Pun Ngai, China’s Infrastructural Capitalism: The Making of a Chinese Working Class

Published on May Day, to celebrate workers of the world


Entering history, entering movement. This paper is a political project. It sketches a larger plan for writing about China’s infrastructural capitalism and the making of the Chinese working class. This project emerges from a revitalization of the leftist movement that occurred in the wake of the Jasic labor rights struggle (2018). The valiant efforts of the Jasic technology workers and their supporters to fight union-busting and the oppression of laborers helped inspire a rebirth of global Marxism that attempts to confront the failure of the first wave of socialist movements, global capitalism’s subsequent neo-liberal turn, and the current populist regression. This project is situated at that historical conjuncture and within the legacy of China’s modern revolutions. Since the 1920s, China’s working masses have expressed their firm belief in class struggle and fought for a Marxist vision of communism. As part of a global effort to prepare for the imminent wave of new emancipatory movements, we also locate our project in global anti- capitalist movements while we also attempt to overcome the parochial and nationalistic approach of actually existing Chinese Marxism.

We are a group of instructors and students. We argue that Chinese capitalism has already entered a new age of monopoly capital. It is not only supported by new developments in high technology but, more importantly, by increasingly authoritarian state power, which has been instrumental in constructing the infrastructural base – such as building projects, new economic zones, highways and high-speed railways, digital platforms and logistics, etc., both internally and externally – in order to reproduce expanded capitalism, resulting in fierce imperialist battles among global powers. We conceptualize this historical process as “infrastructural capitalism,” which vividly embodies the materiality of expanded capitalism and its inherent crises, ruptures and cleavages, within which new class struggles can take root.


Is a leftist radical movement against capitalism possible in contemporary China? At a time when the power of the state looks totalizing, and the success of any leftist movement appears more distant than ever, we anticipate that the potential for such a movement is always present within China’s growing capitalist crisis. The origin of this project, conceived as a weapon of criticism, emerges at a critical juncture in Chinese capitalism and resistance from the student-worker alliance that came to be widely known as the Jasic struggle (Pun 2021).

The unionising campaign by the workers and radicalised students, who openly identified with Marxism and Maoism, took a radical direction not seen in recent decades in confronting capital and the state. The sudden outburst that brought the student radicals onto the political stage in 2018 first elicited puzzlement. They demonstrated an entirely different face compared to China’s migrant labour movement, whose political and ideological orientation was shaped by a predominantly liberal or reformist outlook in civil society and academia. The migrant labour movement had received support from international agencies since the early 2000s, support that grounded the movement’s liberal approach and ultimately overshadowed the richness and complexity of indigenous political struggles in China, especially by suggesting that the struggles of the present were disconnected from the generations of radical struggles that had come before.   

The significance of the current emergence of student-worker radicalism has been the subject of intense political debate within the labour movement and the progressive left in China and abroad. It is easy to treat their radicalism as an aberration from the otherwise liberal mainstay of the labour movement. However, this is to miss the lineage of such radicalism, which can be traced back to the first generation of Chinese communists in the early twentieth century. The Jasic alliance’s explicit positioning as Marxists in that lineage posited a threat to the actually existing official Marxism of the current Communist party, by exposing how the self-proclaimed socialist state no longer stands for the interests of the working class (Andreas 2008; Karl 2020).

It is this critical Marxist tradition that we seek to unearth. We rely on classical Marxist theories meant for grasping the revolutionary potential of the working masses. We do not fantasise a bright future, as we are facing a very stifled and tense political atmosphere due not simply to attacks from an increasingly authoritarian state, but also to the setbacks faced by the emergent radical labour activism. This left-wing labour activism, while inexperienced, has shown its determination to challenge Chinese and global capitalism and the new conflicts among the existing and emerging imperialist states.


We define the contemporary moment of Chinese capitalism as infrastructural capitalism. It is characterised by the transition from competitive capitalism to a stage of monopoly capital and emerging imperialist rivalry, as well as a state-led attempt to escape the crisis dynamics deepened by the Great Recession of 2008-2009. For many years now, the Chinese state has been dealing with declining growth rates and the proliferation of social conflicts, despite its rapid rebound in the pandemic period.

We posit that Chinese capitalism has entered a new age of monopoly capital. It is not only supported by new developments in high technology, but more importantly, by an increasing populist or authoritarian state power. State power has been instrumental in constructing infrastructures (Xiang and Lindquist 2014; Lin et al. 2017), especially building projects and new economic zones overseas covering regions in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and others in order to reproduce expanded capitalism, leading to fierce intra-imperialist battles. We strive to understand the features of this new Chinese capitalism as part of the deepening process of global capitalism.

With “infrastructural capitalism”, we conceptualise a form of capitalism built fundamentally on the production of physical and digital infrastructures, either spearheaded by or aided significantly by the Chinese state (Pun and Chen 2022). This concept encompasses both the concrete infrastructures of road, cities, high-speed rail, and logistics transportation – itself linked to extractive capital in China and overseas — and their intersections with digital infrastructures of e-commerce and the platform economy that increasingly take advantage of built as well as human infrastructures (Larkin 2013).

Often condemned as distorting state spending and antithetic to the functioning of a market economy, infrastructure is foundational to the deepening of China’s capitalist development. At stake in infrastructural capitalism is the material base underlying all other forms of capitalist materiality, namely extractive capitalism (Mezzadra, S., & Neilson, 2019), industrial capitalism (Braverman, 1998), and digital capitalism (Fuchs and Mosco, 2015). Metaphorically, infrastructural capitalism also provides symbolic power capable of exhibiting spectacular landscapes and prophesizing a nationalistic or imperialistic future of humanity. Increasingly, Chinese infrastructural capitalism takes on an international dimension. The One Belt One Road initiatives are a broad umbrella under which Chinese private and state capital export excessive productive capacity and build up infrastructures in other developing economies to secure resource extraction. In the process, those economies and their labour relations are reconfigured.

The recent process of intensifying infrastructural development also accentuated a series of social contradictions and class conflicts in China. First and foremost, infrastructural development is dependent on land dispossession. For much of the last three decades, land disputes over dispossession (and the corrupted processes associated with them) have been among the most widespread and violent cause and type of struggle in China. Second, infrastructural construction has consistently led to labour abuse through subcontracting and wage theft, sparking recurring construction worker protests. Third, a high level of government debt has accumulated in financing infrastructural development, including high-speed rail construction and others – this is a ticking bomb for the future Chinese economy. These contradictions have not been resolved and are likely to be amplified in the coming period as Chinese capitalism continues to rely on similar methods and mechanisms for infrastructural development. 

This new Chinese and global configuration of infrastructural capitalism serves to produce the dispossession, extraction and exploitation of the working class and the peasantry in the service of capital valorisation and concentration in the age of monopoly capitalism. As monopoly capitalism is sustained through global infrastructural projects, the new modernity it creates is far from “all that is solid melts into air;” rather it is as solid as a rock and it will undergird the explosions from the working class in the future.


We are not simply interested in conceptualising the form of Chinese capitalism from the standpoint of power from above. We are fundamentally concerned with understanding the infrastructural base of labour struggles under a new form of Chinese capitalism – the very base of capitalism in its deepening phase since the 2000s. The questions of working-class formation and re-formation, and of labour organising, cannot be answered in the abstract but have to be understood in the context of the rapid configuration of Chinese infrastructural capitalism.

Our project is not anchored with a contemporary or linear temporality. We link up not simply with the classic Marxist theories which work tenaciously to transgress the chains of capitalism, but also with the history of the Chinese Revolution, in which blood and tears were shed to break the chains that were fettering the working class and the peasantry. As the current resistance against infrastructural capitalism is embedded firmly in the legacy of China’s Revolution, any understanding of the Chinese working class needs also to be rooted in China’s revolutionary past. That past provides not only the possibility and the opportunity to imagine transgressing the capitalist mode of life, but it also offers historical examples in which the working masses fought against capitalism and imperialism (Lin 2013; Karl 2020). Igniting this revolutionary past might enrich the theoretical development of a new movement to analyse contemporary capitalism and its crises. The past and future are connected through this rewriting in the present, with the rewriting firmly re-rooted in global Marxism. Reworking Chinese Marxism, by stripping away its parochial and nationalistic understandings of revolution, and by reconnecting it to the circuit of global Marxism, could reintegrate contemporary Chinese Marxism back into a global anti-capitalist project.

In this project, we suggest a tripartite infrastructural organizing base: worker-controlled trade unions at the workplace, workers’ centres in the industrial community, and solidarity networks at vocational training colleges. Needless to say, like the Jasic struggle, the formation of trade unions, based on workers’ power but with students’ support, might withstand efforts to strike them down because capital-labour conflicts continue to be centred in the workplace. We perceive that worker centres in the industrial zones and communities continue to have radical potential, organising issues around social reproduction as well as forming mutual support groups among working class families. Vocational training colleges – the major sites for reproducing new worker-subjects for almost half of China’s youth population – will emerge as new experimentation platforms for “learning to labour.” These will contain the potential for formations of radical solidarity, education, and networks. Female attendants on the high-speed train, digital laborers at Alibaba web-stores, and logistics workers in packaging and shipment companies such as Cainiao all come from vocational training colleges. Workplace, community, and vocational training colleges are thus three pillars for the combination of workers’ power, and all three pillars are rooted and re-territorialized in infrastructural capitalism and can therefore produce and foreground working class struggles in the sphere of production and social reproduction.

A new epoch of Chinese infrastructural capitalism has signified a new dynamic of capitalist crisis, state repression, and grassroots resistance. As a new force of Chinese Marxist leftists – committed to engaging in the labour movement – emerged, they immediately faced an onslaught, and suffered a brave but tragic fate. It is in this context that we are compelled to embark on this project on labour and infrastructural capitalism, aiming to provide the praxis of a newly emerged and emergent leftist force with theoretical interpellation and critical analysis. Propelled by the desires and the necessities of working-class struggles, we are not alone; we stand with you, the Chinese working class – as part of the global left and global working class.

PUN Ngai, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University



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