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Dr He Xin Frank

This project examines the state channeling of labor protests in China. As a result of the transition to market economy, labor disputes have risen sharply over the last twenty-five years in China. While many such disputes are handled through established legal channels, large scale public protests have become increasingly common, threatening social stability and sustainable economic growth. 

The current literature has primarily focused on the behavior and strategy of the protestors. Consequently, little is known about the internal functioning and operational patterns of the court and other state institutions in responding to such conflicts. This project aims to expand the researchers’ preliminary research on labor conflict to five places with representative profiles of different  state resources and causes of labor protest. Through systematically and empirically examining how local courts and the state behind them handle labor conflict in these places, this project documents variations of the state responses, identifies their respective characteristics, and explores their underlying causes.



Internal documents and interviews reveal an emerging mode of state reaction. In the context of protest, the court and related government agencies engage the protesters on the street and often grant a favorable resolution. This “street as courtroom” is a result of the weak capacity of the legal system coupled with a government-wide campaign to build a “harmonious society.” The findings of this project thus demonstrate the operational patterns of the court and the state when facing labor protest and what role the Chinese judiciary has played in this process.

But this way of handling labor disputes also exemplifies a dilemma faced by the state. With the deepening of the marketization process, the state has tried to govern society with law. Specifically in the labor section, it has given more substantive rights to the workers in a way to balance the labor-employer relationship. But when the workers cannot vindicate these substantive rights through the established institutional channels, the state, afraid of losing control, is extremely uncomfortable enshrining the rights of strike, association, and demonstration. With maintaining social stability as the most serious concern, the state has to accommodate many such labor protests. Taking the cases to the street has thus become a de facto right for the workers. To solve this dilemma, the state, if still being pragmatic in governing society, shall make further efforts in strengthening the established legal channels. This will help to facilitate the process of delivering justice to the workers. The state shall also institutionalize the rights of protest. This will not only help to withhold the conflict within the established channels, but also avoid further challenges to its legitimacy.

Dr He Xin Frank
School of Law
City University of Hong Kong