Economy, Society and Politics, London and New York: Routledge.

ZAVORETTI, Roberta. 2017. Rural Origins, City Lives: Class and Place in Contemporary China, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

[1]Exceptions to this focus on industrial relations are for instance Gaetano (2015), Zavoretti (2018), Xue and Huang (2015), Sun (2019), Caron (2013), Pun and Xu (2011), and Swider (2015) who have focused on other categories such as construction workers, domestic workers, street-vendors, etc.