The paper, presented in this seminar, analyses an encounter between Chinese managers and Hungarian staff at a large chemical factory acquired by a Chinese competitor in 2011. It highlights the inadequacy of dichotomies such as “North-South,” “East-West” and “socialist-capitalist” by showing how Chinese managers who, as with other corporate acquisitions in Europe, expected to “learn” from “advanced Western management practices” found what they interpreted as a “socialist” work culture in need of modernization. For their part, Hungarian staff feared the imposition of an “Asian labor discipline” but have in part come around to see changes as part of a necessary modernization. “Asian,” “European,” “Western,” and “socialist” are floating signifiers used both by Chinese and Hungarian staff at the factory in various, often contradictory ways to justify management choices, staff resistance, or individual preferences. Chinese managers strive to transform labor practices they see as backward or “socialist” into a regime seen as more modern, productive, and competitive. Sometimes reluctantly, Hungarian managers and workers go along in accepting “modern management” but label those practices they are uncomfortable with “Asian” and hence culturally inappropriate. These negotiations take place against the background of a particularly harsh retrenchment of organized labor in Hungary that limits its ability to mount more aggressive forms of resistance and are conducive to its accommodation and co-optation.
Placing the study in the context of labor encounters in Southeast Asia and Africa rather than just of Chinese acquisitions in Europe, the paper seeks to push the boundaries of the “South-South” framework, suggesting that discussions of the impact of Chinese investment on labour practices should attend to precarious socioeconomic environments within the “advanced economies” as well.
Pal Nyiri is a Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.