In 2009, after many years spent teaching US labour law at New York University, Cynthia Estlund made her first trip to China to study labour unrest and reform in that country. She was inspired by her NYU colleague Jerome Cohen, an authority on Chinese law, to whom she dedicates her book; he expresses his admiration in the leading blurb on its jacket.
Because Estlund appears unable to make up her mind, her narrative is often hard to follow. She comments rightly on worker unrest in China, and notes that labour unions have alarmed the Chinese Communist Party, which makes some concessions but invariably cracks down on strikes and demonstrations, and torments the lawyers who support them. She observes the collapse and weakness of US trade unions, and cautions readers not to make comparisons with China, while making such comparisons herself at considerable length.
Indeed, at one point Estlund “confesses” to “moments of admiration toward the ability of Chinese leaders to get things done…not only labor reforms but also improvements in legal and regulatory institutions, infrastructure, education, and health”. Further down the same page, however, she contends that in the years since the rise to power of President Xi Jinping, the regime has clamped down on dissent, with “restrictions on civil society and especially foreign-sponsored NGOs, the arrests and detentions of ‘rights lawyers’ and labour activists, and the efforts to suffocate intellectual debate on democracy, civil liberties, and human rights”.
Estlund has read the secondary literature on China’s enormous number of strikes and demonstrations – which, as she notes, are not only about workers’ conditions and pay demands, but also about pollution and attempted seizures of property and land; she correctly writes that such industrial actions exhibit workers’ determination to improve their conditions and achieve a “rising bottom”, especially for the millions of migrants working in urban factories. She records that there have been elections at the village level, but notes, too, that these have been party-managed and have had little effect. She describes, for example, intense attempts at establishing democracy in the southern village of Wukan, and recounts how these failed. It is a pity, though, that although she knows little Chinese, she did not go to Wukan with an interpreter, nor conduct conversations elsewhere with ordinary workers. This would have greatly strengthened her narrative and made it more convincing.
Notably, Estlund has difficulty with some aspects of the Chinese labour landscape. It is true that for some years – most spectacularly during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 – Chinese workers called for their rights. It is also true that despite their growing demands they are still today, as they were then, crushed. But it is not, as Estlund claims, a “coincidence” that the party, ever on guard against challenges from any quarter, has jailed Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, for demanding democracy.
Estlund speaks favourably of comments on China’s economy by Minxin Pei, but his study China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay had yet not been published by the time her book was completed. Pei’s groundbreaking work shows that so much of the nation’s economy is owned by party and military officials that it is difficult to estimate its dimensions, or the implications for workers. “The CCP”, Pei concludes, “has successfully maintained its political power and faces no constraints on the use of its power in the pursuit of self‑enrichment.”
Jonathan Mirsky was formerly associate professor of Chinese, history and comparative literature at Dartmouth College in the US, and former Far East editor of The Times.
A New Deal for China’s Workers?
By Cynthia Estlund
Harvard University Press, 304pp, £36.95
Published 26 January 2017