Essays

The Essay (zawen) has long been a favoured medium for those wishing to challenge or even upend established power structures or ways of thinking. In this tradition, the Chinoiresie Essays section offers a selection of writings, photo galleries, speeches and conversations that seek to question and critique given truths and common sense certainties about China. All original essays published by Chinoiresie are peer reviewed. The editorial team solicits essays on specific topics and accepts submissions. If you are interested in contributing to Chinoiresie, please first contact the editors with a proposed topic at info@chinoiresie.info.

  • In January 2017, Apple celebrated the tenth anniversary of the launch of the first model of the iPhone. After a decade, has Apple’s extraordinary profitability been coupled with any greater social responsibility? Are the Chinese workers who produce the most lucrative product in the electronics world seeing improved working and living conditions? This essay provides some answers by focussing on two issues: freedom of association and the situation of student interns.

  • This essay explores a particular kind of viticulture in Tibetan communities in northwest Yunnan province. While mainstream wineries emphasise modernity at any cost without much concern for the environment, these Tibetan grape growers pursue an ecologically-friendly agenda meant to protect ‘common’ sacred landscapes. Reasons for this choice include observations of chemical degradation of the land, Buddhist ethics, and new conceptions of how ethnic representation can be exemplified by more ecologically-friendly forms of commodity production.

  • This essay outlines the development of Dongxiaokou, an urban village on the outskirts of Beijing that until recently was home to a massive population of migrant workers. The story of Dongxiaokou provides insights into the process of commodification of land in China, highlighting the tension between land used as a common resource by migrants, and land utilised as a way to produce economic profits for real estate developers.

  • The extraction and use of energy resources to drive modernisation has been one of the key concerns of the Chinese Communist Party. By tracing the history of coal mining in China, this essay argues that the physical characteristics of coal as a common pool resource have shaped the ways in which coal has been harvested and used, as well as the political and institutional structures that have developed around its governance.

  • In his powerful essay, William Hurst raised the question of how to make the study of Chinese politics relevant to the discipline of political science. Yet, the prevailing question should not be ‘how do we make China relevant to the discipline?’, but ‘how can the study of China help us rethink the study and practice of comparative politics?

  • For almost as long as political science has existed as a discipline, the study of Chinese politics has been afflicted with a chronic disease. Depending on one’s perspective, this malady’s manifestations have amounted to either neglected isolation or arrogant exceptionalism. To treat this illness, it is important to set aside any rigid orthodoxy and resort to diversity and bold experimentation.

  • The debate over China’s environmental issues has given scant consideration to existing popular alternatives to the top-down governance of the country’s natural resources. Still, if we take a closer look, we will find that at the grassroots there is no lack of alternatives. For instance, in contemporary rural China there are places where water is being managed as a commons.

  • Twenty years after the Chinese authorities decided to radically reform the country’s state industry, where does public memory of the nation’s socialist industrialisation reside? What aspects of the socialist path to modernity do officials or private citizens monumentalise, if any at all?

  • Claiming sixty-nine thousand victims, the earthquake that hit Sichuan province on 12 May 2008 not only took an enormous toll in human lives, but also had a major political impact in China. In his book Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Christian Sorace examines the political mechanisms at work in the aftermath of the tragedy. We spoke with the author.

  • In August, the Chinese authorities demanded that Cambridge University Press delete some three hundred articles and book reviews from the electronic version of The China Quarterly available inside the People’s Republic of China. In this op-ed, Anita Chan, Co-Editor of the prestigious China Journal, reflects on the implications of this incident.

  • On 18 August it was revealed that Cambridge University Press had complied with the demands of Chinese government censors to block access on its website in China to hundreds of ‘politically sensitive’ articles published in its prestigious China Quarterly journal. The ensuing debate has generally overlooked the problematic nature of the commercial academic publishing industry. Isn’t it time to take the profit motive out of the equation and to rediscover a certain measure of idealism in academia?

  • Andrew Kipnis’ new book, From Village to City: Social Transformation in Chinese County Seat (University of California Press, 2016), paints an extraordinary portrait of Zouping, a county in Shandong province, challenging our current understandings of modernity and putting forward a new theory of urbanisation. We spoke with the author.

  • In the spring and summer of 2007, bands of aggrieved parents roamed the Chinese countryside looking for their missing children, whom they learned had been kidnapped and sold as slaves to illegal kilns. Thanks to the involvement of Chinese media and civil society, the so-called ‘black brick kilns incident’ becameone of the most remarkable stories of popular mobilisation and resistance in contemporary China. Now that ten years have passed, are there any lessons that we can draw from this moment in history?

  • In the aftermath of the latest wave of repression, Chinese human rights lawyers have started to reflect on their past successes and failures. They also began to express anxiety, frustration, and confusion about their work. Ultimately all the soul searching boils down to one question: is there a future for human rights lawyering in China as we know it? To answer this question, this essay analyses the practices of human rights lawyering, and examines the circumstances in which socio-legal mobilisation may fail or succeed.

  • China and Myanmar have been economic partners and allies for a long time. But this partnership is now being challenged by Myanmar’s democratisation process. Although nascent, Burmese civil society has shown it is ready to actively contest the legitimacy of China’s various development and commercial interests in this new democracy.

  • Last October, at the Sixth Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress Xi Jinping used the slogan 'governing the Party strictly' (congyan zhi dang). What is both semantically and politically interesting about this phrase is the character zhi, a polysemic character which means to govern, regulate, and administer, but which is also etymologically associated with zhiliao, meaning medical treatment, therapy, and cure. This essay explores the implications of viewing governance as a form of medical treatment.

  • Rural-to-urban migrants in China are often depicted as being poor, uncivilised, and having a lower level of ‘human quality’ than those with urban household registration. Policy-makers carefully strategise in order to produce rural-to-urban migrants as a homogeneous category. However, the use of this term obscures more than it illuminates, as it homogenises complex social realities.

  • Chinese labour NGOs have to deal with several state bodies. Still, given their reliance on foreign funding and the political sensitivity of labour issues in China, the agency they have the most dealings with is probably State Security, a secretive branch of the public security apparatus charged with protecting the country from domestic political threats. How do labour activists manage to navigate this challenging terrain?

  • Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has reinvigorated its attempts to eradicate detrimental ‘Western ideas’. This has resulted in the assertion that civil society is nothing more than a concept, if not a trap set by the West. In practice, however, this effort has led to the emergence of a very different—uncivil—type of society.

  • The passage of the Charity Law has made the legal environment for charities in China more complex. The new Law does represent an initial breakthrough in the transformation of the regulatory system for social organising. However, it does not equalise the rules for all Chinese non-profit organisations and, crucially, it does not provide a basic law applicable to all types of non-profit entities. Why does this matter?

  • Over the past decade, the not-for-profit foundation sector has grown rapidly in China. This expansion has occurred as international foundations and organisations were withdrawing funding from Chinese grassroots NGOs, causing many civil society leaders to put their hopes into domestic foundations as a way to close their deficit of funding. But can the rise of foundations in China really replace the evaporating foreign grants for domestic NGOs?

  • Chinese civil society research is obsessed with finding non-governmental organisations. In this search, different types of civil society organisations are conflated, and non-governmentality becomes the sole factor that matters. Analytical accuracy is lost when too many things are fused under one term, especially when more accurate and nuanced terminology is available.

  • As the Chinese government under Xi Jinping has turned in a markedly anti-worker direction, attempts to establish a genuine collective bargaining system in China have been smothered. If collective bargaining is dead, what might Chinese workers and their allies advocate? The time might be ripe to shift our focus to a demand for a rapid expansion of universal social services, not least for a universal basic income.

  • 'I have always felt a deep loneliness (gudugan) and distance from the time in which we live. China’s ethnic minorities probably also feel this kind of isolation. When I spend a lot of time in the city and then go to film minorities in the borderlands, I realise that we share the same heart and solitary feelings.' A conversation with filmmaker Gu Tao.

  • Conducting research on and with elites in China comes with its own set of distinct challenges and dilemmas. In this essay, John Osburg expands upon some of these based on his field research experiences with wealthy businessmen, civil servants, and gangsters in a large Chinese city in the early 2000s.

  • Have labour reforms in China empowered workers or made their existence more precarious? In this Forum, we have invited three scholars who have researched precarity in its various manifestations in the Chinese labour market—Anita Chan, Kaxton Siu, and Sarah Swider—to offer some insights based on their experience in the field.

  • Uneven access to social welfare in China has emerged as a major cause of discontent among migrant workers. Since the early 2000s, reforms of the Chinese social welfare system have expanded coverage and protection of vulnerable populations, but due to structural obstacles, migrant workers do not have access to the full range of benefits promised by the social safety net. Can the system be improved to accommodate new demands and needs?

  • In September 2011, the village of Wukan made headlines for its protests against the illegal sale of land by their corrupt village elite. The villagers were successful in toppling the existing village leadership and electing, in their stead, the moral leaders of the revolt. A few months ago, the original leader of the protests was arrested on unclear corruption charges, an event that led to violent clashes between villagers and police. Can Wukan’s story be considered an example of a conscious democratic challenge to the existing system?

  • Since China’s opening up, the Chinese party-state has put great effort into reforming its labour laws. Taken at face value, the new laws and regulations adopted in these decades may easily be seen as a sign of the commitment to advance labour rights. But is it really so?

  • The Cultural Revolution began with Mao urging the masses to overthrow the hierarchies of state bureaucracy, factory management, and educational elitism; this explosion of democratic energy, however, was constrained by Mao’s unchallenged sovereign authority. The paradox was Mao’s desire for an acephalous, egalitarian, and fully politicised society with Mao serving as its head. This essay argues that the internal contradictions of Maoist politics are a problem of political theology.

  • While China’s expanding presence in Africa is often framed as a new project in empire building, the Chinese authorities explain their engagement on the continent as simple ‘South-South cooperation’. Taking the agricultural sector in Ghana as a case study, this article challenges both narratives and argues that Chinese farmers in Africa are not a 'silent army', but instead are largely precarious individuals attempting to meet their livelihood needs.

  • In mid-2013, the Ghanaian government initiated a crackdown on the estimated fifty thousand Chinese nationals engaging in small-scale gold mining in the country. In both the media and popular discourse the Chinese miners were depicted as feeding into corruption, destroying the environment, and stealing resources from marginal sectors of Ghanaian society. However, we still do not know much about who these miners actually were.

  • In this second episode of the Tianxia Podcast Series, Tessa Morris-Suzuki will take you on a trip through time in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ of North Korea, in the footsteps of a Emily Kemp, a long-forgotten writer who travelled in Northeast Asia in the 1910s. Looking at this place where empires meet and clash, she will also discuss some fascinating new concepts, such as 'informal life politics' and 'guerrilla markets'.

  • A decade ago, the Chinese authorities adopted a set of new laws to grant increased legal protections to workers and easier access to the legal system to enforce their rights through litigation. Since then, Chinese workers have increasingly turned to labour arbitration and courts in the hope of resolving their grievances. But how do they fare in this process? And are they able to find legal representation?

  • On several public occasions, President Xi Jinping has highlighted the importance of ‘Internet sovereignty’, a term that generally refers to a ‘bordered Internet based on territorial sovereignty’. What does this imply for the current model of Internet governance?

  • After Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, vast numbers of students, workers, peasants, and other ordinary people divided into hostile groups that violently fought against each other. Each group claimed it was fighting out of loyalty to Mao’s teachings, but research by the speaker revealed that these conflicts were actually the consequence of mounting tensions within Chinese society prior to the Cultural Revolution.

  • The happiness of the Chinese people is one of the declared aims of the Chinese dream. But what methods are available to the Chinese people to achieve this goal? This essay looks at three different options from the field of psychology and psychotherapy: psychodynamic therapies, positive psychology, and Morita therapy.

  • Following the widespread privatisation of the Zambian copper mining sector in the 1990s, several state-owned companies from China began to invest in the country. This development has not been without controversy. Some Chinese mining companies have been accused of maintaining lax safety standards, paying low wages to local employees, and of physically abusing their workers. Critics allege that this has triggered a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour standards. Still, such a perspective largely overlooks the agency of local actors.

  • China’s working class has undergone several rounds of momentous and wrenching change over the past hundred years. But what has this all meant for interest intermediation or political representation for labour in China? In order to address these questions, we must accept and understand the fractured and segmented history of the Chinese working class, as well as its rapidly homogenising present. We must also refrain from too-facile comparisons with European or other post-socialist or developing countries.

  • On 12 July 2016, a Special Tribunal constituted at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued its final award on the dispute between the Philippines and China on maritime rights in the South China Sea. For Beijing, the award was a diplomatic debacle. In such a context, no public debate on China’s policy in the region took place on Chinese media and academic journals, a significant departure from previous years.

  • The work of an historian of Chinese religion overlaps with, and sometimes confronts, the work of rights advocates. These encounters can be uncomfortable for both parties. Scholars, diplomats and jurists often have very different ideas of what rights are worth protecting, and what counts as religion. As recent revisions to China’s religions law show, ideas about religion in China are changing quickly.

  • Are young people more optimistic in Mainland China or in Taiwan? Up until now, it seems that educated youths on the Mainland have maintained a firm meritocratic ideology and a strong optimism with regard to the country’s future. Across the Taiwan Strait, however, economic stagnation has led many a young student and professional to have a grim future outlook. But things may now be changing.

  • In recent years, much has been written about the ‘rights awakening’ of Chinese workers. But what kind of rights are we talking about? Do they respond to an entirely subjective concept of justice or do they somehow coincide with the entitlements provided by the labour legislation? This article will attempt to answer three key questions: how do Chinese workers perceive the labour contract? How much do they know about labour legislation and how does this knowledge affect their trust of the law? What do they think about strikes?

  • In the days following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the same question appeared repeatedly in media debates: ‘What now?’ One way of starting to untangle the threads is to try rethinking the notion of ‘globalisation’. Despite all the complex debates that have taken place in the past few decades, this ‘globalisation’ word still confuses and obscures as much as it enlightens. This essay suggests two terms for discussing what is happening: ‘macro-segregation’ and ‘the social deepening of the market’.

  • What does ‘rule of law’ mean in Xi Jinping’s China? In this Forum, Elisa Nesossi mediates a discussion with three experts on the historical and ideological development of socio-legal issues in China—Joshua Rosenzweig, Ewan Smith and Susan Trevaskes—reframing our understanding of Xi’s ‘rule of law’ agenda and enriching our sense of the meaning of this contested expression in the political context of contemporary China.

  • The great Mongolist and Sinologist Igor de Rachewiltz passed away last Friday night at the age of 87. A student of Giuseppe Tucci and close friend and in-law of Ezra Pound, Igor was a philologist of immense culture, as well as one of the world's foremost experts on Genghis Khan and his time. We recorded what probably is his last interview. In it Igor talks about his long-term fascination with the East, his family’s connections with the Golden Horde, his relationship with Ezra Pound, and his views of Genghis Khan and of the Mongol Empire.

  • Since 1949 the proportion of Han in Xinjiang's population has risen from four percent to at least forty-two percent. But what is it like to be a Han person living in Xinjiang? In this photo essay Tom Cliff explores the lives of Han settles in autonomous region and documents how Han migration has transformed the Xinjiang landscape.

  • On 28 April 2016, the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed the very controversial Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities within Mainland China, which will enter into force on 1 January 2017. Here we offer our short analysis of the legislation in the form of FAQs to explain its scope and significance.

  • In early 2016, the Chinese government announced that state-owned steel and coal companies would be restructured, resulting in the loss of 1.8 to six million jobs. In April, seven government agencies jointly release a set of guidelines outlining a strategy for mitigating the fallout from this latest round of mass layoffs. One of the key elements of this strategy is the encouragement of entrepreneurial activity through tax relief and subsidised ‘microcredit’ for laid-off workers. What are the implications of this strategy?

  • Recently, Walmart workers in China joined hands with their international counterparts to move forward in the struggle against the American retail giant. This development has momentous implications for the Chinese labour movement, which is finally linking up with the outside world without going through any intermediary. Yet, this achievement urgently needs international support to be maintained.

  • Recent protests by state workers are once again raising concerns about an increase in labour unrest in the state sector in China. The current surge is reminiscent in many ways of the tumultuous protests that took place at the turn of the century, when the Chinese authorities carried out a drastic restructuring of the economy. The similarity is striking, and the eerily familiar images of protesting state workers only add to the sense of déjà vu. But is history really repeating itself ?

  • In the past decade, scholars have put forward several scathing criticisms of Chinese labour NGOs that go well beyond the usual concerns about the lack of transparency and internal democracy. Still, many things have changed in the past few years and now the time may be ripe for a reassessment of the role of these organisations