China and England: Book Interview with Prof Martin Powers


In this interview we sat down with LRCCS Faculty (and soon-to-be Emeritus) Professor Martin Powers to talk about his new book, China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image. In the interview, Professor Powers explains some of the book’s most important arguments, and how he hopes they can contribute to undermining hyper-nationalism.

LRCCS: You told us a little bit about this book in an interview we did about two years ago when you had just finished your manuscript. What was your motivation for writing it? How did it get started?

Prof Powers: Well, when I was an undergrad I majored in the Great Books, and we read essays by Weber, Marx, Rousseau, etc. After I began reading Chinese classics, I discovered that some writers in China had developed similar arguments on similar topics. So this has been on my mind since the beginning of my career. The core idea was summarized wonderfully in Prof Tim Brook’s comments, namely, that liberty is not a uniquely Western project.

LRCCS: In the introduction to the book, you mention China’s forgotten role in the history of social justice. What are some of China’s most important contributions in that regard?

Prof Powers: If you look at the evidence, many of the core enlightenment values are more readily described as global rather than the unique expression of “Western genius.” For example, in his Letter on Toleration Locke reveals that the “Turks” (Muslims) already were practicing toleration. A few decades later, Samuel Johnson, after reading Chinese policy documents, argued that merit should be the standard for distributing political authority rather than birth, because in fact this had been the institutional norm in China.

LRCCS: Would you say that China influenced the rise of ideas like equality in the West?

Prof Powers: I never use the word influence to describe this relationship. “Influence” tends to imply that all agency for historical change lies on one side, while the other side passively gets influenced. I don’t think it’s that simple. I do not doubt that radical thinkers in England made use of ideas, policies, or institutions they found in translations of Chinese documents, but they did so because they faced many of the same injustices that those policies had been designed to resist.

Arguably there are three levels to the shared human condition. The first level is structural constraints – to borrow Charles Tilly’s notion, authority is either distributed according to individual expertise or according to group membership. The former is based on merit and facts, the latter is based on privilege and fantasy. The privileged elite in all times and places need to create fictional narratives to legitimize their rule because the facts would not support their claims. Both Mozi and Thomas More recognized as much.

The second level is shared aspirations. Privilege permits the destructive exploitation of unprivileged groups. Sooner or later this leads some to resist those institutions that support privilege. This dynamic can be found both in China and in England in preindustrial times.

The last level is shared logic. Jefferson had never read Zhuangzi, and yet the two men came to similar conclusions, namely the idea that, once we take God out of politics, no one has such a right to property as to deprive another person of the right to survive. The human capacity for logic is shared across cultures, as can be seen from Chapter 12, which examines multiple arguments arrived at independently within both traditions.

LRCCS: What’s important about the arguments you’re making in this book?

Prof Powers: The core point is that liberty and equality are not unique, Western projects. This seriously undermines white nationalist claims, or even certain common views within the academy. The book also makes it easier to defend liberal values currently under attack. For instance, some have suggested that equality and privacy are flukes of Enlightenment thought, fleeting oddities unique to the West, and now we’re simply heading back toward a more normal society where a few get to dominate the many. Well, what if equality is not just an Enlightenment fluke, but a perennial aspiration which has been debated on and off in and outside of Europe for thousands of years? In that case, the whole game changes. In short, it would be difficult to read this book and still walk away thinking, “You see! We white folks did everything.” The world is bigger and better than that.

In all historical periods, East and West, you had but two choices: fact-based systems focused on individuals, or fantasy-based systems focused on groups. We know from history what results from these two options – overall, life is better for more people in reality-based societies.

LRCCS: I’ve heard many people refer to China and the East as a ‘collectivist’ society and the West as an ‘individualistic’ society. What are your thoughts on those labels?

Prof Powers: Well, that way of thinking of course is group-based thinking, and supports group-based policies. But if you look at history, that idea becomes difficult to sustain. In multiple times and places, when group membership ceases to be the basis for distributing authority, then individuals automatically emerge because the laws more and more take individuals as their object, rather than ranked, lineage-based groups. This process took place in late imperial China, in England, and in the U.S., imperfectly yet unmistakably in each case.

LRCCS: So would you say that the notion of Western individualism is a part of colonialism?

Prof Powers: I would say it’s a function of those fantasies necessarily generated by group-based ideologies such as nationalism or racism. Montesquieu appropriated Chinese ideas yet insisted that they were his own. At the same time he took the French institution of absolute monarchy and projected it onto China. This stratagem, moreover, has been repeated over and over up until the present. I am hardly the first to have noticed it.

Note, however, I’m not trying to replace the Hegelian legacy of hyper-nationalism with the idea that “China did all the cool stuff first.” That would still be a group-based argument, which is the real problem. You don’t solve that problem by substituting one group for another. The object of the historian’s gaze is always humanity’s shared condition; not the ranking of races.

Interview conducted by Eric Couillard

Interview with Iain McDaniels

 Iain McDaniels LRCCS Alum (‘96)

Iain McDaniels
LRCCS Alum (‘96)

What can you do with an MA from LRCCS? For this interview, we talked to LRCCS alum Iain McDaniels (’96), managing director of Goodyear China, who talks about how his interest in China blossomed into a career, as well as his life in Shanghai over the past 19 years.

LRCCS: Thanks for joining me today, Iain. Let’s take it from the top – where do you call home?

McDaniels: I grew up mostly in the Midwest – born in Chicago, grew up in North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and some in upstate New York. Never lived anywhere for more than 4 years – my dad was a college chaplain, and he liked to move to new campuses and build up their program then move on to another campus. And my mom was an English professor. So I spent all my life growing up on college campuses.

LRCCS: And how long have you been in Shanghai?

McDaniels: I’ve been here 19 years - about 5 times longer than anywhere I’ve ever lived in the US. So while it’s not where I’m from, it still feels like home.

LRCCS: What’s it like raising a family in Shanghai?

McDaniels: It’s been fantastic. I have two boys and they’re both going to great schools. My wife, who’s also an LRCCS alum, teaches at one of the schools. The only thing that’s hard for my kids is that they’ve been here their whole lives, but their friends tend to be on the ‘expat cycle’ – usually about three years in and out.

LRCCS: That’s funny – it’s like the opposite of what you experienced growing up. So, what brought you to China in the first place? How did you first become interested in Chinese culture?

McDaniels: I went to a small college in Minnesota called Carlton. As I was trying to choose a language program, I really liked the Chinese professor – his name was Zhao Jiguang. His passion for teaching really got me into the culture. Then in 1990 I did a study abroad trip in Beijing, and I became intrigued by trying to figure out the puzzle of how this place worked. And for whatever reason I stumbled onto the intersection of business and government.

I started out looking at joint ventures in my undergrad days – like Beijing Jeep, which was between Beijing Auto and American Motors

LRCCS: What was interesting to you about that?

McDaniels: At that time, things were very much up in the air, and nobody knew how things were going to work. So it was fun to watch people figure it out. Also, because so few people seemed to understand what was going on, I saw this as a way I could add value by helping others navigate those uncertain waters. Ultimately that’s what led me to U of M and LRCCS.

LRCCS: What did you study at LRCCS?

McDaniels: Basically it was the ability of the central government to implement the 1994 auto industrial policy. The idea was to weed out the numerous joint ventures we were seeing at the time and focus on the champions. Which ultimately ended up grooming the major players we see today – Shanghai Auto, Dongfeng Motors, etc.

LRCCS: Who were some of your favorite professors when you were at UM?

McDaniels: Probably the professor that had the biggest impact on me was Ken Lieberthal, who was my advisor. He really guided me in thinking about how China worked, and also had an outsized influence on my career. I took both research and businesses classes with him.

LRCCS: You and your wife both got your MA in about 9 months. How did you pull that off?

McDaniels: We hunkered down and got things done – there wasn’t much leisure time. When I tell people I went to UofM, they always say, “Oh you must’ve gone and seen a football game… You must’ve gone to check out this place…” but we missed out on almost all of that. The only dates that we had were to do work together at a coffee shop.

But this prepared me very well for the next stage in my life, which was working at the US-China Business Council. That skill of cranking stuff out and getting it done like I did at LRCCS was very similar to what I was doing there. A company would call and say, “How do we understand the implications of the telecommunications law?” There was no time for me to digest and do long projects – I had to come up with that report within 24 hours.

LRCCS: So what are you doing now?

McDaniels: Right now my title is managing director for Goodyear China. My job is to look after the 2000 associates in our factories, sales teams, offices, etc. I try to guide the strategy – helping keep China aligned with corporate goals, and also making sure we’re taking advantage of the unique opportunities here – basically finding a way to meet in the middle and optimize our path forward.

LRCCS: What feels particularly meaningful about what you do?

McDaniels: Goodyear has 2400 licensed stores around China. And what we’re doing is helping those 2400 families join the middle class. We’ve got 1800 associates working at a factory outside of Dalian, and we’re helping them join the middle class. When I wake up in the morning, it’s not year over year growth and improved sales that gets me going. It’s the very concrete idea of helping improve the lives of these families. That’s what gets me excited.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard in Shanghai, China

Interview with Thomas Stanley

 Thomas Stanley UM Alum (‘93)

Thomas Stanley
UM Alum (‘93)

In this interview, we talked with UM alum Thomas Stanley who tells us about his career trajectory in Greater China, from teaching English in Taiwan to being a Partner and National Markets COO with KPMG in Shanghai.

LRCCS: Where did you grow up?

Stanley: In a number of different places, mostly in Michigan. I also spent 5 years in the UK; my family’s always been spread out. Then I came to Ann Arbor and UM not as a Chinese major, but took Chinese 101 with Professor Hilda Tao and was fascinated by it. She was a great teacher but I wanted to take my language to the next level by traveling to China.

LRCCS: So you did a study abroad?

Stanley: Right, that was my junior year, and there weren’t really any UM programs in Mainland China at that time. So I transferred to the University of Massachusetts for a year to do a study abroad program, and did an intensive summer in Taiwan then a full academic year in Beijing.

LRCCS: Woah, that’s a deep dive

Stanley: It was. The funny thing was, after Taiwan I thought, I’m getting the hang of this, Mainland China will be no problem. But it was much more challenging than I’d anticipated. We were traveling to Beijing from Guangzhou by train and I remember at the train station our team lead said to us, “The good news is everyone’s got a ticket. The bad news is they were out of sleeper berths.” So we had hard seats, and some of us didn’t even have seats. That was our introduction to China.

LRCCS: Quite a warm welcome. What year was this?

Stanley: ’86 – ’87. The ball of Reform and Opening was just getting rolling in Beijing at that time – it was all brand new. They had just gotten rid of the rationing coupons. And when I go back to Beijing, there’s almost nothing now that’s the same.

When we got to Beijing, the first thing we did was organize bicycles. There were almost no cars – some public buses, cabs, etc. It was very quiet – you’d roam around the streets and just hear the tinkling of bicycle bells.

LRCCS: So what happened after undergrad?

Stanley: This wasn’t a great time to be looking for jobs, so I bought a ticket to Taiwan and got a job teaching English. After about a year there I got a full-time job with KPMG.

LRCCS: Had you studied consulting or anything like that?

Stanley: No. It was a fascinating experience; I was hired as their English editor and reviewed every client-facing document that they produced in English.

LRCCS: This was the late 80s? What did KPMG look like in Taiwan back then?

Stanley: The Taiwanese economy was really going gangbusters, one of the emerging Asian tigers. The company had about 300 employees in Taiwan at the time. And after a while I realized I needed to supplement what I’d studied at UM, so I decided to go back to UM to get an MBA. During my time in Ann Arbor I took a lot of classes with LRCCS faculty like Linda Lim, Yi-tsi Feuerwerker and Shen-fu Lin; the center was an excellent resource for research on China.

LRCCS: What did you do after you graduated?

Stanley: At that point I got a job in Changzhou with a US-China manufacturing company. I joined shortly after the joint-venture agreement had been inked, and I became their finance director and one of the on-the-ground guys in the company. I was one of only three foreigners in the city.

LRCCS: What was Changzhou like in the early 90s?

Stanley: I described it to some people as being like camping for two years. Things that I took for granted were very difficult to find, such as news about the rest of the world. It was a great learning experience though – life over there was very different, and this was still in the time when State Owned Enterprises had a separate ecosystem for their organization. I got to see some fascinating things in that microcosm, like when the union in our manufacturing plant had a joint wedding for 7 couples.

LRCCS: Were you invited?

Stanley: Oh yes, I was one of the “distinguished guests.” I believe they had me present some kind of gift to the couples, but I don’t really remember.

LRCCS: What are you up to now at KPMG?

Stanley: Now I’m the COO of our national markets group, which encompasses all our account and sector programs; looking after our major clients, our business development team, and all of our ‘go-to-market activities.’ So we help our core service providers position themselves in the market effectively.

LRCCS: Do you have any advice for current students who are considering going into business in China?

Stanley: The language is hugely important. It always was, but now it’s even more of a hard requirement. And I think the best way to get started in China is just to find something here to get your foot in the door; even if it’s not exactly the right thing, it’ll be much easier to find that thing while you’re in China.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Interview with Patrick Cranley

  Patrick Cranley   LRCCS MA ‘88 Co-founder of AsiaMedia and Historic Shanghai

Patrick Cranley

Co-founder of AsiaMedia and Historic Shanghai

What can you do with an MA from LRCCS? For this interview, we talked to LRCCS alum Patrick Cranley (’88) in Shanghai, co-founder of AsiaMedia. He talks about his time at LRCCS, Jewish ghettos in Shanghai, and the limits of labels like socialism and free markets.

Interview conducted by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: What are you up to right now?

Cranley: I focus on several things. On the business side, I run AsiaMedia – which does marketing, public relations, and communications consulting. We’ve been doing that since 2001. We help companies with their marketing strategies and then help with implementation, using traditional and digital tools.

We’re also involved in lots of community things. My wife and I have always been involved in historic preservation. When we first got to Shanghai we saw all kinds of beautiful old buildings, but when we asked people about them we didn’t get very good answers. So we started a group called Historic Shanghai, which does research, presentations and tours for the local community. It’s become much bigger than we ever envisioned.

LRCCS: Interesting. So are the people you work with for Historic Shanghai mostly foreigners?

Cranley: Historic Shanghai operates primarily in English, so most of our members and participants are English-speaking foreigners. There’s also now a parallel group that operates in Chinese – mostly in Shanghainese, and we have an informal relationship with that group.

LRCCS: How did you end up where you are now?

Cranley: Well, I became interested in Asia in general in college when I took a class comparing the philosophies of the East and West. So that eventually led me to Chinese studies – particularly the 20th century. After undergrad I worked for a bit and decided I wanted to go to business school, so I specifically looked for programs that combined business education with China studies. Back then, there weren’t many places were you could do both. It was basically Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Berkeley. I chose Michigan.

It was a very good decision. I started in ’84, when the Center for Chinese Studies had assembled a dream team for Chinese politics, history and economics: I studied with Chinese Studies superstars including Ken Lieberthal, Mike Oksenberg, Linda Lim, and Bob Dernberger. It was a wonderful experience.

In the middle of that program, I got a scholarship to go to the Hopkins Nanjing Center, and I became a member of the very first graduating class: 1986-87. It confirmed my interest in combining business and China studies. My goal after graduation was to find a job that would get me back to China as soon as possible. I was hired in Philadelphia, but transferred within a year to the company’s Asia regional operations out of Singapore; so I was working in China shortly after one year of graduating from Michigan. After a number of subsequent transfers, I ended up in Shanghai with the same company. After a few years they said, “Ok, time to come back to the US!” – but my wife and I weren’t really done with Shanghai yet. So we decided to stay and start our own business – that’s how AsiaMedia was conceived.

LRCCS: What was it like starting a business in China back then?

Cranley: This was 2001, and it wasn’t that complicated. I think generally it gets easier to start a foreign-owned business in China every year, though it may become more difficult this year for political reasons. There’s a saying about China: “Everything is possible, but nothing is easy.” For us, establishing our business was reasonably smooth.

LRCCS: Tell us more about Historic Shanghai. What are your main activities?

Cranley: About half of our events are guided tours of different parts of the city. We also host lectures in different venues with authors and specialists in the area. Lynn Pan, Jeff Wasserstrom, Edward Denison, Tess Johnston, Robert Bickers and many others have spoken to Historic Shanghai audiences. Professor Jonathan Kaufman of Northeastern University spoke to us recently about his forthcoming book on the Sassoons, a Sephardic Jewish family who came to Shanghai in the 19th century to trade and became fabulously wealthy. Thousands of Russian Jews arrived here in the early 1900s, and then tens of thousands of European Jews arrived in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. They were all part of the diverse tapestry of peoples who contributed to the flourishing of Shanghai.

LRCCS: That’s fascinating. What happened to the Jews in Shanghai after the Japanese occupied the city during World War II?

Cranley: When European Jews arrived, they were helped to resettle by the Jews who were already here. After the Japanese arrived, they came under pressure from their German allies to “take care” of these European Jews, in the same way they were “taking care” of them back in Europe. But the Japanese had no beef with the Jews – they were just more Westerners as far as they could tell. The Japanese also had been told that the Jewish community was influential in media and financial circles. And remember, this was 1941-42, and the Japanese had been raping and pillaging all over Asia for four years by this point. They didn’t want another public relations disaster.

So they compromised. They simply required the Jews who moved here after 1937 to move into an area of the city that became known as the Jewish ghetto. But they weren’t like the internment camps where British, Americans, Dutch and others were incarcerated during the war; the Ghetto didn’t have walls and barbed wire, but neither did the Japanese feed, clothe and house the Jews. They policed their own area and had to eke out a living any way they could. It was absolutely miserable, but after the war they discovered how lucky they actually had been compared to their relatives in Europe.

LRCCS: Sounds like you’ve kept up your study of history. Are you still engaged in economic research also?

Cranley: I have never lost my interest in the economic topics that I studied at Michigan. It has been fascinating to see the evolution of the Chinese economic system, which is now officially called ‘market-oriented socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ But what is that? It’s hard enough for Chinese to figure out, much less your average American. It’s not easy for people steeped in one system to understand how the other one works. But you may have noticed that the Chinese have caught on pretty quick.

LRCCS: Caught on to capitalism?

Cranley: We do not use the C-word here, my friend!

LRCCS: Oh sorry, I meant “market-oriented socialism.”

Cranley: That’s better! Anyway, the point is that simple labels are not very helpful in understanding complex economic forces. But put simply, the Chinese tried a Soviet-style planned economy, and it did not work; they have spent the last 40 years moving toward a more market-oriented economy, but they don’t want to give up strong government control. They understand that market forces are powerful and productive, but that left unregulated, they will lead to concentrated economic power that does not act in the interests of the vast majority of people.

This seems very theoretical, but it’s directly applicable to things we’re talking about in the United States, like healthcare, education and taxes. But we get caught up in simple labels. I think in order for Americans to have productive conversations about these topics, we need to steer clear of labels like “socialism” and “free markets” and focus on solutions based on what has been learned from all of the economic experiments of the last 100 years, all over the world. Of course, it is much easier to simply shout labels at one’s “opponents.” But we’re not opponents – we’re all in this boat together.

Interview with Silvia Lindtner

 Silvia Lindtner  Assistant Professor School of Information

Silvia Lindtner

Assistant Professor
School of Information

Meet Professor Silvia Lindtner from the School of Information and Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, who became an LRCCS faculty associate in 2014.  In this interview, she talks about her ethnographic research on World of Warcraft hackers in Beijing, the world of ‘making’ in China, and some of the inequalities present in that space.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: I always like to start from the very beginning – so where did you grow up?

Prof Lindtner: I lived in Austria until I was 21 – I graduated from college in a field called media technology and design, which was designed in many ways to prepare its students to help build something like the “Silicon Valley of Austria.”  I didn’t realize that at the time, as I felt excited about the intersection of digital studies, computing, design, and the arts, and the degree helped me learn more about that.

Couillard: And when did you become interested in more academic work?

Prof Lindtner: For my thesis I was already involved in a research lab at the German tech firm Siemens, and at that time I did some basic research in user interface design and mobile computing.  I thought that was interesting because it seemed the intersection of technology and people was missing in the computing industry more  broadly.  After my thesis I worked for a year and half abroad at Princeton in a research lab, and got to work in the space of human-computer interaction. After these two years exploring the intersections of research, technology, and design, I decided to apply for doctoral degree programs in Europe and the United States.

Couillard: So when did China come into the picture?

Prof Lindtner: Fairly late for me.  When I was at the research lab in Princeton, I had done some research on game design and also helped design a game.  And when I started out on my PhD at UC Irvine in 2006, Bonnie Nardi, one of the faculty at UC Irvine, got a grant from Intel to study World of Warcraft in China, which had become immensely popular in China at that time. She asked me if I wanted to be part of the team, and I was like, “This sounds amazing!”  From that point I began learning Chinese.

Couillard: What was your first experience in China?

Prof Lindtner: In the summer of my first year of the PhD program.  The project was in partnership with Beida [Peking University], and most of my research took place in Beijing.  I spent a lot of time in Internet cafes. For a while, I was following a group of students who were basically hacking World of Warcraft. The Chinese government at that time had censored some of the graphics of the game, and the young people in the Internet cafés were really upset about that – they wanted to play the “authentic” American game.  For example, there were skeletons in the game which got replaced with graves.  And the gamers were saying, “I’m much more afraid of censorship than I am of skeletons.”  So, what this group of students did was that they got a pirated version of the game, purchased a couple of PCs, wrote some software – and set up their own private game servers. They became so popular that a micro-economy developed around the game and some of the kids were even making money off of this.  I was so intrigued that I decided I needed to really get good at Chinese and make this my thing.

Couillard: How did these gamers respond to a random Austrian woman hanging around all the time?  

Prof Lindtner: As is common for ethnographic research, I developed close relationships with many of them.  In the following years, I focused specifically on another emergent gaming phenomenon – the killer game (杀人游戏 in Chinese). People had not only set up their own game servers, but had built gaming clubs to play this game. I spent two summers hanging out in these gaming clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, funded by a grant from the Intel People and Practices Research group under Ken Anderson and Maria Bezaitis.  People at these gaming clubs were definitely curious about me.  Being white and female opened some doors and closed others – people would invite me in because they were curious.  And I became especially close with some of the other female gamers, such as a Chinese woman who’d studied in Germany, who also spoke amazing German.  She was an important interlocutor. I’d also spend a lot of time with them offline; we’d go clubbing or partying after the gameplay.  They invited me to their homes, and other non-game activities.

Couillard: So when did “making” come into the picture?

Prof Lindtner: Throughout my research in China, I had been interested in the intersection of computing, the digital, and the arts.  I had followed a group of people in Beijing and Shanghai who had been working in this space, many with a computer science and/or creative arts background.  One that stood out was the collective that had gathered around called Xin Danwei (新单位), which was a coworking space in Shanghai at the time, that brought together an interdisciplinary collective of people interested in an open Internet and Chinese model of design innovation including China’s first Internet bloggers.

I was finishing up my preliminary research and looking into starting my dissertation research, which would be one year of fieldwork.  So I contacted them, told them about my ethnographic research, and they were like, “Sure, when can you start?”  Which was pretty unexpected – usually people are a little more hesitant.  This happened to be the group that set up China’ first hackerspace – only two months after I started working with them.

A couple years later, there was a lot of international attention – China’ maker scene had attracted foreign investment, especially from Europe and the United States. It was especially Shenzhen in the South of China that figured in the global imaginary of making as a renewed and central protagonist. The Chinese government too started supporting these spaces, and they began popping up all over the place.  Some of the people in the hacker/maker community were ambivalent about the international and national endorsement – on the one hand, it appeared to grant them at last what China had long been denied: the status of modern innovation.  Of course this was a very complex issue, and it’s actually one of the topics in my first book, which I’m working on now.

Couillard: What sort of an impact would you like for your research to have?

Prof Lindtner: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about China and its role in contemporary and past technology and innovation practices.  I’m interested in offering an alternative view. I have also become really interested in unpacking how Westerns perceptions of China have been shifting over the years. For instance, Shenzhen is now celebrated as a hotbed for innovation even through it was known only a couple of years ago only for low quality copycats.  I think these perceptions can also be mapped to global relations between China and the rest of the world.  So I hope my work will help challenge cultural stereotypes and biases around that history.

Couillard: What’s one of the biggest stereotypes you want to challenge?

Prof Lindtner: The whole promise of making (which I want to use as the title of my book) is this story about individual empowerment.  That if you give people the right open source tools, they can regain control over the means of production.  The promise was: this is for everyone – anyone can take part. This story of promise masks continuous racial and gender inequalities. For instance, in some of the Western-funded incubators where I did my research, continuous enactments of masculinity tied to the promise of regaining control via technological tinkering legitimized and rendered invisible class and gender inequalities. So much of the story is about promise and progress, but even in networks where people say they are committed to challenging patriarchy and classism, you still see these entrenched norms.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more LRCCS interviews.

Check out Prof Lindtner's website here: , and follow her on Twitter - @yunnia

Interview with Mary Gallagher - Part II

This is Part II of an interview with LRCCS Director Mary Gallagher.  Click here to read Part I, where Professor Gallagher talks about getting started in Chinese studies and her first trip to China - in summer 1989.

Couillard: You just came out with a new book – can you tell me about it?


Prof Gallagher: The book is called Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State and is published with Cambridge University Press.  The book is asking a question which a lot of people are asking about authoritarian regimes which is, Can authoritarian regimes borrow from democracy to make authoritarianism work better? 

What I was looking at specifically was how the Chinese government built up a legal system and profession over the last two decades, and a collection of very comprehensive and protective laws, that ostensibly protect people in the workplace.

The government also encouraged the media to propagate information about the laws, and in a sense to delegate law enforcement to workers themselves.  Like saying, “We’ll give you protection, but you’re going to have to sue your company yourself.”

So in the book I looked at how workers did that and how it was successful in terms of improving governance, raising labor standards, and keeping social stability.

Couillard: One thing I read in the book description was that you thought that adopting these democratic practices is undermining the state’s rule.

Prof Gallagher:  Right.  So what I decided in the conclusion is that authoritarian regimes are interested in democratic ideas as a means to improve governance – such as increased transparency, giving channels for dealing with grievance to avoid those grievances turning into mass movements, etc.  But for rule of law building, the government was very half-hearted.  They did a good job making the laws, but didn’t allow for the buildup of supportive institutions, like administrative agencies to sue on workers’ behalf for systematic violations, or stronger trade unions to protect low-wage workers.  

The government didn’t do those things – they just delegated these duties to workers themselves.  What I found is that people tended to be very dissatisfied with this process, and especially so for people at the lower rungs of the labor market.  The people who really needed protection weren’t getting it.

As I argue in the book, the government’s expansion of workplace rights was a tactic to solve larger strategic goals. The central government sees rapid urbanization that is more inclusive and protection as the next growth engine. It can no longer rely on export-oriented industrialization or massive government investment. But formal urbanization, which includes changes in hukou status, is closely linked to formal employment. Pushing expanded workplace rights was a step toward this larger goal. As the book also argues, however, this “self-enforcement” model of implementation has tended to marginalize workers on the lower rungs of the labor market, while improving the protections of those with education and skills.

This inequality in implementation reinforces other types of inequality that divide Chinese citizens: inequality of income, wealth, access to health and education, etc. Some argue that these inequalities make it more likely that China will become stuck in the “middle income trap.”

Couillard: How did you get all this information?  Were you talking to workers, looking at archives?

 Prof Gallagher speaking at " China's Economy Today " in 2015

Prof Gallagher speaking at "China's Economy Today" in 2015

Prof Gallagher: The bulk of the work was done through interviews with workers who had received legal aid from a center in Shanghai.  I did that intensively for a few periods over the course of about ten years.  I also collaborated with others to do surveys with a broader population.

Because we were based at the center and had access to their case files, we could prompt them to talk about their cases in detail.  We could say, “We know this happened – why did you choose to settle, to mediate – things like that.  So in the end, I have to say, people who have legal issues often want to talk.  We’d usually start the interviews by asking, “How did the dispute start?”  And many times they’d come back with, “Well, in 1968…”  

Couillard: Haha

Prof Gallagher: Which is basically when they were entering the workforce.  Many of these workers had entered the factories during the Cultural Revolution as a way to not get sent down to the countryside.  So to explain their story, they had to go all the way back.

Couillard: Another thing that I’m interested in hearing your opinion on is the 19th Party Congress, which just concluded recently.  What should we know about that meeting?

Prof Gallagher: Xi Jinping said in his key statement, to paraphrase, one of the biggest obstacles in China’s path is the combination of slowing growth and rising expectations.  This relates to some of the things I wrote about in my book, particularly in regards to the danger of the Chinese government not reaching these goals of inclusiveness and broader workplace protection.

Ten or fifteen years ago migrant workers demanded things that were a function of desperation – they hadn’t been paid, they’d lost their limbs, or other desperate problems of subsistence.  In more recent years we’ve seen demands that are more about security – such as a strike of 50,000 workers in Guangdong in order to get social insurance arrears paid.  

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s interesting and unnerving to observe Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. China needs a decisive leader to get it through this stage because the slowdown of the economy has the potential to affect the party’s hold on power. At the same time, if he has eliminated all sources of criticism and diverse views about how to solve China’s problems, he may make critical mistakes.