Laboring Through Uncertainty : an ethnography of the Chinese state, labor NGOs, and development
Abstract: This study sets out to understand how international development projects supporting labor activism work in contemporary China. It focuses on the lived experiences of and relationships among a group of grassroots labor NGOs in the province of Guangdong, South China; intermediary NGOs in Hong Kong; and Western funding agencies that try to bring about social change in postsocialist China where the political climate is still highly restrictive and the limits of the state’s tolerance for activism are ambiguous and uncertain. Foregrounding the notion of uncertainty, this study investigates how state control is exercised by examining a specific logic of practices, discourses, and a mode of existence that constantly mask and unmask the state. More specifically, this study explores how the uncertainty about the boundaries of permissible activism is generative of a sociopolitical realm in which variously positioned subjects mobilize around the idea of the state, which in turn leads to articulations and practices conducive to both self-censorship and a contingent space of activism. Viewed as such, the idea of uncertainty becomes an enabler through which certain kinds of practices, relationships, and networks are made possible and enacted, and through which a sociopolitical realm of intimacy is constituted by and constitutive of these relationships, networks, and practices. Situated in the domain of uncertainty, this study examines the ways in which uncertainty, both as an analytical idea and an ontological existence, produces an intimate space where labor activists not only effectively self-censor but also skillfully map the gray zone between the relatively safe and the unacceptably risky choices.
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