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Inside China's Automobile Factories
The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance


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  • Author: Lu Zhang, Temple University, Philadelphia
  • Date Published: July 2015
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316500569

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About the Authors
  • In Inside China's Automobile Factories, Lu Zhang explores the current conditions, subjectivity, and collective actions of autoworkers in the world's largest and fastest-growing automobile manufacturing nation. Based on years of fieldwork and extensive interviews conducted at seven large auto factories in various regions of China, Zhang provides an inside look at the daily factory life of autoworkers and a deeper understanding of the roots of rising labor unrest in the auto industry. Combining original empirical data and sophisticated analysis that moves from the shop floor to national political economy and global industry dynamics, the book develops a multilayered framework for understanding how labor relations in the auto industry and broader social economy can be expected to develop in China in the coming decades.

    • The first ethnographic study of Chinese autoworkers, based on years of fieldwork and extensive interviews
    • Sociological analysis paired with fine-grained ethnographic detail
    • Explores a multilayered framework of interactions of shop-floor, national and global processes to aid understanding of the major transformations taking place in China's labor front as well as its economic society
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    • Co-Winner of the 2016 Asian and Transnational Studies Book Award, Asia and Asian America Section, American Sociological Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Lu Zhang's highly readable and insightful book offers a fascinating perspective on the recent wave of strikes in China's vast and growing automobile industry, drawing on extensive fieldwork in seven different auto factories. Highlighting the militancy of young, highly educated temporary auto assembly workers, who live in factory dormitories and often use social media as an organizing tool, Zhang shows how they leverage the ideological legacy of state socialism to challenge the logic of profit maximization in the world's most dynamic market economy. It is difficult to imagine a more intriguing case study of twenty-first-century labor unrest.' Ruth Milkman, Graduate Center, City University of New York

    'Essential reading for anyone interested in labor's fate, not just in China, but throughout a new world of work in which states and corporate managers have created a diabolical set of legal and occupational categories that have divided workers and subverted solidarity. The power of Zhang's scholarship arises both from her gritty fieldwork in a series of Chinese factories as well as her sophisticated understanding of contemporary capitalism.' Nelson Lichtenstein, MacArthur Foundation Chair in History, University of California, Santa Barbara

    'A worthy successor to the pioneering labor and social movement studies of Burawoy, Silver, Perry and Lee.' Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate, East Asia Program, Cornell University, New York

    'A must-read ethnography … Zhang contributes to the study of Chinese working-class formation with an excellent case.' Pun Ngai, author of Made in China: Factory Women Workers in a Global Workplace (2005)

    'At first glance, this work by Zhang … appears to be narrowly focused on China's automobile industry. However, her analysis is grounded in a much broader macro understanding of the interaction between economic and political institutions and the evolving national culture of China. [Her] exploration of the tensions created by rapid development and growth of China's auto industry - particularly the organization, control, and compensation of labor - has implications for the rest of the Chinese economy and global capitalism more generally … Summing up: highly recommended. All readers.' Satya J. Gabriel, Choice

    '… this book is a must-read for anyone who has an interest in labour issues - not only in China and not only in the automobile sector.' Ivan Franceschini, The China Quarterly

    'The auto industry has long been a focus of labor scholars, and Zhang's comprehensive study is a significant contribution to this literature. Although quite a lot of research on worker resistance in China is available, few existing studies manage such depth in analyzing the history and conditions of the industry … [It] is a very good book based on great empirical work. It is one of the best books on Chinese labor in recent years and should attract interest from scholars and practitioners interested in the auto industry, labor relations, and Chinese politics.' Eli Friedman, ILR Review

    '[Zhang's] book is full of evidence that workers, formal and temporary, see through the notion that all is fair under 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' - read, capitalism. They are experiencing the worst of both worlds - capitalist exploitation and the harshness of its lean production regime, combined with the repression of a government accustomed to one-party rule and determined to keep it that way. Lu Zhang urges us to look past the 'localized, cellular, and apolitical' nature of Chinese workers' outbursts and instead 'identify the potential for transformation from below'. The question is whether workers' bravery and initiative can outmaneuver the corporations and government who are betting everything on their ability to contain them. The potential is enormous, as China's rulers are well aware.' Jane Slaughter, Against the Current

    '… [Zhang] gives us an invaluable view of the inner workings of auto plants under Chinese and joint American, Japanese, and German ownership … This is notable on two counts. First, ethnographies are rarely this large in terms of [the number of] interviews … and second, getting inside auto or other plants in China can be quite difficult … For its depth and conclusions, this book has the hallmarks of being a classic.' Thomas Janoski, Perspectives on Work

    'This book provides a much needed examination of labor relations in an industry that is historically central to the rise of labor movements. The carefully collected ethnographic data and nuanced analysis provide important insights into how China's entry into the global economy is reshaping labor relations and has led to an increasingly fragmented working class and rising labor strife.' Sarah Swider, American Journal of Sociology

    'This powerful, beautifully structured, deeply and impressively researched study is a pleasure to read.' Dorothy J. Solinger, The Journal of Asian Studies

    '… undoubtedly the best book in recent times on lean production and labour control in the Chinese automobile industry.' Annavajhula J. C. B., Economic and Political Weekly

    'It is an advantage of the book that it does not purely focus on protests, as does a considerable part of studies on Chinese labour relations. The sector is well chosen as automobile workers have 'played an important role in broader labour movements and succeeded in transforming relations within the factory and society' … in other countries throughout history … The major theoretical innovation of the book can be seen in the departure from the concept of labour force dualism in China based on the fuzzy concept of 'migrant workers'; a notion which is widely employed by Chinese labour scholars but seldom clearly defined. Instead, Zhang argues that nowadays the root of this dualism is to be found in the distinction between formal and temporary workers.' Antonia Enssner and Jessica Pflueger , Work, Employment and Society

    'This is a great book! Lu Zhang provides a comprehensive sociological analysis of work and workers' activism in China's auto industry during its years of ultra-rapid growth at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The volume is unique since it offers a broad picture based on extensive field studies of major automobile manufacturing sites of different joint ventures of multinational carmakers and Chinese state-owned automakers.' Boy Lüthje, The China Journal

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    Product details

    • Date Published: July 2015
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316500569
    • length: 258 pages
    • dimensions: 230 x 158 x 18 mm
    • weight: 0.45kg
    • contains: 26 b/w illus. 1 map 22 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    2. Industrial restructuring and labor force transformation in the Chinese automobile industry
    3. The labor market and social composition in the automobile industry
    4. Organization of production and factory social order
    5. Hegemonic consent? Formal worker's compliance and resistance
    6. Temporary workers' struggles and the paradox of labor force dualism
    7. The state's response: the making of labor contract law and boundary-drawing strategy
    8. Conclusion.

  • Author

    Lu Zhang, Temple University, Philadelphia
    Lu Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University. Her work has been published in International Labor and Working Class History and the International Journal of Automotive Technology and Management. She has contributed to five books: Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises (2014), China and Global Governance: The Dragon's Learning Curve (2014), From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China (2011), Globalization and Beyond: New Examinations of Global Power and its Alternatives (2011), and China and the Transformation of Global Capitalism (2009). She received the Thomas A. Kochan and Stephen R. Sleigh Best Dissertation Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association and the Best Dissertation Prize from the journal Labor History. She is currently researching capital relocation strategy and labor politics in China and Vietnam and teaching globalization, labor, development, and political economy in China and East Asia.


    • Co-Winner of the 2016 Asian and Transnational Studies Book Award, Asia and Asian America Section, American Sociological Association
    • Honorable Mention, 2015 Distinguished Scholarly Book Award, Section on Labor and Labor Movements, American Sociological Association

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