This article explores the changing workplace and labor-management relations in the Chinese automobile industry under the influence of globalization and China's market reform. It depicts the everyday working lives of Chinese autoworkers and the shop-floor dynamics of labor relations based on the author's intensive fieldwork at the seven major automobile assembly enterprises in China during 2004–2007.
The main findings of this paper are that, in spite of the generalized lean production and homogenization of workplace experiences of Chinese autoworkers, two different models of labor controls have emerged in the Chinese auto industry: “lean-and-dual” and “lean-and-mean.” On the one hand, under the lean-and-dual regime, management adopts labor force dualism by using both formal contract workers and agency workers on production lines side by side, which leads to a “hybrid” factory regime that combines both “hegemonic” and “despotic” elements. Hegemonic relations have been established between management and formal workers based on high wages, generous benefits, better working conditions, and relatively secure employment for formal workers, while “despotic” labor control characterizes the conditions for temporary agency workers with lower wages and insecure employment.
On the other hand, the lean-and-mean type of auto firms adopt a high-wage, high-turnover strategy of lean production without the promise of job security to their entire workforce. The interventionist roles of the Chinese central and local states in regulating labor relations and the roles of managerial staff, factory unions, and factory party committees in building hegemonic consent among workers in the auto industry are also explored. The paper concludes by discussing the potentials and limits of Chinese autoworkers and the likely roles they are to play in the evolution of labor relations under China's current market transition and globalization.