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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
How workers and peasants are constructed in public discourses depends on the specific class relationship between the labour and the political/social elites of the time. If we take a long historical view, we can see a dramatic transformation in the ways in which Chinese workers...
In the eyes of both China scholars and the public, the recent growth of China’s Internet economy is jaw-dropping. Not only did Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent enter the top 10 most valuable tech companies in the world, but new players have also emerged on the...
One year ago, on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Nineteenth National Congress, the Discovery Channel, one of the world’s most recognisable cable television brands, aired a slick documentary series presenting China as a dynamic nation on the cutting edge, under the stewardship...
Over the past year, the Cambodian government has engaged in a full-frontal assault on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The latest development has seen Cambodia effectively becoming a one-party state, after the ruling party swept all 125 seats on offer in the National Assembly at the polls held in July 2018. This essay examines the ways in which both labour politics and China have played a role in these changes.
To carry out coercion and social control, the Chinese government often resorts to non-state actors, including ‘thugs-for-hire’, profit-seeking brokers, and even commercial enterprises. This piece examines the circumstances under which the authorities use these means and the reasons behind their choices, arguing that this is mostly related to the need of reducing the cost of repression and evading responsibility.
Heads of major international organisations and world-famous actresses are not all that has been disappearing in China in recent months. According to a complaint recently posted online by several scholars, Springer Nature—the world’s largest academic publisher—is guilty of removing ‘politically sensitive’ content published in the...
In recent years, there has been rising activism among temporary agency workers—workers who are hired through labour agencies and are now a main component of the Chinese workforce across sectors. Several high-profile struggles by agency workers in the automotive industry have highlighted their grievances and...
In recent years, rising labour costs and unstable market conditions in coastal areas have prompted former migrant workers and small-scale entrepreneurs to move their manufacturing activities to interior provinces. While this has been made possible by China’s infrastructural upgrade, in this essay Nellie Chu shows how infrastructure projects that link China’s interior and coastal manufacturing regions have ended up intensifying key aspects of the country’s informal economy.
After four decades of rural-to-urban migration, the class identity of more than 280 million rural migrant workers in China remains ambiguous. Many scholars have attempted to capture the transformation of their identity from ‘peasants’ to ‘workers’ by resorting to such labels as ‘new industrial workers’...
What follows is a fictionalised account of the last days of Shi Yang (1889–1923) based on the prison diaries included in the commemorative volume Shi Yang jinian wenji (Museum of the 7 February Massacre, Wuhan 1988). Shi Yang was a weiquan lawyer ante litteram, and to this day he remains an inspiration to many labour activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates him as a martyr of the revolution, the irony of which will not escape those who are aware of the plight of human rights lawyers and labour activists in the country to
The study of Chinese politics and society has reached a crossroads. A year ago I called for scholars to eschew exclusive focus on the current ‘methods arms race’ and engage in more cross-national comparative analysis to bring the study of Chinese politics out of isolation...
China’s economic reforms started exactly forty years ago. Labour scholars today are debating the extent to which labour relations and the labour movement in China have changed, and where they may be heading. Positions are polarised between pessimists who emphasise the structural power of the market and the authoritarian state, and optimists who envision the rise of a strong and independent labour movement in China. In this essay, Chris King-Chi Chan advocates for a different approach.
This summer, the struggles of workers at Shenzhen Jasic Technology, a publicly listed private firm specialising in the manufacturing of welding machinery (hereafter referred to as Jasic), to form a labour union have attracted widespread attention both inside and outside China. The worker activists decided...
In the wake of the 2015 crackdown on labour NGOs, pessimism about the future of Chinese civil society has been unavoidable even for the most assured optimists. Still, pessimism and optimism in discussions of Chinese labour NGOs have roots that go far deeper than these latest turn of events. In this essay, Ivan Franceschini and Kevin Lin take stock of the existing literature and reconsider the debate in light of the latest developments, proposing a possible synthesis between ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ views
Shot over a six-year period (2009–2015) mainly in the industrial heartland of south China—a major hub in the global supply chain—the 2017 film We the Workers (xiongnian zhi pan) follows labour activists as they find common grounds with workers, helping them to negotiate with local...
China’s post-1978 era of ‘reform and opening up’ is ending. China—a country that claims to shape the global order—is closing down and its future remains uncertain. This is the key message from Carl Minzner’s End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise, an engaging, provocative, albeit sobering, analysis of contemporary China.
An article appeared recently in the South China Morning Post concerning an open letter calling for the dismissal of ‘triumphalist academic’ Hu Angang, a professor at Tsinghua University (Huang 2018). The letter, addressed to Tsinghua President Qiu Yong and signed by a number of university...
In the first five years of Xi Jinping’s rule, China was characterised by slowing economic growth, the decline of traditional industries, a rapid growth in service industries, and the increasing use of flexible or precarious labour. This has had a clear impact on Chinese workers. In this essay, Geoffrey Crothall illustrates the latest trends in labour activism in China, examining the workers’ main demands, the types of protest, the number of participants, and the responses of the local authorities and police.
For at least three years, my organisation has been tracking—and helping others to track—the way in which China is expanding its influence in multilateral institutions, in particular the United Nations (UN). However, when the Trump Administration announced the withdrawal of the United States from the...
With China being the world’s largest market for industrial robots, robotisation has become a hot topic in the Chinese public discourse. While media reactions have been polarised between those who fear large-scale displacement and those who emphasise the rise of newly created jobs, there has been little solid research looking into the impact of robotisation on labour market and shop floor dynamics. In this essay, Huang Yu assesses both the ‘robot threat’ and the ‘robot dividend’ discourses, offering some views on how workers should react to the
As academics, we experience pressures, both direct and indirect, from the Party-state, all too often abetted by publishers and universities eager to sacrifice principles to cash in on this massive economic opportunity known as ‘China’. Yet at the same time, we are also placing pressures upon ourselves, imagining the potential responses of the seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful Party-state to our each and every move. As a result, it remains unclear whether the primary issue is in fact censorship, or self-censorship, and where we can begin to
[Versione italiana] A few weeks ago, the new Undersecretary of Economic Development Michele Geraci published an article entitled ‘China and the Government of Change’ on Beppe Grillo’s blog, in which he explains his vision for ‘a more attentive foreign and economic policy towards China’ in...
[Read the English version here] Qualche settimana fa, il nuovo Sottosegretario allo Sviluppo Economico Michele Geraci ha pubblicato sul blog di Beppe Grillo ‘La Cina e il governo del cambiamento’, un articolo in cui espone la sua visione di una ‘più attenta politica estera...
The recent wave of evictions of tens of thousands of rural migrants in Beijing has served as a harsh reminder of the subaltern condition of many of these people in today’s China. This essay examines how rural migrant workers have been represented in Chinese independent documentary films. It points to the importance of conceptually linking the political economy, sociology, and cultural politics of labour in order to apprehend the subject-making processes of migrant workers in today’s China.
Since Xi Jinping’s ascendance to power, several cases of miscarriage of justice have been remedied, and significant reforms have been implemented to prevent abuses by the police and the courts. While on the surface these reforms could be considered groundbreaking, they have not found much international admiration or praise, as they are being carried out at the same time as a ferocious crackdown on civil society. It is now clear that in Xi’s reforms there is more than meets the eye.
In 2013, Zhang Kaiqin, Wu Dan, Liu He, Lei Sheng, and I opened Handshake 302, an independent art space located in a 12.5-square-metre efficiency apartment in Baishizhou—Shenzhen’s most iconic urban village. The space functions as a gallery or an apartment, depending on the needs of...
Ulaanbaatar has come to be associated with dystopian levels of air pollution, especially in the wintertime, when the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees. In almost every account, the culprit for the devastating pollution of the capital city of Mongolia is the ger districts, areas not connected to municipal infrastructure, where people mainly rely on burning low-grade coal to keep warm. As Ulaanbaatar’s future is shrouded in smoke, many older residents wistfully recall a different city from the past.
Human rights is a highly contested topic. This is even more apparent in authoritarian contexts like China, where political leaders pass progressive laws and regulations, and sign international treaties, while at the same time regularly cracking down on those citizens who attempt to proactively claim the very rights assigned to them by officialdom. In this conversation, Eva Pils—author of Human Rights in China (Polity, 2018)—and Elisa Nesossi discuss the significance of human rights in today’s China.
Beijing’s eviction of migrants from their dwellings in November 2017 left tens of thousands homeless within days. It was rightly seen not as a legitimate response to a fire hazard but a convenient opportunity to slow down the urban growth of the capital. This poses the question: do migrants in today’s China have a right to the city?
In response to a deadly fire in a Beijing neighbourhood inhabited mostly by migrant workers, the authorities of the Chinese capital launched an unprecedented wave of evictions. Without any notice, migrants who often had spent years in the capital were told to leave their habitations and relocate elsewhere in the midst of the freezing north-China winter. While foreign media widely reported on the unfolding of the crisis, they often overlooked the outpouring of outrage in Chinese public discourse. This essay seeks to fill this gap.
Nostalgia for the boyishly-brutal Wang Zhen flooded across Han Xinjiang in the days, weeks, and months following the intra-communal violence of early July 2009 in Urumqi. Many Han invoked Wang Zhen’s notorious approach to management of Xinjiang’s non-Han (and in particular, Uyghur) population as the...
I still clearly remember how during my visits to the quake-struck areas one year after the Wenchuan earthquake, local officials would unanimously commend the various social organisations and volunteer groups for their enthusiastic, industrious, and effective relief efforts. Back then, I also witnessed the establishment...
In the wake of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake millions of volunteers were driven by sorrow, love, and compassion to travel to Sichuan to help with the relief effort. This spontaneous and self-organised movement of idealistic youths was unprecedented in contemporary Chinese history. However, many of them failed to transcend the boundary between simple volunteering and the type of activism necessary to address the causes of suffering in the wake of the earthquake.
During the earthquake that hit Sichuan province in 2008, over 7,000 classrooms in shoddily constructed schools collapsed, killing at least 5,000 children. Grieving parents staged protests and called for an official investigation to punish the officials and contractors found responsible for the tragedy. The Communist Party responded with more than just censorship, imprinting its own narrative on the rescue and reconstruction, so the slogans written by grieving parents are now doubly buried underneath monuments to the Party’s benevolence.
It is often assumed that the law in China, as in many other developing countries, is weak or unimportant. In his new book Ruling Before the Law: The Politics of Legal Regimes in China and Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2018), William Hurst offers a compelling comparative study of legal regimes in China and Indonesia to dispel this misconception.
Much has been made of the Orwellian social control aspects of the emerging ‘social credit system’ in China. However, social credit is more than simply a Chinese version of big brother: it is an unprecedented climax of the global financialisation project and a signal of a potential dark digital future dominated by algorithmic rule.
Globally, mass media face a difficult dilemma: how to report on the Chinese spectacles of prisoners forced to perform fake, scripted confessions? The Chinese authorities produce these confessions in order to create a new ‘truth’, one that is to be disseminated through Chinese state media...
Although industrial landscapes today appear as one of the most alien of art forms, they were once fundamental as backgrounds of socialist realist paintings. This essay examines the legacies of two masters of the genre in China and North Korea—Song Wenzhi (1919–1999) and Chōng Yōngman (1938–1999)—and demonstrates how different revolutionary histories have led to a divergence in legacy and achievement.
In late February, the Chinese Communist Party announced that it would advise the repeal of term limits for the President and Vice President from China's Constitution. Some have been tempted to see this as a simple and naked power grab, putting China into the basket of tin-pot strongman regimes. China’s official media, meanwhile, have downplayed the move—portraying it as necessary to advance and secure liberalising reforms. The reality, of course, is more complex.
Given the social and political significance of ‘the peasant’ (nongmin) in modern Chinese history, it is surprising that the term nongmin is largely absent in Hong Kong, where discourses about individual farmers (nongfu) are far more prevalent. In tracing the modern etymology of Chinese peasants and the history of Hong Kong agriculture, this essay argues that the lack of ‘class’ consciousness makes Hong Kong farmers even more vulnerable to the unceasing wave of urban sprawl.
Since 2014, declining economic growth and Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign have led to decreasing demand in certain markets for jadeite—the highest valued type of jade in China. But while institutional factors may explain these short-term fluctuations, historical continuity and cultural imaginations underpinning Chinese demand suggest that the jadeite market boom in China is not quite over yet.
In today’s China, migrant workers are commonly perceived as criminals. This essay examines how this bias is reflected in mechanisms of crime control, as well as in the judicial and correctional systems. It also looks into the strategies adopted by migrants to cope with this kind of discrimination by the law enforcement bodies.
When discussing the outcomes of China’s economic development, the poverty that can still be found in Chinese cities is seldom mentioned. While the Party-state is indeed making a token effort to sustain the victims of this destitution, these people and their offspring will never be able to escape this manufactured poverty. This essay looks at the policy process that led to this outcome and at the prospects for poverty alleviation in Chinese urban areas.
China’s manufacturing model has been built on the exploitation of migrant workers under a despotic labour regime. But is that still the case? Based on extensive research in the Chinese garment sector, this essay argues that while draconian controls persist up to this day, the situation of China’s migrants has undergone dramatic transformations that encompass not only changes in the workers’ demographic profile and everyday life practices, but also new social, technical, and gendered divisions of labour inside factories.
The increasing precariousness of labour forces globally has prompted some to argue that a new ‘precariat’ is emerging to challenge the privileges of the securely employed ‘salariat’. This divergence within the working class has been depicted as more significant than the traditional conflict between labour and capital. This essay examines these discussions in China, where precarity is increasingly being employed as a theoretical tool to explain the fragmentation of labour in the country.
Focussing on the conceptual evolution of precarious labour over the past three decades, this essay provides a genealogy of the notion of precarity. On the eve of the fourth industrial revolution, when precarity has become the norm and fears of a jobless society have alimented a dystopian imaginary for the future, this historical reconstruction seeks to identify those elements that have shaped the material conditions of workers as well as influenced their capacity of endurance in times of growing uncertainty.
The 2015 documentary The Chinese Mayor by Zhou Hao documents the story of Datong, Shanxi province, as its leaders embark on an ambitious plan to transform the city into a tourist destination. Still, although the filmmakers devote sustained attention to the relocated residents and their demolished homes, the film is no exposé: it is mostly intended to educate an international audience on the internal workings of the Chinese policy-making process.
In the past few years, a growing number of academics and activists have launched projects aimed at counting contention in the realm of Chinese labour. This essay explores the power and limitations of such efforts, detailing the inevitable data problems involved in any quantitative approach to documenting protests in China. It also examines the ethics involved in how we collect such data and the questions we ask of it.
Over the past decade, China’s increasing presence on the African continent has been a source of global debate, excitement, and anxiety. In her new book The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa (Chicago University Press, 2017), Ching Kwan Lee draws on six years of in-depth fieldwork to ask a new set of questions.
Lu Xun today lives a new life in his homeland as well as abroad. However, given the vastness and unevenness of his oeuvre, not all his works receive the same attention. In particular, one collection of short stories stands out for their neglect: Old Tales Retold, a series of comic sketches based on ancient Chinese myths and legends published shortly before his death. This essay focusses on this semi-forgotten pearl and its relevance for today’s readers.
The assassination of political analyst Kem Ley in Phnom Penh in July 2016 suggests that civil society touches a nerve of great sensibility in today’s Cambodia. Cambodian democracy is currently experiencing its tensest period in two decades. If civil society plays a role in this context, it is not primarily within the traditional confines of the associational realm. Rather, in looking for a civil society challenge to party politics, we will have to shift our attention away from NGOs to the tentative emergence of social movements and to the fledg
Under the presidency of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, relations between trade unions in the United States and China have come to a virtual standstill. To understand how we arrived at this point, and what can be done to break the impasse, this essay briefly reviews the historical development of union relations between the two countries. In order to achieve this, it draws on voices of those labour leaders in the United States who have been direct participants in efforts to develop early contacts with their Chinese counterparts.
This essay compares the prospects for union reform in Vietnam and China. In Vietnam, heated debates about how to reform the trade union and the industrial relations system have been ongoing ever since the government signed the now defunct Transnational Pacific Partnership Agreement. In China, on the contrary, the Chinese party-state and the official unions are taking the route of suppression of labour activism, indicating grim prospects for union reform.
After spending years advocating for human and civil rights in China, Ai Weiwei is now employing his artistic abilities and his sizeable social media presence to sensitise the West to the plight of the refugees who attempt to reach Europe from the Middle East and Africa. In doing so, he is putting European governments rather than the Chinese state ‘on trial’ while adding a ‘transcultural’ dimension to his work. Still, even his most recent endeavours stem from the same philosophy he has espoused throughout his career.
In recent years, much has been written about how increasing labour costs in China are pushing investors to move labour-intensive production to other countries where wages are still low. But what does this shift in global capital trends entail for workers? How do the workforces in these new outsourcing destinations fare compared to their Chinese counterparts? In order to gain a better understanding of the human cost of this latest capital flight, this essay compares garment workers in China and Cambodia.
Chinese-established special economic zones in Laos have been criticised as being sites of neoliberal exception, sustained by a Chinese logic of self-entrepreneurship and self-determination—or a soft version of colonial-era extraterritoriality. This essay argues that such areas are, in fact, a frontier space of post-socialist ad hoc experimentation, within which the Lao state haphazardly tests new socioeconomic and governing mechanisms under authoritarian rule in order to produce revenue and perpetuate its power over Lao citizens and territory.
As the scale and scope of Chinese investment in Europe increases, it is important to understand how Chinese multinational corporations organise their workplaces on the continent, and what this entails for their workforce. This essay examines three key issues: the level of Chinese investment in comparison to investment from other countries; the extent to which employment models developed in China are transferable to European workplaces; and whether or not Chinese firms prefer using home practices to manage their workforce in Europe.
Since the 1980s the Chinese Communist Party has condemned the Cultural Revolution as ‘ten years of chaos’. Nevertheless, so far there has been very little discussion on the topic in the public sphere in China. This essay looks into how private collections of red relics can be used to confront this void in China’s recent past. It argues that collected objects play a much more complex role in history production than we may think, as they contribute to the construction of narratives, put forth counter-narratives, and fragment the very idea of hist
The loss of political support for collective bargaining has stripped the Chinese labour movement of one of its few unifying forces. In light of this decline, in a recent essay Eli Friedman has argued that collective bargaining should be replaced with universal basic income (UBI) as a common goal of the movement. But would UBI be able to play such a role? What may be gained or lost by mobilising around UBI? To respond to these questions, this essay compares the two strategies with regard to a number of crucial aspects.
Chinese civil society activists and rights-protection lawyers are experiencing unprecedented levels of repression. The relentless pressure, as well as the acts of police violence and torture, has made many fearful of the consequences of their work. This is, inevitably, taking a toll on the mental health of activists. While psychological counselling services in China have expanded in recent years, most counsellors are reluctant to work with politically sensitive clients. This essay examines the need for the human rights community in China to dev
The recent Party Congress has seen an outpouring of support for strengthening environmental protections. This has come amid an intensified environmental crackdown that has seen surprise inspections of mostly smaller and older factories across the country. While these activities have received some attention in the Chinese media, at present very few reports can be found in English. To fill this gap, this essay explores the implications of the campaign for workers and business in Chengdu.
Maria Repnikova’s new book Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2017) challenges conventional understandings of the role of critical journalists in authoritarian regimes, painting a picture of reporting in China as a balancing act of creativity, experimentation, and restriction. We spoke with her.
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?
On 24 February 2017, photographer Ren Hang leapt to his death from a twenty-eight-floor building in Beijing. He had not yet turned thirty, but his work had already attracted considerable international attention. This essay retraces the path of Ren’s life, contextualising it within the rapidly developing field of Chinese photography. Beginning with the emergence of ‘private photography’ in China in the early 2000s, the article describes how a cultural industry made up of independent-publishing and photo fairs has blossomed in contemporary China.
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.
Sometimes the plans to improve people’s lives end up destroying them. When the Chinese government moved the nomadic Evenki people from the forests into urban settlements and confiscated their hunting rifles, they took away their livelihood. Gu Tao’s film The Last Moose of Aoluguya documents how people survive, or slowly destroy themselves, after the catastrophe of losing their world.
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?
Can ancient Chinese poetry be a form of resistance? Yes, according to folk singer Zhou Yunpeng, who in 'The Cow and the Goat Descend the Mountain' presents a collection of ancient Chinese poems set to music. In his opinion, ‘in the contemporary world, nostalgia, distance, and homesickness are all luxuries which belong to a utopia. We can only experience them through the bodies of the people from ancient times. Their way of life has become an ideal, something that we can only find by accident but not seek out on purpose.’
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.
In Behemoth, director Zhao Liang combines a poetic apocalyptic vision with documentary footage from Inner Mongolia’s grasslands. His camera surveys landscapes that have been destroyed by mining operations in order to fuel China’s breakneck urbanisation, which itself appears as a shimmering, uninhabitable fantasy. Through a conversation with him, this essay explores the roles of aesthetics, politics, and history in the age of the Anthropocene.
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