Comparative Studies of Labour Relations in Chinese-Invested Enterprises Overseas

Professor Pál Nyíri
Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam

The Research Idea

We plan to create the foundations for comparative research on how growing investment from mainland China in industrial and agricultural production facilities abroad, particularly in poor regions such as Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, affects labour relations, management practices, and ideas of desirable labour standards. The funding would support a threefold aim:

  • help execute a joint research project on Wanhua-Borsodchem, Hungary’s largest chemical company that was taken over by a Chinese investor in 2011 in the fifth-largest Chinese investment in Europe to date;
  • help the writing of a comparative article that incorporates material from Tanzania, Hungary, and Cambodia;
  • start a longer-term research network that will facilitate doctoral projects by Chinese students in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa under joint supervision and extend to new forms of Chinese engagement with labour practices abroad (NGOs, volunteers).

The plans are based on previous research by co-applicant Dr Xu Xiuli and collaborators on a Chinese farm in Tanzania; my previous fieldwork at Chinese construction sites in Cambodia; and collaboration we have begun on the Wanhua-Borsodchem project.


The worldwide expansion of investment from the PRC has attracted widespread attention. But there are very few ethnographic, ground-up studies of how the takeover of existing companies by Chinese management or the setting up of new ones with Chinese management and local staff affects labour relations, management norms, the lives of staff, and interactions with surrounding society. Existing literature tends to be divided between those who accuse China of resource grabbing and disregard for labour rights and the environment, and those who point to the benefits of infrastructure construction and job creation. Both of these literatures tend to be ideologically inflected and largely treat “China” as a unitary actor working towards a shared goal and/or promoting a specific “model.” This approach overestimates the impact of Chinese investment on macropolitical systems and underestimates their effect on local life-worlds and aspirations. Additionally, almost all existing studies focus on Africa.

Yet, working under expatriate management dispatched from China is becoming an increasingly common situation for industrial, agricultural and service workers across the world. There is a need for extended, grounded fieldwork to understand the changes this situation brings. Moreover, exploring commonalities and differences across sites of engagement in different social, economic and political environments would permit a better understanding of the adaptation of Chinese management and a global workforce to each other.

The Focus

The emergence of China as a global political and economic power is arguably the defining feature of globalization in the early 21st century. Particularly since 2008, the beginning of the current recession, Chinese investments in oil, gas, mining, hydropower and manufacturing overseas has rapidly expanded. In deindustrialised regions from the Detroit area to the Copperbelt and northwestern Hungary, as well as in newly industrializing countries such as Ethiopia and Cambodia, Chinese investors, banks and contractors are becoming central to (re)industrialization. Adapting to the expectations of Chinese managers on the one hand, and on the other hand managing relations with local staff, populations and authorities is therefore becoming increasingly important. Despite claims that Chinese investment comes without strings attached, Chinese managers in fact expect their workers to embrace a labour discipline they see as essential for development.

Our first focus will be the Wanhua-Borsodchem case, in which the Chinese owners have gradually been replacing Hungarian management with intra-company transferees while regularly training Hungarian engineers in China and attempting to devise an internationalisation training for Chinese staff. Next, we will explore to what extent a comparison between Cambodian, Tanzanian and Hungarian cases can yield useful insights. Finally, we would like to put in place a programme enabling support for graduate students to pursue and compare ethnographic research at different sites.

Theoretical Novelty

Comparative ethnographic research on the impact of Chinese investment on labour relations is currently non-existent. We would like to stimulate this type of research. Conceptually, we are interested in the way these interactions may be changing ideas of what constitutes progress and, ultimately, desirable life for both local workers and managers and Chinese managers. Secondly, we are interested in the role of expatriate Chinese managers — moving as they do around the world, from one overseas site to the next — in facilitating the global spread of certain norms and practices as they travel from one site to another, and in developing certain forms of cosmopolitanism. Thirdly, we are interested in the role of local and Chinese managers and service entrepreneurs as mediators of knowledge and behavioural norms between local and Chinese populations involved in the exchanges.


The first case study will be a combination of interviews with short-term ethnographic fieldwork at two locations (Kazincbarcika, Hungary, and Yantai, China). In addition, we will use the funding to draft two articles and plan further research.

Work Plan

Summer 2015: 2-week visit by Xu Xiuli to Hungary for interviews, fieldwork and writing
Winter 2015/16: 2-week visit by Pal Nyiri to China for interviews, fieldwork and writing


The project should result in two articles and a plan for an academic network facilitating further research and supervision of postgraduate students.

  • Xu Xiuli Agricultural University of China