Misleading Chinese Legal and Statistical Categories: Labor, Individual Entities, and Private Enterprises
The mixing of socialist and capitalist discourses in Reform China has engendered some complex and misleading usages of key legal and statistical categories. This article considers three in particular: “labor,” “individual entities,” and “private enterprises.” The meaning of the word “labor” has changed from its early days’ meaning of the “working class” in a Marxist revolutionary perspective into a relatively privileged group classified along with government officials as “employees-workers” who are under the protection of formal labor laws and regulations. The category in fact excludes the great majority of China’s laboring people today, who work mainly in the informal economy, considered to belong outside the official legal-statistical category of “employees-workers” and formal “labor relations,” and to belong rather under casual or “task-based labor relations,” not covered by the state’s labor laws. “Individual entities,” on the other hand, includes mainly self-employed artisans, peddlers, and service workers closely tied to peasants, even as it includes also a minority of new-style shops and eateries, higher-paying service entities, and other individual businesses. As for “private enterprises,” it includes mainly small-scale businesses that currently employ an average of just 13–15 people and does not include the larger private and part-private firms. They are also as a rule not formally incorporated as limited liability companies with separate “legal person” status and are therefore not considered legal “employing units” that are involved in “labor relations.” As will be seen, literal usage of these terms according to their surface meanings in English without consideration of the complex historical backgrounds and changes in the categories can lead to some serious misunderstandings of Chinese realities, as has occurred in even some of the best scholarly studies of China—by Ching Kwan Lee, Kellee Tsai, and Yasheng Huang.
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