in Rural China
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


Is global capitalism responsible for increasing precarious work around the globe, or is the rise of informal and precarious work a newly emerging trend in the West but a long-standing reality for the rest of the world? This article enters debates about precarious and informal work using the case of China, and in doing so, challenges our West/Rest binary. It shows how informal work in China is not a new phenomenon, but rather was the norm during China’s early industrialization, from 1898 to 1949. Even during the Maoist period, full-time standard employment under the danwei system was a privilege reserved for “urban” workers, in part made possible by a reliance on the rural population as a source of flexible labor. During the contemporary post-Mao period, not only has informal work flourished, so have other new forms of precarious work. However, while scholars of Chinese labor and labor politics have carefully documented the rise of precarious work and its impact on labor politics, informal precarious workers have remained largely invisible and are absent in most analyses. Expanding our framework in a way that includes rather than eliminates these workers from our analysis has significant ramifications for how we understand this historical moment. It suggests that there is increasing fragmentation of the working class, which calls into question the idea that China’s economic rise has created a new widespread industrial working class which can be expected to develop a unified class consciousness and challenge capital as it did in the West.

全球化的资本主义是否应对全球日益增长的不稳定工作负责?与日俱增的非正式和不稳定工作是否在西方世界是一个新兴的现象,然而在世界其他地方却是一个长存已久的事实?本文通过中国的案例介绍了关于不稳定和非正式工作的讨论,此做法也挑战了“我们西方”与“剩余世界”的二分法。它展示了中国的非正式工作并非一种新现象,而是在中国早期工业化阶段(从1898年到1949年)的范式。甚至在毛时期,在单位制系统下的全职的标准式雇佣制是为城市工人保存的特权,部分原因是由于他们依靠农村人口作为灵活劳动力的来源。在后毛泽东时期的当代,不仅非正式工作蓬勃发展,还产生了其他新形式的不稳定工作。虽然中国劳动和劳动政治学者已经详细论述了不稳定工人的兴起及其对劳工政治的影响,但是大量的非正式工人不为人们所知,在大多数的文献研究中也缺乏对此的论述。在分析当中,以包括而非剔除这些工人的方式去扩展研究框架对我们如何理解这个历史时刻意义深远。本文表明了工人阶级的日趋碎片化,挑战了这样一种想法,即:崛起的中国经济能产生具有统一阶级意识并能像西方工人阶级那样挑战资本的新的广泛的工人阶级。 (This article is in English.)


in Rural China



  • AgarwalaRina (2009) “An economic sociology of informal work: the case of India.” Research in the Sociology of Work 18: 31542.

  • AgarwalaRina (2013) Informal Labor Formal Politics and Dignified Discontent in India. Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

  • AgarwalaRina (2016) “Redefining exploitation: self-employed workers’ movements in India’s garments and trash collection industries.” International Labor and Working-Class History 89: 10730.

  • ArnoldDennis and BongioviJoseph R. (2012) “Precarious, informalizing, and flexible work: transforming concepts and understandings.” American Behavioral Scientist. DOI: .

  • BremanJan (2013) At Work in the Informal Economy of India: A Perspective from the Bottom Up. New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

  • BremanJan and van der LindenMarcel (2014) “Informalizing the economy: the return of the social question at a global level.” Development and Change 455: 92040.

  • FangCai 蔡昉 YangDu 都阳 and MeiyanWang 王美艳 (2003) 劳动力流动的政治经济学 (The political economy of labor migration). Shanghai: 上海三联书店.

  • FangCaiYangDu and MeiyanWang (2009) “Employment and inequality outcomes in China.” Institute of Population and Labour Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. https://www.oecd.org/employment/emp/42546043.pdf.

  • CaiFangParkAlbert and ZhaoYaohui (2008) “The Chinese labor market in the reform era.” Pp. 167214 in LorenBrandt and Thomas G.Rawski (eds.) China’s Great Economic Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

  • CaiYongshun (2002) “The resistance of Chinese laid-off workers in the reform period.” China Q. 1702: 32744.

  • CastellsManuel and PortesAlejandro (1989) “World underneath: the origins, dynamics, and effects of the informal economy.” Pp. 1141 in PortesAlejandroCastellsManuel and BentonLauren (eds.) The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

  • ChanChris King-Chi and Sio-Ieng HuiElaine (2014) “The dynamics and dilemma of workplace trade union reform in China: the case of Honda workers’ strike.” Pp. 20317 in RichetXavierDelteilViolaine and DieuaidePatrick (eds.) Strategies of Multinational Corporations and Social Regulations: European and Asian Perspectives. Heidelberg: Springer.

  • ChanChris King-Chi and NgaiPun (2009) “The making of a new working class? A study of collective actions of migrant workers in South China.” China Q. 198: 287303.

  • ChanJennyPunNgai and SeldenMark (2013) “The politics of global production: Apple, Foxconn and China’s new working class.” New Technology Work and Employment 282: 100115.

  • ChaoKang (1968) The Construction Industry in Communist China. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

  • ChenFeng (2003) “Industrial restructuring and workers’ resistance in China.” Modern China 292 (April): 23762.

  • ChenMartha Alter (2007) “Rethinking the informal economy: linkages with the formal economy and the formal regulatory environment.” In Guha-KhasnobisBasudebKanburRavi and OstromElinor (eds.) Linking the Formal and Informal Economy. Oxford Scholarship Online Monographs. DOI: .

  • ChenMartha Alter (2009) “The informal IS normal.” Paper presented at the Development Seminar WIEGO Network Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Boston. http://www.oecd.org/els/42544973.pdf.

  • ChenMartha Alter (2012) “The informal economy: definitions, theories and policies.” Women in Informal Economy Globalizing and Organizing. WIEGO Working Paper 1.

  • ChengTiejun and SeldenMark (1994) “The origins and social consequences of China’s hukou system.” China Q. 139: 64468.

  • ChesneauxJean (1968) The Chinese Labor Movement 1919–1927: StanfordCA: Stanford Univ. Press.

  • ChiMa (2015) “Taxi strike spreads to more cities.” China Daily.com.cnJan. 14.

  • BulletinChina Labor (2016) “New Economy same old problems for China’s workers.” April 27.

  • CookeFang Lee (2006) “Informal employment and gender implications in China: the nature of work and employment relations in the community services sector.” International J. of Human Resource Management 178: 147187.

  • FriedmanEli (2014) Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

  • GilesJohnParkAlbert and CaiFang (2006) “How has economic restructuring affected China’s urban workers?China Q. 185: 6195.

  • GuangLei (2005) “Guerrilla workfare: migrant renovators, state power, and informal work in urban China.” Politics & Society 333: 481506.

  • HanserAmy (2006) “A tale of two sales floors: changing service work regimes in China.” Pp. 7798 in LeeChing Kwan (ed.) Working in China: Ethnographies of Labor and Workplace Transformation. London: Routledge.

  • HarrisJohn R. and TodaroMichael P. (1970) “Migration, unemployment and development: a two-sector analysis.” American Economic Rev. 601: 12642.

  • HartKeith (1973) “Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana.” J. of Modern African Studies 111: 6189.

  • YunbingHe 何韵冰 (2016) “劳动关系与剬共服务供给的逆市场化改革——以广州市 Y 区环卫服务为例” (Labor relations and the reform of reversing marketization in public service delivery—the case of the sanitation service in Y district in Guangzhou). Master’s thesisZhongshan Univ.Guangzhou.

  • HonigEmily (1983) “The contract labor system and women workers: pre-liberation cotton mills of Shanghai.” Modern China 94 (Oct.): 42154.

  • AngangHu 胡鞍钢 and LiZhao 赵黎 (2006) “我国转型期城镇非正规就业与非正规经济(1990–2004)” (Informal employment and informal economy in the economic transformation in the process of urbanization in China, 1990–2004). 清华大学学报 (哲学社会科学版) 213: 9.

  • HuLina (2009) “Integrating the four sociologies: the ‘Baigou project’ in China.” Pp. 24562 in JeffriesVincent (ed.) Handbook of Public Sociology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • HuangPhilip C. C. (2009) “China’s neglected informal economy: reality and theory.” Modern China 354 (Oct.): 40538.

  • HuangPhilip C. C. (2013) “Misleading Chinese legal and statistical categories: labor, individual entities, and private enterprises.” Modern China 394 (July): 34779.

  • HungHo-fung (2013) Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations Riots and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press.

  • HurstWilliam and O’BrienKevin J. (2002) “China’s contentious pensioners.” China Q. 170: 34560.

  • HussmannsRalf (2004) “Statistical definition of informal employment: guidelines endorsed by the Seventeenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians (2003).” Pp. 24 in 7th Meeting of the Expert Group on Informal Sector Statistics (Delhi Group).

  • ILO [International Labor Organization] (2002) Decent Work and the Informal Economy. Geneva: International Labour Office.

  • JhabvalaRenana (2013) “Informal workers & the economy.” Indian J. of Industrial Relations 483: 37387.

  • JiaoX. K. (2008) “A study of health security for informal workers in urban areas.” Decision Exploration 1: 6162.

  • KallebergArne L. (2009) “Precarious work, insecure workers: employment relations in transition.” American Sociological Rev. 741: 122.

  • KallebergArne L. and HewisonKevin (2013) “Precarious work and the challenge for Asia.” American Behavioral Scientist 573: 27188.

  • KnightJohn B. and SongLina (2005) Towards a Labour Market in China. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

  • LeeChing Kwan (1998) Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women. Berkeley CA: Univ. of California Press.

  • LeeChing Kwan (2007) Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley CA: Univ. of California Press.

  • LeeChing Kwan and KofmanYelizavetta (2012) “The politics of precarity: views beyond the United States.” Work and Occupations 394: 388408.

  • LiuXiangmin (2014) “How institutional and organizational characteristics explain the growth of contingent work in China.” ILR Rev. 68: 37297.

  • YinLu 陆胤 and ShengnanLi 李盛楠 (2016) “分享经济模式对传统劳动关系的挑战——美国Uber案和解的一些借鉴” (Sharing economy and labor management in companies: a case study of ride sharing services referencing the US Uber case). 中国劳动 16: 4557.

  • MatherCelia (2012) Informal Workers’ Organizing. Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) Research Report. Washington, DC: WIEGO and Solidarity Center. http://www.solidaritycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/infecon_wiego_organizing_final.pdf.pdf.

  • MengXin (2010) The Great Migration: Rural–urban Migration in China and Indonesia. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

  • MengXin and ZhangJunsen (2001) “The two-tier labor market in urban China: occupational segregation and wage differentials between urban residents and rural migrants in Shanghai.” J. of Comparative Economics 293: 485504.

  • MilkmanRuth (2011) “Immigrant workers, precarious work, and the US labor movement.” Globalizations 83: 36172.

  • MosoetsaSarahStillermanJoel and TillyChris (2016) “Precarious labor, south and north: an introduction.” International Labor and Working-Class History 89: 519.

  • MunckRonaldo (2013) “The precariat: a view from the south.” Third World Q. 345: 74762.

  • NaughtonBarry (2007) The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • NeilsonBrett and RossiterNed (2008) “Precarity as a political concept, or, Fordism as exception.” Theory Culture & Society 257–8: 5172.

  • OtisEileen M. (2012) Markets and Bodies: Women Service Work and the Making of Inequality in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

  • ParkAlbert and CaiFang (2011) “The informalization of the Chinese labor market.” Pp. 1735 in KuruvillaSaroshLeeChing Kwan and GallagherMary (eds.) From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets Workers and the State in a Changing China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

  • XizhePeng 彭希哲 (2009) 中国非正规就业发展报告: 劳动力市场的再观察 (Report on China’s informal employment development: a survey on the labor-force market). Chongqing: 重庆出版社.

  • PerryElizabeth J. (1993) Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

  • PringleTim and ClarkeSimon (2011) The Challenge of Transition: Trade Unions in Russia China and Vietnam. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • NgaiPun (2005) Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

  • NgaiPun and ChanJenny (2013) “The spatial politics of labor in China: life, labor, and a new generation of migrant workers.” South Atlantic Q. 1121: 17990.

  • RobertsKenneth M. (2002) “Social inequalities without class cleavages in Latin America’s neoliberal era.” Studies in Comparative International Development 364: 333.

  • RodgersGerry (1989) “Precarious work in Western Europe: the state of the debate.” Pp. 116 in RodgersGerry and RodgersJanine (eds.) Precarious Jobs in Labour Market Regulation: The Growth of Atypical Employment in Western Europe. Geneva: ILO.

  • SassenSaskia (1997) “Informalization in advanced market economies.” Issues in Development Discussion Paper No. 29. Geneva: Policies Department, International Labour Office.

  • SchneiderFriedrich and EnsteDominik (2000) “Shadow economies around the world: size causes and consequences.” IMF Working Paper. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2000/wp0026.pdf.

  • ScottJames C. (2008) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

  • ShafferLynda (1981) “Modern Chinese labor history, 1895–1949.” International Labor and Working-Class History 20: 3137.

  • ShafferLynda (1983) “The Chinese working class: comments on two articles.” Modern China 94 (Oct.): 45564.

  • YuanShen 沈原 (2006) “社会转型与工人阶级的再形成” (Social transformation and the re-formation of working class). 社会学研究 2: 1336.

  • SiegmannKarin Astrid and SchiphorstFreek (2016) “Understanding the globalizing precariat: from informal sector to precarious work.” Progress in Development Studies. DOI: .

  • SolingerDorothy J. (2002) “Labour market reform and the plight of the laid-off proletariat.” China Q. 170: 30426.

  • StandingGuy (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press.

  • StandingGuy (2014) “Understanding the precariat through labour and work.” Development and Change 455: 96380.

  • SwiderSarah (2015) Building China: Informal Work and the New Precariat. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

  • TawneyRichard Henry (1932) Land and Labour in China. London: George Allen and Unwin.

  • ThaxtonRalph (1997) Salt of the Earth: The Political Origins of Peasant Protest and Communist Revolution in China. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.

  • TongYanqi and LeiShaohua (2010) “Large-scale mass incidents and government responses in China.” International J. of China Studies 12 (Oct.): 487508.

  • VoskoLeah F. (2009) Managing the Margins: Gender Citizenship and the International Regulation of Precarious Employment. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

  • WalderAndrew G. (1988) Communist Neo-Traditionalism: Work and Authority in Chinese Industry. Berkeley CA: Univ. of California Press.

  • WilliamsColin C. (2010) “Evaluating competing theories of the shadow economy: some lessons from an English locality.” International J. of Economic Perspectives 42: 391402.

  • WilliamsColin C. and RoundJohn (2008) “Retheorizing the nature of informal employment: some lessons from Ukraine.” International Sociology 233: 36788.

  • YaowuWu 吴要武 and FangCai 蔡昉 (2006) “中国城镇非正规就业: 规模与特征” (Informal employment in urban China: size and characteristics). 中国劳动经济学 2: 6784.

  • ZhangHaoyue and FangChaoqun (2011) “Construction workers in Beijing 2008 Olympic games.” Pp. 3944 in JanCremers (ed.) CLR News; Olympic Sites: A Celebration of Olympic Values? Brussels: European Institute for Construction Labour Research. http://www.clr-news.org/CLR-News/CLR%20News%202-2011.pdf.

  • ZhangLu (2014) Inside China’s Automobile Factories. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

  • ZhaoGang (1974) Capital Formation in Mainland China 1952–1965. Berkeley CA: Univ. of California Press.

  • ZhouYing (2012) “The state of precarious work in China.” American Behavioral Scientist 573: 35472.

  • 3

    Mosoetsa Stillerman and Tilly (2016) have identified these three different definitions of precarity in use by labor scholars which is helpful but also somewhat problematic. Specifically they suggest one of these definitions defines precarity as work that is “uncertain unpredictable and risky” and that this definition is shared by Arne Kalleberg Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden (Mosoetsa Stillerman and Tilly 2016: 7). This is an interesting but uncomfortable grouping of scholars because their conceptualizations of precarious work beyond a narrow definition are quite different and on many dimensions and aspects of precarity they stand on opposite sides of heated debates.

  • 7

     See Huang (2013) for an excellent discussion of how the legal definition of labor has changed over time and as a result excludes informal and much of the emerging precarious work.

  • 11

    Zhou (2012) cites a 2006 World Bank report that estimated the range of informal workers to be between 116 and 155 million workers. Hu and Zhao (2006) also estimate the total to be around 155 million workers and Wu and Cai (2006) estimate it to be around 107 million workers excluding individual business owners or 120 million including the self-employed.

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 241 241 32
Full Text Views 308 308 4
PDF Downloads 25 25 1
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0