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State of Sensitivity: Navigating Fieldwork in an Increasingly Authoritarian China

This essay reflects on the process of designing, conducting, and writing about fieldwork in China’s politically-sensitive environment. I draw on my experience as a foreign scholar researching the hydropower industry from 2013–18, a period of growing authoritarianism in China. I describe attempts and strategies (both successful and unsuccessful) to navigate sensitivity in framing my project, accessing and conducting interviews, and sharing results. Overall, my aim is to provide a sense of cautious optimism for early-career scholars headed into the field.

Confronting Sexual Harassment in the Field

This essay sheds light on gendered violence negotiated by researchers conducting fieldwork in China. It examines coping and resistance strategies employed by female researchers, and analyses how the female researcher’s body is disciplined in a hetero-patriarchal setting. Linking gendered field experience to the #MeToo movement in China, the essay discusses the role of academics in feminist movements and the implications for the broader civil rights issues in the Chinese context.

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

Difficult Fieldwork, Positionality, and Being a Participant-researcher

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.

Interpreting Chinese Labour: Informalisation or Empowerment?

The struggle and activism of Chinese workers has been a topic of primary interest since the beginning of the reform era. Still, expectations have never been higher than in the past few years, with an unending stream of media articles and academic papers hailing the new-found rights awareness of Chinese workers—especially the so-called second generation […]

Interpreting the Rule of Law in China

With its ample resonance both within China and internationally, the ‘rule of law’ (yifa zhiguo) is an expression that can justify the most disparate justice reforms. It is both a political value worth defending and a reason for consternation; it is an ideal that is inherently troubling and troubled by its interlocutors, advocates, and critics. […]

A Civil Society Under Assault

In May 2015, the National People’s Congress released the complete text of a draft ‘Overseas NGO Management Law’. According to the draft rules, the main responsibility of supervising foreign NGOs in China should shift from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security, a step that would make carrying out projects in the country […]

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