2019 Holland Prize

In the Name of the Working Class:
Narratives of Labour Activism in Contemporary China


Ivan Franceschini

Ivan Franceschini

The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Christian Sorace

Colorado College, Colorado Springs, USA

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photo of Christian Sorace

Christian Sorace

Pacific Affairs is pleased to announce that the eighteenth William L. Holland Prize for the best article published in Volume 92 (2019) of Pacific Affairs has been awarded to Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace for their article published in Volume 92, No. 4 (December 2019).

Based on painstakingly gathered, multi-sited fieldwork conducted in four waves over a ten-year period, as well as mastery of a range of others sources, this year’s Holland Prize winning article by Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace explains the contestations over language, narrative, and discourse in the state suppression of labour NGOs in China especially since 2015. It integrates granular details of labour activists experiences and larger conceptual implications for state-civil society relations, analyses of material grievances of workers and state strategies in order to unravel the complex ideological and material imbrications of the state and the working class in China.

Ivan Franceschini is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, the Australian National University. He co-edits the Made in China Journal and isco-editor of the volume Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi (ANU Press and Verso Books, 2019).

Christian Sorace is assistant professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author of Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake (Cornell University Press, 2017) and co-editor of Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi (ANU Press and Verso Books, 2019).


Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and any personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

IF: Before joining the Australian National University at the end of 2015, I spent a decade in China, first studying labour law at the People’s University in Beijing, and then as a project manager and consultant for an Italian trade union NGO. It was in this latest capacity that I had the opportunity to cooperate with several Chinese labour NGOs and I drew closer to the world of labour activism in China. When I started, in the second half of the 2000s, it was a completely different China, where this kind of activism was dangerous but still could find some political interstices where to operate—nothing at all like the oppressive political climate of today. Having witnessed first-hand the extraordinary explosion of labour activism in the Hu and Wen era and then its unravelling under Xi Jinping, I thought it was worthy bringing the plight of these activists to the attention of the world.

CS:  In my work on the Communist Party’s response to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, I focused on how the Party attempted to exert control over the discourse of its response to the earthquake, within a broader narrative of legitimacy—strikingly similar to how it is handling the response to the novel coronavirus.  Most political scientists dismiss language and discourse in authoritarian contexts as mere ‘propaganda’ but to me, such thinking is a problematic and dissatisfying remnant of the Cold War. My work is about how politics happens in language as much as it does in institutions. A few years ago, at a summer school in Venice, I gave a lecture on the confession of labour activist Zeng Feiyang and Ivan gave a talk on his amazing research on labour NGOs and we realized that what was happening was not just a crack-down on bodies but also on discourses.

What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

IF and CS: While most literature on labour NGOs in China focuses on the practices and limitations of these organisations, Christian and I decided to look into the narratives that activists employ to frame their activities, as well as the counter-narratives adopted by the Chinese authorities to justify their repression of labour activism. The existing literature shows that, since their appearance in the mid-1990s, labour NGOs have mostly focused on disseminating legal knowledge among workers, leading them to resolve their grievances through official channels. In line with this In line with this approach, activists in most of these organizations have traditionally framed their work in terms of “public interest” or “legality,” both of which resonate with the hegemonic discourses of the Party-state. However, something happened in the final years of the Hu and Wen era, when a few activists felt empowered enough to begin to employ some new counterhegemonic narratives centred on the experience of the labour movement and the practice of collective bargaining that attempted to recode the proletarian experience outside of its official representation. The paper analyzes this discursive shift through the voices of the activists involved, and argues that the rise of these new counterhegemonic voices was one of the reasons that led the Party-state to crack down on labour NGOs starting in 2015.

Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of extended on-the-ground research?

IF: After Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, surveillance and repression against labour activists—as well as other kinds of activists, in particular human rights lawyers—were ramped up. As labour activists were getting regularly harassed and detained, the dynamics of the field completely changed and it became much harder to get access. Some of the people I had known for years and who how had informed my research were now in jail, while many others had given up on activism and were attempting to reinvent themselves in other roles. Others again had become very wary of talking to outsiders, especially foreigners, which was totally understandable. All of this has made research on Chinese labour activism much more difficult than it used to be (and it was never easy).

CS: Ivan is absolutely right. I would just add that the increasing difficulty of fieldwork is part of the strategy that we discuss in the paper of eliminating challenges to the hegemonic narrative. Why is scholarship a problem to be monitored and censored? Because it competes (with vastly unequal resources) on the same discursive playing field as the state.

What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of decentralization (and/or other subjects) beyond China to other parts of Asia and the world?

IF: In recent years, the focus of my research has shifted from China to Cambodia and, more specifically, to China in Cambodia. I am now trying to understand whether and how Chinese investment is affecting Cambodian society, particularly in the realm of labour. For instance, I have been looking into the activities of the Chinese trade union in Cambodia, examining how these are likely to change the landscape of the Cambodian labour movement. I have also been studying labour conditions in the Chinese-owned construction sites in Cambodia, looking into the power dynamics that mar the relationship between Chinese and Cambodian workers. Labour is often an overlooked element in current analyses of Global China, and it really should not be.

CS: Similar to Ivan, my research focus has also traveled from China to Mongolia. Studying and writing about China for the past decade has attuned me to the indispensable role of ideology and discourse in political life. What is really wonderful about the CCP is that they are very explicit about the relationship between political power and language. I joke that you don’t need Foucault in China because the CCP is Foucault + state power. The mistake in post-socialist countries like Mongolia is that they imagine by liberating themselves from socialism they have somehow liberated themselves from ideology. I don’t think anything could farther from the truth. When it comes to labour, we should be especially sensitive to how it is framed and represented, and who is excluded from the conversation, which is almost always, the workers themselves.

What did you find most challenging, rewarding, or interesting about the review process?

IF and CS: The review process at Pacific Affairs was a very positive experience. Addressing the review process in general, it is important to engage in a spirit of critical generosity. All too often papers can be shot down because a reviewer doesn’t see their own work or niche interests reflected in the paper and condemns it on those grounds rather than reading the paper according to its own internal logic, and figuring out what it is trying to do, and how it can do it better. That is not to say we should accept everything. Some arguments aren’t worth making or rest on a wobbly foundation of data, etc. But we should nevertheless be mindful of how the review process can quickly become a way of reproducing disciplinary conventions rather than pluralizing critical perspectives. One can swing a hammer out of kindness, too.

2019 Shortlist

The Richness of Financial Nationalism: The Case of China

Eric Helleiner and Hongying Wang
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada

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Proud to be Thai: The Puzzling Absence of Ethnicity-Based Political Cleavages in Northeastern Thailand

Jacob I. Ricks
Singapore Management University, Singapore

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Democratic Decline in Indonesia: The Role of Religious Authorities

Saskia Schäfer
Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

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