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2002 China Q. 304 (2002)
Labour Market Reform and the Plight of the Laid-off Proletariat

handle is hein.journals/chnaquar43 and id is 312 raw text is: Labour Market Reform and the Plight of the
Laid-off Proletariat
Dorothy J. Solinger
ABSTRACT The government's projects and claims to succour the workers made
redundant by its economic restructuring of the past decade have all run into severe
difficulties. Indeed, all three of the state's undertakings directed at the furloughed are
burdened by stunning weaknesses that cast enormous doubt upon reports of the
opportunities both for the furloughed to find new employment and for them to obtain
state assistance. The non-state sector generally has more work for rural migrants or
the highly educated than for the laid-off; the Re-employment Project is full of pitfalls;
and immense challenges of both resource scarcity and administrative incapacity
characterize the national-scale social welfare programme. This article thus sets out the
material conditions confronting those who have lost their jobs.
The critical human dimension of the reform of state-owned enterprises
revolves around the disposition of factory labour. While about one-third
of the prior workforce has been considered for some years to be surplus,1
a multitude of labourers who had been at work until recently have been
summarily sacked (loosely labelled laid-off [xiagang, or, literally,
descended from a post]) since the mid-1990s,2 especially after the 15th
Party Congress in September 1997.
But accurate data are hard to come by, since government statistics are
murky and often presented in a way that suggests that the numbers are not
all that large.' Regardless of the ambiguities, it is certain that quite
precipitously millions of past renowned, now former workers are com-
prising a sorry - and terribly sizeable - mass of newborn marginals.4 In
1. Li Bao and Xie Yongjun,  'Yinxing shiye' yu yinxing jiuye' (Hidden
unemployment and hidden employment), Zhongguo laodong (Chinese Labour) (hereafter
ZGLD), No. 4 (1999), pp. 45-47. They estimate that the hidden unemployed account for 20
to 30% of the workforce, totalling some 20 to 30 million workers, or five to six times the
number of the registered unemployed. Many other sources, dating back even before the mass
lay-offs of the late 1990s, say the proportion is one-third.
2. Officially, a xiagang worker is one who meets all three of the following conditions:
s/he began working before the contract system was instituted in 1986 and had a formal,
permanent job in the state sector (plus those contract labourers whose contract term is not yet
concluded); because of his/her firm's problems in business and operations, has been let go,
but has not yet cut off relations with the original firm; and has not yet found other work in
society (see Guo Jun, Guoyou qiye xiagang yu fenliu you he butong? (What's the
difference between laid-off and diverted workers in the state firms?), Zhongguo gongyun
(Chinese Workers' Movement) (hereafter ZGGY), No. 3 (1999), p. 32, among many other
3. I have written of this in Why we cannot count the 'unemployed', The China
Quarterly, No. 167 (September 2001), using data available to me up to the autumn of 2000.
4. Recent unofficial calculations concur that the statistical picture is grim: Chinese
economist Hu Angang has figured that as many as 46 million, or, he estimates, one-third of
existing jobs were eliminated in the last half decade of the century (China News Digest,
GLO -049, 6 July 2001); similarly, a Chinese journalist reported that since the early 1990s,
more than half the 80 million or so people who had once worked at state-owned enterprises
are thought to have been let go (Jiang Xueqin, Fighting to organize, Far Eastern Economic
Review, 6 September 2001, pp. 72-75). And according to a mid-1999 report, some
© The China Quarterly, 2002

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