We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is Diana Fu, an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto.
Based on political ethnography inside both legal and blacklisted labor organizations in China, Mobilizing Without the Masses reveals how state repression is deployed on the ground and to what effect on mobilization. It presents a novel dynamic of civil society contention—mobilizing without the masses—that lowers the risk of activism under duress. Instead of facilitating collective action, activists coach the aggrieved to challenge authorities one by one. In doing so, they lower the risks of organizing while empowering the weak. This dynamic represents a third pathway of contention that challenges conventional understandings of mobilization in an illiberal state. It takes readers inside the world of underground labor organizing and opens the black box of repression inside the world’s most powerful authoritarian state.
“Based on remarkable participant-observation field work, Diana Fu provides a rare and revealing look inside the otherwise opaque world of China’s labor NGOs. These activist organizations, operating in innovative ways to evade state detection and repression, indicate a more robust Chinese civil society than we usually assume. Mobilizing Without the Masses is a must-read, not only for those studying contemporary China but for anyone interested in the possibilities for social mobilization and social justice in authoritarian regimes.”
– Elizabeth J. Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, Harvard University
We thank Professor Fu for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove her project.
What does the title of your book, “Mobilizing Without the Masses,” mean?
How do weak activists organize when they are not allowed to do so? In contemporary China, it’s illegal for non-governmental organizations to lead protests where many people take to the streets. There may be strength in numbers, but in some countries showing those numbers puts NGOs at serious risk. Instead, I found that activists coach individuals to voice their grievances one by one. The title of this book reflects this dynamic: mobilizing to challenge officials without demonstrating in large numbers. How do activists do it? Join the conversation at my book talk.
Could you describe the ethnographic fieldwork that you undertook in your research? How did you decide to use ethnography as a method to study this topic?
I am deeply indebted to the workers and activists who allowed me into their lives. To study groups that operate informally and often under the radar, I had to employ political ethnography. The activists I studied were not keen on filling out surveys or even conducting formal interviews without knowing who I was. So I did what every ethnographer does: embed myself in the field, hanging out with workers and activists to try to understand their “hidden transcripts.” These are gestures, conversations, and other communication that takes places off stage. They tell us what participants are thinking and feeling when they’re not performing for the media or for authority figures. Ethnography allowed me to observe closely what workers and their activists talked about behind closed doors, which is often more telling than formal interviews.
Can you tell us about some of the labor organizations that you studied?
China’s 280 million migrant workers are “represented” by only one state-run labor union, which is the only legal union permitted in China. You can imagine how well a state-run union is able to represent workers’ true interests. Informal labor groups that operate on the border of legality provide an alternative. Largely founded by migrant workers themselves, these organizations helped workers claim wages, social security, injury compensation, and other legally guaranteed benefits. They assisted workers in navigating the labor dispute system and taught them to stand up to tough bosses and intimidating officials.
The activists who worked in these organizations came up with ingenious ways of bypassing the ban on organizing large protests. In doing so, they put cash in the hands of workers whose claims would have otherwise been shoved into a bureaucrat’s drawer, unaddressed. More importantly, activists taught workers that they were not alone in their plight, and that civil society can be a force for good.
Did any of your findings surprise you or challenge your initial assumptions about activism and mobilization?
When I went into the field in 2009, I had no idea that I was going to study worker mobilization, let alone in civil society organizations. I assumed, like many other China watchers, that Chinese NGOs were incapable of and unwilling to mobilize worker action because it was too politically risky. While the Chinese government has sometimes tolerated and even facilitated strikes and protests that are spontaneously organized, it has been very vigilant about NGOs becoming the backbone protests. I was surprised to find that labor organizations had found a way to circumvent this restriction by mobilizing workers one by one. This represented both a tactical innovation as well as a political compromise with the government. It shows that under certain conditions, weak civil society groups are able to organize participants even under repression—they just do so in counterintuitive, difficult-to-observe ways.
Have you compared the activism you encountered in China to activism in other illiberal states?
There’s a terrific documentary called “Everyday Rebellion” that documents how people challenge states in small groups. For instance, by coloring the public fountain red to protest the Syrian regime or by stripping naked to assert gender rights. These atomized acts of resistance take place where open dissent is suppressed.
But what interests me is the coordination behind these atomized actions. We often only see the outcome—the pool of “blood” or the flash demonstration. But if and when civil society groups coordinate such individual actions behind the scenes, you have a case of “mobilizing without the masses.” Organizational capacity is critical to sustaining contention, and without it, the boldest acts of individual defiance would fizzle.
How would you like your book to affect our understanding of activism and of politics in China?
As I wrote in Foreign Affairs, this Chinese adage holds true now more than ever: “top-down policy generates bottom-up counter-tactics.” A lot of people are depressed by the current situation in China with the reigns on civil society tightening. But as my book and the scholarship of many colleagues studying contention shows, there is always space for activism. We just have to look beneath the sea surface to discover diverse manifestations of activism.
Also, the goal of activism is not always about democratization—many activists just want to see daily lives improve—a cleaner environment, better health, fairer wages, and equal opportunities for their children. We would never assume that activists in democracies pressing for these rights want to dismantle the entire political system. So why assume this about activists in authoritarian states? For me, the big China question is not, “When will China democratize?” It may do so or it may not. What’s even more interesting is how, with the push from below and power struggles within, China provides sufficient welfare to satisfy the masses while keeping dissidents in line (as the first part of my book on flexible repression explains).
Could you tell us briefly about your next book project?
I’m currently working on a project called “Public Transcripts” in collaboration with Greg Distelhorst at MIT. It analyzes state-society dialogues by tracking thousands of letters to the mayor written from ordinary Chinese citizens. We want to know how ordinary citizens talk to unelected officials and about what. A second parallel project examines gender politics and changes in opportunities for women with the introduction of the two-child policy in China.