Dissertation Abstracts

Low-Cost Labor and Limitless Land: The Changing Foundations of Chinese Development

Author: Chuang, Julia , jchuang@berkeley.edu
Department: Sociology
University: University of California, Berkeley, USA
Supervisor: Michael Burawoy
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Labor , Development , China , Urbanization
Areas of Research: Housing and Built Environment , Labor Movements


A majority-rural labor force has fueled China’s transformation from a stagnant experiment in socialism into the second-most productive economy in the world. In the countryside, rural land rights, accorded universally and in egalitarian arrangements to rural residents, lay the groundwork for this low-cost labor force. Rights to small landholdings provide rural residents with subsistence and housing to supplement low wages and withstand irregular employment, both characteristic features of Chinese industrial production.

Low-cost labor has fueled China’s accelerated industrialization, but today it is land that generates profits in an increasingly speculative economy. In peri-urban areas, the expropriation of rural land for sale to private developers now generates a dominant portion of state revenues in the form of rents, land sales, and taxes and fees. Rural land expropriation has spread at exponential rates since 2006, propelled by a recent central state urbanization campaign which allows bankrupt rural governments to recover lost revenues through the “flipping” of rural land.

As land expropriation dismantles the rural subsistence economy that subsidizes low-cost labor, my research examines its inevitable byproduct: a growing population of rural landless laborers. Based on ethnography, interviews, and household surveys undertaken during a period of 23 months between 2007 and 2011, I document the emergence of landless labor in the changing political economic terrain of Sichuan Province, China’s primary labor-producing region. In Dalong Village,[1] a long-time labor-sending community subject to land expropriation, landless laborers become unable withstand the delayed wage payment arrangements typical to industrial production. In response, rural labor brokers shift their recruitment 500 km away to Yali Village, where land rights remain intact.

This replacement reveals the anomalous foundations of Chinese development. It inverts the assumption, shared among classical social theorists, that capitalism requires a fully wage-dependent labor force, “free to work or free to starve” and therefore capable of being pushed to great heights of productivity. Instead, the preservation of land rights among a partially wage-dependent labor force facilitates the suppression of wages and intensification of labor exploitation. By alleviating subsistence crises among laborers that might otherwise foster political unrest, the rural smallholdings economy allows China to bypass the cycles of labor protest that have historically limited low-cost production.

Chinese development has bypassed cycles of labor protest that conventionally limit low-cost production. Instead, low-cost production has continued to the point of bankrupting rural governments, necessitating their turn to rural land expropriation. This developmental shift, from reliance on low-cost labor to dependence on limitless land, extends China’s race-to-the-bottom tendencies into the rural land market. As land has become more valuable to Chinese markets than the people who inhabit it, rural people, once called upon to sell their labor, are now also required to relinquish their land.

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