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Radical Mind, Moderate Action: Workers’ Mobilization during Industrial Restructuring in China

The Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley presents a talk with Xi Chen from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

October 21, 2013 4:00pm to 6:00pm

Xi Chen, Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Even in an authoritarian regime, ideological hegemony is seldom complete, and subordinate groups often harbor harsh criticisms of the ruling class. Absent a revolutionary situation, however, their radical thoughts can only inspire moderate forms of claim making. This paper seeks to explain how radical ideas inspire moderate action, which may paradoxically help to maintain the political domination. Empirical evidence is drawn from a project on workers’ mobilization during industrial restructuring in China, which includes more than 640 interviews of former employees of eighty-one enterprises in Hunan province. In the past two decades China carried out one of the most radical privatization plans among all former socialist countries. Although state workers have long been regarded as the “leading class” in the socialist regime, they proved surprisingly incapable of defending their interests when they were abandoned by the state. Their weakness is sometimes attributed to their acceptance of core values of the market and the state. The paper finds that a large portion of the group actually rejected such values, and blamed their difficulties on the state. Although their deep grievances against the state contributed to numerous collective protests, such protests were almost always moderate in their action and limited in their goals. The paper therefore suggests that rather than through ideological domination, the Chinese state has maintained its rule primarily through defining the boundary of acceptable forms of claim making.