Suzhi (Quality) Discourse and Laid-off Workers: The Role of Trade Unions in Post-Maoist China
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Over the last 20 years, “suzhi” discourse pervaded government speeches, official media, and mainstream publications across China. This phenomenon attracted attention of western scholars, and their comments are mainly negative. A number of China observers see the promotion of “suzhi” a neoliberal governmentality, arguing that the emphasis of rural migrants’ lack of Suzhi has allowed the party-state to conceal the fact that China’s economic success was achieved at the expense of interior rural areas that supply cheap resources and labor. Some others focusing on women and minority groups indicate that the significant feature of “suzhi” discussion is its obsession with improving people’s quality, while neglecting the structural inequities created by the development strategies of the post-Maoist state. Inspired by western scholarship on Suzhi, this paper looks at Chinese trade unions’ activities in face of the massive layoffs caused by the economic restructure during the late 1990s. Largely endorsing government policy of development, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) viewed unemployment as a normal consequence of market economy, a price that workers had to pay in order for the country’s economy continuing to grow rapidly. Unable to protect workers from unemployment and ineffective in bargaining better compensation deals for the layoffs, ACFTU and its grass root branches instead focus on running training sessions to enhance laid off workers’ skills as well as “moral values”. Drawing upon archive research of official documents, journals and newspapers issued by the ACFTU, this paper attempts to reveal how the trade unions had greatly enhanced its educational function in the context of economic restructure in the late 1990s. Trying to help workers improve their “suzhi” and adapt to the market economy, ACFTU was eager to placate discontented workers and prevent or defuse confrontational labor actions, making contributions to social harmony, the top priority of the party-state.