Eli Friedman’s Year in Reflection

In our 5th Year in Reflection contribution, we posed the questions to Eli Friedman who researches China’s labour politics at Cornell University in the United States. He is the author of The Urbanization of People: The Politics of Development, Labor Markets, and Schooling in the Chinese City (Columbia 2022).

In 2022, what is one instance of workers’ struggle in Asia that has particularly impressed you?

I was very impressed with the mass refusal of work and escape by thousands of workers at the Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou, China (discussed in my interview with ALR).

It has been a very difficult couple of years for workers in China, as they have suffered under the combined effects of the slowing economy, the pandemic, and stiff political repression. Particularly in light of the latter, workers’ collective resistance has been much more muted than it was in the 2010s.

Although the Foxconn event was born of extreme hardship in the “closed loop management” – workers were facing the threat of infection, while having inadequate food and medical supplies – it was also a reminder of Chinese workers’ long and proud history of militant collective action.

Equally impressive was the mutual aid mobilized for the escaped workers in the surrounding communities, as people provided food, water, and transportation. This was a good sign that there is broad-based social support for workers facing down the world’s most powerful corporations.  

What is one thing that we have not given sufficient attention to?

This is rather particular to China, but the ongoing effects of zero covid need to be analyzed from the perspective of the working class.

There has been so much attention to what zero covid means for global supply chains, for China’s GDP targets, and even for the stability of Xi Jinping’s rule. But from the Shanghai lockdowns of last spring through the more recent Foxconn revolt and the militant protests in Guangzhou’s migrant communities, it is clear that workers are being exposed to extreme risk, insecurity, and even subsistence crises. 

Is there any insight you would like to share?

Although it might seem counterintuitive, I have been impressed by the resilience of labor amid growing repression.

I am most familiar with China and Hong Kong, places that have become remarkably more hostile to labor and any form of collective organization by workers. And yet, we also see that growing repression has not been able to snuff out resistance altogether. 

What is one article or a book you would recommend?

Although it is not primarily a book about labor, Darren Byler’s Terror Capitalism has really stuck with me.

He details the various forms of enclosure and dispossession that Uyghurs have experienced in northwestern China during the mid-late 2010s. Although this might seem peripheral to the concerns of the working class in China proper or elsewhere in Asia, in fact it is not.

As in other colonial situations, I learned from his book that there are technologies and forms of unfree labor being developed in the periphery that are in fact seeping into the broader society. And this is not just a China story, as some of the surveillance and policing technologies developed in Xinjiang are now being marketed elsewhere in Asia and beyond.

It is a good reminder of the old slogan that an injury to one is an injury to all. 

What about 2023?

I am quite interested in the extent to which supply chains will relocate from China to elsewhere in Southeast and South Asia.

There has been a lot of discussion of this trend for many years, but it does seem as though the combination of the US-China trade war and the zero covid policies have led to a real shift.

Major electronics suppliers, garment production, and other labor-intensive industries seem to be moving to Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere, and it will be important for us to assess how this impacts workers.

This will be true both for the workers who are left unemployed as a result of factory relocation, as well as the newly proletarianized people in receiving areas.