Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues2021/3Book ReviewsPAN, Darcy. 2020. Doing Labor Act...

Book Reviews

PAN, Darcy. 2020. Doing Labor Activism in South China: The Complicity of Uncertainty. London: Routledge.

Silvia Frosina
p. 74-75

Full text

1Since Hegel’s theorisation of China as a state without society, the debate surrounding China’s state-society relationship has been centred on crafting a definition of civil society that could apply to non-Western contexts. However, since the 1990s, the global rise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and grassroots organisations has led to the political demand for a normatively charged definition of civil society to reflect the role of such organisations as agents of democratic change. In her book Doing Labor Activism in South China: The Complicity of Uncertainty, Darcy Pan offers a picture of the limits of civil society activity in a context where the space for legitimate public action is supervised and permeated by Party ideology.

2Focusing on a sample of five foreign-funded labour NGOs operating in South China and Hong Kong, this work aims at understanding how activists establish trust relationships and negotiate power among them while contending with state control. The analysis develops from the assumption that the context within which NGOs operate is kept deliberately ambiguous by the Chinese state in order to promote self-censorship. The resulting state of uncertainty is treated by Pan as an ethnographic space within which labour NGOs negotiate their work, legitimacy, and existence. Uncertainty is thus generative of complicity: “the discourses, informal communication practices, tactics and strategies that help the NGOs dealing with the state” (p. 11).

3The book is composed of six chapters. Chapters One and Two respectively introduce the theoretical and historical background of the study. Chapter One clearly states the methodology employed, clarifies the positionality of the researcher, and introduces uncertainty as a space of ethnographic enquiry. Chapter Two traces the historical emergence of labour NGOs in China by linking them to the country’s developmental path, its rapid urbanisation, and the phenomenon of migrant workers.

4In chapters Three and Four, the link between uncertainty and complicity is made explicit. By looking at two ethnographic examples – the activists’ theorisation of a large-scale crackdown of labour NGOs in Shenzhen and the reactions to the relaxation of policies concerning social organisations in 2012 – Pan investigates the creation of the intimate knowledge required to navigate through the uncertainty about the limits of state-sanctioned activism. The production of complicity through uncertainty is crystallised in the politics of mingan (敏感), introduced in Chapter Four. Commonly translated in English as “sensitivity,” mingan is a multi-layered, inherently political concept that permeates the author’s fieldwork among labour NGOs. Mingan materialises into both temporal and spatial modes of social organisation that dictate and censor the work of the labour NGOs. One powerful example is the “calendar of activism,” the collective understanding of the best and the worst times of the year to criticise the state.

5Chapters Five and Six dive into the practice of secrecy and link it to the way success and failure are perceived and articulated by labour activists. Both sections present arguments that are as fascinating as they are counterintuitive, particularly from a Western perspective. Chapter Five looks at how the practice of secrecy is employed to manage the relationship between the labour NGOs and foreign donors against the backdrop of state surveillance. Pan finds that the practice of secrecy in the Chinese labour community may not be as much about evading state surveillance as it is about establishing trust among grassroots actors. Lastly, Chapter Six delves into the activists’ perceptions of success and failure to reveal how success is measured, not only as the capacity to promote meaningful change but as the ability to do so while avoiding direct challenges to the state.

6Pan’s work bridges the gap between the Western conceptualisation of civil society and the Chinese context. In doing so, it subsumes civil society as an intermediate associative sphere situated within the state, rather than a social force opposed to it. The Chinese state and civil society engage in functional reciprocity. On the one hand, NGOs contribute to the reproduction of the discourse practices and understandings of the state as a ubiquitous presence against which any social activity must be measured. On the other hand, NGOs thrive within the grey areas of state-sanctioned activism. Some of the examples presented in the book clearly illustrate how the Chinese state, by outsourcing workers’ protection to the NGOs, implicitly legitimises their existence.

7Pan’s application of anthropological theory, one major example of which is Herzfeld’s (2016) notion of cultural intimacy, is consistent and well explained, accessible to readers who have not mastered the subject. However, one important point that could be further developed is the institutional domain of NGO-state relations. As an anthropologist, Pan focuses on how non-state actors perceive and negotiate the idea of the state among themselves, rather than on how they engage with it. Increased methodological dialogue with other disciplines could provide further explanation of the macro-dynamics of contention on institutional ground. After all, labour movements act on political institutions. A multi-disciplinary approach may also contribute to investigating how NGO-state relations change by mission: for instance, there may be a difference between how labour and environmental NGOs deal and are dealt with. Normally, time and space constraints prevent authors from weighing all these different angles and hypotheses, but this additional level of comparative analysis could further complement the study of NGO activity in Mainland China and Hong Kong.

8At the time of writing, China’s workforce is witnessing profound change. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the transformation of capital-labour relations by stimulating the rise of e-commerce and online industry. Chinese migrant workers are now filling the ranks of a new type of working-class, facing precarious labour conditions and derisory legal protection. Such circumstances are quickly translating into new demands and protests over poor working conditions, with one recent example involving strikes by couriers and food delivery workers.1 Similarly, Hong Kong has seen a remarkable rise in unionisation,2 spurred by both the pandemic and the 2019 protests. As these trends promise future developments in Chinese labour advocacy, Pan’s book may be an excellent starting point for educating oneself on the micro-dynamics of NGO activity.

Top of page


HERZFELD, Michael. 2016. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions. London: Routledge.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Silvia Frosina, PAN, Darcy. 2020. Doing Labor Activism in South China: The Complicity of Uncertainty. London: Routledge.China Perspectives, 2021/3 | 2021, 74-75.

Electronic reference

Silvia Frosina, PAN, Darcy. 2020. Doing Labor Activism in South China: The Complicity of Uncertainty. London: Routledge.China Perspectives [Online], 2021/3 | 2021, Online since 01 September 2021, connection on 19 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Silvia Frosina

Silvia Frosina is a postgraduate in MA Advanced Chinese Studies at SOAS, University of London, 10 Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, United Kingdom (

Top of page


The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search