The China Quarterly

Research Article

The Making of a New Working Class? A Study of Collective Actions of Migrant Workers in South China*

Chris King-Chi Chan and Pun Ngai


In this study, we argue that the specific process of the proletarianization of Chinese migrant workers contributes to the recent rise of labour protests. Most of the collective actions involve workers' conflict with management at the point of production, while simultaneously entailing labour organizing in dormitories and communities. The type of living space, including workers' dormitories and migrant communities, facilitates collective actions organized not only on bases of locality, ethnicity, gender and peer alliance in a single workplace, but also on attempts to nurture workers' solidarity in a broader sense of a labour oppositional force moving beyond exclusive networks and ties, sometimes even involving cross-factory strike tactics. These collective actions are mostly interest-based, accompanied by a strong anti-foreign capital sentiment and a discourse of workers' rights. By providing detailed cases of workers' strikes in 2004 and 2007, we suggest that the making of a new working class is increasingly conscious of and participating in interest-based or class-oriented labour protests.

Chris King-chi Chan is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of applied social sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Warwick. His research interests are industrial conflict, workplace relations and labour policy.

Pun Ngai has currently joined the department of applied social sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is the author of Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Duke University Press, 2005).


* The authors are grateful to Simon Clarks, Chris Smith, Kim Koss, Peter Evans, Ruth Milkman and Greg Chin for providing valuable comments on earlier versions of this article. We would also like to acknowledge the funding support of Warwick Postgraduate Research Fellowship, RGC's project on “Making a new working class: a study of collective actions in a dormitory labor regime of South China” (2007–09), and the large-scale research project on “The formation of working class community in China” supported by APSS, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.