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This article discusses the human resources implications of the comprehensive ‘three-systems’ reforms in state-owned enterprises introduced in the early 1990s in Northeast China in terms of labour contracts, rewards systems and social insurance. It critically examines current developments in industrial relations vis-a-vis each of these categories. the upshot of these changes is a move away from the old ‘iron-rice-bowl’ employment system towards a labour-market ‘with Chinese characteristics’. Such a strategy is not without its political risks, particularly if it leads to greater joblessness without a nationwide welfare ‘safety-net’ being fully put in place. If the ‘three systems’ reforms were first piloted in 1992, it was not until 1995 that they began to be extended nationally. Such changes may be of considerable potential importance to HRM managers in multinational companies interested in forming strategic alliances and joint ventures with Chinese state-owned enterprises.