Ching Kwan Lee

The Specter of Global China

Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa

University of Chicago Press 2018

New Books in African StudiesNew Books in East Asian StudiesNew Books in EconomicsNew Books in National SecurityNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network October 25, 2018 Andrea Bernardi and Carlo D'Ippoliti

Today we talked with Ching Kwan Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She has just published The Specter of...

Today we talked with Ching Kwan Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She has just published The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2018), an amazing new book based on her field study in Africa where she investigated the Chinese investments. The book is extremely interesting for its methodology and unconventional findings. Lee’s research project lasted for 7 years during which she has conducted field research in copper mines and construction sites in Zambia. A key question addressed is if Chinese capital is a different type of capital. By the end of the conversation we will know if it is different and if yes, if it is a better or a worse type of capital. Lee has defined Chinese state capital compared with global private capital in terms of business objectives, labour practices, managerial ethos and political engagement with Zambia. She has written a book with huge policy implications. A great contribution to so many fields, sociology of labour first among them. But above all she has written a beautiful book that is a pleasure to read. At times it reads like a novel, particularly the long appendix, called ‘An ethnographer’s odyssey: the mundane and the sublime of searching China in Zambia’.

We discussed why China’s presence in Africa is so controversial and what type of Chinese investors are there. Her work focuses on large state-owned companies. Lee’s project in Africa is a continuation of her previous field study of labour in China (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt (University of California Press, 2007). But this book has another important predecessor, the study of labour in Zambian mines conducted by the great British-American sociologist, Michael Burawoy. She told us about her relationship with him and his work. Lee also discussed whether it is appropriate to use the term “imperialism” to represent Chinese presence in Africa. She argues it is not. The book includes pictures of her field work in mines and construction sites. Definitely a beautiful book, brave piece of field research, nonconformist, original, important, erudite, pleasant to read.


Carlo D’Ippoliti is associate professor of economics at Sapienza University of Rome, and is editor of the open access economics journals ‘PSL Quarterly Review’ and ‘Moneta e Credito’. His recent publications include the ‘Routledge Handbook of Heterodox Economics’ (Routledge, 2017) and ‘Classical Political Economy Today’ (Anthem, 2018), both as co-editor.

Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He holds a doctorate in Organization Theory from the University of Milan, Bicocca. He has held teaching and research positions in Italy, China and the UK. Among his research interests are the use of history in management studies, the co-operative sector, and Chinese co-operatives. His latest His latest project is looking at health care in rural China. He is the co-convener of the EAEPE’s permanent track on Critical Management Studies.

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