Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: A Review

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

Some readers may opt to skim through some of the technical sociological language, bearing testimony to the origin of the book as a doctoral thesis. But most of Insurgency Trap is made up of detailed and incisive description and analysis of specific case studies of the dynamics of Chinese “trade unions” in their interactions with workers. The chapter on Chen Weiguang, reformist leader of the Guangzhou Municipal Trade Union Federation is brilliant and revealing. Chen gave Eli Friedman full access to study the concrete results of some of his reform initiatives, and Friedman’s research reveals the limited accomplishments of even the most ambitious efforts at reforming China’s unions. Another superb chapter describes and analyzes the wave of strikes in Honda and Toyota auto parts supply plants that resulted in economic gains for workers, but achieved only very limited changes in the plant unions themselves.
Although I remain hopeful that the worker insurgency in China could leave to democratization of the sclerotic Communist Party and State controlled trade union apparatus, Insurgency Trap demonstrates enormous obstacles to real social advance when all avenues for autonomous political activity by workers remain closed. So long as the Chinese Communist Party remains so fearful of any independent political organization that it forbids any move towards genuine worker-controlled unions, the Chinese state will remain caught in its own “insurgency trap,” unable to advance towards a more inclusive society or make a positive contribution towards creating a more equitable global economy.

Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China by Eli Friedman is available from Cornell University Press/ILR Press, Ithaca, 2014, in paperback or in an Amazon Kindle edition. It can also be ordered on-line from the unionized Powell’s Books

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