Monash University

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Union revitalisation in the Chinese context? An evaluation of unions in the post-reform era

Version 2 2017-05-19, 03:18
Version 1 2017-03-22, 01:20
posted on 2017-05-19, 03:18 authored by Fan, Youqing
This thesis explores the question of whether union revitalisation/renewal theories can explain the union innovations underway in Chinese state-corporatist context. Chinese unions traditionally act as a ‘two-way transmission belt’ between the Chinese Communist Party and workers. As economic reform has progressed, however, this transmission belt role has been significantly compromised. A series of innovations were subsequently initiated by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and its regional offices to rebuild their transmission belt role. Rank-and-file activists have also sought to initiate changes from the bottom up. These developments, it is argued, can be viewed as analogous to union revitalisation initiatives that have been well researched in the Western countries. The thesis commenced with a review of union revitalisation/renewal literature, which revealed that there is no common definition of union revitalisation/renewal, and that researchers have identified divergent ‘pathways’ towards revitalisation/renewal. Moreover, revitalisation patterns appear to vary systematically among different national institutional contexts. The thesis makes a significant theoretical contribution by offering a synthesis of this literature and proposing a unified definition of union revitalisation/renewal, which incorporates the dimensions of union goals, organisational capacities and tactics. The thesis also explored the state-corporatist context where the official Chinese unions have evolved and operated. This context is argued to have produced a particular ‘logic’ of Chinese unionism which form an basis for understanding any revitalisation pattern that might be evident in China. This thesis explores this question using a multiple-case study method. Four union innovation cases in six Chinese cities were investigated. The study empirically examined the goals, organisational capacities and tactics of unions associated with these innovations drawing on documentary evidence, interviews with key informants (union officials, managers and workers), and direct observations. The thesis concludes that although these innovations resembled the characteristics associated with union revitalisation theories, they displayed some Chinese characteristics as well. However, there was considerable variation between those cases where innovation was initiated as a ‘top-down’ process by high level unions, compared with those innovations initiated as ‘bottom-up’ initiatives from activists. Nonetheless, all cases demonstrated that Chinese union innovations have primarily been directed towards re-establishing the transmission belt logic associated with unions prior to economic reform, which has constrained unions from actively addressing workers’ collective interests and compelled them to act in ways intended to maintain political and social stability. This study also suggests that the ‘bottom-up’ initiatives demonstrated a more genuine prospect for Chinese union revitalisation. However, such circumstance will only be achieved when: workers actively push the unions to reform themselves to represent workers’ collective interests; local Party-State endorses workers’ demands; and upper level unions came down to represent workers’ collective demands. Although this research has limitations in terms of the number and scope of the cases and interviewees investigated, it does contribute to union revitalisation literature in extending its scope to the unions in state-corporatist context. Furthermore, the thesis is also innovative in enriching the study of Chinese unions by identifying the particular conditions for the unions to fulfil their collective worker representation role.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Peter Gahan

Additional supervisor 1

Sean Cooney

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Business and Economics

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