My research interests include China, social movements, labor, nationalism, and authoritarianism. Most fundamentally, I am fascinated and inspired by the power of ordinary people mobilizing in challenging political contexts.
Current Book Project: Resistance, Repression, Responsiveness
I have a book manuscript under review. Tentatively titled “Resistance, Repression, Responsiveness: Workers and Change in China,” it shows that rising workplace contention is pushing local Chinese authorities toward both greater repression and greater responsiveness. I find that, as a result, governance is being transformed from below in a contradictory manner, although still within a shell of continued Communist Party rule. The state is increasing its ability to control citizens, while at the same time saddling itself with new social commitments. My book breaks new ground in several regards. First, it has a novel focus. Instead of studying protest causes, it examines their consequences; instead of asking whether a government reacts to popular challenges with coercion or accommodation, it shows how authorities can pursue multiple and overlapping strategies concurrently, albeit with mixed long-term results; and instead of rehashing the old debate over whether China and governments like it are on the verge of collapse or have found a means of staying in power indefinitely, it explores the day-to-day evolution of autocratic governance. Second, the book takes a uniquely holistic approach, encompassing broad, national trends in worker-state relations; regional policymaking processes; and choices made by individual officials, workers, and businesspeople. Finally, it stands out in terms of the evidence it marshals: a quantitative dataset of labor activism (see below); content analysis of government yearbooks; and scores of interviews conducted across the country.
New Project: Power on the Margins
What power do people on the margins of contemporary authoritarian states possess? During the great upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lumpenproletarians—the chronically unemployed, small-time criminals, etc.—were the subject of intense debate. For Marx, they were an impediment to revolution, but in the eyes of anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and anti-colonial intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, they constituted a potent force for change. In recent years, this group appears to have played a double role outside of democracies: as thugs hired by authorities to intimidate potential regime challengers, on the one hand, and as people who escalate protests and amplify dissenting voices, on the other. As job growth in the formal sector stagnates in many countries and as employment becomes increasingly short-term and mediated by complex chains of sub-contracting, more and more people will fall into this class. The grievances and allegiances of the group will therefore become important. I am beginning a new, comparative project studying lumpenproletarians in China, Egypt, and elsewhere.
Since 2010, I have maintained the website China Strikes, which maps strikes, protests, and other contentious, collective actions taken by Chinese workers to defend their rights and interests. The site relies on a variety of data sources, including reports from visitors. At present, it covers the years 2003 through 2012 or the full Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era. China Strikes has been mentioned by The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, Shanghaiist, China Study Group and Talking Union.