Apple, Foxconn and China's New Working Class:  Political Economy of Global Production

Wednesday, March 30, 2016
12:30 - 2:00pm
4357 Public Affairs

Presented by: Mark Selden, Cornell University, East Asia Program

with Discussant: Ching Kwan Lee, UCLA, Sociology



About the Talk:

This is a worker-centered analysis of Apple, the world’s most profitable corporation, and its primary supplier, with more than one million workers in China alone, the world’s largest industrial employer, Foxconn. Apple's commercial triumph rests not only on its design and marketing supremacy but on the reversal of its original business model from producing computers to outsourcing its entire consumer electronics production to Asia. Drawing on extensive fieldwork at multiple sites from coastal to inland, we examine the interface of Apple, Foxconn, the Chinese state, and the unions. The power dynamics of the buyer-driven supply chain are analysed as these play out for Chinese workers in an epoch of fundamental class transformation from the predominance of state owned enterprises to a workforce that is overwhelmingly comprised of rural migrant workers. The analysis of incomplete proletarianization and the emergence of a new form of precarious labor is central to the story. Power asymmetries, including technological control and global marketing, assure the dominance of Apple in price setting and the timing of product delivery, resulting in intense pressures and illegal overtime for workers. In the wake of a wave of suicides at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen in 2010, we studied labor practice, living conditions and patterns of resistance at Foxconn and other factories, centering on two generations of rural migrant workers in a period in which contentious social protest has grown exponentially: in a system that is fully unionized (company union), in which strikes and autonomous unions are illegal, and in which the state actively seeks to redirect conflict from worker protest to the courts. We consider the paradox of worker power and powerlessness at the interface of a system in transition from predominantly state owned enterprise with lifetime employment for urban workers to one in which large areas of the state sector have been privatized and in which a partially proletarianized rural migrant workforce, whose numbers are approaching 300 million but who lack fundamental labor and citizenship rights, constitute the core of the contemporary working class and its most volatile segment.



About the Speaker:


Mark Selden is a Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell and at NYU’s Asia/Pacific/American Center, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and History at Binghamton University, and Editor of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, His interests include the modern and contemporary geopolitics, political economy and history of China, Japan and the Asia Pacific, with work ranging broadly across themes of war and revolution, inequality, labor, development, regional and world social change, and historical memory. Books include China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited, Chinese Village, Socialist State, Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany and the United States, The Atomic Bomb:Voices From Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, and The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives. With Pun Ngai and Jenny Chan he is completing a book on Apple, Foxconn and Rural Migrant Workers in the Workshop of the World.


Ching Kwan Lee is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She obtained her PhD in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and University of Michigan before moving to UCLA. She is a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (2006-7) and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2003-4). Her publications have focused on labor, social activism, political sociology and development in China and the Global South.

Lee is author of Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt (2007), winner of the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Labor Book Award in 2008 and Gender and the South China Miracle: Two Worlds of Factory Women (1998), co-winner of the Best Book Award given by the Asia and Asian American Section of the American Sociological Association in 1999.



This event is presented by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor & Employment and cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, the UCLA Asia Institute, and the UCLA Department of Sociology