Nigel Harris


The Mandate of Heaven


Part III
The Workers and Peasants
in the People’s Republic


8. Temporary and Contract Labour:
The Worker-Peasant System

In China, as in Japan and other countries, employers safeguarded their profits against fluctuations in business activity by employing a large part of their workforce on a temporary basis. In a boom, they took on temporary workers, and in a slump, laid them off. The “permanent” workers were those who, by reason of skill, experience or personal favour of the management were kept on in a slump. Apart from relative security of employment, the permanent workers usually received higher pay, better conditions and other benefits. Often permanent workers were city born and bred (and had received more education and possibly an apprenticeship training), while the “temporaries” were former peasants who had moved to the city in search of work, returning to the village when they were dismissed. Some groups of rural workers moved seasonally to the cities. In both China and Japan, some of these temporary workers were contracted for fixed periods of time; for example, parents would sell their daughters to textile mill owners for three to five years. Labour brokers would recruit gangs of rural workers for set tasks in plantations or on the roads. In some cases, the “recruitment” was little more than conscription by the State for its construction or maintenance work on roads, dams, irrigation channels and so on. We have seen how in the late 1930s the Kuomintang conscripted labour for major road, rail and airfield construction. In pre-revolutionary France, the “corvée” the feudal obligation to work for a set period on the King’s highway, was one of the most hated duties imposed on the peasants.

In China, temporary and contract work of this kind was regarded as one of the most vicious forms of oppression. The Communist party at its Second Congress in 1922 condemned the practice and promised to abolish it. The party recognized the political dangers of a division between permanent and temporary workers, with the unscrupulous only too willing to divert the attention of rural workers from employers to their permanent co-workers, and to appeal to permanent workers to fasten their hostility not upon the capitalists but upon the poor down-trodden rural immigrant. The rural workers who came to the city could be used in exactly the same way as immigrants are used in the industrialized countries today - a pool of cheap labour in a boom, and the scapegoat for the failure of the ruling order in conditions of slump, a tactic excellently designed to divide the opposition and set them at each other’s throats.

The change of régime in China did not dissolve the objective conditions which had created the temporary labour system. Indeed, the policy of restricting the city population, producing in a boom conditions of labour scarcity, made the need for some sort of comparable system even more urgent. From the foundation of the People’s Republic, it seems, temporary workers were tolerated (although it is not clear whether they were permitted in the cities in the 1950s). During the Cultural Revolution, it was alleged that temporary labour had been used for seventeen years [49], that there were 2.4 million such workers in 1957, and that, under the impact of the Great Leap Forward, this figure rose to twelve million (that is over a quarter of all workers and staff employed outside agriculture at that time). Such workers were not included in the plan estimates for labour, and were used as a buffer by managers and cadres in sudden spurts to meet changes in target deadlines. They were paid much less than permanent workers and received none of the fringe benefits (housing, medical and educational facilities, holidays, pensions, bonuses or allowances). [50] Sometimes their wages were paid from “miscellaneous expenditure” funds to keep their employment concealed from the State. As in capitalist countries, the construction industry with its unstable seasonal pattern of work had a high demand for such workers; illegal immigrants could get work without questions being asked, and so secure a niche in the city. In the 1950s private labour brokers recruited in the villages for city enterprises, and also found jobs for those who were unemployed in the city, criminals, ex-prisoners and so on.

In the early 1960s, the use of temporary labour became more widespread, and was formalized in various State-guided contracts by which the government could regulate the scale of employment and tighten up the financial administration of enterprises. An extension of municipal boundaries in 1962 to include large tracts of the countryside brought a large pool of rural labour under city administration. By 1964, temporary workers were being used not only in seasonal agriculture and construction, but in mining, agricultural processing industries, cotton gins, textiles, timber, power generation, road construction and maintenance, post and telecommunications and commerce. [51] It was also becoming clear that, unlike the general situation under the Kuomintang, temporary labour in the People’s Republic was being used systematically to displace permanent workers, to dilute the labour force.

The “system” was publicized as a fundamental break with capitalist labour practices, and a gigantic step forward in the abolition of what Mao saw as one of the Three Great Differences of capitalism surviving in China - the contradiction between town and country. Under the “worker-peasant system”, permanent city workers would be “sent down” to the countryside (where they would receive none of the benefits of being city workers, at considerable savings in labour costs to enterprise and municipality) and young peasants would come into the city to work on temporary contracts (without receiving any of the material benefits of being permanent city workers, again with considerable savings on costs to enterprise and municipality). In the Chinese press, the “worker-peasant system” was lauded as an exemplary instance of “putting politics in command” and “following Mao Tse-tung thought”.

The savings in labour costs were considerable. On a Hunan road maintenance scheme, Ch’ao-shui commune was paid RMB 150 per kilometre per year for a stretch of seventeen and a half kilometres of local highway - RMB 187.5 per worker employed on the task for the commune, RMB 126 for the worker’s production team, and RMB 36 for the worker himself. The work was not full time, but even then, RMB 36 for a year’s work compared very favourably for the régime with a month’s full-time work from a permanent city worker at RMB 50-60. [52]

The press was lyrical in praise of the virtues of these arrangements - it improved the roads; contributed to commune income: “the rural labour force is put to rational use [i.e., underemployment was reduced] ... State expenditures are reduced, and the supply of commodity grain is decreased [i.e., where the team fed the workers, the State did not have to supply grain].” [53] Some 4,500 people had worked on such schemes in the region, and in comparison to the time when only permanent road workers were employed, “this represents a saving of 100,000 yuan in wages, and 400-500 catties of commodity grain.” However, the writer warned authorities who might like to copy the scheme, that the workers must be carefully selected, politically sound, physically healthy, and “between eighteen and forty years old”.

Finance and trade departments were also urged to adopt the system. In this case, “in order to cut down the State supply of commodity grain, the worker-peasant labourers who work in the basic level units of finance and trade departments must provide their own food rations, and the State will supply a part as subsidy only when it is necessary to do so.” [54] Cadres were instructed to ensure that “the quality of commodities and services is improved and the cost of production and the cost of circulation are cut down without increasing the total amount of wages.” The aim, the writer argued, was to create useful work in slack seasons and at slack times of the day, involving all rural inhabitants: “The subsidiary labour power of the aged and children and the idle labour power in the rural areas may also be utilized.” He outlined the schemes to be employed, including the fact that in some cases, “the finance and trade departments pay for labour in kind (fertilizers, animal power, animal fodders).” Such schemes were necessary “because objective economic development demands that the differences between workers and peasants and town and country be gradually diminished through the introduction of the worker-peasant system.”

The People’s Daily gave considerable prominence to this new “higher type of social organization of labour”. In the Anyuan coal mines in Kiangsi (total labour force, 2,000 in 1965) 207 permanent - and older - miners had been “sent down” to a rural area, and 207 rural recruits, aged on average twenty-four years, had replaced them in 1965. The cadres hoped that, in five years, they would have achieved the complete turnover of the entire labour force (that is, the complete end of any permanent employment). During the winter season of 1965-6, sugar refineries were able to lay off 7,800 permanent workers so that “the State has saved wages amounting to 2.5 million yuan.” The savings were further increased because the temporary workers did not bring - or, at the wage received, could not bring-their families with them, so food and housing costs were very low (the same discovery was made by European employers - if immigrants could be separated from their dependants, the returns were vastly increased). The Chengtu Storage and Transport Corporation in December 1965 employed 172 permanent workers, and contracted with fifteen communes for 800 temporary workers for warehouse loading work, “Because the commune members come when there is work, leave after having done their work, and ask for no food and living quarters from the corporation, it was possible to save for the State a sum of more than 270,000 yuan.” The People’s Daily argued that “various production teams near the warehouses can earn more income for the collective and solve the problem of the blind outflow of manpower owing to insufficient farmland.” In yet other cases, the savings were made simply by reclassifying the permanent workers as temporary; in four mechanized sugar refineries, the State saved RMB 108,000 in wages and 132,000 catties of commodity grain by reclassifying 629 permanent workers in 1965. [55]

It is inconceivable that such a far-reaching change, widely publicized and much praised in the press, could have been introduced without the support of the party leadership. None of them - including Mao - criticized the system. Indeed, the particular way in which it was justified - as abolishing one of the Three Great Differences - suggests that the “worker-peasant” system might have been inspired by Mao himself. Until the end of 1966, through the upsurge of the Red Guards and their assault on all manner of malpractices, in the successive defining rules and documents of the Cultural Revolution, there was no mention of the condition and problems of temporary workers. Indeed, at one stage, it seemed as if an extension of the system might be one of the aims of the Cultural Revolution. When Canton radio, on 13 August 1966, broadcast instructions for implementing Mao’s directives for the Cultural Revolution, the worker-peasant system was cited as a prime example of “politics in command”; all suitable enterprises in the province should introduce it, gradually turning “a number of permanent workers into worker-peasants”, moving selected industries (particularly agricultural processing) to rural areas to utilize rural manpower, sending industrial workers to assist in farming and so on. [56]

A setback to the enthusiasm - or, at least, complacency - of the leadership was provided by the outbreak of worker militancy in late 1966. It is possible that efforts by the cadres to extend the “worker-peasant” system was one factor in instigating worker agitation. A number of different demands coincided - of permanent workers for the restoration of bonuses and allowances abolished earlier; of temporary workers for the payment of back wages (presumably held to keep the workers obedient for the period of the contract) and an equalization of conditions with permanent workers; of apprentices for a general improvement; and of workers and students “sent down” for a legal return to city employment.

Red Guards had begun to raise the issue of the conditions of temporary workers in September l966. [57] Both temporary and permanent workers were laid off in November in a number of plants (for reasons that are not clear), and they sent delegations to Peking to complain to the government. In the charged atmosphere of the time, the centre had little alternative but to authorize their reinstatement and the payment of back wages to temporary workers. This seems to have provided the basis for general demands for the payment of wages with-held, bonuses removed, and for the return of jobs. Late in the month, the centre announced an extension of the Cultural Revolution to farms and factories (but in carefully circumscribed terms) and warned managers not to retaliate to criticism by sacking workers or with-holding pay.

Simultaneously, posters in Canton alleged that a delegation of temporary and contract workers had been received by Chiang Ch’ing and the Cultural Revolution Group of the Central Committee of the party. [58] Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife, is said to have denied that Mao had any knowledge of the conditions of temporary and contract workers, and placed responsibility for the system on Liu Shao-ch’i, the Ministry of Labour and the ACFTU. Shanghai posters reported that Chou En-lai showed greater courage on the question, arguing that “because of the circumstances in China”, it was necessary to retain the system.

Chiang Ch’ing’s accusation - that it was all the fault of Lui Shao-ch’i - sanctioned the agitation of Red Guards, Red Rebels and the temporary and contract workers themselves. In Shanghai, the rebels declared: “Liu Shao-ch’i is the chief culprit”, and “the system of temporary workers and contract workers means capitalist relations of production between employer and employee ... [and is] absolutely incompatible with our country’s socialist system.” [59] The case of a Shanghai Fodder Work Section was cited. Workers were so intimidated they “dared not express their anger in words. They patiently bore it! Why? The reason was that the moment you raised objection, you would immediately be fired.” Furthermore, temporary workers were excluded from membership of the party, the Young Communists, the militia, and were not eligible for election or nomination as deputies, members of Cultural Revolution committees, labour model heroes and so forth.

Early in January a leading Shanghai newspaper reported, under the headline “Thoroughly abolish the system of temporary labour and outside contract labour”, a demonstration in People’s Square by 100,000 people protesting against the temporary labour system and calling for “a brand-new labour system in conformity with Mao Tse-tung thought”. [60] Speakers denounced the fact that temporary workers “could not join the political study classes of their factories or take part in other political activities. Nor could they get the labour protection they deserved.” When they protested, “the power-holders even kept back part of their wages and suspended their work.”

The revolt was brief. Back wages were paid, and possibly other wage demands met. There was a run on the banks and a spending spree. On 9 January Shanghai “rebel organizations” ordered all bank funds to be frozen except authorized expenditure; the “readjustment of wages, payment of back wages and material benefits shall in principle be dealt with at a later stage”. Nonetheless, some of the Red Guards persisted in the face of what was now the disapproval of the party leadership. On 10 January, for example, the Capital Red Guards’ newspaper attacked the temporary and contract worker systems, saying they were attempts to “raise the greatest amount of cheap labour and to extract the maximum profits”.

On 16 January, the People’s Daily outlined the leadership’s case: “The handful suddenly show concern for labour insurance and the well-being of the masses of workers and talk about their promotion, subsidized housing, etc. They vigorously use material incentives to corrupt the fighting spirit of the revolutionary masses. They incite some people to make trouble by demanding economic welfare.” [61] The source of the trouble afflicting the masses was not the conditions of sweated labour, the dedication of the State to the accumulation of capital, it was a strange psychological weakness, “Economism”, incited by “the handful”. The error must be eradicated: “We should educate the comrades of trade unions and the working masses, so that they understand that they should never see the immediate, one-sided welfare benefits exclusively and forget the far-reaching interests of the working masses.”

The line had swung into reverse, but the party had to campaign hard to hold wages stable and to eject workers and students who had returned from the countryside - a return, of course, engineered by nothing more complex than the reactionaries launching the slogan “reverse the injustice of moving to the interior”. They were assured that “the question of finding work for workers who have gone to the countryside ... can be solved gradually”, provided they returned to the countryside. If there were genuine grievances after people had returned, “they can expose and criticize the power-holders by writing letters or by sending big character posters.” [62] Whatever else, they must relinquish their only hold on power - access to the urban mass.

On 17 February, the Central Committee and the State Council declared that the doctrines of the National Rebel General Corps of Red Labourers and other temporary worker organizations were illegal. The party admitted that “the systems governing the employment of temporary workers, contract workers, rotation workers and piece workers are rational in some cases, but are very irrational and erroneous in others.” However, “before the Party Central Committee arrives at a new decision, the established methods are to be followed as usual.” [63] In the meantime, temporary and other workers should have the same political rights as permanent workers; the circular made no mention of the real and vital issue, equal economic rights.

On 27 February, the party - new and old cadres - had mastered the Shanghai situation sufficiently to purge the opposition. Shanghai radio reported that the Liaison Headquarters for Opposing Economism of the Shanghai Municipal Revolutionary Committee “today took over the property and funds of organizations of contract and temporary workers and liaison centres of young intellectuals working in rural areas, of youth working in support of frontiers, and of State farm workers”. [64] All other bodies were forbidden to help or support the proscribed organizations. Obediently, “seventeen revolutionary organizations in Shanghai [offered their] warm support for the Central Committee’s wise and correct notice on temporary workers.”

The festival of the oppressed was over, but the battles were not. Nor were the grievances of temporary workers. Their resentment at the injustice of being promised a revolution, only to have it snatched away at the first sign of serious change, was no doubt one of the threads in subsequent events. For example, in May Canton radio reported a demonstration of “several thousands” demanding an end to rotation work in agriculture. But officially, the establishment had closed ranks. The cause of the temporary workers was thrust into the background. The brief episode has illustrated some of the reality of discrimination against temporary workers and those subject to hsia-fang. One poster on a Shanghai wall gave a poignant twist to the latter: “We are old workers (between fifty and eighty years), illegally sent to the countryside ... If we have to leave Shanghai, where we have lived for twenty or thirty years, and go back to the villages where we have been for only four or five years, this is like gathering the sesame seeds but losing the melon.” [65] Their despair was of less concern to the authorities than saving the price of a pension.

The campaign on behalf of the temporary workers was a microcosm of the Cultural Revolution. A section of the leadership flirted with class issues in order to destroy its rivals within the party, but drew back in alarm when the issues became a real class war. The rebels were only “revolutionaries” in so far as they implemented the aims of this section of the party, which, like its rivals, had no interest in disturbing the basis of its power, the existing production system. That required the “rebels” to oppose any independent initiative by workers, any raising of their real interests (as opposed to the pieties of “political rights”). Some rebels went so far that they had to be reminded not to “regard all workers as conservatives and fight civil wars against them. We must be aware that, except for a few diehards, most of the workers misled by conservative groups are our class brothers”. [66] Some of the rebels were clearly in danger of forgetting who the “leadership” was.

One solid achievement of the Cultural Revolution was the silencing of any public discussion of the “worker-peasant” labour system. Had it been abolished, reduced or radically changed, the government would not have failed to inform the mass of the population through press and radio and thereby win credit for ending such an oppressive feature of employment. The silence indicates that the promises made in January 1967 were not honoured. Indeed, the following September, Wuhan radio once more reported without apology or even a nod at the Shanghai rebels, that 1,600 worker-peasants had been hired in Hupeh cotton-processing centres, and 10,240 in sorting and cotton ginning plants. [67] The temporary and contract worker continues, victim and scapegoat.




49. Wen Hui Pao, Shanghai, 6 January 1967, SCMP Supplement 64, 28 February 1967, p.3

50. For references, cf. Howe, Wage Patterns, op. cit., pp.107, 127

51. Kung-lu, 20 April 196S, pp. 7-9, cited in Current Scene, VI/5, 15 March 1968

52. Kung-lu 4, cited Hoffman, The Chinese Worker, op. cit., p.72

53. How the worker-peasant labour system is tried out in highway maintenance work, Kung-lu 12, 20 December 1965, SCMM 4, 21 February 1966, p.23; see also The labour system of industrial and farming work in rotation is actively tried out, NCNA Peking, 27 December 1965

54. The worker-peasant labour system in Finance and Trade Departments: Chang Ho-wei, Hsin-chun-she, Nos.1-2, 20 February 1966, in SCMM 534, 25 July 1966

55. JMJP, 28 December 1965, cited Current Scene, op. cit., p.5

56. Current Scene, op. cit.; see also Hung Wei Pao, 30 September 1966 and NCNA Changchun, 11 August 1966

57. Temporary and contract workers, rise up and rebel, Shou-tu-hung-weilun, 13 September 1966

58. Posted 4 January 1967, cited Current Scene, op. cit.

59. Hung-kung Chan-pao, 6 February 1967, SCMP 177, 19April 1967, p.18

60. Wen Hui Pao, 6 January 1967, SCMP Supplement 164, 28 February 1967, p.31

61. JMJP, 16 January 1967; see also joint editorial, JMJP-Hung-ch’i, NCNA, 11 January 1967 on “economism”

62. JMJP, 31 January 1967, and Wen Hui Pao, 12 February 1967

63. Notice on questions of temporary workers, contract workers, rotation workers and external workers, reported Wen Hui Pao, 28 February 1967

64. SWB FE/2404/B/35; see also Wen Hui Pao, 28 February 1967, SCMP 174, 10 April 1967, p.6

65. Cited Current Scene, op. cit., p.17

66. Wen Hui Pao, 3 May 1967

67. 13 September 1967


Last updated on 26.7.2001