Mark Frazier, Assistant Professor of Government & Luce Assistant Professor in Political Economy of East Asia, Lawrence University

China's ongoing efforts to reduce state sector employment have sent a wave of shocks to its "work unit"—the organization of urban state sector workforce offering lifetime employment and extensive welfare benefits. On February 27, the Asia Program hosted a book launch for Mark Frazier's new volume, The Making of the Chinese Industrial Workplace: State, Revolution, and Labor Management.

According to Frazier, China's state enterprises have served as far more than production and revenue sources for the Chinese state. Just as importantly, they have functioned as social welfare institutions. Before the industrial reforms of the 1980s, urban residents depended upon their workplace for access to daily necessities such as food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Dependence upon one's workplace, a state enterprise, clearly entailed dependence upon the officials who acted as one's direct supervisors.

Frazier steps back from the present discussion of state enterprise reform to look into the past, to see how the work unit, the so-called "iron rice bowl" in Mao's China, was created as the all-encompassing social and political institution in Chinese industry. The formation of the work unit, as Frazier put it, was a long process that can be traced to the Nationalist government's labor policy in the 1920s and its wartime labor policy in the following years. The work unit was not a single institution but was comprised of distinct institutions or rules and norms for how workers would be hired, organized, and compensated. These labor management institutions emerged at different times and exerted their influence on subsequent factory politics and the process of work unit formation.

Frazier argues that labor management institutions that were formed prior to the revolution of 1949 influenced the structure of the welfare state that emerged under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1950s. The CCP also inherited a wage policy that favored seniority and narrow differences between the highest- and lowest-paid workers, Frazier maintains. Just as today's reformers in China confront the legacies of a centrally planned, state socialist economy, so too did the CCP in the 1950s face a set of institutional constraints on what was possible as it sought to remake the industrial sector and China's industrial working class.