China Table of Contents
In some ways, Chinese work units (danwei) resemble the large-scale bureaucratic organizations that employ most people in economically developed societies. The unit is functionally specialized, producing a single product or service, and is internally organized into functional departments, with employees classified and rewarded according to their work skills. Professional managers run the organization, enforce internal regulations and work rules, and negotiate with other work units and administrative superiors.
Chinese work units, however, have many distinctive qualities. Workers usually belong to the same unit for their entire working life. The degree of commitment to the unit and the extent to which the unit affects many aspects of the individual worker's life have no parallel in other societies. Chinese work units are highly corporate, closed, permanent, and all-embracing groups. In most cases, people are either born into their units (villages count as units) or are assigned to them when they enter the work force.
Units supply their members with much more than a wage. Housing in the cities is usually controlled and assigned by work units. Consequently, one's neighbors are often one's workmates. If childcare facilities are available, they will most often be provided by the work unit. Recreation facilities will be provided by the work unit. Political study is carried out with one's workmates. In the cities many people meet prospective spouses either at work or through the introduction of fellow workers. For most people, social mobility takes the form of working their way up within the organization.
If goods are in short supply, they will be rationed through work units. This was the case with bicycles and sewing machines in the 1970s. The same can apply to babies. As part of China's planned birth policy, unit supervisors monitor the fertility of married women and may decide whose turn it is to have a baby (see Population Control Programs , ch. 2). At the other end of the life cycle, pensions and funeral expenses are provided by work units. Travel to another city usually requires the written permission of one's work unit before a ticket can be purchased or food coupons for one's destination issued. Every unit is managed by party members, who are responsible for personnel matters. Outside the farm sector, a written dossier is kept for every member of a unit. Units are often physically distinct, occupying walled compounds whose exits are monitored by gatekeepers. The unit is thus a total community, if not a total institution, and unit membership is the single most significant aspect of individual identity in contemporary China.
Since the 1950s the individual's political life too has been centered in the work unit. Political campaigns have meant endless meetings and rallies within the unit, and when individuals were to be criticized or condemned for political deviation or bad class origins, it was done within the work unit, by fellow workers. In the post-Mao Zedong era, many people were working side by side with others whom they had publicly condemned, humiliated, or physically beaten fifteen or twenty years before. Much of the quality of life within a unit derives from the long-term nature of membership and human relations and from the impossibility of leaving. Members seem most often to aim for affable but somewhat distant ties of "comradeship" with each other, reserving intimate friendships for a few whom they have known since childhood or schooldays.
The work-unit system, with its lifetime membership--sometimes referred to as the "iron rice bowl" (see Glossary)--and lack of job mobility, is unique to contemporary China. It was developed during the 1950s and early 1960s with little discussion or publicity. Its origins are obscure; it most likely arose through the efforts of party cadres whose background was rural and whose experience was largely in the army and in the disciplined and all-embracing life of party branches.
The special characteristics of the Chinese work unit--such as its control over the work and lives of its members and its strict subordination to administrative superiors who control the resources necessary to its operation--make the unit an insular, closed entity. Units are subject to various administrative hierarchies; reports go up and orders come down. The Chinese Communist Party, as a nationwide body, links all units and, in theory, monopolizes channels of communication and command (see Chinese Communist Party , ch. 10). Vertical, command relations seem to work quite effectively, and the degree of local compliance with the orders of superior bodies is impressive. Conversely, horizontal relations with other units are often weak and tenuous, presenting a problem especially for the economy.
Data as of July 1987
China Table of Contents