On Becoming a ‘Blue-eyed, Blond American Friend’

For researchers working in China, particularly foreigners, the problems of doing fieldwork as an ‘outsider’ often feel acute. However, the frustrations felt while setting up and carrying out fieldwork can distract from the more complex social dynamics that researchers are enmeshed within in the field. In particular, the ways that issues of ‘positionality’ have been theorised in feminist social science can help clarify how the impossibility of full understanding and transparency between researchers and research participants is not just limiting but also creates opportunities for knowledge production.

Punish and Cure

By drawing on the life histories of 20 former and current heroin and methadone users in Yunnan Province, this essay explores the history, the logic, and the functioning of China’s anti-drugs camps. It shows how the tight intertwining of public health and public security models to fight against drug use has given rise to a contradictory policy landscape, whereby medical support always coincides with physical violence, social exclusion, and continuous surveillance of the bodies and the movements of Chinese addicts.

Preventative Policing as Community Detention in Northwest China

A preventative policing system in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has detained as many as 1.5 million Turkic Muslims deemed ‘pre-terrorists’ or ‘extremists’. This essay shows how a counterinsurgency mode of militarism that emerged in the United States, Israel, and Europe, has been adapted as a ‘Xinjiang mode’ of community policing in China. It argues that the scale of detentions and the use of surveillance technology make the ‘Xinjiang mode’ of counterinsurgency unprecedented.

Forced Internment in Mental Health Institutions in China

In China, people with mental disorders may be committed to mental hospitals for treatment in accordance with either the Mental Health Law or the Criminal Procedure Law depending on the specific situation. This essay gives a brief introduction to the two institutions involving forced deprivation of liberty of the mentally ill; compulsory treatment and involuntary hospitalisation. By comparing these two institutions, it also points out their shortcomings and some possible steps forward.

Systematising Human Rights Violations

The People’s Republic of China has a long history of abusive coercive custody—from administrative reeducation through labour to forced incarceration in police-run psychiatric facilities and extra-legal black jails. Through recent legislative and constitutional amendments China has attempted to systematise human rights abuses behind the veneer of the rule of law. But in institutionalising arbitrary and secret detention, China is in stark violation of international human rights law and fundamental norms.

The Power to Detain in a Dual State Structure

After four decades of legal reform, what kind of progress have the Chinese authorities made in controlling the power to detain, reducing its arbitrariness, and making the repressive arm of the state legally accountable? Has the fear of police power, in particular the proverbial panic of a knock at the door in the middle of the night, been reduced or increased? This essay argues that there are both changes and continuities, as the power to detain is largely defined and shaped by China’s regime type.

Harsh Justice?

What makes a penal system ‘harsh’? Can penal severity be compared across time and place? In the case of China, the question of how to evaluate relative severity in punishment is not just methodological; it is also political. This essay discusses why this type of comparison is sensitive, and why nonetheless it is not possible to avoid talking about it. The article suggests a variety of approaches for assessing penal severity in China, and cautions against relying on any one of them.

On Detention, ‘Dirty Work’, and Extra-legal Policing in China

Detention is just one of the ways in which the Chinese police force and legal system maximise discretion and evade accountability, all in the name of upholding social order. Detention takes many forms and is often linked to extra-legal methods of intimidation and harassment of the people who become victims of its operations. In criminology, such practices are termed ‘dirty work’, and the paradox in today’s China is that ‘dirt’ and ‘harmony’ are forming an unholy alliance in the name of ‘stability maintenance’.

Recruiting Loyal Stabilisers: On the Banality of Carceral Colonialism in Xinjiang

The ongoing mass incarceration of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslim people in Xinjiang is rooted in Chinese settler colonialism in the region since the 1950s via the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (bingtuan) and ethnic Han influx. This article explores the ongoing human transfer project in Xinjiang through the banal language of recruitment and employment, which aims to eventually dilute and replace the native populations. While detention centres and prisons keep expanding, the bingtuan continues to legitimise itself as a stabiliser by cultivating loyalty and a sense of belonging among the new waves of Han immigrants.

We Stood on Opposite Sides at a Pro-Hong Kong Rally—and Became Friends

On 29 September, amid global anti-totalitarianism protests (Cheng 2019), pro-Hong Kong activists in Boston called for the disruption of the city’s annual People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag-raising ceremony. Anticipating conflict, the Boston police put up street barricades, separating the crowd into two groups. On the inside were elderly Chinese residents from Boston’s Chinatown and […]

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