Wol-san Liem, Transport Workers Demand Safe Rates in South Korea and Beyond

Interviewed by Suzy Kim

Suzy Kim (SK): From strikes by healthcare and education workers to service and railway workers, some estimate that strikes are up by 50 percent in the US (despite decreases in union density), and globally there seems to be a palpable increase in labor organizing. What are the most pressing issues for workers in South Korea and the world today?

Wol-san Liem (WL): The post-pandemic world is marked by profound changes that impact the lives of workers and the choices trade unions are making. Economically, we are now facing high inflation and low growth, leading to what has been called a ‘cost-of-living crisis’ in developed economies. Workers are striking for cost-of-living pay raises in many places, especially where real wages have fallen in the last decade. This is particularly true for public sector workers and unions in developed countries who, on top of years of austerity are now seeing emergency COVID-19 funding dry up and facing cuts to services, at the same time as younger workers are starting to avoid these sectors because of lower-than-expectation wages and conditions. Strikes by education, healthcare, public transport and other public service workers in the UK all last year and through the beginning of this year, and the ‘mega-strike’ by airport, port, railway, bus and subway workers in Germany on March 27 are representative of this trend. 

Permanently-employed public sector workers in South Korea often have comparatively higher wages than their counterparts in Europe and the US, due to the continuation of seniority-based pay systems (where pay goes up automatically each year of service), but Korean public sector workers have also been striking against plans to cut staff and services, privatize and reform pay scales in the last two years. From the perspective of low wage workers in Korea and elsewhere, the majority of whom are unorganized, it is not actually possible to strike for needed wage increases. That’s why unions have a particular responsibility in this moment to fight for minimum wage increases and the expansion of social security nets to protect all low wage workers, irrespective of union membership.

To speak of the particular context in Korea for the moment, the election of the conservative Yoon Seok-yeol government last year has added several pressing issues. In addition to the Yoon government being heavily focused on deregulation, marketisation and reduction of public sector deficits, it has also been very focused on cracking down on trade unions since the second half of last year. While past conservative (and to a lesser extent Democratic Party) Korean governments have also had similar orientations, Yoon is different in using legalistic approaches to cracking down on unions, which is also closely tied to targeting the Democratic Party and the use of anti-North Korea tactics and rhetoric. The crackdown attempts to make unions legally obligated to submit financial records; unions representing construction workers and truck drivers have been charged with anti-competitive cartel activity while individual union officials suspected of having ties with North Korea have been charged and the union offices raided. So in addition to needing a strategy to protect low-wage and precariously employed workers in the face of projected economic stagnation, and develop a sophisticated response to industrial and public sector reform that will put collective interests at the center (in response to Yoon’s old-school neoliberal policies), there is also the huge challenge of finding an effective response to his attacks on unions. 

SK: From the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio to the deadly train wreck in Greece this March, we’ve seen some of the worst railway accidents recently, underscoring the importance of safety regulations. In the Korean truckers strike in 2022, the Safe Rates system was a major issue. Could you please explain the significance of this issue for the truckers, not just in Korea but globally, and why ultimately the KPTU Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol 공공운수노조 화물연대본부) voted to end the strike despite their demands not being met?

WL: To answer this question, I first have to explain what Safe Rates is. A concept first developed in Australia, ‘Safe Rates’ or ‘Safe Rates system’ refers to a legal regulatory system through which minimum standards for rates of pay and related working conditions for road transport drivers are set with the goal of eradicating pressures on them to engage in dangerous on-road behaviors. Importantly, Safe Rates systems legally obligate the companies at the top of road transport supply chains to ensure compliance with these standards. ‘Safe rates’ (lower case) also refers to the actual minimum pay rates agreed to be fair and safe. The South Korean Trucking Transport Business Act defines ‘safe rates’ as “the minimum freight rates necessary to ensure traffic safety by preventing overwork, speeding, and overloading…” (ROK Trucking Transport Business Act, 2021, Article 2 (Definitions), 13). Extensive research demonstrates that if you pay truck drivers for all the time they work at a reasonable rate it will alleviate pressures to work overly long hours while fatigued, overload vehicles, speed, skip on maintenance and engage in other unsafe behaviors, reducing accidents and making the road safer for everyone. 

Safe Rates systems were developed as a response to years of deregulation, outsourcing and subcontracting, which has put downward pressure on truck drivers wages and conditions, left many truck drivers formally self-employed (owner operators is the US term) and therefore responsible for the costs of operating their vehicles and without labor protections or trade union rights. The consolidation of power in the hands of the large companies at the top of road transport supply chains that contract for road transport services exacerbates the problems. Safe Rates become particularly important at times of rising fuel prices (like last year) because they make it possible to ensure that capital, not drivers, cover these costs. Similar systems exist in countries such as Australia, Canada, and Brazil, and unions in many other countries are also fighting to achieve Safe Rates legislation or introduce similar systems through agreements with transport buyers (those companies at the top of supply chains) and transport companies. From a strategic perspective Safe Rates systems are also important because they bring self-employed truck drivers and their unions into direct negotiations with transport buyers, effectively creating a bargaining structure that can be used to create industry standards, build solidarity among workers and expand members.

Given the importance of the Safe Rates system it is no surprise that Korean truck drivers went on strike to preserve the system last year. There was a sunset clause in the Safe Rates legislation, which meant that the system would end at the end of 2022 without new legal reform. KPTU-TruckSol struck twice in June and Nov-Dec calling for continuation of the system and expansion of its coverage to more drivers. These actions resulted in three promises made by the government and/or ruling party to maintain the system, one at the end of the strike in June, another right before the beginning of the strike in November, and finally following the end of the strike on December 22. The government and ruling party have broken all of these promises, and so sadly the sunset clause went into effect at the end of last year. However, KPTU-TruckSol is fighting for passage of legislation to revive the system. The government and ruling party have proposed separate legislation which would revive a weaker version of it, but this bill has several unacceptable provisions which fundamentally seek to lower freight rates to an unsustainable level, increase competition and destroy KPTU-TruckSol’s bargaining power. Of course the fight in Korea for a universally applicable Safe Rates system that is fully enforceable continues.

The decision to end the strike in December came in the face of severe government repression, including draconian return to work orders, violation of which carry the threat of heavy fines, prison sentences and cancellation of truck operating licenses for individual drivers. It also appeared at the time that the Democratic Party and conservative People Power Party would reach an agreement on a 3-year extension of the system. However, the government and People Power Party immediately backtracked on this.

SK: As someone who has been heavily involved in the fight for Safe Rates in South Korea and globally over the last decade, do you see any convergence and potential for solidarity actions across the world among road transport workers? What would enable transnational organizing to strengthen and empower workers toward systemic change?

WL: The demand for Safe Rates and the strategy for building union power based on it have galvanized solidarity among road transport unions and workers first in the Asia Pacific (Australia, South Korea, New Zealand) and now including unions in North and South America (Brazil, Canada), Europe (Belgium), Africa (Uganda, Kenya) and potentially in many other countries as well. Ultimately, the Safe Rates strategy is about much more than improving pay and conditions for drivers and road safety. It is about creating equal standards for all drivers on an industrial basis regardless of differences in forms of employment, nationality, gender, etc. Equalization of pay and conditions and the ability to make an industrial (as opposed to company by company) wage demand become the basis of expanded worker solidarity. This solidarity allows unions to target where power lies in supply chains (at the top) and shift that power to workers through their unions, and use it to expand membership and transform the road transport industry into one that is fair, safe, and sustainable for workers, the public and the planet. 

Road transport unions from around the world will come together to launch a new phase of the Global Safe Rates campaign in the second half of 2023, bringing together unions in all of the countries mentioned above and more. This campaign will help build momentum for the continued fight in South Korea as well as spread Safe Rates to more countries.

We can think of similar strategies that should be employed in other transport sectors. For example, rail unions globally are facing cuts to funding and staffing and increased safety risks. Organizing workers throughout the rail industry, equalizing and improving conditions for outsourced workers, and eventually reversing outsourcing and reregulation of the rail industry, and the creation of democratic governance structures in which unions participate – i.e. making railways safe and sustainable for workers, the public and the planet – is a vision that all railway unions can support. They can learn from each other to implement this vision in their own countries and develop strategies to achieve it.

Cross-sectorally, identifying power in transport supply chains, which lies with the larger transport buyers, and developing ways to use the structural power of different groups of workers (such as warehouse workers, last mile drivers, and drivers of large trucks on artery routes) to target that power together to raise standards for everyone is one potential strategy for building solidarity. Of course unions should be in dialogue and share strategies on the larger policy questions of our moment such as around pension reform, public sector reform, labor market policy, climate change and just transition, etc. 

SK: How has the government’s approach to negotiating with trade unions under the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration shifted, if at all, since the previous administration? Are there any clear continuities and/or discontinuities between the two main political parties of South Korea in their approaches to unions and workers rights given that both parties have appealed to the “national economy” and “national security” to curb union organizing? In the US, the Biden administration also overrode the freight rail workers strike over paid sick leave in the name of the national economy in December 2022, despite being labeled the most pro-union president since FDR.

WL: There has been a general trend with recent administrations towards making a distinction between ordinary workers and unions, framed as ‘a labor aristocracy’ or ‘interest group’, and portraying themselves as supportive of the interests of the former while seeking to discipline the latter. The previous Moon Jae-in administration came to power on the back of the Candlelight Protests, which led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Unions played a large role in this movement and many of their demands were included in Moon’s election campaign, Safe Rates being one. Very few of these were actually implemented, however, and the labor law reforms that were put in place had no real meaning in terms of improving the social status of unions or their influence in Korean society. In other words, the direction of Moon’s labor law reform demonstrated that the government did not see unions as a real ‘social partner’. 

The Moon government did make attempts to include the KCTU in social dialogue through tripartite (union-employer-government) spaces, but these attempts failed early, in large part because of criticism from within the labor movement. Unions have to approach tripartite spaces with caution, as they are often used by governments to draw unions into supporting concessions or regressive policies. Social dialogue is really only meaningful if unions have a clear idea of what they want to achieve through it plus the bargaining power and strategy to achieve it. Arguably, the Korean labor movement had neither of these under Moon, complicating the situation substantially.

The two conservative governments that preceded Moon were much more overtly anti-union, but even they made a show of attempting dialogue with unions before moving into a repressive mode. In comparison, Yoon has from the start of his administration made clear that he has no intention to negotiate with unions. This attitude was clear during the June 2022 TruckSol strike and even stronger during the second strike in November-December. Between the two strikes, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport flatly refused to meet with TruckSol to discuss extension and expansion of the Safe Rates system, despite having promised to do this at the end of the first strike. And, as I noted above, this position has developed into a very determined attack using crafty legalistic tactics. 

SK: Despite the stop to the freight rail workers strike in the US, one of the largest freight railroads in the world, CSX became the first to offer paid sick leave in February 2023, opening the possibility that others will follow so as to secure workers at a time of labor shortages across all industries. Are South Korean workers able to leverage the labor shortage to their advantage and what are the possibilities for labor organizing in the current economic climate? How do you see the future prospects of union organizing, especially in the remainder of the Yoon administration in South Korea?

WL: The issue of labor shortages in the transport sector has not come to the fore yet in Korea in the same way it has in the US and Europe. For higher paid more secure jobs like in the rail, this is in part because railway jobs in South Korea are still coveted. The Korean railway is still operated by a public corporation, where directly-employed jobs are secure and well-paid (for the reasons stated above). Rather, the problem is cuts to staffing and outsourcing, which have an impact on work intensity and safety. Several avoidable rail accidents occurred last year because of these problems.

In trucking, the issue of low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions, which is the cause of labor shortages in the US (we usually say ‘shortage of decent work’ not labor shortage), are also an issue in South Korea (as stated above) and globally. However, in Korea driver shortages are not an immediate problem. Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that South Korea’s road transport market is made up almost entirely of owner operators – workers who purchase their own vehicles on truck mortgages. Once you’ve done this you have to stay in the industry a long time to pay off the mortgage. Plus truck drivers are often not highly educated and may have less options than their counterparts in the US due to skill levels and the structure of the labor market. But truckers in South Korea are an aging workforce (the average age for truck drivers is 53.7; over 70% are in their 50s or over). As these workers retire over the next five to ten years it is likely that, unless conditions improve, younger workers will be reluctant to enter the market and Korea will face the same structural problem the US is experiencing. In other words, both the United States and South Korea need Safe Rates, not only to protect workers and the public, but also to make the road transport industry sustainable. 


Wol-san Liem is Strategy and Policy Coordinator of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). ITF is a democratic, affiliate-led global union federation, representing the voice of transport workers at the International Labour Organisation and in other international and regional bodies. It is composed of 700 affiliated trade unions from 153 countries and nearly 20 million members across the world. It is headquartered in London with offices in Abidjan, Amman, Geneva, Hong Kong, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Panama, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyo.

Samia Dinkelaker & Ralf Ruckus, Indonesian Migrant Labor in Taiwan’s Racialized Capitalism. Preliminary Notes on a Research Project

Taiwan has attracted increasing attention around the world due to the confrontation between the Communist Party regime in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Taiwanese government along with the related and heightened tensions on the geopolitical stage. In their reporting, Western European and North American commentators particularly praise Taiwan for its democratic political system. Meanwhile, for many in Taiwanese society, the self-understanding of being democratic and open is key to current quests for a national identity distinct from the PRC’s and for the perpetuation of Taiwan’s de facto self-governance.

Systemic contradictions at the base of Taiwan’s capitalist economy and the multiple social conflicts they produce are seldom addressed in these narratives. Taiwan’s recruitment of racialized migrant workers from Southeast Asia is one such contradiction. Today, around 800.000 migrant workers from Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand work in blue and pink-collar jobs. Close to 260.000 documented and around 30.000 undocumented Indonesians make up the second largest group amongst these migrant workers.

In order to get a better understanding of how migrants themselves perceive and handle their exploitation and discrimination in Taiwan, we, the two authors of this piece, started an ethnographic study among Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan’s fishing and manufacturing industries. Since March 2022, we have met dozens of, mostly male, workers, in fishing ports and factory zones. Their accounts of life and labor in Taiwan point to the structural othering of their part of society, considered transient but who in fact ensure that Taiwan’s economy keeps running and remains profitable.

In the following sections, we share how migrant workers describe their conditions, and we introduce racialized capitalism as an analytical lens to understand the systematic differentiation and exploitation of Southeast Asian migrant workers and Taiwan’s racialized labor market. We discuss how the racialization of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan can be understood in light of particular historical and contemporary contexts, and finally, we outline how we address migrant workers’ modes of coping and organizing amidst this racist migration regime.

Treated as Robots not Humans

Most of the migrant workers from Southeast Asia work as care takers in private and nursing homes, or they work on fishing vessels, in factories, in the fields, and on construction sites. The Indonesian workers we talked to work on small coastal fishing boats, on large deep-water fishing vessels, in artisan wood or metal workshops, in sweatshop factories, for instance, for dyeing fabrics, metal foundry, or plastic manufacturing, and in larger factories with assembly lines, for instance, in automotive or electronics manufacturing. Most often, their work is dirty, dangerous, monotonous, and devalued.

When asked about their relationships to the Taiwanese alongside whom they work and live, these Indonesian migrants intimate that, generally, they feel seen as “workers” only. This was voiced by Hartono, a fisher in a port in the South of Taiwan. Like all fishers in Taiwan’s coastal fisheries, Hartono[1] and his colleagues live on the boats on which they work, or in shacks in the port; they have little contact with the Taiwanese living close by.

The experience of being seen as “workers only” is echoed by Indonesian migrants working in factories, who describe their lives in Taiwan as that of “robots.” Only on weekends, when they meet their friends and pursue personal activities, can they feel like “humans,” they say.

In fact, Southeast Asian migrant workers’ legal status allocates them primarily the role as labor power, as their right to stay in Taiwan is tied to a valid work contract with a particular employer. They are not allowed to bring their families, and the period for which they are allowed to stay in Taiwan is restricted to 12 years, although in the case of care takers in private homes, the period can last up to 14 years. They are generally accommodated in dormitories, on ships, or in their employers’ homes. Their status is not designed for them to have a family life in Taiwan, to envision a future, or to retire in Taiwan and receive a pension.

The workers we have met share how they are treated differently from their Taiwanese co-workers at their workplace. “It’s an open secret that Taiwanese workers at the same factory earn more than the migrant workers,” Rangga, who works in a furniture workshop, shared with us. Migrant factory workers are entitled to receive the minimum wage; however, fees for accommodation and lodging and various services are cut from their salaries. They also receive lower bonuses than their Taiwanese co-workers.

At some workplaces, Taiwanese workers live in separate dormitories from migrant co-workers. “The Taiwanese workers have their own room, their own bathroom,” Hari, who works at a rubber factory, told us. By contrast, he shares a room with three other Indonesian workers where he has to improvise to make some private space. Migrant workers are also allocated different work tasks than the local workers. Anwar, who produces scooters, told us that at the end of the year, when production is stopped for maintenance of the production hall, migrant workers are assigned those tasks that are “dirty” and “tough.”

The different treatment of migrant workers at their workplace is reflected in the transnational management of migrant labor. Most Indonesian workers go into debt to pay an agency in Indonesia to arrange employment in Taiwan; they also must pay for a Taiwanese broker who sends them to work for a particular employer. Once in Taiwan, they remain the subject of control not only through foremen and bosses but also through the agencies, all of which cooperate to enforce the repatriation of workers who speak up, are seen as trouble makers, or do not work as hard as expected

Migrant Labor in Racialized Capitalism

These conditions are rarely described through the categories of capitalism and racism, either in public discourse, or by the workers themselves (for an exception see, MENT 2009). NGOs, supporters, and journalists criticize various aspects of the migration regime – violations of labor rights, forms of unfree labor, the exploitative broker system, migrant workers’ precarious legal status, or extreme forms of abuse. We suggest that a more precise and comprehensive critique of the current regime of labor migration to Taiwan is necessary and we propose the concept of racialized capitalism to capture the conditions under which Southeast Asian migrants are recruited, live and work in Taiwan.

Scholars of antiracism and decolonization use the concept of racial, or racialized, capitalism to describe how, throughout history, capitalist accumulation has been built on and has perpetuated the racialization of certain groups, to normalize different gradations of exploitation and unfreedom (Robinson 2000; Virdee 2019). In the case of migrant workers, visa regimes and immigration rules produce a fragment of the working class subject to intensified exploitation and control over their mobility. This systematic differentiation implies, at the very least, chasms in the working class that facilitate capitalist rule over the proletariat.

Taiwan’s Racialized Labor Market

As an analytical lens to understand the situation in Taiwan, racialized capitalism captures the significance of the recruitment of migrant labor to the contemporary modes of accumulation. In the 1990s, Taiwanese manufacturing industries were moving abroad, mainly to the PRC, to tap into the supply of relatively low-paid, young, and rural labor there. At the same time, Taiwanese employers were faced with a labor shortage, as local workers increasingly refused to work in the dirtiest, most dangerous, and demeaning jobs. They moved, for instance, into service jobs.

Confronting this situation, the Taiwanese government opened the borders for migrant workers from Southeast Asia. The recruitment of such labor was offered as a profitable solution for larger factories to remain in Taiwan and for smaller manufactories to remain competitive (Tierney 2007). Those migrant workers came from regions in Southeast Asia where local flexibilization, low wage policies, as well as the high cost of medical treatment and of higher education made going abroad for work one of the few options to keep or improve standards of living.

As a measure to soothe concerns from organized labor over unemployment and the deteriorating conditions labor migration could allegedly cause, the Taiwanese state set upper limits for the intake of migrant workers in different manufacturing industries (Yang 2021, 251). The allowed quota for migrant workers is set highest in those industries where conditions are particularly difficult and dirty: dyeing fiber and fabrics, metal foundries, metal forging, plastic manufacturing, or iron and steel smelting (MoL 2022).

Quotas are also higher for factories in Taiwan’s export processing zones, which, deemed boosters for Taiwan’s overall economy, are encouraged to employ “cheap” migrant labor. Such strict quotas for migrant labor in manufacturing do not exist in the fisheries or for care takers in private households, or, that is, in the sectors with jobs considered most depreciated.

State regulations have thus reinforced a “racialization of the labor market,” in which migrant workers have limited capacities to compete with local workers over jobs. This is, however, a “divergent racialization” reflected in the dominance of migrant workers of certain nationalities in certain sectors (Tierney 2011, 296, 303). Indonesians, for instance, dominate in the fishing industries and in private home care, while Philippine workers dominate in the electronics industries (MoL 2023).

Various intermediaries involved in the brokerage and recruitment profit from and sustain Taiwan’s racialized labor market. Since its inception, the recruitment of migrant labor has undergone several adaptations aimed, for instance, at protecting migrant workers from arbitrary repatriation or opening possibilities for some workers to scale up their status and extend their stay in Taiwan beyond the 12-year and 14-year limits, respectively. These adaptions respond to open social dislocations that characterized particularly the early years of labor migration, demands from migrant worker supporters, and ongoing labor shortage in the face of Taiwan’s demographics. All adaptations left intact the fundamental logics that put migrant workers in a subordinated position on the labor market and in Taiwanese society.

Racialization of Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Historical Context

Racialization, understood as a process of essentializing the meaning attributed to particular biological features or to the assumed cultural traits of a certain group, is always specific to a particular historical and spatial context. Discussions on racialized capitalism have centered around North America and Europe, their colonial histories, and their postcolonial present. Meanwhile, racialization “beyond its Euro-Americancentric forms” (Modood and Sealy 2022; Ang, Ho, and Yeoh 2022) takes place against the backdrop of a larger global history.

The contemporary racialization of Southeast Asian migrants remakes forms of antecedent racism that stem from Taiwan’s colonial and settler-colonial histories during Spanish, Dutch, Qing, Japanese, and Kuomintang (KMT) rule over the island. These histories inaugurate, and then reiterate the suppression, assimilation, and in some cases the elimination, of indigenous people. And they have facilitated the construction of a Han identity among immigrants from mainland China, who settled in Taiwan in several waves, even as this constructed identity coexists with divergent sociopolitical statuses and cultural traditions (Hirano, Veracini, and Roy 2018).

Pei-Chai Lan (2006, 60–63) who has studied labor migration from Southeast Asia since its early years, draws parallels between the racialization of Southeast Asian migrants and that of Taiwan’s indigenous people, specifically the history of constructing indigenous peoples as the antithesis of Han civilization. She situates the “discursive construction of Southeast Asian migrants” in the politics that followed the KMT’s martial law period (1949–1987).

After ending Japan’s rule over Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, during which the Japanese colonizers used racialized forms of discrimination, assimilation, and oppression against Han-Chinese and indigenous people, the KMT established its own system of racialization. Newly arrived Han-Chinese who fled the mainland after their defeat by the Communist Party were favored, and those Han-Chinese already residing in Taiwan along with indigenous groups were discriminated against in different forms.

Under pressure from the movement for democratic reforms, the KMT loosened its martial law regime in the late 1980s, and the leading forces of the new democracy began striving for a “civic nationalism” which seeks to overcome the hierarchies that had been established before. And yet, after the borders were opened for migrant labor from Southeast Asia, migrant workers became a new racialized “other.”

In fact, imaginaries of an uncivilized and backward non-Han “other” recur in public discussions around migrant workers. For instance, in the aftermath of violent conflicts between migrant workers of different nationalities that occurred during the early years of the recruitment of such a labor force, workers from Southeast Asia were stigmatized as a danger to stability and public safety who needed to be surveilled (Lan 2006, 64; Tierney 2011, 296). Of course, such confrontations did not stem from any innate inclination to violence, but rather from the conditions the workers were facing and from management practices that deliberately divided these workers and set them into conflict with one another.

The Indonesian workers we meet are well aware and cautious of being labelled potential trouble makers whenever they gather in larger groups. They repeatedly express their concern that the behavior of an individual Indonesian will be taken as representing all Indonesians.

Neoliberal Multiculturalism

Official discourse in Taiwan has lately shifted towards more inclusion of diversity. In the context of diplomatic isolation, the “New Southbound Policy” aims at a diversification of Taiwanese trade and diplomatic relations through investment in Southeast Asia. This discourse acknowledges the “multicultural capital” of the presence of Southeast Asians in Taiwan, particularly “second generation” children of a Southeast Asian parent married to a Taiwanese partner.

Previously stigmatized as a “threat” to the imagined homogeneity of the nation, the potential of these children in facilitating business opportunities in Southeast Asia is now highlighted. Southeast Asian migrant workers are included in an appreciation and exposition of Southeast Asian culture, for instance, when migrant worker music bands and migrant worker art performers are invited to cultural festivals organized by municipalities across the island.

Such “neoliberal multiculturalism” (Lan 2019) builds on the ‘difference’ of (certain) Southeast Asian subjects as a market asset. Systematic inequality and everyday deprecation of migrant workers and of other racialized subjects, in particular members of indigenous groups, nevertheless, remain largely neglected in this embrace of diversity.

Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Coping and Organizing Strategies

In our research project, we use racialized capitalism as an analytical lens not only to grasp structural and discursive processes of differentiation ‘from above.’ We also want to take into account the practices of racialized subjects themselves who, throughout history, have questioned and challenged their conditions. We focus on Indonesian migrant workers’ individual modes of coping and collective modes of organizing against the background of a racist migration regime that produces their precarity.

Our interest is not confined to open contestation, rather we look at migrant workers’ everyday quests to improve their situation as well as their modes of protecting their safety and dignity. This focus on the everyday accounts for migrant workers’ agency, but also for the ambivalences this agency implies.

Finally, understanding the recruitment of Southeast Asian migrant labor to Taiwan as a case of racialized capitalism situates the Taiwanese labor migration regime in a global context of bordering practices and migration infrastructures. We suggest that a comparison between the Taiwanese labor migration regime and the historic German “guest worker”-regime of the 1960s and 1970s may be particularly useful.

Both contexts not only feature parallels regarding the regulation of migration, the gender composition of workers, and the industries in which migrants are employed. They also have similarities in terms of the networks of solidarity and subcultures migrant workers develop and sustain. Building on others who also draw these parallels between the German and the Taiwanese migration regime (Kung 2006a; 2006b), we ask which contradictions arise in both contexts from the control of migration, at the workplaces, and in social life, and how, defying racist boundary drawing, migration societies evolve from below.

Samia Dinkelaker is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Previously, she studied the migration of Indonesian domestic workers to Hong Kong and did extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Ralf Ruckus is editor of gongchao.org and author of “The Communist Road to Capitalism. How Social Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949” (PM Press, 2021) and “The Left in China. A Political Cartography” (Pluto Press, 2023).

[1] To protect their privacy, all our interlocutors’ names are fictive.


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Yang, Ya-Wen. 2021. “Can Equal Protection for Workers as an International Human Right Transcend State Borders? The Hard Case of the Temporary Migrant Worker Programme in Taiwan.” Academia Sinica Law Journal, no. 28: 211–85.

Alessandro Albana, Clash of capitalisms? A Tentative Interpretation of China-Europe Relations

For some time, at least since the end of Maoism and the unveiling of the Reform-era between the 1970s and the 1980s, Europe-China relations were seen with a mixture of hope and apprehension. From the Western perspective, hope was founded on the new course of the Chinese economy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping, whereby China was considered no longer an alien to – not to say a foe of – capitalist development heralded by the Western world. To the contrary, the establishment of the first Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Guangdong and Fujian seemed to set China on the same development path as the capitalist hemisphere, slowly but significantly distancing Beijing from its Asian tradition,[1] and bringing it closer to the West.[2] On a more practical note, the opening-up of China’s market was seen by European and North American institutions, political bodies, companies and traders as an unprecedented source of economic opportunities. Significantly, rather than trying to mitigate such views, PRC authorities did welcome and fed into them. Yet, seen from the West (i.e. Europe and the US), China appeared, to some extent, representative of another political history, social tradition, cosmological view, and there were reasons not to believe that the “otherness” – again, as seen by many in the Western hemisphere – the PRC embodied could have never been fundamentally changed. In sum, from a Western perspective, Beijing’s venture into economic reforms provided positive expectations, but concerns over a prospective, consistent, and comprehensive integration of China’s market into global capitalism still remained.

When, the night between 3 and 4 June, 1989, tanks and soldiers brought to an end the mobilization that flourished in Beijing and other major cities since the early months of the year, Western concerns seemed to have finally become real. Apparently, the Tiananmen massacre disclosed to the foreign world, and to the West more prominently, that for all the reforms that turned China’s economic structure upside down, and despite the past decade was vibrant in terms of the circulation of ideas and, to some extent, even political criticism within China’s society, leaders in Zhongnanhai were far from considering political reforms of liberal influence.

From a different perspective, however, the Tiananmen massacre can be seen as the event that sealed the transition of China’s economy towards capitalism, a process that the Chinese leadership seemed adamant to secure against potential or actual shocks coming from social criticism or political opposition. Whether such oppositions claim democratic reforms, i.e. demand a transition towards the political system that have most effectively guaranteed capitalist development, makes little difference.[3] If, in Deng’s words, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” the same principle can be employed elsewhere: as long as capitalist development is guaranteed, who cares about the nature of the political regime? In fact, soon after the Tiananmen massacre, European countries and the US rushed to provide the PRC opportunities for reconciliation. By 1990, most of the sanctions imposed by the European Community (EC) on China were lifted. In 1991, bilateral relations were fully restored, the European embargo on Chinese arms being the only significant exception.

Throughout the 1990s, relations between the PRC and the newly established European Union (EU) thrived, not only in the economic and trade realm, but also in terms of academic, cultural, and scientific cooperation. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that diplomatic exchanges and political ties were subjected to increasing institutionalization. Fueled by growing mutual understanding, the institutionalization of bilateral relations resulted in the promotion of annual summits starting in 1998, and the officialization of the strategic partnership in 2003. Yet, the rise of China on the global stage raised unease in the West, as demonstrated by the popularization of the “China threat” theory. In the utmost realist display, China’s remarkable development was seen as resting inextricably on the demise of the Western order secured by the US hegemony. But for all the fears and uncertainty that were integral to the bilateral relations, China, and the West – and particularly China and Europe – kept exchanges and communication alive. In Beijing, for instance, concerns over the increasing popularity of the “China threat” theory in the West were a key factor behind the drafting of the “Peaceful Development” (和平发展/heping fazhan) theory. Elaborated by CPC intellectual and political advisor Zheng Bijian, the theory postulated that, while apparently embarked on a path of dramatic development, China was not poised to provide a challenge to the world order, let alone overturn it. The theory, a milestone of the Hu Jintao era (2002 – 2012), represented a crux of a leadership committed to providing the world a picture of China as a cooperative, reliable, and responsible power. Europe, for its part, found increasing interest in potential convergences with China in a world increasingly moving towards a multipolar setting, even while maintaining its criticism over human rights violations and level playing field in the economic realm. Until the 2010s, the picture of China-EU relations was mixed. In this context, as the EU pushed towards increasing engagements with Beijing[4] reasons to hope for improvements, though slow and impeded, were not scant.

Recently, Xi Jinping’s ascent to the top post of the Chinese leadership seems to have had a significant impact on China-EU ties, bringing about a dramatic shift in bilateral relations. Xi’s leadership has been acknowledged as a rupture in the continuity pathway of post-Mao political governance.[5] Yet the reasons behind such a rupture, and its implications for China-EU relations in turn, often appear not to be entirely grasped.

Despite the mounting European criticism towards China that focuses on the traditional issues of human rights abuses and unfair economic practices, it would be more correct to see in the new (or renewed) nature of China’s capitalism – i.e. a model where the existence of a capitalistic market does not translate in the absence of strong state control, thus establishing an alternative to capitalism with liberal characteristics – the core and key factor behind Europe’s unease. By no means such a perspective denies the reality of Xi’s authoritarian turn, nor does it ignore or justify the impact of Xi’s governance on daily life for the Chinese population, and especially for the “low-end population” (低端人口). In the same vein, it would be misleading and deceitful not to recognize that, for at least four decades since the end of Maoism, Europe has tolerated much of what China has done in the (silent) name of the economic opportunities it provided. Would it be remiss to remember that not even the Tiananmen massacre provoked lasting shocks on bilateral relations? And is it trivial to highlight the many controversial (at the very least) international relations Europe entertains, or the EU migration policies delivered through agreements with next-door tyrants or failed states, costing billions of euros and, most importantly, causing pain and death in the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan route?

Under Xi, China’s socialist market economy morphed into a more influential and, to some degree, disruptive form of capitalism compared to the past. From Europe’s perspective, however, China’s capitalism most heinous problem seems to stem from its freshly acquired independence from the paradigms established globally throughout more than a century of liberal capitalism. The fact that Beijing is now capable and willing to develop its own strategic assets in finance, infrastructure, and technology, drives China farther away from the actual or potential exercise of Western control through the existing actors, mechanisms, and governance of the global liberal capitalism. In this light I read many, if not every, major economic and political initiatives of Xi’s China, including the Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路/yidai yilu), the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦/zhongguo meng) of national rejuvenation, and the “Double Circulation” (国内国际双循环/guonei guoji shuang xunhuan). Peculiar to all such endeavors is the intimate relation between the health and safety of national capitalism and Beijing’s – i.e. the CPC’s – capability to adapt and thrive in a changing contemporary world.

The perceived ontological guilt represented by the “otherness” of China’s capitalism, denies exactly what the West and Europe expect from the development of capitalism in the PRC: to bring the country closer to the Western cosmology.  As a result, Beijing is targeted by stubborn requests to “do its part” and behave more responsibly in the global stage. Take, for instance, EU’s criticism over China’s approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beijing is accused of supporting Moscow in its “special military operation,” endangering international security and stability. But since February 25th, 2022 (just one day after the beginning of the Russian invasion Ukraine), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC issued a five-point declaration stating that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected […] and [this] applies equally to the Ukraine issue,” also recognizing Russia’s security concerns over NATO’s eastward expansion as “legitimate.” The declaration goes on to reaffirm other traditional tenets of China’s foreign policy, such as the priority represented by international stability (i.e. bringing hostilities to an end as soon as possible) and opposition to sanctions. Importantly, the document states that China “welcomes the earliest possible direct dialogue and negotiation between Russia and Ukraine” and calls for the UN Security Council to play “a constructive role in resolving the Ukraine issue.” Despite the document providing few surprises to those who are familiar with Beijing’s foreign policy, it is striking to see European authorities and politicians reiterate that China is Russia’s closest ally in Putin’s bellicose pursuit. Later in 2022, according to some reports, several Chinese companies curtailed or even suspended their trade with Russia, and yet Beijing was portrayed by many in Europe as Putin’s best friend against Ukraine. If the reality of the Sino-Russian partnership cannot be denied, it would nonetheless be debatable, at the very least, that Beijing fully supports Moscow in the Ukraine war, as widely believed among leaders, China watchers, and the media in the EU.

All of that provides an enlightening glimpse into Europe’s perspective on China. Regardless of what PRC authorities say or commit to, Europe seems not willing to take the chance of taking it seriously. The main objection here is well known: is China honest regarding its actions and goals? If the question is hard to answer, there seems no reason not to apply equal doubts to other countries’ conduct. If Europe’s ambitions go as far as to expect Beijing to break its relationship with Moscow, for example, there should be serious debate over European leadership capabilities to ground relations with the PRC on realistic grounds.

It would be useful to reaffirm here that disclosing the disjunctions of Europe’s approach to China does not entail the acceptance or approval of the authoritarian turn occurring in the PRC. And for all the conflict between capitalist models, it would be shameless to overlook the bilateral estrangement involving (stated) political values on both sides. It is telling, in this regard, that in early 2021 the European Parliament approved sanctions against China over human rights abuses and the deteriorating socio-political environment in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Beijing reciprocated, going as far as to sanction a German think tank and a number of China scholars. Later, the unraveling of bilateral relations impacted the long-awaited Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Negotiated since 2013, the CAI had finally got everyone on both sides of the table to reach an agreement in December 2020, only to find its ratification opposed by the EU Parliament over the many controversies concerning the 2021 bilateral sanctions. Not surprisingly, economic controversies paved the way for growing political divergence in bilateral relations.

Against such a complicated backdrop, confusion informs a great deal of the European strategy on China. The “Strategic Outlook” released in Brussels in 2019 is telling in this regard: the document portrays China as “acooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rivalpromoting alternative models of governance.” Although the Outlook goes on to urge the EU to enforce “a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach,” it is apparent that China has come to be seen mainly as a “systemic rival” that provokes apprehension and unease in Europe. In this context, individual European countries such as Germany and France for the first time issued their own “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” The EU followed suit in 2021. Unsurprisingly, concerns over China’s play in the region are central for all the three.

Finally, the unraveling of bilateral relations is tangible beyond diplomacy and institutional politics. With only few exceptions, European audiences seem to oppose stronger ties with Beijing, citing concerns spanning political values, economic investments, military security, and even cultural relations. Discrimination and racism against Asians and Chinese individuals in Europe have also become worrisome, especially during the early outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

In Europe, a continent where China Studies has become the subject for an increasing pool of scholars, where Mandarin is becoming more popular as a foreign language to be studied at universities and even high-schools, from where the PRC has attracted a soaring number of emigrants and researchers, one would have expected more distinct capabilities to understand China beyond capitalistic-orientalistic lenses. That such a process is far from occurring anytime soon is telling. And that political leaders and governments sometimes do not refrain from promoting pointless, short-lived, and ridiculous initiatives on China,[6] concurrently showing shallow attitude to design policies based on evidence, inputs and suggestions arising from an even larger community of experts, is all the more concerning. But the chances for Europe to pursue its relationship with China more honestly are not lost. Provided that Beijing will also be willing to reciprocate.


Alessandro Albana is an adjunct professor at the Department of Asian and North African Studies of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He earned his PhD in “Global and International Studies” from the University of Bologna. He collaborates with the Asia Institute in Bologna, and the Fudan Development Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. His research interests span the domestic politics and foreign policy, the political development, and the social movements of China and East Asia.


[1] See Fu, Zhengyuan. Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. According to Fu, “Politics in the PRC cannot be and has not been detached from [its] autocratic imperial tradition. Although the CCP leadership brought new political styles and rhetoric in terms of organization and ideology […] more and more evidence appeared showing the persistence of traditional values underlying institutional and behavioral patterns.”

[2] I expect objections to such a statement. The debate over the nature of the Chinese economic model is vibrant and I would be careful to describe China’s market as purely capitalistic. Yet, I am firmer in interpreting Beijing’s play in the international economy as entirely consistent with, and complementary to, the development of global capitalism. In this regard, the PRC is here portrayed as a capitalistic entity.

[3] In the mobilization of 1989 coexisted several different political claims and ideas, not necessarily advocating democratic transition or the end of the CPC rule. For a comprehensive account of the social groups and political ideas conflating into the mobilization, see Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., and Elizabeth Perry (eds.). Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China. Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2018.

[4] See Cottey, Andrew. “The European Union and China: Partnership in Changing Times.” In The European Union’s Strategic Partnerships. Global Diplomacy in a Contested World, edited by Laura C. Ferreira-Pereira and Michael Smith, 221-44, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

[5] See, for instance: Economy, Elizabeth C. The Third Revolution. Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; Wang, Zhengxu, and Zeng, Jinghan. “Xi Jinping: The Game Changer of Chinese Elite Politics?.” Contemporary Politics 22, no. 4 (2016): 469-486. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569775.2016.1175098.

[6] The establishment of the “China Task Force” by the Italian government in 2018 is telling in this regard. Whereas the body was tasked with providing support to the government in Rome in order to strengthen economic ties with Beijing, details regarding its membership, assignments and deliverables are shrouded in mystery. At the time of writing, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development webpages on the “China Task Force”cannot be accessed.

Mark Driscoll reviews Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Duke University Press, 2022)

This new work of Marxist-feminism from the Global South is quite simply the most convincing analysis of the current conjuncture I have read. Delivering on the promises of predecessors like Chandra Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak to provide an analytic of the gendered subaltern in global capitalism, Neferti X. Tadiar does much more than that. She clears the cluttered field of critical theory by proffering what she calls “remaindered life”—at once a heuristic, a sociological blind spot and a prophecy of victory (or temporary ceasefire) in battle. Victory in battle because Tadiar pulls no punches in depicting our present as “an era of relentless war waged by the assumed and would-be inheritors of colonialism’s bequest—valued life—to retain, regain, or arrogate the rights to its enjoyment” (ix). Valued life “worth living” is constantly attacking or, to use a term from stock trading consistent with this book’s rhetoric, “shorting” lives it considers expendable. Always already short-sold, expendable life exists in a constant state of shredding value and declining to junk, what Tadiar calls “waste”. More value accrues to what my working-class Mom called the “filthy rich” to the extent that they can forcefully short-sell and turn into wasted life. As Marx adduced in Capital Vol. 1, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

For me, the most important aspect of this book is its righteous ferocity—no injustice can hide from Tadiar’s circumspection. Therefore, we get a breathtaking assemblage of issues and concerns: Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine; US military atrocities in Iraq; neoliberal infrastructural collapse in Flint, Michigan; Duterte’s necropolitical drug wars in the Philippines; femicide in Ciudad Juarez; and pipeline poisoning in the Dakotas. Rarely, if ever, do readers witness a truly global thinker. But her global vision doesn’t suffer from abstraction and distancing as she dedicates herself to a granular hermeneutic of many of the atrocities listed above. For example, in her cri de cœur against the remaindering of Black life in Flint she complicates the standard leftist denunciation of environmental racism to great effect. While acknowledging Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s pioneering work in Golden Gulag, Tadiar’s multilayered critique goes beyond it to include Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s background as a banker; municipal bondholder demands, and the history of white flight and disinvestment. Simplistic analytics are banned from Remaindered Life; only terse concision is allowed. Check out this brilliant paragraph about the Flint crisis:

From 2011 to 2015, under the Obama administration, the venture-capitalist governor of Michigan appointed municipal emergency fiscal managers to address the fiscal crisis produced by capital abandonment and tax cuts in the wake of deindustrialization and by the 2008 recession (in turn resulting from the subprime mortgage housing crisis). The financialization of urban policy meant that the decision to poison Flint’s water was the result of a calculation of the human life costs of using Flint River water in terms of (and in exchange for) the fiscal savings this urban policy would produce. In the terms of understanding I present in this book, the future life-times of Flint’s Black residents were liquified (“sold” or “cashed in”) to cut the costs of investment capital (creating “savings”) and to realize the growth rates promised by emergency fiscal managers to the bondholders from whom loans for urban renewal were secured. In other words, the “waste” (disposable people, contaminated water) that was created in a previous moment of accumulation re-enters another cycle of value extraction as a repurposed resource for finance capital—as a monetizable asset that can figure (as derivative exchange value) in the calculus of the investments of finance capital. (29)

Providing a Marxist rigor to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism conceit, Tadiar here deploys all the tools in the cache of critical finance studies while adding her own: “life-times”. At a moment when most left analysis focuses on Tesla, Google and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, she uncovers a vulture capitalism that feasts on the most improbable of profit environments: the lifespans of people trying to survive in slums, ghettos and open-air prisons. Making a compelling case that capitalism carries out special operations and small wars in these places, she concludes her reading of Flint with the insistence that, “What distinguishes this moment is the multiplying, fractal scales in which the intensive capitalization of the waste and wasting of things, people, space and time – and their derivatives –is carried out” (32).

Tadiar’s leitmotif of life-times is joined by another that should be become de riguer in our age of exponential growth in climate refugees: “fate playing”. She depicts this as the bet the remainder make in order to survive, and, if they are lucky, thrive. While fate playing can result in temporary safety and provisional fugitivity, Tadiar doesn’t flinch in delineating the oppressive structures within which these wagers are carried out. To wit, fate players are always using house money and global capitalism’s invisible hand deals them cards from the bottom of the deck—rigging the fate playing game from the outset. Tadiar explains that this is because if they are lucky enough to find a place to live and work, fate players enter the labor market having to pay backward (bribes; coyote fees; predatory security costs) with work for life-times already drawn down. Tadiar elaborates on this through the central dramatis personae of global capitalism and one she has done superb work on her whole career: the subaltern domestic worker.

Like most migrant domestics who have gone into debt as a precondition of obtaining overseas work (or whose families have gone into debt with their own lives as collateral), their time has been mortgaged, so they must first work to pay off that mortgaged time, which “buys” them more time to work so they can live the next day, a portion of which will already have been mortgaged. Put differently, they pay with work for life advanced to them (life they owe rather than own)—a form of rent on the delimited parcel of existence they can afford to inhabit within the deterritorialized networked  city-state of global humanity, the globopolis.(99)  

Tadiar is at her best when she underlines that the ethico-political solution to remaindered life is not available in current human rights and leftist discourse. While she by no means wants to discredit activists and dedicated NGO workers, she warns against liberal tendencies to bring remaindered life into the status of full “humanity”—the category of the “human” is precisely the problem for her.  In a militant posthumanism she explains that the binary oppositions that characterize liberal discourse today—between bondage and emancipation, exclusion and inclusion, citizenship vs. migrant statelessness, and, most importantly, human and inhuman—work to depoliticize other practices of “life-making”. But what exactly are these? And what effectivity gathers within the remainder? In other words, for a Marxist-feminist we would expect to find some form of political potential in the remainder. Is the remainder revolutionary? Or is the notion of revolution itself irrevocably corrupted by humanist discourses of freedom and emancipation?

Evidently, any fugitive space-time free from capture by global capital can only be contingent and temporary. Tadiar explains why this is so:

[Remaindered life-time] is the left-over and excess of social reproductive work of living not only on the part of disposable peoples but also in the forms of social life-making that persist beyond and despite capitalist subsumption—not directly absorbable by capitalist industries, not completely assimilable within forms of productive life, or, and this is increasingly (though not yet) the same thing, failing to fulfill the protocols of subjectivity and sociality under the political order of democratic life. These forms and moments of life-making (and sense-making) are remaindered life-times also in the sense that they exceed the theoretical accounts of labor and of politics, which see disposable life only as the symptomatic consequence of the logic of capitalist accumulation or of sovereignty, and in this way make the remaindered life-times of social survival among the dispossessed ever more liminal. (103)  

Clearly vigilant about not capturing and containing remaindered life-times in her own theoretical discourse, Tadiar still provides some clues as to how we can witness it and, maybe, join in political alliance with it. The most important of these clues is the presence of poetry (and sections of the writing in this book approach poetry in their lyricism). Both testimonio and community builder, poetry fulfills the requirement of politicized remaindered life in that it is singularly specific in terms of its matrix (language, community) and is contingent in terms of its temporality. The site-specific art that Tadiar invokes to wonderful effect in this book could be said to do the same. As I see it, this is in the same spirit as Harney and Moten who insist in their Undercommons that revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine. They advise that the best preparation for it is to study, live and make art collectively.

Maybe this emphasis on study (at least in an academic mode) is too bourgeois for remaindered life. Nevertheless, Tadiar offers the denizens of the undercommons an insuperable syllabus for reading.  From what might be called “remaindered theory” (the overlooked late Lindon Barret; the underappreciated J. K. Gibson-Graham), to more celebrated socialist-feminist work by Angela Davis and Silvia Federici, Tadiar deploys an admirable generosity in her citational practices. She is even gracious when she punches up in her knockout of Antonio Negri and her lead leg kick to Foucault’s theory of biopolitics. Maybe here then, at the level of thought and citational practice— like Louis Althusser’s class struggle at the level of theory—do we get a glimpse of what a remaindered life praxis might be for left-academics and activists in the Global North. It would be exuberantly gracious towards predecessors and ancestors; it would provide a critical platform for radicals in the Global South; it would be incessantly intersectional; it would feature indigenous voices; and, most important, it would humbly excuse itself from trafficking in universals like “the multitude” and “state of exception,” and fetishizing tendencies like “real subsumption”.  

Finally, I feel compelled to critique this work for its absence of other-than-human life. I don’t do this out of a gotcha sense of snarky superiority, but only as a comradely provocation for future thinking. It is surprising that in a work like this situated in part in a place like the Philippines that is so susceptible to capitalogenic climate change in the form of superstorms and flooding, discussions of ecology are almost entirely absent. Granted no book can say everything. But I am excited about the potential for what Tadiar and her mushrooming collective of sister travelers might do with the wonderful theoretico-political architecture deployed in Remaindered Life in alloying it with what Jason Moore calls the “web of life” or what Donna Haraway indexes as “multi-species being”.  Beyond the horizon and between the cracks of the global, the wretched remainder of the earth beckons.


Mark Driscoll teaches East Asian and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of three books from Duke Press, the most recent of which is The Whites are Enemies of Heaven: Climate Caucasianism and Asian Ecological Protection.




Hedgehog: poems on the Chinese protests

In Fall 2022, I offered a class entitled “Students and Protest in Modern China” at NYU in New York. Most of the students in the class are PRC citizens and all but one are of Chinese ethnic descent. Despite institutional difficulties and obstacles, we were able to foster a politically safe environment for students to speak, to discuss, to agree, and to disagree about historical and contemporary matters.The class became suddenly immensely relevant in the aftermath of the Sitong Bridge Incident/Twentieth Party Congress, when a lone protester hung a banner on Sitong Bridge in Beijing opposing the re-appointment of Xi Jinping to a third term and the immense concentration of political power in his hands. Diaspora Chinese students were thrust into a large-scale poster war conducted on campuses around the United States and the world, during which the Sitong Bridge message was emulated by some and vigorously opposed by others. Some of those poster wars became very heated. Soon thereafter, local protests over the apartment fire fatalities in Urumqi and the lockdowns by Foxconn in their Zhengzhou factory swept in national consciousness with the brief but intense “white paper” urban citizen and university student protests against the “dynamic zero-covid” regimes of intrusive testing, rolling lockdowns, unpredictable quarantines, and disruptions of life in general. My students became concerned and now quite knowledgeable interpreters of the events. 

  As a final project, I invited students to write creative works that addressed May Fourth (1919) students from the vantage of 2022. Some made inventive big-character posters; one made a video; another wrote a playscript; many wrote letters to their past counterparts. This set of poems was submitted by one student, who wishes to remain anonymous. They speak to their generation’s clear-eyed sense of the world in crisis. With the student’s permission, we have decided to publish on positionspolitics.org/praxis.

  Rebecca E. Karl

(A Spanish translation of the poems is available here, thanks to Javier Román)