This talk discusses how international development projects involving labor activism work in contemporary China. It focuses on the lived experiences of and relationships among a group of grassroots⁠ labor NGOs in the province of Guangdong, South China; intermediary NGOs in Hong Kong; and Western funding agencies that try to bring about social change in post-socialist China where the political climate is still highly restrictive and the limits of the state’s tolerance for activism are ambiguous and uncertain. Foregrounding the notion of uncertainty, this talk discusses how state control is exercised by examining a specific logic of practices, discourses, and a mode of existence that constantly mask and unmask the state. I argue how the uncertainty about the boundaries of permissible activism is generative of a sociopolitical realm in which variously positioned subjects mobilize around the idea of the state, which in turn leads to articulations and practices conducive to both self-censorship and a contingent space of activism.

Darcy Pan works as a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology. She holds a PhD in anthropology from Stockholm University (2016). Entitled “Laboring through uncertainty: an ethnography of the Chinese state, labor NGOs, and development,” Pan’s doctoral thesis investigates how international development projects supporting labor activism are implemented in contemporary China. Pan’s research interests focus on the state, civil society, surveillance, infrastructure, development, mobility of populations, and regimes of governance. She has done fieldwork in Ireland, China, and Hong Kong.