Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Government Enterprises & Industrial Relations in Late Qing China

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Government Enterprises & Industrial Relations in Late Qing China

Article excerpt

In the study of industrial relations, workers are often pitched against management and vice versa. There is no question that the two embody conflicting interests. But even before the days of organised labour, there also existed, implicitly at least, a recognition of mutuality, a subliminal realisation that the fate of the two are somehow inextricably bound together. Such a recognition, of course, existed much earlier in other arenas of collective life. In a real sense, Confucius was trying to strike a sensible balance between the ruler and the ruled, or, less charitably, a bearable bargain between the exploiters and the exploited. The basic premise was a shared objective: an orderly society in which the ruling elite should be secure in their enjoyment of privilege while the subjects should be secure in the basic necessities of life. Strife occurred when either side became dissatisfied with their lot -- when the rulers wanted more wealth or power, or when the subjects were exposed to hunger and loss of life, or when their expectations in life began to rise. Even in traditional times, in a relatively stable economy, expectations could change, as when the imagination was aroused by the egalitarian notion symbolised by the well-field system.(1)

In the wake of the Opium War (1839-1842), modern industries made their appearance in China. With this new mode of production and the concentration of large numbers of workers in manufactories, the development of new industrial relations is to be expected. But in China the history of industrialisation, and that of labour, does not parallel the experience of the first industrial nations of the world. The first modern industries in China were foreign-owned and managed. Later came government industries, and eventually, private Chinese industries. Just as the three sectors each had its own development history, labour relations within them had their particular trajectories.

This paper focuses on the history of industrial relations in Chinese government industries, especially its defence industries, in the late Qing period (1860-1912). Among China's modern industries, the defence industries were the earliest. Even though the bulk of China's industrial labour after 1895 worked outside of these enterprises, and this proportion continued to increase as more and more were hired by foreign-owned as well as Chinese-owned private industries, these military enterprises remained the largest industrial undertakings in the country, hiring two to three thousand workers each, and employing the more sophisticated machines. They were the heavy industries of China at the time. The development of industrial relations in these industries is certainly worth looking into, but this paper intends to do so in the context of industrial relations in the other sectors as well, the better to highlight their peculiarities as well as the commonalities which they shared with the others. One ultimate goal, of course, is to come to some sort of understanding of the workers in government-owned industries and their place in the process of class formation in China. This is to say, to what extent did they begin to think of themselves as a group, sharing common fears and hopes, interests and loyalties? In what ways did they perceive themselves to be a group possessing characteristics that stood in direct contrast to those of the capitalists or employers? Finally, to what degree did they engage in collective action and perhaps become embroiled in conflict with other classes or with the state?(2)

The Emergence of Industrial Relations in China

It is often assumed that industrial relations appeared with the rise of modern industries. Previously, the argument goes, the forces involved in handicraft industries were not sufficiently differentiated into capital and labour. The tools, simple and inexpensive, did not allow the owners of the tools to have a strong hold on those who did not possess them. …

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