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  • Will Vagari

Editorial – Work

If you have ever attended a philosophy class or browsed fun fact pages, you probably know that the Latin word tripalium, a cross-shaped Roman torture instrument, is the root word for “work” in many Romance languages. In modern China, and because of its socialist heritage, the term 工作 (gōngzuò) bears a very different cultural baggage.

The socialist understanding of “work” emphasizes the right to meaningful work, a “right to employment in which the work for which pay is received is interesting, calling for intelligence and initiative, and in which the worker has considerable freedom to determine how the work is to be done and genuine democratic say over the work process and the policies pursued by the employing enterprise.”1 In short, the socialist understanding of work calls for the dusk of alienation through the former and an empowered worker who can reach self-realization through creative labor. In parallel, it calls for an equal distribution of the benefits and burdens of labor in this particular case.

The Chinese socialist understanding of work follows this line of thought, as Mao assessed:

“The wealth of society is created by the workers, the peasants, the working intellectuals. If they take their destiny into their own hands, use Marxism-Leninism as their guide, and energetically tackle problems instead of evading them, there is no difficulty in the world which they cannot overcome.”2

In the case of the traditional Chinese socialist understanding of work, the latter is, first and foremost, a role assigned to each member of the society (hence, each worker) in the social division of labor. It is understood as a personal contribution to the common good, i.e., people’s survival and the further advancement of social development. In its most radical understanding, it means one’s work reflects one’s social value and self-worth as a member of the society.3

From a public policy and sociological standpoint, Chinese citizens’ work life and its implications have undergone great changes since the Communist Revolution in 1949.

Between 1949 and the 1970s, labor mobility was virtually non-existent, especially between rural and urban sectors, which meant that one could not move freely to seek work across the country. The hukou (户口) system is key to understanding the meaning of work and work mobility in 20th-century China, and, to a lesser extent, it still does impact people’s lives to this day.4

The hukou is a household registration system, similar in its principle to a national identity card or passport, reintroduced between 1951 (urban population), 1955 (rural population) and 1958 (the Hukou Registration Regulation is signed into law). It classifies an individual as a permanent resident of an area, and the label agricultural (or rural) or non-agricultural (or urban) is attached to it. One’s social benefits are dependent on one’s hukou, and, during the first 30 years following its reintroduction, it also strictly dictated citizens’ place of residence and thus work. During this era, rural communes and work units (单位 danwei) played a significant role in citizens’ lives, and their permission was to be obtained for one to get married or have children, for instance, reflecting the importance of one’s “workplace” played in their lives.5

The late 1970s and the subsequent economic reforms which turned China into the manufacturing superpower we know today triggered massive changes in this system. Most notably, rural residents bearing an agricultural hukou could then engage in non-agricultural work (which often meant manufacturing) starting 1984, i.e., the advent of a liberal Chinese job market was on its way, and citizens could seek and lose employment at their discretion.6

Subsequently, limitations on domestic migration were gradually lifted until 2009, and the figure of the domestic migrant (those who work and live in a region but whose hukou is attached to another), so familiar in nowadays China, emerged.7

These reforms prompted citizens to adapt quickly to the country’s new labor market reality. Indeed, it marked the end of lifelong and stable employment, centrally-determined wages, and easy access to (sometimes minimal) social welfare (since the latter is still attached to one’s hukou and not available to migrant workers in their place of residence). In parallel, it also initiated the advent of the private sector and a highly competitive labor market. Unsurprisingly, along with these changes, the “person-centred” or “man first” (以人为本yirenweiben) discourse gained momentum.8 While the pre-reform era emphasized the collective, the post-reform one increasingly focuses on the individual.

“Guideline and principle of improving the economic restructuring [include the respect of] the pioneering spirit of the people. […] We should uphold the principle of “man first” [以人为本yirenweibei] and form the concept of overall, coordinated and sustainable development so as to promote the overall economic, social and human development.”9

As China’s economy is now turning toward a tertiarization in the face of fierce international competition, the reality of work for Chinese citizens is again changing rapidly and raising new questions regarding competition in the labor market, job insecurity, work-life balance, individualism, the adaptivity of the economy and how it translates for citizens themselves.

In this issue of ChinaNauts, we explore what lies behind work with Chinese characteristics.


References / To go further

  1. Richard J. Arneson, “Meaningful Work and Market Socialism,” Ethics 97, no. 3 (1987): 517.

  2. 中国共産党中央委員会. The Socialist Upsurge in China's Countryside (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1957), 14.

  3. “‘工作‘字的解释: 汉典.” 漢典, n.d.

  4. Xin Meng, “Labor Market Outcomes and Reforms in China,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 26, no. 4 (2012): 75–102.

  5. Kin-man Yep, Jun Wang, and Thomas Johnson, “China’s Hukou System at 60: Continuity and Reform,” in Handbook on Urban Development in China. (Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019). Kam Wing Chan. "China’s hukou system at 60: Continuity and reform." In Handbook on urban development in China, pp. 59-79. (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019).

  6. Meng, “Labor Market,” 75-102.

  7. Meng, “Labor Market,” 75-102.

  8. Leung, Terry Tse, and Cherry Hau Tam, “The ‘Person-Centred’ Rhetoric in Socialist China,” British Journal of Social Work 45, no. 5 (2014): 1489–1507.

  9. Central Committee of the Communist Party, Decisions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on some issues concerning the improvement of the Socialist market economy, CLI.16.49876, Beijing: Peking University Center for Legal Information, 2003. Online, (2022-06-10).


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