When advocacy organizations are forbidden from rallying people to take to the streets, what do they do? Diana Fu
’s nuanced ethnography of Chinese labor organizations demonstrates how grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) mobilize under repressive political conditions. Instead of facilitating collective action through public protests or strikes, Fu demonstrates how Chinese activists innovatively coach citizens to challenge authorities – in private spaces. Activists work with individual workers to help them understand and assert their rights in labor negotiations. Activists use individual conversations with workers to create a sense of belonging to a larger community of migrant workers. These “pedagogies of contention” foster collective identity and consciousness: mobilization without the masses.
Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China
(Cambridge University Press, 2017) is divided into two parts. First, Fu examines the structural conditions of above and underground groups in Beijing and the Pearl River Delta. She reveals and interrogates how the CCP’s policy of “flexible repression” provided opportunities for mobilization without the masses. Second, she looks at the tactics that allowed activists to inspire participants to take individualized and discursive action. Throughout, she describes the contours of a remarkable political compromise in which local authorities do not fully repress activisists (for fear of driving them
further underground) yet attend to the PRC’s goal of stability and fear of collective action. The books demonstrates that Chinese civil society organizations can and do play an active role in shaping state-society relations – more than delivering social services or providing policy consultation – by coaching participants to make rights claims against the state.
The podcast concludes with a brief discussion of Dr. Fu’s recent article in Foreign Policy
regarding the challenges that COVID19 poses to the CCP’s concerns with social stability. Mobilizing Without the Masses
was awarded the Gregory Luebbert Prize for the best book on Comparative Politics from the American Political Science Association, the International Studies Association International Political Sociology Section’s Best Book Award, and the American Sociological Association’s Charles Tilly Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award (co-winner).
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013).