Culture lag in Chinese labour relations: managers’ perceptions and behaviour towards workplace trade unions (2009 - 2014)

Judith Shuqin Zhu, Cherrie Jiuhua Zhu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Over the period of the mid-2000s to 2015, in response to increasing labour disputes and workers’ grievances, China initiated a series of regulatory reforms to promote collective labour relations and enhance workers’ rights. Surprisingly, these reforms were not as successful in limiting the increase in labour disputes as anticipated. To understand this puzzle, the current study goes beyond existing state-union dominated explanations for the problems in Chinese labour relations by examining Chinese managers’ perceptions and behaviour towards trade unions and workplace power-sharing over the years 2009–2014. The qualitative data collected from 21 firms revealed that managers viewed workplace trade unions as submissive assistants, dominated workplace employment decisions, and were not committed to power sharing. This evidence is consistent with the Chinese labour relations literature developed up to the mid-2000s, indicating unchanged managers’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviour in this regard. Drawing on cultural lag theory, this article argues that there exists an authoritarian cultural lag in China’s labour relations system, with managers still managing with their long-established authoritarian mode of thinking and acting against pro-labour changes in the macro environment. The concept of authoritarian cultural lag can assist in understanding why macro level pro-labour reforms have encountered difficulties in improving labour protection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-36
Number of pages13
JournalLabor History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • China
  • cultural lag
  • industrial relations
  • manager perception
  • trade unions

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