Collective Action in Autocracies: The Case of Workers and Strikes in China

In autocracies, ordinary people lack access to political processes that make public policies and affect their lives. One option that ordinary people have to influence authorities is to take collective action. However, autocracies are also characterized by the lack of constraints on power and the use of coercion by authorities. If ordinary people are at risk of repression in autocracies, how can they take collective action to defend their interests and rights?

Existing literature suggests that in autocracies ordinary people act collectively when they are driven by unusual circumstances, such as rising prices or police violence. Those who act first motivate others to act, setting collective action in motion. The trajectory of collective action is highly uncertain and thus susceptible to external intervention. Building on this argument, recent research shows how external forces like political entrepreneurs influence popular discontent and intervene in collective action. However, the literature oversimplifies ordinary people and considers them as passive subjects who respond to external intervention. My dissertation, “Collective Action in Autocracies: The Case of Workers and Strikes in China,” shifts the focus to the internal dynamics of ordinary people, which lay the foundations for collective action and condition the influence of external intervention.

I argue that, in autocracies, ordinary people themselves can take on different roles and motivate one another to act collectively: a few ordinary people attempt to network other ordinary people for collective action, and other ordinary people consider whether to participate. I call this model of collective action networked mobilization and label the few taking the initiative initiators, and other ordinary people potential participants. Unlike political entrepreneurs with special interests in collective action, initiators and potential participants share interests in collective action because they are all ordinary people. The similarity of circumstances not only offers initiators many opportunities to network potential participants, but also enables them to hide their networking from the authorities behind everyday activities. Moreover, it’s difficult for the authorities to distinguish a few initiators from a large number of potential participants. As a result, networked mobilization allows ordinary people to lower the risk of repression.

Initiators and potential participants can have incentives to coordinate collective action. Initiators will have incentives to network potential participants when they expect networking to significantly increase participation in collective action. Conversely, potential participants will have incentives to participate when they expect initiators to take the initiative of networking. These complementary expectations reinforce each other and, under certain conditions, create a positive feedback loop within ordinary people. The positive feedback loop generates incentives for both initiators and potential participants to cooperate, and it motivates initiators to make choices different from what political entrepreneurs would make. As ordinary people act collectively, networked mobilization blurs the distinction between initiators and participants and exerts impact on the authorities.

Part I of my dissertation formalizes this model of networked mobilization to characterize the conditions under which initiators and potential participants coordinate collective action. Building on a global game, I compare networked mobilization, in which initiators and potential participants cooperate, with collective action in which they do not. I show that, as initiators connect potential participants, and potential participants rally behind the initiative, networked mobilization increases participation in collective action. The experience of networked mobilization helps those involved to start collective action at other times and places. To develop the model, I conducted an ethnographic study of the life of workers in Guangdong, an industrial province of China, from May to November 2019. This participant observation helped me to identify physical, organizational, and relational aspects of factory life that enabled workers to coordinate strikes under employers’ close watch. It also inspired me to consider workers and strikes beyond industrial hubs in China.

Part II analyzes the implication of networked mobilization for workers and strikes in China. First, I find that in Guangdong worker organizers – especially those with more experience in engaging fellow workers – encouraged more fellow workers to go on strikes. They also inspired some workers to become organizers and expanded networks of workers into more cities. However, these trends were reversed after a government crackdown on organizers in 2015. Second, I employ a difference-in-differences design to study the impact of government crackdowns on strikes in China. I find that crackdowns targeting organizers reduced the frequency and size of strikes both in the province where organizers were targeted and in the province where targeted organizers came from. This suggests that organizers’ mobilizing effect on workers spread from their host to original provinces, and thus targeting organizers prevented workers from going on strikes in both places. However, the negative impact was weaker and lasted for a shorter time in organizers’ place of origin, revealing the limitations of the government crackdown. For these analyses, I constructed a data set of annual networks of workers from 2011 to 2018 based on strikes in Guangdong and a province-year panel data set of strikes between 2011 and 2019 in China.

Part III explores the distribution of strikes and workers’ resistance tactics in the hinterland – the place of origin for most workers – of China. I find that, in the hinterland, strike growth was positively correlated with the number of workers who migrated out and then returned, even after accounting for industrial growth. To understand how domestic migration is related to strikes in the hinterland, I continued my ethnographic study in Jiangxi, an inland province adjacent to Guangdong, by working in a factory from November 2019 to January 2020. Most workers in the factory in Jiangxi were locals, but they had extensive migration experience in industrial hubs like Guangdong. These workers drew on their migration experience and tapped local resources to counter employers’ discriminatory narratives and exploitative practices, opening new fronts for workers’ struggle in China.

My dissertation makes two contributions. First, I offer a new model to the study of collective action in autocracies. My model differs from existing models, which emphasize external forces that drive ordinary people into collective action. In my model, ordinary people take collective action because of the internal dynamics – the positive feedback loop – that emerge from interaction between ordinary people taking on different roles. Second, I add to the study of Chinese politics, the leading research of which treats strikes in China as largely spontaneous, and their distribution localized. I explicate the process through which workers mobilize, and I identify the domestic migration of workers as a way in which strikes diffuse and new resistance tactics emerge in China.