Workers' everyday lives and the transformation of China's post-reform state-owned enterprises

  • Shuang Wu

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The interweaving of China's "reform and opening-up" policy of 1978 with globalisation has shifted the landscape of Chinese economic geographies (CEGs). With influential economic, social, and ideological functions, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) vividly illustrate the multiple political economic, geographic, and socio-cultural dimensions of these changes. Regions with concentrations of SOEs have been particularly impacted. This includes North East (NE) China, which historically held the highest proportion of employment in SOEs and has witnessed the closure of many SOEs and regional decline. Explanations of these changes emphasise the structural and institutional mechanisms of reform under globalisation. I argue this extensive literature regards workers as passive factors of production and limits discussions of space and time. Drawing on scholarship on Global Production Networks (GPNs) and Assemblages, I propose a new conceptual framework that positions the everyday life of each worker at the heart of SOE transformation. My central research question is: "how are workers" everyday lives implicated in SOE transformation?" I explore this by re-reading transformation as the coming together of reform under globalisation with the lived experiences, practices, and affective encounters of workers' everyday lives. The novelty of this framework leads me to sketch three general research propositions rather than setting formal hypotheses. I address the research question and demonstrate my framework by using qualitative research methods and building grounded theory. To explore the differentiated ways in which SOEs are transforming, I studied 13 SOEs from three major cities of NE (Harbin, Changchun, and Shenyang). A three-phase research design was deployed. I completed 62 individual and 8 group interviews. To increase the reliability and replicability of the results, I triangulated data by considering in-depth interviews, public policy documents, internet forums, movies and magazines, and on-site field observation. The empirical findings are presented in three chapters which depict, respectively, the lived experiences, practices, and affective encounters of everyday life. First, I explore workers' lived experiences of social relations in the context of reform and their link to specific spatial arrangements. I characterise interdependent social relations and spatial arrangements constitute the socio-spatial formations. The next chapter further explores workers' mobile and immobile practices and the changing meanings of time and space of SOE socio-spatial formation. Third, I describe how encounters and affects give rise to intensity of feelings which reproduces practice and impacts the SOE socio-spatial formation. In a nutshell, understanding SOEs as socio-spatial formations implies that transformation is not "meted out" by a state or abstract market force but an "always already present"process of mutual constitution of lived experiences, practices, and affective encounters in everyday life. Overall, my thesis expands economic geographic knowledge by highlighting the ongoing and processual nature of space and time and, more specifically, by valorising worker agency. I reflect on implications for CEG to combine with cultural and social geographies. I conclude by calling for an ontological shift of focusing on the emergence and contingency of CEGs.

Date of Award12 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAdrian J. BAILEY (Supervisor)

User-Defined Keywords

  • Economic geography
  • Government business enterprises
  • China
  • Globalization
  • Economic aspects
  • Labor
  • Labor mobility

Cite this