Peace and Protest: Unarmed Insurrections in East Asia, 1946–2006 by Isak Svensson and Mathilda Lindgren, Uppsala University

Whereas the discussion on East Asian Peace has primarily focused on armed conflicts, this article contributes by discussing unarmed conflicts in the East Asian region. The article presents the regional picture of the prevalence of these types of non-violent, popular uprisings and contends that these types of social conflicts are important to consider in order to get a better grasp of what kind of relative peacefulness that East Asia is experiencing.

East Asia has witnessed a quite remarkable declining trend in intensity and frequency of armed conflicts, a phenomenon that has been called the ‘East Asian Peace’ (Tønnesson 2009). The discussion on East Asian Peace has hitherto focused on the armed dynamics of social conflicts. Yet, not all conflicts are necessarily armed. What does the picture look like if we focus onunarmed upheavals in East Asia instead?

Unarmed insurrections are broad, popular-based protest movements that use non-violent methods to air their aspirations, such as street demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, etc. Using the term ‘non-violence’ could be misleading since these protest-movements do not necessarily pay strict adherence to the principles of non-violence in the spirit of famous proponents such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, it is empirically not uncommon that there are outbursts of violence on behalf of some protesters. Rather, many of these popular uprisings can be referred to as pragmatically guided unarmed insurrections with strategic behaviour and certain organisational structures that are distinctive in character from armed insurrections since they do not rely on force and military means.


Using data from a global dataset (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008), we can say that there have been quite a few unarmed insurrections in the region. In fact, there were 18 cases in East Asia over the course of fifty years since 1946. The first case during this period was China in 1956-57 and the last one Thailand in 2005-06. In terms of frequency, there was a peak around 1989, interestingly a parallel development to Eastern Europe, which also saw several unarmed insurrections around the end of the Cold War.


Some of the best-known examples of unarmed insurrections could be found in this part of the world. The non-violent insurrection in the Philippines in 1986 is sometimes lifted up as one of the prime examples of people power movements which successfully challenged the regime. On the other hand, the two unarmed mass-protests in Burma (1988 and 2007) were both brutally crushed by the military junta in the country.


Like armed conflicts, the incompatibility at stake can be distinguished between contest over the control of a specific territory and governmental power. The opposition forces in these unarmed insurrections aspire to either a change in the state-formation, demanding separation or territorial autonomy, or alternatively a change in government, its leadership or the ruling ideology. 


This distinction is pivotal and carries some significant explanatory power over the chance for success of unarmed insurrections. We have argued elsewhere (Svensson & Lindgren, forthcoming) that unarmed insurgents are more likely to be successful if they are able to mount a considerable challenge to the vertical legitimacy of the regime. Territorial conflicts – by their nature a horizontal divide in a society – have problems in launching successful campaigns questioning this vertical legitimacy, and should therefore be generally less likely to be successful. This proposition is supported by empirical evidence, drawn from global data.


Interesting in this regard is the fact that the majority of the unarmed campaigns in East Asia (such as the campaign in Thailand in 1973 or South Korea in 1987) have been fought over the control of government power. Only a minority of the unarmed insurrections concern a territorial incompatibility. Examples include Tibet in 1987-89 and East Timor in 1988-99. Another territorial conflict also stands out in terms of its longevity: the Papuan conflict in Indonesia started in 1964 and continued throughout the studied period (which ends in 2006). Mostly, the other campaigns are much shorter in their duration.


Overall campaign strategies of unarmed insurrections can vary. Building on Sharp’s (1973) critical distinction, there are three main strategies: protest, non-cooperation, and non-violent intervention. The East Asian region stands out in regard to strategies employed. A majority of the unarmed insurrections have relied on protest strategies. This form of strategy is generally considered to be one of the least comprehensive, yet most public form of strategy that unarmed insurgents can use.


An important point concerns how the regimes in power meet the challenge of the unarmed insurrections. In an overwhelming number of cases, the regimes have answered with repressive measures. This has implications for how to interpret the peace in East Asia. The presence of unarmed insurrections can be seen as a sign of healthy, vibrant and pluralistic societies where discontent can be aired. However, the prevalence of government repression as a counter-measure against such unarmed insurrections indicates that the peace in East Asia can be more authoritarian in nature.


Much remains to be understood and explained when it comes to unarmed insurrections and this calls for a systematic research endeavour as part of the East Asian Peace agenda.  For instance, why are some unarmed insurrections successful whereas others fail to reach their goal? Although some research has been done on this matter, it is striking how the attention towards armed conflicts in this matter clearly outbalances the focus on unarmed insurrections.


Moreover, the growth of unarmed insurrections in East Asia leads to the question whether we are witnessing a transformation in means utilised in social conflicts. Do conflicts previously fought with arms continue to exist but express themselves through more non-violent methods? This is an important avenue for future research in the context of the East Asian Peace.










South Korea




Indonesia (Papua)
















South Korea








China (Tibet)




South Korea




Indonesia (East Timor)

































All cases come from NAVCO 1.0 (Chenoweth and Stephan) and the list is compiled by the authors.





Chenoweth, E. and M. J. Stephan (2008). ‘Why civil resistance works. The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict’. International Security 33(1): 744.

Sharp, G. (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston, Porter Sargent Publisher.

Tønnesson ,  S. (2009). ‘What is it that best explains the East Asian peace since 1979? A call for a research agenda’,  Asian Perspective 33(1), 111-136.

Svensson I. and M. Lindgren (forthcoming). ‘Community and consent, unarmed insurrections in non-democracies’. European Journal of International Relations.



Isak Svensson is Associate Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, and Visiting Research Fellow at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Otago University, New Zeeland.

Mathilda Lindgren is a Research Assistant at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.    





Peace for Asia

By Stein Tønnesson

Research Professor, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)

No Peace for Asia is the title of a famous book published by Harold Isaacs in 1947. The end of the Second World War in Japan’s surrender, he showed, did not bring peace for Asia. Instead it led to a series of civil wars and revolutionary wars in China, Indochina, Indonesia and elsewhere. When Isaacs’s book was republished in 1967, his message was even more appropriate. The world’s worst wars in the three first decades after 1945 were mainly in East Asia: the Chinese Civil War, the First Indochina War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. 1950 is the year after 1945 when the greatest number of people have been killed in war. This was because of the Korean War. The Vietnam War is the war since 1945 with the highest total number of casualties. The great majority of people killed in war during 1945-79 were East Asians. The region also saw a number of other man-made catastrophes with millions of casualties: the Chinese Great Leap Forward in 1958-61, the Indonesian massacre in 1965, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966-76, and the Cambodian genocide in 1975-78.

1979 was a turning point. The Chinese three-week invasion of Vietnam from 17 February that year – in retaliation for Vietnam’s invasion of China’s ally Kampuchea – is the last war in Asia till this day that has caused a truly significant number of casualties in a relatively short time: some 20-30,000 on each side. In the 1980s, the armed conflicts in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines would sometimes lead to several thousand battle deaths in the course of one year, but since 1988, according to the best estimates in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), not one single East Asian conflict has had more than 2,000 battle deaths in one year. Low-intensity conflicts have lingered on, or flared up, in Burma, Indonesia and Thailand, but the general tendency is that armed conflicts are diminishing in intensity in Southeast Asia. Nor have the militarized disputes in Northeast Asia led to armed fighting. While East Asia dominated global warfare in the first three decades after 1945, it is the region with the lowest number of battle deaths since 1979 (if we count all of Europe as one region, and all of the Americas as one region).  Since 1979 there has been just one major catastrophe that could be seen as man-made: the North Korean famine of 1995-97.

So from today’s viewpoint, Harold Isaacs’s book title is no longer valid. If new wars were to break out soon, then historians could speak of East Asia’s thirty years’ peace‘ in 1979-2009. Hopefully they will instead seek to explain the onset of a much longer era of peace. What kind of explanation will they find?

Since 1979 is so clearly the turning point in statistics of armed conflict in East Asia, it is tempting to seek the causes among the changes on the international scene during the 1970s. In East Asia the main change was Sino-US rapprochement. In the 1950s the Sino-Soviet alliance stood against the United States and its allies, so East Asia became the main region of cold-war confrontation. The cold war was cold in Europe, but hot in East Asia. In the 1960s, China was more radical than the Soviet Union, and the two communist states rivalled each other for supporting armed liberation struggles in Vietnam and other former European colonies. Then, when the People’s Republic of China took over China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971, when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, and after China and the United States established full diplomatic relations on 1 January 1979, China and the USA formed a de facto alliance, directed against the USSR and its client state Vietnam. Within this Sino-US alliance there was a power balance that has lasted till this day: while the USA has allowed the PRC to dominate the East Asian mainland, the PRC has tolerated US domination of East Asia’s maritime rim through naval preponderance and a system of alliances with insular and peninsular states. This could explain the ‘thirty years’ peace’ in East Asia – and make us worry when Chinese naval power grows.

In the explanation above, the main change was the realignment of China, which had to do with internal political changes in China itself. The next step in explaining the East Asian peace would therefore be to analyse the change of priorities in China’s foreign policy during the last years of Mao Zedong’s reign, and notably during the period 1976-78, when Deng Xiaoping established himself as Mao’s successor. We shall also notice the significant fact that while China was involved directly and indirectly in most of East Asia’s wars during the Mao era, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not been involved in any armed conflict since 1979 – except some fighting on the Sino-Vietnamese border during the 1980s, notably in April 1984, and a naval clash in the Spratly Islands in 1988. While much attention is given in international media to the modernization of China’s armed forces, there is not much talk about the fact that the PLA today lacks combat experience. If it is to gain such experience in the years ahead, it will most probably do so by extending its participation in UN peacekeeping operations to include combat forces, not by engaging in warfare against any of its neighbours.

When future historians discuss how to explain the onset of the ‘East Asian peace’ in 1979, there is little doubt that they will emphasize political changes in China during the 1970s. However, they will also have to struggle with the term ‘onset’. When explaining the outbreak of a war, one looks for long- and short-term causes in the period up until the moment when the war begins; what happens later is of no significance. If one explains a peace agreement, all explanatory factors will also be found in the run-up to the act of its signing, but the ‘East Asian Peace’ did not begin with a peace agreement. The ‘East Asian peace’ is not an event that took place in 1979, but a pattern of avoiding armed conflict that has lasted for thirty years since. The explanations cannot therefore be found only in events and processes from before and during 1979, but must be sought in the whole period thereafter as well. This makes explaining the ‘East Asian peace’ intellectually challenging and politically important. The explanatory effort may, if it becomes part of East Asia’s public debates, in itself contribute to prolonging the peace.

Stein Tønnesson is a research professor at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), where he served as director 2001-2009. His most recent publication is Vietnam 1946: How the War Began (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). See and



How Should Employers Treat Domestic Workers?[1]

Daniel A. Bell (Tsinghua University, Beijing)


            About ten years ago, a close friend came to visit me in Hong Kong. This friend – now director of a center for ethics at a prestigious American university – seemed a bit surprised when informed that my family had hired a live-in domestic helper to help care for our child and deal with domestic chores. He had just arrived from another trip, and since he was going to stay with us for a few days I told him to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket and our helper would take care of it. But my friend objected, saying he would do it himself. I didn’t argue at the time, but after a few drinks I mentioned it again and he relented.[1]

            Why would he object, I wonder? In Hong Kong, it’s common for professional families to hire foreign domestic workers (the politically correct term). The workers come to make money for themselves and their families, they are given contracts on much better terms than countries like Singapore, their interests are represented by NGOs and their home governments (especially the Philippines) and they are free to go home when they wish. In Hong Kong, nobody thinks twice about the justice of hiring foreign domestic workers (the debate focuses on the terms of their work). But somehow it offends the sensibilities of Western liberals. Perhaps the idea of workers in the home violates the image of the family as a sphere of love and affection. Or maybe it conjures up of images of master-servant relationships from aristocratic times. There may be an element of hypocrisy – in Western countries, domestic work is often done informally or illegally by migrant workers, without contracts and without political recognition and legal protection – but few card-carrying liberals would want to admit that they hire migrant domestic workers, much less defend the practice in public.

            It doesn’t take too long to figure out that such attitudes, if taken seriously, can be damaging to domestic workers themselves. What if my friend had done the laundry himself, and showed himself better at washing clothes than our helper? How would she feel? She might have “lost face,” and perhaps even felt that her job had been threatened. I do not mean to imply that the status quo is perfect. Quite the opposite. It can and should be improved. But we need to think of improving the status quo in ways that benefit the workers themselves – and yes, in ways, that also benefit those hiring the workers. There is obviously a tension between the interests of the two groups, but any workable policy is likely to be based on converging interests to an important extent. And it’s not just a matter of figuring out the right laws and policies. So much interaction between employers and domestic workers occurs in the privacy of the home, away from the prying eyes of the state, and the informal norms of engagement within the home have great impact on the welfare of the workers. But one searches in vain within the academic literature on migration and domestic work for morally-informed proposals regarding the treatment of domestic workers, as though it’s immoral even to allude to that possibility. So let me begin with that topic. Yes, I confess, qua employer, part of what I’m doing is to meant to make myself feel better. The vulgar Marxist might write off my views simply on account of my class position. But Marx himself set the model for transcending class position – with material support from Engels’ capitalist factories, he wrote the most powerful critique of capitalism in history.[2] Of course, my own modest abilities cannot compare to those of Karl Marx. Still, I hope the reader will be willing to engage with my argument. In my view, the Confucian tradition offers moral resources for thinking about the relationship between employer and domestic worker and I will try to spell those out. For what it’s worth, my views are also informed by interviews with domestic workers in Hong Kong and Beijing and volunteer work I did with a Hong Kong-based NGO that represents the interests of foreign domestic workers.


The Personal Is the Political 

             A basic assumption of Confucian ethics is that the moral life is possible only in the context of particularistic personal ties. For the general population, the most important relationship by far is the family. It is by fulfilling our responsibilities to family members that we learn about and practice morality. The value of caring for children is widely shared in other cultures, but Confucianism places special emphasis on filial piety, the care for elderly parents. Moreover, filial piety is not simply a matter of providing material comfort. As Confucius put it, “It is the attitude that matters. If young people merely offer their services when there is work to do, or let their elders drink and eat when there is wine and food, how could this be [sufficient for] filial piety?” (2.8). We need to serve our parents with love. Confucius also says that the way we interact with family members contributes to society at large (in contrast to the Greek thinkers writing at the same time, for whom the good life lies outside the home): “Exemplary persons focus their duties on the root. Once the root is established, the Way will flow from it. As for filial and fraternal responsibility, it is the root of humanity and compassion” (1.2). If there is harmony in the family, in other words, it is easier to establish harmony in society at large.

            These Confucian values still inform people’s beliefs and practices in contemporary East Asian societies. In Japan and South Korea, the duty to care for needy family members – children, elderly parents, the sick, and the disabled – is typically carried out by adult females. Wives are expected to stop working and commit themselves to the family after marriage. But Chinese societies (especially in urban areas) are relatively egalitarian in terms of gender relations (compared to Japan and South Korea) and women often work outside the home. So who should take care of needy family members? Not surprisingly, day-care and nursing-home systems are relatively undeveloped, even in wealthy Chinese cities. People worry that strangers entrusted with caring duties won’t show the right “attitude,” hence the reluctance to commit one’s children and elderly parents to state (or private) institutions. It’s much better to do it oneself, and if that’s not possible, to hire somebody to provide more personal care in the home. So families with the means to do so often hire domestic workers to help with caring duties. In mainland Chinese cities, middle and upper classes often hire migrant workers from the impoverished countryside, and in Hong Kong, they hire foreign migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other relatively poor Southeast Asian countries.

            Of course, one cannot easily disentangle cultural explanations from other factors such as political decisions and economic forces. For example, the preference for foreign domestic workers may be explained by the lack of quality day care in Hong Kong (on the other hand, the lack of public demand for day care, even in East Asian societies with open political systems and vibrant civil societies, is quite striking, and cultural biases against day care may be part of the explanation for the lack of demand). The role of Confucian values may be more evident in the way people actually deal with each other within the home. According to one study, Western employers in Hong Kong generally treat domestic workers differently than Chinese employers. Filipina domestic workers were more satisfied with their Western employers, who allow them more personal space and are more likely to treat them on equal terms. Respect also seems to be more important for the Western employer (Tak Kin Cheung an
d Bong Ho Mok, Social Justice Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998).

            Respect per se, however, may not be sufficient. That is, the very best employers – only a small minority – treat domestic workers with more than respect; they also treat them as valued members of the family. Most of these employers tend to be Chinese. The same study provides a good example of family-like treatment by a Chinese employer. A Filipina domestic worker valued her employer’s parents because she was treated as the daughter they never had. The ties between the employee and the employer’s family was based on mutual concern and caring, not simply fairness and respect: they watched TV together, engaged in mutual teasing, and the employer showed sincere concern for the domestic worker’s family in the Philippines. My own interviews with domestic workers revealed similar reactions. One domestic worker praised her former boss in Singapore for her use of affectionate family-like appellations and for including her in weekend family outings. Another domestic worker was made the godmother of her employer’s child, and they would go to church together. Her family in the Philippines made regular visits to her employer’s home in Hong Kong, and she hoped that her employer’s family would visit her in the Philippines when she returned.

            Of course, Western employers can also treat domestic workers as family members, but this is relatively rare. The Hong Kong study found that Western employers were more homogenous as a group compared to Chinese employers. My own interviewees said that Western employers often treat domestic workers with respect and tend to be fair-minded, but it typically doesn’t go beyond that (an important reason may be that expatriates do not expect to stay too long and thus do not develop family-like bonds with domestic workers). Good treatment means paying beyond the minimum wage and giving more free time to employees, but the affective component may not be as prominent. Such distance has its advantages. The idea that the domestic worker belongs to the family can be used as an excuse to impose extra burdens on the worker, such as asking her to work during public holidays. This may help to explain why some domestic workers in Hong Kong will refuse to address employers by the given names, even if they are asked to do so, preferring such labels as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”

            Still, the feeling of being treated as a valued member of the family – of feeling loved and trusted – usually outweighs the cost. Once again, it is difficult to directly trace the influence of culture, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Confucian ethics makes this kind of family-like treatment more likely, or at least more deeply entrenched when it happens. In Confucianism, there is a firm distinction between family insiders and nonfamily outsiders, but the concept of family is relatively flexible and family-like concern and care is supposed to be extended to others. Mencius explicitly asks us to “treat the aged of our own family in a manner befitting their venerable age and extend this treatment to the aged of other families; treat our own young in a manner befitting in a manner befitting their tender age and extend this treatment of the young of other families” (3A.5). One mechanism for extending such relationships is to apply family-like labels and norms to nonfamily members. This is reflected in the Chinese language. Good friends and alumni will refer to each other as younger or older siblings, the graduate supervisor refers to his or her students as younger siblings,[3] and – in the best cases – domestic workers and their employers will also use family-like language to refer to each other.

            But why are the “best cases” not more common in Chinese families? Sometimes, it’s because of different languages and cultures. It’s harder to forge family-like bonds with workers that speak foreign languages. In Hong Kong, many Cantonese-speaking households do not speak English well enough to converse with their English-speaking Filipina domestic workers. Yes, the employers know enough English to issue commands, but affective relationships take place when people can joke and tease each other, which requires relatively advanced language skills. Why don’t the employers hire Chinese-speaking workers? In wealthy Hong Kong, few people are willing to take such jobs. More surprisingly, it’s illegal to hire domestic workers from mainland China! The government fears that such workers would find it easier to blend in and thus overstay as illegals without being caught, but if the aim is to increase the likelihood of extension of family-like norms to domestic workers then the government might want to consider modifying that policy.

In mainland China, due to common language and culture, it may be more common for domestic workers to be treated like members of the family. But there is still a large gap between the ideal and the reality. The main problem is that city folk often look down on less well-educated workers from the countryside. Here too, the government can help to remedy the problem by such means such as TV programming designed to increase consciousness about the need to treat domestic workers well. Consider, for example, the fact that the television program on the eve of the Spring Festival draws an audience of roughly 500 million people. This program consists of songs and skits that convey moral messages in humorous ways (for example, one skit in the 2005 show portrayed a migrant worker who complained that his wages were not being paid on time, and the audience clapped loudly in sympathy). In future programming, perhaps one skit can depict the importance of promoting family-like relations between employers and migrant domestic workers (e.g., a humorous skit depicting employers and domestic workers teasing each other at mealtime) and refraining from abuse of the latter.

            Ultimately, however, such treatment has to involve the employer’s own volition. The whole idea of “enforcing” care may be incoherent: it has to come from the heart, otherwise it will be perceived as insincere and won’t be effective at strengthening affective relationships. How can employers be persuaded to show more care to domestic workers? The argument from self-interest should be evident: if the worker feels cared for and loved, then she will supply higher quality care (in Confucian terms, she will perform her duties with the right “attitude”).[4] It’s also worth appealing to the employer’s better, other-regarding side: the extension of family-like norms promotes the well-being of the workers. Even if the employer has the right motivation, however, such extension of family-like norms to domestic workers may require active effort. They can be extended through common rituals, like eating together. So the employer can try to invite the domestic worker to dine with his or her family. The worker might resist at first, but the employer should persist in the hope that the worker will eventually join the family, eating and conversing at mealtime without being too self-conscious about it. In the Confucian spirit, the employer can also encourage joint singing as a way of generating a sense of solidarity. Again, it might seem a bit forced at first, but eventually both parties may enjoy doing it. If employer and employee do karaoke together to enjoy themselves, we can be confident that family-like norms have been extended!

The liberal may worry about the trade-off between care and rights. As Bridget Anderson puts it, “the difficulty from the migrant workers’ point of view is that such relationships of kindness and gratitude leave little space for rights” (“A very private business,” Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper No. 28, 2006, 19).  Just as it seems distasteful (and often unnecessary) to assert rights in families governed by love and affection, so the employer seeking to promote affectiv
e ties might object to rights in the context of family-like relationships between employer and domestic worker, with the consequence that workers are more open to exploitation and abuse. In actual fact, employers have often misused the rhetoric of family harmony to argue against legislation that benefits workers. Consider the following rhetoric from the director of the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Nagasaki in 1910, arguing against a factory law that would strengthen workers’ rights:

Since ancient times, Japan has possessed the beautiful custom of master-servant relations based firmly on a spirit of sacrifice and compassion, a custom not seen in the many other countries of the world. Even with the recent progress in transportation, the development of ideas about rights, the expansion of markets, and the growing scale of industrial society, this master-servant relationship persists securely. Is it not weak like that of the Western nations but has its roots in our family system and will persist as long as that system exists. Because of this relationship the employer loves the employee and the employee respects his master…. Today, there exist no evils and we feel no necessity [for a factory law]. We cannot agree to something that will destroy the beautiful custom of master-servant relations and wreak havoc on our industrial peace (quoted in Upham, “The Japanese Experience with ‘Harmony’ and Law,” paper on file with author).

One suspects that the workers did not share such views. We can and should be suspicious of such rhetoric. Employers themselves, if they have any conscience, should try to think from the employee’s point of view and do things that employees actually care about, like paying above the minimum wage and giving them time off, whatever the impact on the development of family-like ties. Sometimes employers even need to override the worker’s desire to promote relationships based on care. I need to be very careful about drawing on my own experience qua boss – I’m fully aware that it doesn’t “smell” good – but let me go ahead with an example to illustrate what I mean. Once, I asked the son of our domestic worker in Beijing to help fix my computer. He came after work and eventually solved the problem, but he left before I had a chance to give him any money. The next day, I offered the money to his mother, but she refused, explaining that Westerners and Chinese are different: Westerners want to marketize everything but Chinese value relationships based on care and emotion. My immediate instinct was to defend Western civilization, but I resisted the urge. Instead, I told our domestic worker that it would be awkward for me to ask her son for help in the future if she doesn’t accept money on his behalf.[5]

Still, misuses of the rhetoric of family values should not undermine the whole ideal of promoting family-like ties between employer and employee – especially within the household, where employers interact on intimate terms with workers. Obviously it’s better for the worker if the employer treats her with care and affection. And it’s not just employers who say that. The interviewees in Beijing specifically noted that “being treated as a member of the family” is an important desideratum. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that there is always a trade-off between the protection of legal rights and family-like affective relations. In some cases, rights can actually promote affective relations. In mainland Chinese cities (unlike Hong Kong), migrant domestic workers typically work without contracts. Standardized Hong Kong-style contracts that set minimum wages and guarantee health and work accident insurance would be beneficial for the domestic workers. Less obviously, such contracts could also help to promote the development of family-like relations within the home. By specifying longer terms of engagement (say, two or three years), domestic workers would be more likely to stick with their employers, thus increasing the likelihood that family-like ties develop between employer and employee. On the other hand, an important advantage for domestic workers under the current, informal system of work is that they can easily change jobs and therefore do not have to put up with abusive employers (in contrast, migrant domestic workers only have two weeks to find new employers in Hong Kong, which means that they often must tolerate bad employers for fear of being deported). So the contract would need to allow for some form of exit, but not to the point that employer and employee do not have any motivation to deal with minor conflicts in family-like ways. Such contracts would also need to be combined with further measures that protect the domestic workers from abuse, such as severe punishments for employers who physically or sexually abuse domestic workers.

But we do need to recognize that excessive rights focus can undermine affective ties between employer and employee. Liberals seem to think that rights designed to promote equal respect and fairness should always have political (and legal) priority over concern for affective ties, but Confucians feel the tension.[6] And sometimes the latter can have priority. For example, one of my interviewees in Hong Kong praised her former Singapore employer for providing shampoo and other toiletries. Such seemingly trivial gestures were deeply appreciated because they went beyond legal obligations, and they strengthened bonds of trust between employer and employee. If the employer had provided toiletries because that obligation had been spelled out in contract form, it would not have had the same beneficial effect on their relationship.

More controversially, such considerations may bear on the issue of whether or not to legislate work hours. In Hong Kong, contracts between employers and domestic workers do not set a maximum number of work hours. There is nothing illegal about making domestic workers work sixteen-hour work days. At first glance, this seems morally suspect. However, one reason for not specifying maximum work hours is that it would be difficult to enforce within the “privacy” of the home and to adjudicate cases of conflict. Another reason matters more for our purposes. The employers can offer to limit work hours to “reasonable’ amounts – say, eight hour days, with breaks in between — and this may have the effect of strengthening affective ties between employers and workers. Conversely, the domestic worker may offer to work beyond agreed-upon hours, and this will also have the effect of stregthening trust and caring relationships within the household. Eventually, the lines between economic activity and family duties may become blurred, and the process of negotiating work between employer and employee will more closely resemble the informal ways of distributing tasks between family members; put differently, it allows for the “Confucian” extension of family-like norms and practices to domestic workers. Such an outcome is less likely to develop if legal contracts specify in great detail the rights and duties of domestic workers within the family context.

The liberal may reply that the proposal not to specify maximum work hours still benefits the employer, who ultimately controls the levers of power. Why should the employer have the right to decide whether or not to exploit the domestic worker? From the perspective of the domestic worker, it might seem preferable to have the right to limited work hours, which can be invoked if need be. If the domestic worker wants to strengthen affective ties with her employer, then she can waive this right, and the employer would be grateful. In practice, unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. Once the right is formalized, there is a strong tendency to invoke it, even against “good” employers where it might not be necessary to do so. Moreover, the fact that this right is so difficult to enforce may lead to endless conflicts that could poison the atmosphere of the household.

My main point – a point that’s neglected or criticized by l
iberal theorists — is that the Confucian concern for extending family-like relations to domestic workers should be taken seriously, both at the level of policy and the way we – bosses – actually deal with them. Ideally, legislators and employers should try to combine this concern with considerations of justice. But it may not always be possible to do so. Legal rights should protect the basic interests of workers, like the right not be abused physically or sexually. But if curbing rights doesn’t lead to severe injustice and helps to promote affective ties, then the concern for the latter should have priority. In hard cases one’s normative position may lead to different conclusions. The liberal individualist may prefer to err on the side of justice, but the Confucian may opt for norms and practices more likely to secure harmony and trust within the family. 


The Economic Benefits of Differentiated Citizenship

            But perhaps I’m missing the real problem. The whole system of migrant labor rests on the fundamental injustice of unequal citizenship: in Hong Kong, for example, foreign domestic workers cannot be put on the road to citizenship no matter how long they work in the territory. In the eyes of liberal theorists, the institutionalization of second-class citizenship – permanent unequal legal rights for a group of residents — is a violation of fundamental liberal-democratic principles and should never be allowed, no matter what the circumstances. As Will Kymlicka puts it, “it violates the very idea of a liberal democracy to have groups of long-term residents who have no right to become citizens” (Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 359). No decent government will ever compromise on these principles.[7]

            In mainland China, arguably, there’s an even worse injustice because migrant workers are deprived of equal rights within their own country! China’s “floating population” – roughly 120 million migrants, mainly impoverished rural residents migrating to urban areas in search of better opportunities and higher earnings – is subject to the hukou (household registration) system that allows the state to control the extent of migration to urban areas and makes it more difficult for those born in rural areas to establish permanent homes in cities. The hukou is a politically-sanctioned, hereditary distinction between those born in rural and urban areas, and migrants from rural areas must make their presence known in cities and apply for labor permits to work there. Urban household registrants are granted an extra share of rights and entitlements, and migrants are precluded from partaking of those benefits as a result of their rural backgrounds, regardless of how long they have actually lived in urban areas. From a liberal democratic perspective, in other words, the hukou system is the functional equivalent of a caste system that marks a group of people as second-class citizens just because they were unlucky enough to be born in the countryside. 

            It’s worth asking what could possibly motivate what seems like a transparently unjust systems. One way of answering this question is to anticipate the likely social and economic consequences of development with the hukou system. Consider what happened when Tibet – for Han Chinese, the most remote, inhospitable, and hostile part of the country – was exempted from the hukou system: “To encourage economic development in Tibet, Beijing had exempted Tibet from the general rule that one must be a permanent resident of a given area to start a business there. The result was that Tibetan cities, Lhasa in particular, were inundated with a so-called ‘floating population’ of Han Chinese from other provinces” (He, “Minority Rights with Chinese Characteristics,” in Multiculturalism in Asia, eds. Will Kymlick and He Baogang, p. 64). Wu Ming spells out the likely consequences of abolishing the hukou system in more desirable (from a Han Chinese perspective) locations such as Beijing and Shanghai:

    If the urban hukou is abolished, not only will this cause difficulties of technical and human management in cities, there will also be a flood of laborers from the countryside. This will lead to many “urban illnesses,” particularly in developed cities on the East Coast. Perhaps we can say that there are already huge numbers of rural migrants in cities? But there aren’t many “urban illnesses.” That’s because the urban hukou system has not been abolished. The rural migrants don’t have a fixed residence, and their life if like that of migratory birds. Without the hukou system, they would travel in groups, if they could establish their residence [in cities], they would bring their whole families to live in the outskirts of cities and there would be a huge amount of poverty stricken people. Urbanization in Latin America is the best example of this kind of situation (quoted in Xin xi bu, 26 Nov. 2001).

In other words, the hukou system has prevented the emergence of shanty towns and slums that characterize the big cities of other developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India, and Indonesia. The benefits for economic development of urban areas are obvious: there is more social peace and less crime, as well as a more welcoming (stable) environment for foreign investors.

            Wu Ming argues that the hukou system also benefits the less-developed parts of the country. The medium-sized and small cities of the less-developed western part of China find it easier to retain the talent that helps to develop their economies (without the hukou system, talent would migrate to cities like Beijing and Shanghai). One might add that the benefits of economic investment in relatively wealthy east coast cities can eventually be redistributed for purposes of developing impoverished regions (the Chinese government has recently announced funding for expensive infrastructure projects in the west).

            There are reasons to question the empirical basis of such claims (see, e.g., Xia Xianliang and Wang Yingxi, Urban Studies, vol. 9(4), 2002). Even if they are correct, however, the liberal would still want to abolish the hukou system because equalcitizenship is the “mother of all values” in contemporary liberal theory. Even if unequal rights help to promote economic development, the system is fundamentally unjust and should be abolished. Here, we have a clash of fundamental values. It’s not just the Chinese Communist Party that says the government should prioritize the right to subsistence over equal civil and political rights. Confucius himself was explicit that the government’s first obligation is to secure the conditions for people’s basic means of subsistence, and only then should they be educated (13.9). In the same vein, Mencius argued that the government must first provide for the people’s basic means of subsistence so that they won’t go morally astray: “The people will not have dependable feelings if they are without dependable means of support. Lacking dependable means of support, they will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at nothing” (1A.7). In the West, theorists only began to worry about the state’s responsibility to alleviate poverty in the eighteenth century,[8] whereas such concerns have long informed Chinese thinking and practice. The idea that certain rights can be sacrificed for the sake of enriching the people is not nearly so controversial in China. If there’s a conflict with liberal-democratic theory, the problem may lie with liberal-democratic theory. At the very least, liberals should be cautious about lecturing the Chinese about the requirements of “universal” justice.  

            But there is one feature of the unequal rights system that should be of special concern to Confucians: the fact that migrants are often forced to be separated from family members. In the case of mai
nland China, migrants need to pay extra school fees if they take children with them to cities and they often leave kids behind as a result. The official newspaper China Daily (29 Jan.2007) reports that more than 20 million Chinese children are living with grandparents or other relations after their parents left home to find work (typically, the parents return home only once a year, during the Chinese New Year). In Hong Kong, the effects of foreign migration on family life are even worse. Foreign domestic workers cannot bring family members, and they are forced to come alone, without their spouses or children.

            It’s worth asking why such seemingly inhumane laws are put in place. The main reason is that labor-receiving territories do not want permanent settlement by poor migrant workers and they feel that extending equal rights to the families of migrants will encourage settlement. These views are not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Most Hong Kongers, for example, fear of being flooded with poor migrants from abroad. Hong Kong is already the most crowded territory in Asia, and the last thing Hong Kongers want is massive migration by poor foreign workers and their families (even Chinese mainlanders have a hard time bringing family members to Hong Kong, though it’s technically the same country). It’s worth asking what would happen if liberal theorists succeeded in persuading the Hong Kong government to change its policy. The result would almost certainly harm foreign domestic workers. Pressured by the people, the Hong Kong government would prevent new arrivals from coming to Hong Kong, thus depriving poor foreigners of work opportunities. The current batch of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong – 232, 780 at the latest count (12 March 2007) – may also be expelled. Many domestic helpers would be forced on airplanes, kicking and screaming, and shipped back to the Philippines and other sending countries. And many children in Hong Kong, having grown attached to their helpers, would cry themselves to sleep for a few nights.  Last but not least, remittances to sending countries from Hong Kong would dry up and global poverty would likely worsen.[9]

            How does one respond to such scenarios? Over the last century of so, Western liberals have discovered the value of family ties for the good life (in comparison, it has been the central theme of Confucianism for well over two millenia), and they seek to use the language of fundamental rights to secure this value. Joseph Carens, for example, writes that “denying people the right to have their families with them for more than three months would be harsh and for more than a year would be unconscionable” (“Live-In Domestics, Seasonal Workers, Foreign Students, and Others Hard to Locate on the Map of Democracy,” p. 7; paper on file with author). Such basic rights trump all other considerations. Even if migrant worker programs are best able to reduce global poverty,[10] the liberal theorist cannot bend such principles. For the Confucian, however, the task is to balance different values. On the one hand, the government has an obligation to alleviate poverty and it will be prepared to consider curbing some rights if necessary to achieve this end. On the other hand, the government also has an obligation to protect and promote family values. But note that the Confucian has a different conception of family values. For the Western liberal, the family typically refers to the nuclear family, meaning spouses and their children. Hence being deprived of such relations is to be entirely deprived of family ties. For the Confucian, the concept of the family is broader, it can and should be extended to others. Most obviously, it includes the relationship to elderly parents. But it can also refer to “new” family members, once family norms and labels are extended to them. Hence the importance of promoting family-like ties between the employer and the domestic worker. To an important extent, such ties can alleviate some of the loneliness caused by separation from family members for migrant workers.

    I do not mean to imply that such ties can replace family ties in home countries (or rural areas, in< the case of migrant workers in mainland China). Mencius, for one, explicitly warns against

confusing extension of family-like norms with the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern for all.For Mencius, it’s natural and legitimate for a person to love his brother’s son more than his neighbor’s newborn baby (3A.5). And to treat my neighbor’s father in exactly the same way as I treat my father, as Mozi asks us to do, would amount to a denial of my father (3B.9). So extended family-like norms cannot do all the work. Intimate family members have special value that cannot be replaced. Hence, provisions must also be made for migrant workers to return home on extended stays, at least once a year. In Hong Kong, employers are forced to pay for such visits back home, but employers can do more, say, pay for two trips back home per year. In mainland China, many employers may not have the means to pay for the home visits of their workers, but those who can help should do so (it needn’t be direct help, it can take the form of bonuses during holiday seasons).

            Let me conclude by emphasizing that we are dealing with hard choices in a non-ideal world. These sorts of trade-offs and sacrifices should be tolerated, not celebrated. Ideally, of course, no one would be forced to travel abroad under conditions of unequal rights and deprived of key family relations simply to make a decent living. In the long term, assuming an optimistic scenario, economic necessity will no longer influence what people do. We will have overcome the problem of global poverty and nobody would need to take jobs as migrant workers in faraway lands. Even then, however, different cultural traditions may influence different ways of securing care for needy family members. Consider the issue of caring for elderly parents. In Western liberal societies, one can predict that much, if not most, of the “caring” will take place in nursing homes and home-care by hired caretakers (often working below the minimum wage: see Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, “Old Folks at Home, Dissent, Fall 2007). In societies with a Confucian heritage, however, the idea that care of elderly parents should be informed with the right “attitude” – particularized love – means that relatives will do the bulk of the caring.[11] Perhaps the state can provide more resources for at-home care by relatives. Just as important, let us hope that gender relations will equalize and such tasks will be distributed more equally between adult sons and daughters.[12]


[1] This essay draws from my book China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). I submit this essay for your consideration because discussions with my friend Geir Helgesen suggest that the case for live-in domestic workers may be furthest removed from Danish sensibilities: hence perhaps it can generate a good argument! If you’d like to pursue the argument, kindly send me an email at


[1] The same friend came to visit me in Beijing a couple of years ago. My wife, a lawyer at an international law firm, hired a driver because she never learned to drive herself. The driver came to pick up my friend at the airport, but we told him that she (the driver) is our friend. I didn’t mean to lie (actually, it wasn’t really a lie, because we do have friendly ties with our driver), but I worried that my academic friend would raise objections (or make fun of the a
lleged gap between my leftist commitments and my “bourgeois” lifestyle) if I admitted that we now have a helper and a driver.

[2] Marx didn’t write about the politics of domestic work, however. Perhaps the least illustrious episode of his life is the affair he carried out with his domestic helper, leading to the birth of an illegitimate child (and Engels taking it away from him, thus avoiding a family scandal), which may help to explain Marx’s reluctance to confront the topic.

[3] The extension of family-like labels can also be manifested in highly unusual circumstances. On Chinese television, an experienced police detective who specializes in rescuing kidnap victims described his “velvet glove” methods: he talks to the kidnapper, softens him up by calling him “younger brother,” and more often than not the kidnapper eventually relents and gives up. In an American context, the extension of family-like labels takes place, strangely enough, in women’s prisons. Instead of forming gangs (as in male prisons), female prisoners form “families”, with elder women acting as “grandparents”, middle-aged women as “parents,” and younger ones as “children.”

[4] I use the feminine pronoun to refer to domestic workers, because they are usually female. In mainland Chinese cities, however, there are some male domestic workers, especially to help care for disabled and elderly people. The assumption seems to be that such care can require heavy physical labor (e.g., to lift the patient into a bath) that men are typically better able to provide.

[5] She still refused to take the money. I did ask her son for help again, and I gave him the money (for help on both occasions), which he accepted, after some initial protestation.

[6] I do not mean to imply that liberals actually live according to their theory. For example, my dear liberal friend mentioned above is warm and compassionate in everyday life.

[7] Such strict defense of moral principles may be particularly common among liberal political theorists. Left-leaning economists and political activists are often more willing to bend principles and recognize trade-offs among competing values. For example, the Bush administration’s proposal for a guest-worker program – to my mind, one of the few sensible proposals to emerge from that administration – was defended by left-leaning politicians such as Ted Kennedy (the proposal was opposed and was ultimately defeated by conservative forces who worried about granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants).

[8] For an interesting account of the Western tradition, see Samuel Fleischacker, A Short History of Distributive Justice (Harvard University Press, 2004). Fleischacker argues that Adam Smith (!) first took seriously the idea of the state’s responsibility for alleviating poverty (other theorists, such as Aristotle and Machiavelli, objected to large gaps between rich and poor because they valued political stability, not because they objected to poverty per se; and Christians generally favored private charity as a way of dealing with poverty).

[9] The economic benefits of remittances by migrant foreign workers are substantial. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon puts it, “last year migrants sent hope 131 billion [English pounds], three times all international aid. In some countries, a third of families rely on these remittances to keep them out of poverty. Across the developing world, remittances underwrite healthcare, education and grassroots entrepreneurship” (The Guardian, 10 July 2007).

[10] The economist Lant Pritchett has argued that giant guest-worker programs – workers would stay three to five years, with no path to citizenship – that put millions of the world’s poorest people to work in its richest economies is best able to combat global poverty. Pritchett assumes that most receiving countries would not allow them to bring families, but he argues that the benefits for global development outweigh the cost. In reply, Jeffrey Sachs says “Let them come as a family? Having tens of millions of men separated from their families in temporary living conditions is hardly going to be conducive to the kind of world we’re aiming to build” (quoted in Jason DeParle, “Should We Globalize Labor Too?”, New York Times Magazine, 10 June 2007). But what if such choices must be made to alleviate global poverty?

[11]Interestingly, this moral outlook still seems to inform the practices of Asian immigrants to other societies. According to the New York Times (11 August 2001), fewer than one in five whites in the US help care or provide financial support for their parents, in-laws or other relatives, compared with 28% of African-Americans, 34% of Hispanic-Americans and 42% of Asian-Americans. Those who provide the most care also feel the most guilt that they are not doing enough. Almost three-quarters of Asian-Americans say they should do more for their parents, compared with two-thirds of Hispanics, slightly more than half the African-Americans and fewer than half the whites.

[12] Greater involvement by adult sons in the care-giving process will be essential in the future because the one child per family policy in China will make it even more challenging to provide at-home care for elderly parents.


A rainbow anniversary: On the paradoxes of lesbian and gay life in contemporary China

Elisabeth L. Engebretsen


Watching television images of the Chinese 60th anniversary celebrations on 1 October, I was struck by the prominently displayed rainbow color people-formations on Chang’an Avenue – the very heart of Chinese political governance. The intended, official meanings of the rainbow theme undoubtedly were those of common themes related to the Community Party’s rhetoric of nationalist hope, purity, and yearning for progress and development; and thereby providing a visual support for slogans such as “Socialism is good”, “Develop Science and Technology,” and so on. But, the rainbow flag is moreover known worldwide to symbolize lesbian and gay (‘lgbtq’ henceforth)[i] pride. Over the course of the last decades, concurring with increased economic and cultural globalization, the rainbow flag has taken on a somewhat globally recognized symbolic and political meaning for lbgtq people and communities in numerous non-Western locations, where homosexuality tends to remain at least sensitive and taboo, if not illegal.

This is also the case in mainland China. Yet, the current status and situation of lgbtq communities there are far from a clear-cut situation of repression and exclusion, as many would readily believe based on the autocratic political regime and innumerable media reports of (usually ethnic) minority repression and surveillance. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and delisted as a mental disorder in 2001. Still, lgbtq people have no legal protection, suffer homophobia by employers and family, and activists experience periodically intense persecution and surveillance in accordance with macro-level political priorities to ensure ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’ at crucial times – such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the recent Uighur and Tibetan unrest, and the current 60th Anniversary celebrations this month. Based on little independent, unbiased research of homosexuality as a social (not medical) phenomenon, titillating, sensationalist media reporting, and popular yet traditional folk ideologies, homosexuality is invariably considered immoral, an illness a par with cancer, synonymous with AIDS, abnormal, and un-Chinese.

Due to this situation, few lgbtq Chinese ‘come out’ (i.e. explicitly declare sexual identity) or live openly in same-sex relationships. Most seek a tacit, complicit strategy of, on the one hand, adhering to normative expectation at ‘face’ value, whilst engaging in relationships and communities of their preference in a kind of un-declared, semi-public/private personal life on the other. However, this pervasive difficulty has not prevented a vocal and diverse lgbtq community to emerge; in fact, it has probably enabled and, certainly, fuelled it. Starting in the mid-1990s, social and activist networks have developed in several large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Dalian, and Kunming. The introduction of and popular access to the Internet and personal cell phones contribute enormously to the general establishment of a semi-private, public sphere in Chinese society, with the potential for alternative expressions and life styles. Combined with the relative decrease in governmental direct control of everyday life, for lgbtq people this change has meant the ability to establish longer-term community projects to raise consciousness,  produce validating and self-affirming positive knowledge such as documentary films, magazines, and oral histories. Outside NGOs, especially from Taiwan and Hong Kong – two culturally and linguistically Chinese societies – provide long-standing experience in aspects of lgbtq activist concerns.

This seeming paradox of official constraints and alternative possibilities are increasingly being played out in the Chinese media public, thanks to bolder, more pronounced initiatives taken by some lgbtq networks. To cite an example, on Valentine’s Day these three last years, Beijing lgbtq activists and supporters have organized same-sex marriage campaigns in downtown Beijing to draw the public’s attention to same-sex love and identity in general, and the inequality in current marriage legislation in particular.[ii] This year, the campaign took place at the opposite end of Tiananmen, where the rainbow colors where displayed for rather different reasons on October 1. In the popular tourist and shopping area of Qianmen, two gay men and two lesbian women posed as brides-to-be and grooms-to-be, dressed in white gowns and black tuxedos, respectively. Local and foreign media covered this unusual and rather bold event, and activists documented the proceedings with film cameras.[iii] Other activists distributed red flowers to passer-bys, to which they attached leaflets advocating equal rights to marry for all, and noting that lgbtq people are “just like regular folks.” One long-time lesbian activist in Beijing noted in conversation with me this summer that the marriage focus should not be read the same way that gay marriage campaigning in Western societies are. Whilst gay marriage in the West has turned into the seminal yardstick for determining lgbtq equality and a society’s progressive attitude to sexuality, same-sex marriage works politically quite differently in the Chinese context, more like a eye-catching means to a more basic end already achieved, more or less, in North-Western Europe. In China, marriage is an institution everybody knows and deals with, due to the consistent cultural imperative to marry. It is therefore used symbolically by lgbtq activists to advocate not simply and primarily equality, but more importantly, advocate the basic shared humanity of Chinese lgbtqs with the general, heterosexual population, in wanting romantic love, relationships ‘till death do us apart’, and ‘simply’, stable, normal lives.

The paradox remains that the popular media and the blogosphere allow for increasing representations of ‘gay’ issues as basically about lifestyle, fuelled by three decades of open and reform policy’s acceptance of consumerism and material wealth as primary indexer of the ‘good life’. A lifestyle focus, in turn, ensures a categorical divorce from the sensitive political domain; thus, any activist efforts that remotely resemble political rhetoric or public unrest carry risk for authorities’ surveillance and closure, and worse. This summer, a local tongzhi centre in Beijing was shut down, any lgbtq event will still be visited by police and public security officials demanding paper-work, identity cards, etc. Local activists exhibit remarkable humor, stoicism, and creativity in their dealings with these officials. In a society where alternative approaches to sensitive topics and ways of life are deemed to be political destabilizers and potential threats to Party governance, it is likely that these versatile, brave activist strategies must proceed for quite some time in years to come.



The author:

Dr Elisabeth L. Engebretsen is a social anthropologist specializing on gender, sexuality, subjectivity and identity, and social change in PR China. She is currently Faculty Lecturer at McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. More information at:






[i] I use ‘lgbtq’ to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer, in an attempt to recognize the difficulty, and impossibility, of fixing sexual identity categories. Note however, that commonly used categories in Mainland China include lala (a collective identity category used by women who love women), T/P (tomboy/po “wife”, a Chinese version of masculine butch and feminine femme roles), tongzhi (meaning “comrade”, gender neutral), tongxinglianzhe (“ho
mosexual”, a direct Chinese translation of the English term). In addition, there are numerous slang words and terminologies.

[ii] Chinese law does not recognize same-gender marriage as valid, but neither does it specify the opposite-gender implication of current legal code.

[iii] A documentary film has since been made by the China Queer Independent Film Group, titled “New Beijing, New Marriage” (Xin Beijing, Xin Hunyin) (2009, 20 mins., Fan Popo, David Zheng). It specifically documents this event.


En anderledes fattigdom


De økonomiske reformer udrydder en del af landets fattigdom, men skaber samtidig nye grupper af fattige.

Af Kjeld A. Larsen

‘Kinas fremskridt hvad angår reduktion af fattigdom gennem de seneste 25 år er misundelsesværdig’. Således indleder Verdensbanken sin seneste fattigdomsdomsrapport om Kina fra marts 2009: From poor areas to poor people: China’s evolving poverty reduction agenda.  Resultaterne har været store, men samtidig er der stor uenighed om, hvor mange der har undsluppet fattigdommen, og hvilke befolkningsgrupper der fortsat befinder sig i fattigdom.


Individualiseret fattigdom

I form af en beskeden velfærdsfond finansieret via den kollektive produktion havde landsbyernes bønder i folkekommunsystemet før 1979 adgang til en seksårig grunduddannelse og et kooperativt sundhedssystem. Som et resultat af det forebyggende sundhedssystem er kinesernes middellevetid i perioden før 1979 steget mere end nogensinde, fra 35 år i 1949 til 68 år i 1978.

Med folkekommunernes opløsning fra begyndelsen af 1980erne forsvandt den kollektive velfærdsfond, og nye grupper af fattige er opstået, også uden for de traditionelt fattige områder. Familier med lav indkomst tager børnene ud af skolen, fordi de indførte skolepenge tynger budgettet, og/eller fordi de voksne skønner, at nytten som medproducent hjemme vejer tungere end tillærte kundskaber fra skolegangen. Med det koope­rative sundhedssystems opløsning er sygdomsbehandling og medicin blevet en så bekostelig affære, at de kommercielle tilbud ikke benyttes eller ved benyttelse skubber familien ud i fattigdom. De familier, som ikke kan klare sig på de markedsøkonomiske vilkår i mere velstillede områder, er ofte karakteriseret ved stor for­sør­gerbyrde, manglende unge arbejdsdygtige i familien, handi­cappede eller syge familiemedlemmer. Dertil er kommet tre nye grupper af fattige: jordløse, ældre og forældreløse eller forladte børn.

Som resultat af urbanisering og infrastrukturudbygning har et stigende antal bønder, skønsmæssigt 40-50 mio i 2005, mistet deres jord via ekspropriation. Ifølge en national undersøgelse har godt halvdelen fået lokalt arbejde, ca ¼ er blevet migrantarbejdere, men ca 20% er forblevet uden arbejde og indkomst.

Den unge generation har ifølge kongfuziansk tradition – og ifølge nugældende kinesisk lov – ansvar for at tage sig af sine ældre. Men den omfattende migration har skubbet forsørgerpligten i baggrunden: de fleste ældre bor alene og modtager kun et beskedent økonomisk beløb af deres børn til livets opretholdelse. Og pensionsforsikring, som er begyndt at blive opbygget i velstillede landsbyer, er totalt fraværende i fattige områder. Der er mange parallelle skøn over antallet af fattige ældre. Ifølge en af kilderne udgør de fattige ældre 25-31 pct. af de absolut fattige på landet, sammenlignet med 10-14 pct. blandt byernes fattige.


Fattigdommens regionale fordeling

I kort form karakteriseres Kinas fattige områder ved fire kine­siske skrifttegn: shan (bjerg), lao (gammel), bian (grænse) og shao (minoritet). Det er således karakteristisk, at fattigdommen er koncentreret til bjergområder og til gamle revolutionære baseområder, hvor den kinesiske revolution tog sit udspring i slutningen af 1920-erne og i 1930-erne. Desuden langs den interna­tionale grænse mod vest, men også i grænseområder mellem provin­serne. Og endelig i områder, som bebos af nationale mindretal. Flere af disse karakteristikker er sammenfaldende. I slutningen af de store kollektivers tid var fattigdommen et udbredt fænomen i Kinas landdistrikter. Det kollektive landbrugs store problem var, at en stigning i arbejdsproduktiviteten ude­blev, bl.a. som følge af den manglende udviklingsvej: migration til byerne. Den udeblevne produktivitetsudvikling hindrede en vækst i den individuelle indkomst. Dertil kom, at selve udviklingsstrategien i nogle områder havde bidraget til at skabe fattigdom.

Strategier til bekæmpelse af fattigdom har ændret sig gennem Folke­re­publikkens historie, parallelt med overordnede udviklingsstra­tegier og syn på årsager til fattigdommens fremkomst. Overordnet kan der skelnes mellem fire strategiperioder.

Til trods for det store fald i antallet af absolut fattige siden starten af 1980erne har faldet været ujævnt. I virkeligheden fandt det største fald sted i perioden forud for igangsættelse af en egentlig fattigdomsstrategi i 1986. En væsentlig årsag til den stigende land­brugs­pro­duktion indtil 1984 var overgangen til individuel produktion, som i starten især kom de dårligt fungerende kollektiver i fattige områder til gode, kombineret med forhøjede statslige opkøbspriser på landbrugs­produkter.

Der er flere væsentlige årsager til fremkomsten af fattigdom blandt byboerne. Arbejderklassen var den mest privilegerede klasse under det planøkonomiske system. Sikkerhed og velfærdsgoder blev sikret via arbejdspladsen, de statsejede virksomheder (danwei): livsvarig jobsikring, beskeden husleje, adgang til gratis uddannelse og sundhedstjeneste og pension. Systemet blev siden hen forsynet med den negative betegnelse ‘jernrisgryden’, dvs. som et system der skaber beskedne incitamenter til produktivitetsforøgelse. Med de dramatiske strukturændringer fra midt-1990erne ændredes de statslige virksomheders privilegerede position, og arbejderklassens privilegier blev fjernet. Under en markedsøkonomi kan virksomheder med så store sociale forpligtelser i forhold til arbejdsstyrken ikke klare sig, men tvinges til at slanke sine ansvarsområder, dvs. fjerne de sociale fordele for arbejdsstyrken. 

Utilfredsheden i arbejderklassen sporedes allerede samtidig med studenterdemonstrationerne i 1989, hvor inflation udhulede reallønnen, men den udbredte utilfredshed bredte sig med de store ændringer i ejerstrukturen fra 1994. Beskæftigelsen inden for den statsejede sektor, som faktisk steg mellem 1990 og 1994, faldt med 31,5 mio jobs fra 1994 til 2006, hvilket svarer til 15 pct. af arbejdsstyrken i byerne. I den samme periode mistede den kollektive sektor 16,5 mio jobs. Samlet faldt beskæftigelsen i den statslige og kollektive sektor fra 76 pct. i 1995 til 25 pct. i 2006. Udviklingen fik alvorlige konsekvenser: faldende beskæftigelsesrate, specielt for kvinder og især fra 1999 til 2003, et fald fra 73 til 63 pct., voksende arbejdsløshed, større vægt på uformel beskæftigelse, også i den statslig sektor, manglende løn- og pensionsudbetalinger.

Via uformel ansættelse i modsætning til kontraktansættelse kan arbejdsgiveren for det meste undgå at betale bidrag til pension, arbejdsløshed, sundhed, og arbejdsskader, alle de goder som arbejderklassens tidligere nød godt af. Alt i alt manglende sikkerhed i ansættelsen, forringet arbejdsmiljø og endelig stigende konkurrence på arbejdsmarkedet fra den stærkt voksende migrantarbejdsstyrke.

Udviklingen afspejler sig i et voksende antal midlertidigt afskedigede med fortsat tilknytning til en arbejdsplads, arbejdsløse, og et stigende antal unge færdiguddannede fra universiteterne, som ikke kan finde job på et trængt arbejdsmarked.   

Siden midt-1990erne er der indført en række forsikringsprogrammer for byens lønarbejdere: pensions-, sundheds-, arbejdsløsheds-, arbejdsskades- og barselsforsikring. I 2007 var henholdsvis 52, 46, 40, 42 og 70 pct. af byernes beskæftigede
dækket af omtalte forsikringsprogrammer. Men byernes migrantarbejdere, som fortsat har en registerstatus i landsbyerne, er dækket i langt mindre grad.


Fattigdom blandt migrantarbejdere

I takt med landbrugets produktivitetsudvikling og Kinas inddragelse i den globale arbejdsdeling er en stadig stigende andel af arbejdsstyrken fra landdistrikterne vandret mod byerne for at få lønarbejde. Hovedparten har fået arbejde uden for deres amt, for det meste i storbyer i de velstillede kystprovinser. Det skønnes, at afvandringen til destinationer uden for hjemamtet steg fra 84 mio. i 2001 til 140 mio i 2008.

Migrantarbejderne registreres fortsat som værende en del af landbefolkningen. De udgør en inkluderet bestanddel af byernes arbejdsmarked, men er i øvrigt socialt ekskluderet, dvs. at de har kun i begrænset omfang adgang til samme velfærdsprogrammer som de lokale arbejdere med registerstatus i byerne.

Migrantarbejdere er endnu ikke blevet talt med som fattige i den officielle statistik over landdistrikternes fattige. Dette kan skyldes to forhold: dels deres ringe repræsentation i de årlige statistikundersøgelser, dels den lave fattigdomsgrænse. Migrantarbejdernes lønninger er generelt højere end indkomsten på landet, men lavere end de lokale arbejderes lønninger. Men da leveomkostningerne er højere i byen, burde der udregnes en højere fattigdomsgrænse for migrantarbejderne sammenlignet med fattigdomsgrænsen på landet.

I de seneste år har myndighederne påbegyndt en inklusion af migrantarbejderne i bybefolkningens sociale forsikringsprogrammer, især i arbejdsskades- og sundhedsforsikringsprogrammet, med henholdsvis 49,4 mio. og 42,7 mio. i 2008, mindst i pensions- og arbejdsløshedsforsikringsprogrammet (24,2 mio. og 15,5 mio.). Netop de to sidstnævnte programmer er skruet sådan sammen, at de ikke kan betjene en så mobile arbejdsstyrke, som migrantarbejderne udgør.

Den globale finansielle krise har skabt økonomisk krise i Kina: mange eksportbaserede virksomheder i kystprovinsernes byer har måttet indskrænke eller lukke. Krisen har specielt berørt migrantarbejdernes situation. Det officielle nyhedsbureau Xinhua meddelte i slutningen af marts 2009, at 70 mio. af de 140 mio. migrantarbejdere rejste hjem for at fejre kinesisk nytår. Af disse var kun 56 mio. vendt tilbage til byerne, og heraf havde 45 mio. fundet arbejde, mens 11 mio. fortsat stod uden arbejde. En hel del af de tilbageblevne på landet er sandsynligvis blevet fristet af centralregeringens nye subsidiepolitik rettet mod landdistrikterne og vil forsøge at bidrage til udviklingen lokalt, mens en del af de 11 mio. migrantarbejdere i byerne uden job vil være at tælle blandt Kinas fattige i 2009.


Win win?

Generelt bliver Kinas migrationspolitik betegnet som en win-win situation: produktion og indkomst øges, migrantarbejderne sender penge hjem til familierne i landsbyerne, og forbrugerne i Vesten forsynes med billige forbrugsvarer. Men udviklingen har sociale slagskygger. Migrantarbejderne kommer først og fremmest fra mellemindkomstfamilier. De velstillede har skabt arbejde og indkomst lokalt, men de fattige har hverken tilstrækkelige midler eller det nødvendige netværk til at sende familiemedlemmer afsted. Da migrantarbejderne hører til blandt de fysisk stærke og bedst uddannede, betyder afvandringen et braindrain for landsbyen. Analyser peger på, at tabet af hovedsageligt unge velkvalificerede mænd fører til demografisk skævhed i Kinas landsbyer: omkring 47 mio efterladte kvinder, 20 mio efterladte børn og 18 mio efterladte ældre over 60 år. Emotionelle forstyrrelser blandt opvoksende ‘forældreløse’ børn, afsavn blandt voksne kvinder og omsorgssvigt over for ældre er bagsiden af de begunstigedes win-win situation.  


Ændrede klasserelationer

De økonomiske reformer har i den grad skabt ændringer i magt- og klasserelationerne i Kina. Indtroduktionen af kapitalistiske markedsrelationer førte til en opløsning af planøkonomiens økonomiske institutioner og dertil knyttede sociale sikkerheds- og velfærdsgoder. Den nuværende mere komplekse klassestruktur er bestemt af en alliance mellem Kommunistpartiet (KKP), de statsejede virksomheders ledere, repræsentanter for multinatinale virksomheder, det ny borgerskab bestående af entreprenante kapitalister, hovedparten af de intellektuelle, alt i alt en alliance som skaber grundlag for en priviligeret voksende middelklasse med store forbrugsmuligheder, og en alliance som bl.a. bygger på migrantarbejdernes bidrag til den nødvendige kapitalakkumulation. Kapitalister fik mulighed for optagelse i KKP fra 2002 under den forrige partileder Jiang Zemin. Det er næppe fra denne bærende klassealliance med dens store privilegier, at kravet om demokratiske reformer vil komme.

De store økonomiske og sociale ændringer har bidraget til ændringen af fattigdomsstrukturen: fra områdebaseret fattigdom på landet til individualiseret fattigdom i både land og by og med basis i de sociale grupper, som har tabt terræn i udviklingsprocessen: en del af bondebefolkningen, herunder migrantarbejdere, og de statsejede virksomheders arbejdere.

Den resulterende sociale uro har været drivkraften bag regeringens større vægt på regional og social lighed fra omkring 2000 og specielt den hurtige gennemførelse af de mange sikkerheds- og velfærdsprogrammer siden 2005. Klassekampsparolen under Mao er blevet erstattet af den kongfuziansk inspirerede parole ‘harmonisk samfund’ med en begyndende velstand for alle under den nuværende partileder Hu Jintao.

Flere forskningsinstitutioner har foretaget beregninger over, hvad det vil koste den kinesiske stat at gennemføre social velstand for alle på et rimeligt velstandsniveau, herunder en begyndende ligestilling af by og land, hvor den nuværende registerstatus land og by er ophævet. Ifølge officielle beregninger vil regeringens mål at opnå et nationalt velfærdssystem i 2020 kræve en forøgelse af det sociale budget fra 1.660 mia yuan i 2008 til 5.740 mia yuan i 2020, hvilket vil betyde, at de sociale velfærdsydelser som andel af statens samlede finansielle indtægter (centralt og lokalt) skal stige fra de nuværende 27 pct. til 35 pct., bestemt ikke en uopnåelig målsætning.

Med gennemførelsen af de sociale programmer vil det ganske givet lykkes for KKP at cementere sit nye legitimitetsgrundlag: begyndende velstand for alle uanset klasseinteresser og dermed bygge videre på det klassiske kejserdynastis selvopfattelse: staten der hævet over klassemodsætninger udøver retfærdighed ved at løse opstående konflikter mellem samfundets bærende sociale grupper.


Table 1: The story of income and consumption poverty – the poverty line, number of poor individuals, in rural areas and cities

Table 2: Dibao persons and government dibao expenditures

Table 3: The story of poverty funding: Central government poverty alleviation funds, via the banking system (loans) and via the state budget (grants & food for work)

Kjeld A. Larsen er geograf og har i mange år forsket i Kinas fattigdomsproblemer.