Is there a labour movement in China? This contribution argues that China does not have a labour movement, but that contestation between workers, state and capital is best characterized as a form of ‘alienated politics’. Widespread worker resistance is highly effective at the level of the firm because of its ability to inflict losses on capital and disrupt public order. But authoritarian politics in China prevent workers from formulating political demands. Despite the spectacular repressive capacity of the state, the central government has in fact responded to highly localized resistance by passing generally pro-labour legislation over the past decade. The consequence of this is that worker unrest has produced important political shifts at the national level, but these have come about without workers’ direct involvement in the process. In other words, workers are alienated from the political object that they themselves have produced. As a consequence, when the state intervenes in labour politics, it appears to be doing so of its own accord, i.e. paternalistically. This framework helps us to understand how worker unrest in China has become highly antagonistic towards employers and the local state, while maintaining the stability of the system as a whole.