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Against the Law

Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt

Ching Kwan Lee (Author)


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This study opens a critical perspective on the slow death of socialism and the rebirth of capitalism in the world's most dynamic and populous country. Based on remarkable fieldwork and extensive interviews in Chinese textile, apparel, machinery, and household appliance factories, Against the Law finds a rising tide of labor unrest mostly hidden from the world's attention. Providing a broad political and economic analysis of this labor struggle together with fine-grained ethnographic detail, the book portrays the Chinese working class as workers' stories unfold in bankrupt state factories and global sweatshops, in crowded dormitories and remote villages, at street protests as well as in quiet disenchantment with the corrupt officialdom and the fledgling legal system.

1. Chinese Workers’ Contentious Transition from State Socialism
2. Stalled Reform: Between Social Contract and Legal Contract

3. The Unmaking of Mao’s Working Class in the Rustbelt
4. Life after Danwei: Surviving Enterprise Collapse

5. The Making of New Labor in the Sunbelt
6. Dagong as a Way of Life

7. Chinese Labor Politics in Comparative Perspective

Methodological Appendix: Fieldwork in Two Provinces
Ching Kwan Lee is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is author of Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women (UC Press) and editor of Working in China: Ethnographies of Labor and Workplace Transformation and Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Contemporary China (with Guobin Yang).
“An ethnographic and analytic masterpiece. . . . Few sociological studies have combined structural and existential, object and subjective truths so memorably as this one.”—London Review Of Books
“An excellent book on labour protest in the Peoples’ Republic of China since the 1990s. Lee’s fieldwork is impressive. . . . This beautifully written book will catalyse further important debates on the class dimensions of labour protest in this violent part of the globe.”—Labour History
“A must-read for university courses. . . . an excellent book that provides us with valuable insights into the conditions of Chinese workers.”—Anita Chan China Perspectives
"For anyone interested in the world of labor today, there is no more important case than that of China. Ching Kwan Lee's rich ethnographic account takes us inside the largely hidden world of labor protest in the world's largest, most dynamic economy. Her nuanced comparison of the Chinese 'sunbelt' and 'rustbelt' and her emphasis on the centrality of the law and the discourse of legal 'rights' to Chinese labor politics are especially compelling. Against the Law is a thoughtful, provocative book that deserves a prominent place on every labor scholar's bookshelf."—Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers And the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

"Based upon impressive ethnographic research in multiple Chinese settings, this book reveals key regional differences in patterns of protest among China's restive workers. Professor Lee's important findings not only complicate our understanding of labor unrest; they also carry significant implications for the development of citizenship and legal reform in contemporary China."—Elizabeth J. Perry, author of Patrolling the Revolution

"The book is based on simply the best field research yet done on Chinese workers' politics. Prof. Lee has gotten down and dirty with a wide range of workers. The interviews that make up so much of the rich narrative alone are worth the price of the book and the time invested in reading it. But there is more: the analysis is important, persuasive, balanced, and clear. It rings true."—Marc Blecher, author of China Against the Tides

"This is an amazing book that will have a dramatic impact on people's view of China, exposing the underside of China's incredible growth, and the human sacrifice that may be as great as 'The Great Leap Forward' or Mao's Cultural Revolution. What we witness here is the Chinese working class being present in its own unmaking and remaking, its struggle to come to terms with the present through the lens of the past, and, finally, its uncertain hope for the future. This is one of the most important books I've read in years!"—Michael Burawoy, Department of Sociology, University of California Berkeley

2008 Sociology of Labor Book Award, American Sociological Association

Labor and Labor Movements, American Sociological Association

Finalist for C. Wright Mills Award, Society for the Study of Social Problems

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