Taiwanese and Japanese companies including Honda . have been scrambling to defuse labour disputes that have paralysed production and sometimes erupted into violent clashes between workers and state-backed union officials.
Meanwhile, a spate of worker suicides at the mammoth factory complex operated by iPhone maker Foxconn in the southern city of Shenzhen has drawn attention to the stresses many young workers face on factory floors run with military-style discipline.
Analysts said the recent labour actions were related specifically to job conditions and wages rather than any wider issues such as friction with Japan, which has at times prompted public outbursts against the Japanese in China. A widening gap between China's wealthy cities and the still developing countryside has added to frustrations among young migrants who move to the city in search of a better life and find the cost of living prohibitively high.
Younger Chinese now seeking work in factories were raised in an era of relative plenty and have less tolerance for highly regimented factory living than older generations familiar with hunger, political unrest and poverty. Those changing expectations represent a thorny challenge for China's communist leadership, which seeks to legitimise its monopoly on power with a promise of continually rising living standards.
"Today's youth are more concerned about what will happen to them in the future. They want to settle down in large cities and have interesting and well-paying jobs... just like their counterparts in other countries. The current factory system isn't set up to realise their dreams," Andy Xie, an independent economist, said.
After being battered by recession last year, Japanese companies are increasingly shifting production to China to tap its lower labour costs and get closer to its fast-growing market. But companies that rely on China for cheap labour increasingly are finding it hard to attract and keep workers, who want better pay and working conditions.
"The wages most Japanese factories offer are lower than those paid by western factories, and the management is stricter," said Liu Kaiming, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation.
China's communist leaders, who have ruled since the 1949 revolution, ban unauthorised organisations and any public dissent. But the authorities have long tolerated limited, local protests by workers unhappy over wages or other issues.
While the latest strikes have drawn open acknowledgement of the need for better management of labour relations, China's leaders are unlikely to allow trade unions – or any other group – to gain much influence, said Zhou Xiaozheng, a well-known sociologist and professor at Renmin University.
"It's hardly possible for labour unions to be effective, and for the party it is absolutely taboo," he said. "No group can represent our people, except the Communist Party."