China has, apparently, more trade union members than the rest of the world put together. But the unions do not function in the same way as western trade unions. In particular Chinese unions are subservient to the Partystate. The theme of the paper is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Issues analysed include union structure, membership, representation, new laws (e.g. promoting collective contracts), new tripartite institutions and the interaction between unions and the Party-state. We suggest that Chinese unions inhabit an Alice in Wonderland dream world. In reality although Chinese unions do have many members (though probably not as many as the official 137 million figure) they are virtually impotent when it comes to representing workers. Because the Party-state recognises that such frailty may lead to instability it has passed new laws promoting collective contracts and established new tripartite institutions to mediate and arbitrate disputes. While such laws are welcome they are largely hollow: collective contracts are very different from collective bargaining and the incidence of cases dealt with by the tripartite institutions is tiny. Much supporting evidence is presented drawing on detailed case studies undertaken in Hainan Province (the first and largest special economic zone) in 2004 and 2005. The need for more effective representation is appreciated by some All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) officials. But reasonable reforms do seem a long way off, so unions in China will continue to echo the White Queen: “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today” and, alas, tomorrow never comes
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