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Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor

March 19, 2010

Elizabeth J. Perry. Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Sharon Chen (2003)

In this study of Chinese labor, Elizabeth Perry sets out to prove that “different workers engage in different politics” (p.239). Perry focuses on different types of laborers from different parts of China to show the machinations, setbacks, and progress of the working class in Shanghai.

Perry’s book is separated into three parts. The first part, “The Politics of Place,” details how workers in Shanghai were drawn from all over China. These “in-migrants” often brought with them strong ties to their native places; these native-place identities “afforded displaced workers a sense of belonging,” and were also crucial in creating a distinctive labor consciousness and popular culture for each set of workers (19). But Perry reminds her readers that native-place identities could fracture a group of workers as well; “the politics of place was thus a two-edged sword that both opened possibilities and set boundaries to the development of collective action” (30).

The second part of her book, “The Politics of Partisanship,” traces the interaction between groups of workers and the fledgling Communist Party or Nationalist Party. Interestingly, gangs figure prominently in this part of her book. The success (or failure) of a party’s attempts at organizing unskilled and semiskilled labor was often contingent on a gang’s endorsements of that party, as seen in the Communist Party’s dependence on the “cooperation of turncoat gangsters” in gaining more control over the labor scene (128). On the other hand, gangsters also depended on their connections with a political party and labor association to redeem their social status, as in the case of the influential Du Yuesheng.

“The Politics of Production,” the last part of Perry’s book, looks at three industries – tobacco, textiles, and transport. In these case studies, Perry finds that trade consciousness and even divisions within a trade, such as gender divisions or skill differentiations, were crucial in guiding and shaping labor protests. For example, Perry finds that women were deeply attached to their rural roots, thus making it difficult for them to identify with any one political group. Obstacles such as these highlight the challenges in creating a unified labor movement in which people identify themselves as members of one unified class, rather than members of various unions and guilds.

Perry’s book has shown, however, that successful, organized labor movements did occur in Shanghai. She illustrates the problem inherent in studying Chinese labor history through the lens of class consciousness; using this traditional approach transforms such aspects of the working-class in Shanghai as the native-place identity into a “feudal [impediment] to true working-class identity.” Instead, Perry claims that “it is perhaps more accurate to understand [it] as the very stuff of which labor activism was made” (29). Regardless of whether or not the workers of Shanghai had a “true working-class identity,” they were still able to agitate, sometimes successfully, for their rights. Furthermore, it is often easy to assume that workers were a vacuous mass until the Communists came and infused them with revolutionary fervor. However, Perry has revealed that oftentimes the workers had the upper hand, and that parties had to negotiate on the workers’ terms to be able to exert a measure of political influence.

Perry’s book is a substantial contribution to Chinese labor history for its careful detail and provocative analysis. Scattered throughout her impressive scholarship are vivid images, such as the “frowning movement” of the department store employees or the gregarious “grand invitational” style of protest implemented by streetcar workers. As Gail Hershatter comments, Perry “combines the social scientist’s passion for order with the historian’s eye for compelling anecdote,” making a reading of her book both enjoyable and informative.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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