A Culture of Violence: The Labor Subcontracting System and Collective Action by Construction Workers in Post-Socialist China

By Ngai, Pun; Huilin, Lu | The China Journal, July 2010 | Go to article overview

A Culture of Violence: The Labor Subcontracting System and Collective Action by Construction Workers in Post-Socialist China


Ngai, Pun, Huilin, Lu, The China Journal


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The glamorous skylines of Shanghai and Beijing today seem to crystallize Chinese dreams of modernity and global status. ' These modem cityscapes, however, are underpinned by a construction industry steeped in a culture of violence. This culture arises from the political economy of the industry and the politics of labor resistance among migrant construction workers.

The rapid development of the industry has enabled a highly exploitative labor subcontracting system to emerge.2 This labor system includes two processes: the rapid commodification of labor through non-industrial social relations organized by a quasi-labor market in the rural villages; and the expropriation of labor during the production process of the construction sector in urban areas. These two processes shape a labor subcontracting system that is specific to reform-era China, resulting in a never-ending process of wage arrears and the straggle of construction workers to pursue delayed wages in various ways, often involving violent collective actions.

Practically no other industry has experienced a boom comparable to construction.3 The Chinese construction industry has been consuming half of the world's concrete and a third of its steel and employing more than 40 million people, most of them rural workers coming from all over the country. About 30 per cent of all migrant workers from the countryside work in the industry.4 In order to build Beijing and Shanghai into China's global cities and speed up the process of urbanization, since the Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-05) China has invested about 376 billion yuan in construction each year. Construction is now the fourth largest industty in the countty. At the turn of the 21st century, this industry accounted for 6.6 per cent of China's GDP; by the end of 2007, its total income had risen by 25.9 per cent to 5.1 trillion yuan, and gross profits had risen 42.2 per cent to 156 billion yuan.5 The total output value reached 2.27 trillion yuan in the first half of 2008, showing a further 24.4 per cent increase on the previous year.

We conducted research at four construction sites on the outskirts of Beijing, interviewing more than 200 workers at these sites. Because we conducted this research in the year of the Olympics,6 our research team retreated from the intense media attention on the center of the capital to focus on a suburban town to the northwest of Beijing, where huge construction projects owned by well-known property developers were being undertaken. In January 2009 we followed some of the workers back to their rural village in Tang County, Hebei, where, among a population of 6,000, more than 1,500 of the working adults were construction workers. In the village, we began to understand the daily practices of the labor subcontracting system and its relationship to the culture of violence among the migrant construction workers.

Despite the enormous gross profits and output value of the construction industry, construction workers are poorly protected as regards physical and financial risks, compared to most other workers.7 The working lives of construction workers are also deeply affected by quarrels, individual and collective fighting, attempts to damage buildings, bodily abuse and even suicidal behaviors. At the construction site, we observed a variety of violent actions taken by construction workers which were no doubt caused by the political economy of the construction industry.

The Past and the Present

"No urban youth are willing to work on the construction site. Don't look at me right now. After work and after bathing, I'll look completely different and have a new face", said a 20-year-old Hebei man, covered with dust and dirt, who felt ashamed of being a construction worker. These feelings reflect a notorious image of chronic wage arrears, heavy casualties and labor conflicts over unpaid wages in the industry. …

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