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International Business Review 9 (2000) 345–361

An emerging model of employment relations in China: a divergent path from the Japanese? Ying Zhu


, Malcolm Warner


Department of Asian and International Studies, Victoria University of Technology, PO Box 14428, Melbourne City MC, Victoria 8001, Australia b Cambridge and the Judge Institute of Management Studies, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1AG, UK

Abstract This article sets out an emerging model of Employment Relations (including Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management) in the People’s Republic of China, particularly in terms of the formation of a distinctly ‘Chinese’ version. It follows the historical logic of its evolution to evaluate the transformation from a traditional Industrial Relations system to a contemporary Employment Relations one. In this overview, the article attempts to see how far such changes in China in varying degrees were influenced by the both Western and Japanese IR and HRM influences, particularly comparing and contrasting its own adaptations of these with those of its close neighbour. It concludes while many of these notions and practices took root in China, fundamentally different cultural, economic, historical, political and societal factors have determined the outcome of a culturally distinctive Employment Relations system, as ever, ‘with Chinese characteristics’. © 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. Keywords: Chinese characteristics; Corporatism; Employment relations; Human resource management; Industrial relations; Japanese management; Labour force; Labour Law; Trade unions; Tripartism

1. Theoretical background In her book, Translingual Practice, Liu (1995) explores how broadly speaking many Western concepts were introduced into China, by often transliterating terms

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +61-3-9688-4442; fax: +61-3-9688-4063. E-mail addresses: (Y. Zhu), (M. Warner). 0969-5931/00/$ - see front matter © 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S 0 9 6 9 - 5 9 3 1 ( 0 0 ) 0 0 0 0 5 - 6


Y. Zhu, M. Warner / International Business Review 9 (2000) 345–361

or borrowing neologisms. Even a notion as basic as ‘national character’ (guomin xing) for example changed its meaning in different hands and over time. Neologisms too appear to have played a very important role in modern Chinese development (Harris, 1997: 121–38). They clearly had a highly significant linguistic—and political—role this century, as ‘the Chinese language has struggled to adapt to unprecedented outside influences’ (Harris, 1997: 131). Many new terms were used ‘in different ways, in different contexts, but sometimes inconsistently’ (Harris, 1997: 132). Such understandings, as well as misunderstandings, attempted to come to terms with what was called ‘modernism’ and therefore constitutes a potentially fascinating field of research and speculation; we find a useful specific exemplification of the broader factors described and analyzed by Liu (1995) in the industrially focussed application we now discuss below. The theoretical background to the present specific discussion on Employment Relations we now set out below, relates to the wider discussion of how foreign notions and practices have been historically introduced into China this century. The ‘sinification’ of foreign concepts has indeed been recurrent in modern Chinese practice, described by Schram (1971: 112) as a ‘complex and ambiguous idea’, then speaking specifically in terms of for instance the introduction of Marxism–Leninism and its specific ideas to revolutionary China. Mao Zedong wrote in 1940 that ‘the universal characteristics and acquire a definite national form’ (Dirlik, 1997: 599). Such an emphasis on the specifically Chinese character of whatever is adopted in terms of economic and related reforms is recurrent and has been repeated again and in recent years has also...
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