China’s increased global engagements in recent years have been the source of unending controversies. While public attention generally focuses on geopolitical, economic, or even environmental issues, labour also plays an important part in emerging narratives surrounding the ‘spectre of global China’.
The media in countries that have received a significant influx of investment from mainland China has often complained about ‘invasions’ of Chinese workers, who are allegedly snatching away job opportunities from local workers. In many places, there are pervasive rumours that Chinese workers are nothing less than convicted felons sent abroad by the Party-State to expiate their crimes, which would explain why they seem to work without interruption day and night, at a pace that some believe no free person would deem acceptable. This has also led to concerns that workers from China are playing an important role in driving down labour standards in countries where institutions are weak and legal enforcement lacking. Inflows of Chinese workers have also been associated with surges in crime and prostitution that supposedly have wrought havoc on local communities.
In the best of circumstances, these narratives flatten the figure of the Chinese worker abroad into that of an agent unwittingly promoting the agenda of the Chinese Party-State abroad; in the worst, they frame these overseas Chinese labourers as criminals. In so doing, the complex dilemmas that these workers face, their inner conflicts, and the rights violations that they themselves are subjected to go unnoticed.
This issue challenges these prejudices and provides some glimpses into the subjectivities and the plight of Chinese workers toiling abroad today.