Critical China Scholars* Respond to New McCarthyism and New York Times

The Critical China Scholars collective writes in anger and dismay at the situation now brewing following the New York Times (NYT) report about Neville Roy Singham’s connections to the Chinese Communist Party and funding of leftist organizations and news outlets, the New McCarthyism petition signed by named organizations and individual academics and the opportunistic escalation by Marco Rubio and Niki Haley into red-baiting and spy-mongering. We feel the need to disentangle a few issues and make our position clear.

For starters, little in the NYT report was news. Most of the money trail the NYT “exposed” and the organizational information contained in the report was known already and had been tracked by Alexander Reid Ross and Courtney Dobson in their New Lines piece (January 18, 2022). What was new about the NYT report was the prominence it lent to overblown rhetoric and innuendos, which implied guilt by association in ways that dangerously resurrect the wholesale assault on “the left” at the height of the Cold War. We are familiar with these tactics, as they were used historically by Joe McCarthy, and are used today by right-wing outlets and spokespeople to discredit any organization funded by those (George Soros, for example) they find objectionable; we might also draw a parallel to the way the PRC state-run media attempts to discredit anyone they deem to be a “dissident” by highlighting any real or imagined association with international groups. The majority of the people and organizations mentioned in the NYT article have not hidden their support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or their interaction with CCP leaders. That they express pro-CCP perspectives does not mean they are mouthpieces of the state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the United States, they still have the freedom to associate and to articulate their perspectives. In this sense, we appreciate and emphatically join their condemnation and righteous alarm at the rhetoric and tactics of the NYT and sycophantic politicians.

Yet, even as we support their freedom to express their views and agree with their condemnation of the disastrously destructive historical and contemporary role of United States imperialism at home and in the world, we must criticize Neville Roy Singham, Code Pink, Tricontinental, and others for their failure to recognize and call attention to the many oppressive realities of the PRC state. The willingness of these or any on the left, including some in the venerable anti-war movement, not only to paper over or outright deny the repressive policies and practices of the PRC, but also to actively collaborate in spreading disinformation about those practices, is deeply troubling. The persecution of Uyghurs, Tibetans, labor organizers, feminist activists, Marxist students, Hong Kong democracy activists, and many other groups in China is very real. The dangers of an increasingly powerful surveillance state are upon us, and are not limited to China alone. We strongly object to the efforts of some portions of the “Western” left to downplay these phenomena, and find the defense of the PRC state as a beacon of socialism not only far-fetched but detrimental to a creative discussion of what socialism can and should be.

We recognize that in the context of escalating Sino-US tensions, reporting on the abuses of the PRC state can feed the flames of red-baiting opportunism and dangerous war-mongering in the US, China, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Yet, it must be possible to take stands against Sinophobia, US imperialism, and war without glorifying the PRC state or diminishing the experiences of people who suffer at its hands.

*This statement was drafted by three members of the steering committee of the Critical China Scholars—Rebecca Karl, Fabio Lanza, and Sigrid Schmalzer—and reflects the contributions of multiple others who participated in a discussion on the CCS listserv. As we were finalizing the statement, we learned of Dan La Botz and Stephen R. Shalom’s piece, “We Oppose McCarthyism and Apologizing for China,” which we were glad to see expresses a very similar position.

China from Below: Critical Analysis & Grassroots Activism

China from Below: Critical Analysis & Grassroots Activism (edited by Ralf Ruckus, Kevin Lin, Jule Pfeffer, and Daniel Reineke) brings together activists and researchers with a critical, left-wing perspective to analyze China’s current role in the world as well as the social conflicts and mobilizations in the country.

The book is based on a series of webinars held in 2020 and 2021 under the title “China and the Left—Critical Analysis and Grassroots Activism” and co-sponsored by gong­, positions politics, Made in China Journal, and Critical China Scholars.

The contributions in this edited volume cover key issues necessary for “rethinking” China in the 21st century, including China’s feminist movement, tech worker organizing, environmental politics, state repression in Xinjiang, the Left in Taiwan, right-wing factions in Hong Kong, Chinese investments and labor struggles in Indonesia, and a reevaluation of China’s history since 1949 and the contested reform process.

Free PDF copies available:

Table of Contents

Preface / The Editors

I. Current Contradictions

1 | Dong Yige: Gender Awakening, Care Crisis, and Made-in-China Feminism

2 | JS Tan: Tech Workers and Rising Class Consciousness in China

3 | Richard Smith: China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse

II. Workers’ Struggles and Racism Following the Covid-19 Pandemic

4 | Eli Friedman, Wen, and Pan: Labor Struggles During and After the Pandemic

5 | Gigi Mei, Kimiko Suda, Shan Windscript, and JM Wong: Confronting Covid-19 Racism. Asian Diaspora Organizing and Transnational Solidarity

III. China’s Periphery

6 | Darren Byler: Terror Capitalism: The Enclosure of Uyghurs in Northwest China

7 | Brian Hioe: Taiwan’s Left in the Era of Chinese-American Rivalry

8 | Promise Li: Facing the Right in the Hong Kong Movement

IV. China in the World and the History of Chinese Socialism

9 | Alfian Al-Ayubby and Y. Wasi Gede Puraka: Chinese Investments and Labor Struggles in Indonesia

10 | Isabella Weber: How China Escaped Shock Therapy. The Market Reform Debate

11 | Ralf Ruckus: The Communist Road to Capitalism in China

Afterword: Reflections on Positionality, Representation, and Practical Solidarity

Anti-War Petition From Taiwan Academics is publishing the English translation (by Jon Solomon) and Chinese original of an anti-war statement and petition organized by academics in Taiwan and initiated on March 20, 2023. The core members include FU Daiwie (STS Institute, Yang-Ming Chiao Tung University), LU Chien-Yi (Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica), KUO Li-hsin (College of Communication, Chengchi University) and FENG Chien-san (College of Communication, Chengchi University). In ensuing weeks, the statement created a vigorous public discussion in Taiwan about rejecting both Chinese and American militarism and the petition attracted broader support.

Our Antiwar Statement: Against Arms and For Peace, Climate Justice, and Autonomy

Recently, a slew of antiwar demonstrations has taken place in cities from Washington, D.C. to Europe. Calling for solidarity with their antiwar demands, we also issue our own set of demands:

1. Peace in Ukraine: we call for peace negotiations and the avoidance of conflict escalation.
2. Stop US militarism and economic sanctions.
3. No to the US-PRC war. Taiwan should preserve its autonomy and maintain equidistance from the great powers.
4. The national budget should be used to meet social needs and to mitigate climate change, not for arms and war.

1. Peace in Ukraine: we call for peace negotiations and the avoidance of conflict escalation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is of course unforgivable. However, the mid-term and long-term factors that stoked the flames of war must be studied, otherwise yet another war that decimates the people could be instigated and ignited at any moment. Warnings from esteemed public sources, from those such as Pope Francis, The New York Times, and former NATO General Secretary G.I.M. Robertson, to those from renowned US academics such as John Mearsheimer, Jeffrey Sachs, and, especially, Noam Chomsky, have all not failed to call into question and castigate the highly provocative military expansion undertaken by the United States and NATO on Russia’s doorstep. At present, this war has already resulted in the death of over 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and more than 8000 civilians, including children, while forcing 13 million Ukrainians to become refugees.

Peace negotiations are the only way to end war. We call upon NATO member nations to stop using democracy and freedom and the restoration of territorial integrity – ideas that nobody could oppose in principle – as the pretext for escalation, in disregard for the increasing numbers of casualties and displaced persons and, on occasion, even deliberately wrecking the diplomatic efforts of various parties to promote negotiations. 

2. Stop US militarism and economic sanctions.

Under cover provided by lies about “Iraq’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the US invasion of that nation resulted in the deaths of 300,000 Iraqi civilians and the displacement of 9.2 million persons. The situation in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan is similar to that of Iraq, leading to a total civilian death toll of 6.3 million. Since independence, the United States has seemingly never gone a year without launching or participating in a war. Concerned about the way that the interests of arms manufacturers override national interests, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently coined the term, “military-industrial complex.” In the two decades following the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the total amount of funds allocated to the US military budget reached $14 trillion, of which between 1/3 and 1/2 of that amount went directly into the pockets of Defense Department contractors. The war in Ukraine is no exception. In that context, the role of the arms industry, commanding formidable resources for lobbying and political contributions, has been especially pertinent. As long as NATO armaments pour into Ukraine, this war will never end. (The figures cited above are taken from the Costs of War project website maintained by a team of researchers at Brown University and from David Vine’s The United States of War).

As concerns economic sanctions, past examples indicate that economic sanctions do not hurt the political and economic elites of the targeted nations. Those who bear the brunt of such sanctions invariably are the innocent civilians, especially women, children, and other minorities.  US sanctions applied in the past have often lacked legitimacy. Those applied against Russia have unleashed a global energy crisis and inflation, exacerbating the already serious famines that afflict the Global South.

3. No to the US-PRC war. Taiwan should preserve its autonomy and maintain equidistance from the great powers.

The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China must resolve their differences through peaceful means. The beautiful land of Taiwan is not available to be rented as their battlefield. We do not welcome the visits of those high-ranking officials who would push Taiwan towards the precipice of war and necessarily sacrifice Taiwan; neither do we support military cooperation that could be manifestly interpreted as a provocation. Taiwan should maintain a position of autonomy, cooperating with other nations in those domains – economy, environment, academic, and cultural – that contribute to the equality, livelihood, and peace of all humanity. Especially, Taiwan should maintain diplomatic relations of equidistance with great powers and maintain the security of both sides of the Taiwan Straits with a firm policy guided by wisdom. Taiwan should not become either a servant or sidekick, nor a “member of the pack,” in the rivalry between US hegemony and PRC “wolf warriors.” We deplore any deliberate actions that use provocation to unleash conflict and we firmly believe that the peace dividend that would accrue from putting an end to provocation is far superior to arms sales, military bases, military threats, or wars.

4. The national budget should be used to meet social needs and to mitigate climate change, not for arms and war

Our planet is currently confronted with multiple crises including energy shortages, inflation, extreme climate events, water shortages, and the disappearance of biodiversity. National budgets should be dedicated to the resolution or mitigation of these crises to improve people’s livelihoods, not wasted on the black hole of an arms race and mutual provocation. It is well known that prior to the advent of the Russo-Ukraine War, the planetary environment had already entered a state of emergency. Due to the machinations of neoliberal elites and corporate politicians, the 1.5C climate goal has evaporated into thin air even as the wealth of the global ruling classes has skyrocketed. Nevertheless, the goal of limiting climate change to a 2C increase is still worth striving for. Sadly, the flames of war stoked by the military-industrial complex have not only dramatically increased carbon emissions, they have also succeeded in reviving the fossil fuel industries that should have been progressively consigned to the recycle bin of history. In a world with over 13,000 nuclear warheads, the impending threat of nuclear annihilation has distracted attention from the gravity of climate change. Once the quiet of death reigns on Earth, where could one possibly look to find the “sovereignty,” “democracy,” and “freedom” promised by politicians who proffer war in their defense? 

We are opposed to Mainland China’s various attempts to diplomatically isolate and militarily threaten Taiwan, yet it is not the vocation of this Statement to repeat the ubiquitous criticisms of “Wolf Warrior China” widely aired in Taiwanese media. We aspire to incite the wisdom of the many multitudes to come up together with a sober, peaceful way for Taiwan to situate itself in the midst of the rivalry between the US and the PRC. We also hope that this Statement will foster within Taiwanese civil society more rational, public discussion and dialogue concerning international politics and the crisis in the Taiwan Straits. We fervently wish that more antiwar statements and actions from a greater variety of perspectives will continue to appear, enabling Taiwanese society to confront and ponder the catastrophe that war brings about.


2023 Taiwan Antiwar Statement Working Group:

Daiwie FU (STS Institute, Yang-Ming Chiao Tung University)

Chien-Yi LU (Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica)

Li-hsin KUO (College of Communication, Chengchi University)

Chien-san FENG (College of Communication, Chengchi University)


References (in Chinese)

傅大為譯(2022/3)〈杭士基談俄國入侵烏克蘭:它的起源、如何應對、與人類歷史的關鍵〉。Truthout . [Translation by Daiwie Fu of Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky: US Military Escalation Against Russia Would Have No Victors,” Truthout March 1, 2022,…/noam-chomsky-us-military…/].

汪宏倫(2010)〈值得從杭士基學習的十件事〉。《自由時報》。8月9日。自由副刊。(註:汪教授並不認同這份聲明,亦非反戰聲明工作小組成員) [Wang,

Horng-lun. 2010. “Ten Things Worth Learning from Chomsky.” Liberty Times August 9, 2010].

李行德(編) 〈2010年杭士基訪台專輯〉。台北市:中央研究院。[Lee, Thomas Hun-Tak. 2010. Collected Essays from Chomsky’s 2010 Taiwan Visit. Taipei: Academia Sinica Press].

馮建三(2022)〈不實資訊、廣場事件與戰爭責任:理解烏克蘭〉。《傳播文化與政治》。15期,p.161-201。[Feng, Chien-san. 2022. “Disinformation, Euromaidan, War-and-Accountability: Understanding Ukraine.” Communication, Culture & Politics No. 15, 161 – 201].

Translator of this Antiwar Statement: Jon SOLOMON, Professeur, Université de Lyon.




    1. 烏克蘭和平:要停戰談判不要衝突升溫
    2. 停止美國軍事主義與經濟制裁
    3. 不要美中戰爭,台灣要自主並與大國維持友好等距關係
    4. 國家預算用在民生社福與氣候減緩而非投入戰爭軍武

1. 烏克蘭和平:要停戰談判不要衝突升溫

俄羅斯入侵烏克蘭的行為當然不可原諒,然而助長戰火的中程及遠程原因亦須深究,否則下一場塗炭生靈的戰爭隨時能再被蘊釀、煽動、點燃。從天主教教宗方濟各、《紐約時報》、前北約秘書長G.I. M. Robertson、到美國知名學者John MearsheimerJeffrey Sachs,特別是杭士基(Noam Chomsky) 的各種告誡,無不質疑並譴責美國及北約在俄羅斯家門口高度挑釁的軍事擴張行為。截至目前為止,這場戰爭已造成至少十幾萬烏軍及含兒童在內的8千多平民喪生,並使1,300萬烏克蘭人民淪為難民。


2. 停止美國軍事主義與經濟制裁

在「伊拉克有大規模毀滅性武器」的謊言掩護下,美國的入侵造成約30萬伊拉克平民喪命、920萬人流離失所。阿富汗、敘利亞、葉門以及巴基斯坦處境亦與伊拉克相同,合計約63萬平民喪生。自建國以來,美國幾乎沒有一年不發動或者參與戰爭。艾森豪總統憂心軍火商利益凌駕國家利益因而創造了「軍工複合體」一詞,是真知灼見。2001阿富汗戰爭開始後的二十年裡,美國國防支出累計達14兆,其中1/3-1/2進入國防承包商口袋。烏克蘭戰爭不是例外,政治獻金與遊說能量龐大的軍火工業在這場戰爭中扮演著顯著角色。只要NATO武器源源不絕進入烏克蘭,這場戰爭就看不到盡頭。(以上數字綜合美國布朗大學 “Costs of War”網頁及David Vine所著 The United States of War)


3. 不要美中戰爭,台灣要自主並與大國維持友好等距關係


4. 國家預算用在民生社福與氣候減緩而非投入戰爭軍武








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 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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