In her PhD thesis, “Laboring through uncertainty: an ethnography of the Chinese state, labor NGOs, and development”, Darcy Pan discusses questions such as: How did labour NGOs come into existence in contemporary China? How do labour activists act or not act when the limits of state tolerance are unclear?

The thesis focuses on the lived experiences of and relationships among a group of grassroots labour NGOs in Guangdong, South China; intermediary NGOs in Hong Kong; and Western funding agencies that try to bring about social change in postsocialist China.

 

Darcy Pan
Darcy Pan

 

In this interview Darcy Pan explains her research findings and the conditions of her fieldwork which took place against the backdrop of a semi-authoritarian regime where civil liberties are limited and state surveillance is in operation.

Why do the workers come to seek help from labour NGOs? And who are the workers?

– The workers come to seek advice and help from the labour NGOs mainly because they fail to receive much help from the official trade union, which is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The ACFTU often sides with the management so the workers do not have much faith in getting a fair and just treatment from the trade union. As such, the labour NGOs fill up the vacuum left by the ACFTU and offer help to workers.

The majority of the workers that come to seek advice and help in the labour NGOs are peasant-turned-workers or popularly known as migrant workers. Migrant workers move from rural areas to cities in search of employment. Because of the hukou system, migrant workers in cities are denied equal access to housing, healthcare, welfare, social security, pensions, and education compared to urbanites. As rural residents, migrant workers living and working in the city have no rights to urban privileges, nor do they have the right to make claims upon urban authorities. As such, many labour NGOs have come into existence to provide services for and act on behalf of migrant workers articulating their grievances and demands.

What is the labour NGOs’ main task?

– The labour NGOs in my study offer a range of services to migrant workers. They hold regular legal training workshops to disseminate knowledge about labour laws; they assist workers by offering free legal advice and drafting legal documents to file complaints against their employers as well as to bring cases to court. These NGOs are committed to raising workers’ awareness and empowering workers.

The Chinese government tolerates the labour NGOs, but they are only allowed to carry out their activities to a certain limit. You write that the organisations govern themselves so that they can exist and operate without “disturbing” the Chinese state. How do they do it?

– For these NGOs, one rule of thumb is to refrain from doing or saying anything that is politically sensitive. It is not always easy to know what is or is not politically sensitive because the Chinese state does not always clearly state the permissible boundaries of labour activism. The knowledge of what is or is not politically sensitive is often learned and acquired from the individual’s hands-on experience with the state or/and gathered indirectly from informal interaction such as shared meals, offhand remarks, gossip, and rumour among the NGO activists, donors, trade union officials, academics, and journalists. Regardless of the ambiguity of the state’s tolerance for labour activism, several things are commonly understood as politically sensitive and thus should be avoided. For example, it is politically sensitive to organise and mobilize workers; it is also politically sensitive to be associated with issues concerning Tibet and Taiwan Independence; connections with foreign organisations can also be viewed with suspicion by government authorities.

 

 

Uncertainty, mingan and secrecy are central concepts in your thesis. Tell us briefly why they are so important for the understanding of the power relations that exist between the Chinese government and the labour NGOs and between the labour NGOs themselves.

– Uncertainty permeates the field of my study. Mostly, it is the uncertainty about the Chinese state and about what the NGOs can do without being an affront to the state. And it is through such uncertainty that the Chinese state exerts its power over these NGOs. I use mingan (sensitive) and secrecy to talk about how these labour NGOs think about and deal with the Chinese state. More crucially, I use these notions to discuss how, in the midst of uncertainty, these NGOs try to gauge an appropriate distance from the state, which is mainly done by constantly trying to determine what is mingan and thus should be kept secret. Such an act of gauging the distance from the state shows how the parameters of these NGOs’ work are inherently dictated by what the Chinese state tolerates.

Your fieldwork was carried out under, what for a researcher must have been, frustrating circumstances – it soon became clear that there was a limit to how much you could get to know and what you could do. How do you gather information under such conditions?

– The conditions of my research were challenging in the sense that there was a palpable sense of distrust and suspicion among the labour NGOs, which was both predicated on and amplified by their uncertainty about the limits of state tolerance for their work. During my fieldwork, I realized that in order to navigate through such uncertain conditions, my interlocutors employ informal ways of talking such as reminiscing, personal anecdotes, and gossip to obtain, exchange, share, confirm, and circulate information. I soon realized that in order to gain trust from my interlocutors, I needed to learn to talk like them.

To elaborate on that, there is a lot of gossip in the thesis.

– People in my field gossip a lot. I think it has to do with the pervasiveness of state surveillance and people are constantly vigilant and worried about potential government infiltration. And because of that, the labour NGOs are rather guarded with one another. To gain their trust was a rather challenging task in the beginning of my fieldwork. In the first few months of my fieldwork, as I was learning about the work of these labour groups and how they carry out their work, I soon found myself fumbling through the way people talked and what they talked about in this community. The informal ways of talking such as badmouthing and gossip dominated the conversations I had with these labour organisations.

I later realized that these informal ways of talking in fact opened up a channel whereby I could study the internal tension among these people and organisations as well as the politics of my fieldwork. Gossip is one such example. Given that the limits of state tolerance toward activism are not always clear and there is a lack of trust in the labour community, gossip becomes a way to share, obtain, and circulate information among these labour activists. It is also a way to negotiate the boundary between insiders and outsiders; in other words, it is a tool to create and manage relationships and trust. Because of the prevalence of gossip in my field, I soon realized that I had to learn to talk like my interlocutors in order to establish trust relationships with them; in other words, I had to learn to gossip like they did. As discussed in my study, to learn to gossip without compromising my integrity as a researcher and the trust my interlocutors gave me became an important ethnographic practice that helped me collect materials for this study.

What does the future hold for the labour NGOs? Can China’s growth continue without changes to civil and political rights?

– I am rather pessimistic about the future of labour NGOs in China. The Chinese government has stepped up its clampdown on activism. The most recent incident was the arrest of four labour activists in Guangzhou in late 2015. It remains to be seen whether China can continue its economic growth and social transformations without carrying out significant institutional reforms that respect and safeguard civil and political rights. But I also believe that new forms of resistance would emerge while the skirmishes between labour NGOs and the Chinese state continues.

Learn more about the thesis “Laboring through uncertainty: an ethnography of the Chinese state, labor NGOs, and development”.

Darcy Pan will defend her PhD thesis on Tuesday December 13 at 10.00 in De Geersalen, Geovetenskapens hus. Opponent: Professor, Stephan Feuchtwang, London School of Economics and Political Science.