Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Boundaries between Activist and Scholar

Opening session of the workshop on Chinese Labour in the Global Economy
A workshop on Chinese Labour in the Global Economy was held on 11 and 12 September 2014 at Nottingham University, co-hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Studies (CSSGJ) and the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Politics (CCCP). The purposes of the workshop were, firstly, to conclude the three-year research project; secondly, to create a platform between labour activists and scholars, between East and West. The purpose of this blog entry therefore is not only to reflect upon what happened during the workshop, but also briefly to summarise my observations of Chinese workers’ and labour studies over the past three years. I particularly focus on the joint efforts of labour scholars and activists, and I will explain the reason why.

As a student of labour affairs, the initiative for me to pay special attention to the role of activists was actually triggered four years ago, even before this project started. I interviewed a director of a Hong Kong labour organisation. She cordially agreed to the interview and gave me a general overview of the condition of Chinese workers. When I wanted to get some further information, she asked me a question: why should we (organisers of labour NGOs) need to give you information, if your job is either to write journal articles or to present conference papers, neither of which will necessarily help our work? On the contrary, your job will only expose our work of helping workers. Back then, I couldn’t answer her question, and indeed, that question has haunted me ever since. However, I think after three years’ work in the field, I have some answers for it.

Foxconn scholars
Between January and November 2010, eighteen workers at Foxconn committed suicide. After that, a group of scholars and a Hong Kong-based labour organisation, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), started to keep a close eye on workers’ conditions in Foxconn. Alongside SACOM’s campaign, Jenny Chan presented a joint paper with Pun Ngai and Mark Selden at our workshop, which nicely framed Chinese workers’ situation as ‘iSlavery’, meaning that those workers are subject to a high-pressure, isolated working environment in order to produce all sorts of ‘iproducts’ – iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc. During three years of research, I noticed that it is not only Hong Kong or Taiwanese scholars who have been paying attention to Foxconn; more and more European scholars have devoted their time to researching the Foxconn phenomenon. At our workshop, Gijsbert van Liemt gave a general introduction on Honhai/Foxconn, and the connection of Foxconn’s case to the world consumer electronic industry. There are more people in European academia who are deeply concerned about Foxconn; for instance, Rutvica Andrijasevic at the University of Leicester is working with Devi Sacchetto at the University of Padua on a research project on Forms of Labour in Europe and China, The case of Foxconn. In Rutvica and Devi’s project, they collected data from the UK, Germany, Italy and Turkey: Foxconn is only one example of the capitalist strategy of a ‘race to the bottom’, chasing cheap labour costs globally. This group of international Foxconn scholars is also a good example to show that scholars can ally together to challenge this phenomenon.

Labour Scholars/Activists’ community in China
Paul Mason's keynote speech on Digital Rebels, Analogue Slaves? China's workforce in the 21st Century
Apart from the global scholarly focus on workers’ conditions, inside China, as our Chinese practitioners Yuangcheng He and Yi Duan remarked, there is a stronger connection between scholars and activists through social media, for instance weibo, wechat and QQ (the Chinese version of Twitter). I have only observed some of the ‘chatrooms’ on wechat since last year, and I witnessed many cases of scholars’ participation in workers’ strikes or disputes. The Laowei labour law firm, where both Yuangcheng He and Yi Duan work, promoted and advocated a lot of those connections. According to Yuangcheng’s presentation and my own observations, those online connections in the beginning were promoted by certain groups of people or organisations, but gradually, the connections became ‘organic’. That is, scholars/activists/workers connected online automatically to exchange more information. In many ways, it indeed provided a forum for workers and scholars to exchange their opinions. However, due to the Chinese governments’ comprehensive monitoring system, Yuangchen He commented in response to Paul Mason’s keynote speech that they are not able to discuss any in-depth details online; therefore, although those social media are important and interesting, they cannot carry essential communication work. What I find extraordinary is that those people, including workers/scholars/practitioners, knowing of the government’s monitoring system, are still willing to establish internet forums to exchange even the most superficial information. This is the emergence of solidarity, of a courageous sort. No wonder Paul Mason was very positive about Chinese migrant workers’ capacity to fight back against poverty and sweated labour in his talk at our workshop. I do think that the Chinese workers now have the means (social media) to unite together as Paul observed; however, a more interesting twist is that the connection through social media also equalises and reduces class distances. For instance, in the online chatrooms workers have opportunities to interact with scholars or lawyers without many barriers. To be fair, it is still an early stage for China to have a genuine civil society, not to mention a digitalised civil society, but for sure, new technology has changed society dramatically, with communication among workers, and communication between workers and other parts of societies, facilitated by the social media.

More to do in the days to come

Happy ending of workshop!
Have I answered the question posed by the director of that labour organisation four years ago? I think those scholars and workers did the job for me. For me as an individual, though our project is coming to an end on 30 September 2014, there is still more to do even after that. After all, research projects always have a deadline, but there is no such deadline for social movements in any given society. Strikes by Chinese workers are taking place every minute in most of the industrialised cities in China, and labour scholars, practitioners and workers are serving different roles during this process. This blog, therefore, will continue to reflect my thoughts on the role of Chinese workers in the global economic structure, in the hope of creating another digital platform for exchanging information.

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