Will Workers Have a Voice in China's "Socialist Market Economy"? The Curious Revival of the Workers Congress System

Cynthia L. Estlund, NYU School of Law


China -- like most of the developed world, and unlike the U.S. -- maintains officially sanctioned institutions beyond the trade unions through which workers are represented within the workplace. The Staff and Worker Representative Congresses (SWRCs) were meant to enable workers to exercise their authority as “masters of the enterprise” in the planned economy. With the liberalization and opening of China's economy, the SWRCs’ role was radically curtailed in the “corporatized” state sector, and largely absent in the growing non-state sector. More recently, however, the SWRCs appear to be experiencing a modest revival. Following the organization of official trade union chapters in the larger private, and especially foreign, enterprises, policymakers have begun to press for the introduction of SWRCs into those enterprises as well. The move might prove to be little more than symbolic; for now at least, China's SWRCs are generally seen as feeble and ineffectual. But change may be in the air.

This article briefly traces the evolution of the SWRCs, and highlights some key features, partly by comparison to German works councils. Whether the SWRCs will become meaningful vehicles of worker participation depends on future developments in China's employment laws, in the trade unions, and in the posture of the state toward workplace conflict. But it is worth asking now what the apparent revival of the SWRCs might tell us about the emerging shape of the “socialist market economy.” The SWRCs might be seen as helping to resolve labor-management conflict within the enterprise, to contain worker activism within official channels; and to improve regulatory compliance. More broadly, the SWRCs might be intended to give workers and the state a larger role in enterprise governance. Having first “corporatized” the enterprises of the planned economy to resemble the capitalist enterprises of the world’s developed market economies, some in China might now aim to “socialize” those capitalist enterprises to a degree that is worth watching.