A “Race to the Bottom” or Variegated Labor Regimes? Capital Mobility and Labor Politics in China’s Electronics Industry

Issues in Contemporary East Asia Colloquium Series
Lu Zhang, Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Studies, Temple University
| CSCC Conference Room, Fisher-Bennett 345

A key debate over globalization concerns capital mobility, labor rights, and development prospects. A popular theme in the literature is that the hyper-mobility of capital from high-wage to low-wage areas in search of cheap and pliant labor has sounded the death knell for workers’ capacity for collective resistance in both Global North and Global South. In particular, it is argued that with the mobilization of China’s vast reserves of cheap labor, a “race to the bottom” in workers’ rights and welfare has been unleashed. Notwithstanding its popularity, the thesis that capital is necessarily footloose, and that capital mobility produces a straightforward race-to-the-bottom is suspect on both theoretical and empirical grounds. This paper examines how capital mobility interacts with labor politics and local development through a comparative case study of geographical relocation and expansion of four electronics multinationals from the Yangtze River Delta to West China. Developing an integrated framework that embeds worker agency and location-sensitive labor institutions in the global production networks (GPN), the study has found variegated labor regimes in the new sites of production, depending on firms’ respective positions and labor process in the GPNs, as well as local labor institutions and worker responses. The evidence suggests a dynamic process of relocation, diversification, and specialization in the electronics industry and the importance of location-sensitive labor institutions and worker agency in making the geographies of capitalism, which belie many assumptions of the race-to-the-bottom argument associated with capital mobility.

Dr. Lu Zhang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Studies, as well as an Affiliated Faculty in Asian Studies at Temple University. Her research concentrates on globalization, labor and labor movements, development, and the political economy of China and East Asia. She is the author of the award-winning book, Inside China’s Automobile Factories: The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She received a M.A. in Sociology from University of Warwick and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University. She is currently working on her second book, which explores how the movements of capital interact with labor politics and local development through a comparative case study of the global electronics industry from China’s coastal region to its interior and to Vietnam.