Neferti Tadiar, On Feminism and Palestine 

Editor’s Note: This is the text of a talk that Neferti Tadiar delivered as part of a round-table discussion at Columbia University. Tadiar’s most recent book, Remaindered Life (Duke 2022), won the John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book published in 2022 at the American Studies Association. She is a Barnard College Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and, among her many activisms, is one of the co-founders of the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine on her campus.

On Feminism and Palestine 
A Faculty Roundtable 
4 December 2023, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Joseph D. Jamail Lecture Hall Pulitzer Hall,
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

Thank you so much to my colleagues, Sarah Haley, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Jack Halberstam, for organizing this roundtable and for continuing to support and hold space for those of us whose feminist commitments have led us to solidarity with the Palestinian people.

There are many feminisms, and I do not aim to speak on contemporary and historical, dominant versions of feminism that call for imperial wars in the name of protecting women. There is a considerable body of scholarly and activist work that has critiqued these forms of imperial feminisms, as well as what my colleague Elizabeth Bernstein calls carceral feminism, and their call for and mobilization of the racist, sexist forms of collective punishment implemented by the modern sovereign state, the inheritor and agent of Western European and Anglo-American colonial power.

Today, I want instead to speak specifically on what my own decolonizing Filipina feminist perspective and scholarly work bring to an understanding of the global importance of the Palestinian struggle for our collective liberatory futures – indeed, for most peoples, for the very possibility of a future at all.

The critical feminist perspectives I draw on have developed out of the radical tradition of Third World feminism, which has always taken up questions of gender, sexuality, and power in the context of vastly unequal geopolitical relations, transnational and national structures of colonial and neocolonial subordination, capitalist exploitation, and imperial masculinist, militarist violence. In concert with their radical Black and Indigenous feminist sisters, radical third world feminists understand that the conditions of oppression and violence that women in our communities face daily and intimately are inseparable from the continuing afterlife and consequence of histories of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. We see that the very delimited, normative, binary ways that women (as well as men) are defined and made use of, our gendered and sexual bodies and lives regulated and controlled, our pleasures and possibilities curtailed and foreclosed, are the products and instruments of these continuing histories.

This is not, however, a politics of blame – of moral categories of innocence and culpability, of timeless victims and perpetrators. Third world feminists also understand that the historically oppressed and colonized can come to adopt the very same social, political, and economic logics and techniques of their oppressors and colonizers, becoming themselves exemplary agents of the orders of dispossession and genocidal violence that their own peoples were subjected to, and that they now displace onto others, including the most marginalized and unprotected among their own. We recognize this in the contemporary global system of postcolonial states, military, police, landowners, and corporations undertaking continuing projects of colonial devastation which they are both perpetrators and beneficiaries of.

In his partnership meeting with former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled that “the Philippines was the only Asian country that voted for the establishment of the State of Israel in the UN resolution in 1947.” As a neocolony of the U.S. the Philippines has provided auxiliary forces, including sexual labor, for all U.S. wars of security and counterinsurgency, including against its own peoples, from the Cold War to the present, serving as a pivotal military base for U.S. security wars in the Asia-Pacific and its connective sea channels to West Asia, where Israel similarly functions as a crucial anchor and key operative piece of global security architecture. Among the bilateral agreements that Duterte and Netanyahu came to was IDF training of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in counterterrorism techniques and the Philippines’ purchase of missiles, radars, and drones, in exchange for reduced brokerage fees for the now around 30,000 Filipinx caregivers in Israel, the largest ethnic group of caregivers in Israel, since they were brought in to replace expulsed Palestinian labor after the second intifada. Duterte, we should not forget, oversaw a cleansing operation of his own, which he favorably compared to the task of Hitler, killing around 30,000 poor Filipino slum dwellers in his 6-year war on drugs. Today, under Duterte’s successor, the son of the dictator Marcos, the Philippines is the third largest buyer of Israeli weapons, and trade between Israel and the Philippines grew 70% in 2022, an integral part of Netanyahu’s “Pivot to Asia” policy.

Feminism allows us to see these dead exchanges of care and arms as a reproductive issue: the trading of the life worth expending of many for the life deserving of care of some. Like Israel, the state project of the Philippines is the enabling condition of and participant in the global urban capitalist economy, the logistics of its supply chains, and its entire gendered reproductive machinery (the global service economy). One of the biggest suppliers of export labor for the global reproductive domestic, care work, and service industries today, the Philippines is a huge supplier of racialized, gendered forms of serviceable life offered up to the world to maintain and facilitate the valued life of their employers ­– those global citizens deemed human, that status of colonial supremacy, protected belonging, and freedom (defined as exemption from enslavement, servitude, and punishment), which defines the very life-form of value animating contemporary global capitalism. But their serviceable life is only a temporary redemption from the pool of disposable life that its own state’s participation in imperial wars of dispossession creates.

Feminism allows us to see then this ongoing catastrophic devastation inflicted on the Palestinian people as an intensification of a repeated logic of imperial, settler colonial dispossession required for the preservation and expanded reproduction of this monstrously iniquitous global order of life. It is a capitalist geopolitical order that the genocidal U.S.-Israel war and its support by institutions deeply invested in its settler colonial project and this very same global order, is an attempt to morally vindicate and practically secure, against a growing decolonization movement emerging all over the world.

I want to end my remarks, however, by adding that as feminists, we see that zones of war are also zones of living. Feminism urges us to see the broader connections of our cooperative survival and life-making, the expanse of relations and activities and capacities that sustain ourselves and our communities. We are compelled to trace our relations to others not already defined as our own, to find how deeply bound our lives are to each other, and to seek commitment and belonging in insurgent yearning for another life that we might share. We are moved to notice and tend to the world-making life-making of the dispossessed – the life that the poet Rafeef Ziadah says Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world – as the grounds of an abolitionist, demilitarizing, decolonizing feminist project of radical planetary transformation. In this way, freeing Palestine frees us all.

Gina Anne Tam reviews The 70’s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong

The 70’s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong. Edited by Lu Pan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2023. ISBN : 978-988-8805-70-9. 250.00 HKD

We wanted to write our own history, run our own lives, and determine our own destiny.” Mok Chiu-yu, longtime activist, artist, and founder of the independent leftist magazine 70s 年代 (The 70s Biweekly) remembers 1970s Hong Kong as a time of possibility. Having come of age after World War Two, many young people like him found themselves “disenchanted” with the world around them: they lived in a space in which they were undemocratically ruled by a nominally democratic United Kingdom, while their families came from a nominally egalitarian revolutionary new China that sustained many of the inequities of the previous regime. Yet their recognition of the injustices that shaped their world did not make them cynical. “We did not want to be one dimensional, accepting ‘what is’ and forgetting ‘what ought to be.’” (viii) Animated by anarchism and Trotskyism, drawn to the Avant Garde and the erotic subversive, and inspired by the student activists in Japan and France and anti-colonial struggles in Vietnam and South Africa, these Hongkongers saw their home as a canvas—not a blank space, but rather a flawed portrait they wished to paint over and transform for the better.

Mok represents an important yet often understudied group in 1970s Hong Kong. It is his generation of thinkers and writers, reflected through the publication they founded, that constitutes the subject of The 70s Biweekly: Social Activism and Alternative Cultural Production in 1970s Hong Kong, a new volume edited by Lu Pan. The volume places the magazine into the broader contexts of Hong Kong’s social change, the Cold War in Asia, and global leftist movements. Its primary intervention is its focus on the history of the 1970s. Sandwiched between the turbulent 1960s, marked by global Cold War politics, social unrest and rising tensions between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China, and the hopeful 1980s, marked by negotiations for Hong Kong’s return to China and a widespread grassroots democracy movement, the 1970s, if it is given attention at all, is frequently “homogenized” (1) in historiography as a period of government reform. Sometimes called the “MacLehose era,” many histories of the 1970s narrate how the social movements of 1966-67 pressured the British, and the titular new governor, into instituting a series of reforms that would lay the groundwork for a more liberal, democratic Hong Kong. 

By contrast, 70s Biweekly refreshingly focuses attention on the ways in which the 1967 riots and thriving international leftist movements abroad galvanized a new generation of radical Hong Kong thinkers who then flourished in the 1970s. A diverse group, these writers, artists, and activists were interested less in supporting nominally leftist states such as the People’s Republic of China and much more interested in highlighting the global and local power inequities that have historically led to violence and harm. The ideologies and subjectivities they articulated, in the words of Lu Pan, occupied a creative space in Hong Kong culture, constructed through a “continuous process of trial and error wherein one had no choice but to face the contradictions in reality and resolve a set of complicated political feelings.” (6) The book does a remarkable job of articulating this “in-between space,” representing a much more textured, nuanced, and vivid picture of an influential group of thinkers than we often see in histories of activist circles. 

The volume makes several additional interventions. While it is nominally about one publication, it also contributes to the history of social movements in Hong Kong. Much has been written about the democracy movements of the 1980s, often considered separate from the leftist movements of the 1960s. This book bridges the gap between these two periods, helping us better understand the intellectual milieu that fostered Hong Kong’s robust public sphere that made the 1980s democracy movement possible. It is also an important addition to the study of anti-colonialism and decolonization in Hong Kong. Today, leaders in Beijing and their supporters in Hong Kong tend to equate successful Hong Kong decolonization with Chinese sovereignty and the rise of Chinese nationalism. But to the writers of The 70s, anti-colonialism was less about national sovereignty as a salve for colonial rule and much more about how power functioned on the ground. In this way, this book highlights how the seeds of Hong Kong’s rather unique sense of autonomy were forged—out of a movement that understood colonialism much less in terms of  which powerful entity was in charge and much more in terms of how powerful entities acquired and wielded their power. In this way, this book adds important depth not only to the history of activism in Hong Kong, but also to discussions of colonialism and post-colonialism worldwide. 

Lu Pan’s anthology, The 70s Biweekly, is divided into three parts. The first section,  likely of greatest interest to historians, explores the radical, multifaceted, and evolving politics of the 70s Biweekly and its editors and contributors. Among the most interesting chapters was Yang Yang’s on the New Left, which explores the shift in ideology among those leftists who remained wary of the CCP’s understanding of leftism from an articulation of anarchism to Trotskyism. Those interested in situating Hong Kong within the global Cold War will similarly find Ip Po Yee and Lee Chun Fung’s chapter on global Asian imaginaries of great interest;, it examines the shifting boundaries of what Asia means from the perspective of Hong Kong. The second part of the anthology examines the aesthetics of radical politics through the magazine’s artwork, its film criticism, and its literary production. The final, and most unique, section constitutes interviews with founding members of the publication. The forward by Mok Chiu-yu, aesthetically and emotionally sets the scene for the kinds of politics and personalities that imbue The 70s pages in a way that Lu Pan’s thoughtful introduction does historiographically. In this pairing, the volume ensures that readers are left not just with analysis of the magazine and its politics, but also its poetics. The juxtaposition of the passion that comes through in the forward, the personal interviews, and the high-level analysis of the academic essays offers a robust portrait of the magazine and the world of its contributors..  

As with any edited volume, this anthology has a diversity of arguments and approaches.. One minor criticism might be that some of the essays are more robust and grounded in Hong Kong Studies literature than others; it would have been fruitful to see a bit more conversation in some of the essays with the growing body of new scholarship that revolves around the papers’ themes. Yet, this truly interdisciplinary edited volume is remarkably coherent and the papers speak to one another with great sophistication and depth. The volume succeeds in reminding us both of how recent this history is and how much the legacies of the 1970s still shape politics, activism, and art in Hong Kong today. 

Gina Anne Tam
Trinity University
[email protected]

Christopher Connery, All Hallows’ Eve: Shanghai 2023

There was a certain foreboding. Only the River Flows (河边的错误 dir. Wei Shujun literally The Mistake at the Riverside), a bleakly surreal pseudo-noir art film reminiscent of David Lynch and based on a story by Yu Hua, was October’s breakaway hit.   Audiences pondered over what in the film was real and what was hallucination; both realms were equally dark. The further the lead character, a detective, probed into the truth of the case, the deeper the descent into madness. Suspense grew along with a diminishing promise of resolution.    

Then Gaza.  positions politics readers are doubtless familiar with the official state position: cease-fire, generally pro-Palestine.  On academic and leftist social media sites, there was a flurry of translated work on Israel and Palestine.  Edward Said featured prominently.  A translation of Andy Clarno’s 2023 essay “Neoliberal Apartheid in Palestine” (from the IB Tauris Handbook of Sociology and the Middle East) got wide circulation.  Before this war, little attention was paid to Israel/Palestine.   Now, many were asking, as elsewhere in the world, whether this might be the beginning of World War III.  There were also darker currents.  One video that got wide circulation—the version I saw appeared on the WeChat channel of a prominent leftist workers’ rights organization—explained that Western capitalism has long been controlled by an international Jewish cabal, Jews who had originated in Khazar. These Khazar Jews, they claimed, had financed western wars and imperialism, including the Russian Revolution.  Lenin had promised that in exchange for financial support for the revolution he would allow the formation of a Jewish State in Khazar (whose territory has some overlap with Ukraine).  He reneged on his promise, and the current war in Ukraine was aimed at fulfilling the long-held dream of a Jewish Khazar state. The war in Gaza was also somehow a part of this. 

Premier Li Keqiang died in Shanghai on Friday October 27, and the state reaction was predictably muted.  In Shanghai and elsewhere, rumors circulated that his death was not how the officials had reported it.  “How is it possible that a leader could die of a heart attack at age 68?” was a line I heard many times.  He had been the most overshadowed and least noticed Premier in the history of the PRC, but deaths of leaders are always sensitive times.  At his death, he quickly became “the people’s premier.” This was not the state’s preferred narrative.  Public display of grief was carefully monitored: the state had long experience with the politics of mourning, where affect is never limited to the one mourned[1].  Social media and public opinion were not so readily contained.   Right after Li’s death, many posted videos of Malaysian Chinese singer Liang Jingru’s (Fish Leong) popular song 可惜不是你 (kexi bushi ni) “A Pity It Wasn’t You”, and no one missed the referent. These posts, and all references to the song, disappeared quickly.

The day after Premier Li’s death, photos briefly circulated of a man dressed in a metallic costume carrying a version of the sign, but with one word added: ”我在上海很想你死“ (wo zai shanghai henxiang ni si I’m in Shanghai and really want you to die” (  The whyyoutouzhele twitter account reported that he had been detained and questioned.   Some social media commentators thought that the road sign meme contained a reference to the Wulumuqi Road demonstrations of November 2022, among whose mediatic representations was a photo of workers carrying away a Wulumuqi Road street sign.[2]

This needs some background. In the summer of 2021, a picture of a road sign in the Pudong district got a lot of amused attention:

“I miss you in Shanghai”. Was there really a street with this name?  The sign disappeared soon after.  The reaction to the sign was amused and playful; copies proliferated.  The “I’m in Shanghai and I really want…” meme was born.  

Essays on Weibo and elsewhere gave their versions of the real objects of mourning after Li’s death: the end of an era of compassion, egalitarianism, simplicity, uprightness, democracy, fairness, openness. Or as one Weibo essay put it:

What is being commemorated here differs from that of several decades ago [viz. 1989] and differs greatly from last year’s events (viz. “white paper revolution”).  It is rather a new sense of human intimacy, a common humanity’s recognition of itself.  The core of this recognition is not the deceased person, but rather the self, and it is probably best understood that the object of mourning is not that person but is rather for the era when there was hope for the individual self. That time is not long past, and carries a certain vitality and warmth, allowing people to reflect on the nature of those recently passed times…  

Where does this commemoration lead? In all likelihood, it will not lead to a “grand narrative”, because it is inherently individual and decentralized. However, this kind of commemoration also brings a new form of power. It reflects a social consensus and a new structure of feeling. It is no longer “political”, and for this very reason it is the “new politics”. It also seems to hold a faint glimmer of hope.  As Hayek said, “An order is desirable not because it puts the elements in their place, but because it allows new forces to grow out of it that could not have grown out of it otherwise.” [nb: I couldn’t find the source of this quotation; it’s probably from a Chinese translation of Hayek’s Kinds of Order in Society][3]

Liberal and libertarian voices such as this are common on social media, far more common than voices from the nationalist left, academic or otherwise, which have largely retreated from popular commentary on national affairs, instead focusing their critical energies on South-South politics, US Imperialism, and other global issues.  One friend, from the non-nationalist left, opined that this was due to the public ridicule that erupted whenever they praised national policy.

Halloween approached in Shanghai amid those currents.

As in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, Halloween in Shanghai is a young adult’s holiday centered on costumes and alcohol (Halloween began its transformation into an adult holiday in the US only in the 1980s, beginning with ad campaigns from the beer industry).   The main action is in an area of the Former French Concession centering on the middle sections of Huaihai Road, Changle Road, and Julu Road, and the plaza next to the popular nightclubs and bars adjoining Fuxing Park, south of Huaihai Road.  The area has long been one of remarkable social and architectural unevenness, which is somewhat odd given its location in the center of one of Asia’s most expensive cities. Huaihai Road is a major thoroughfare, lined with upscale retail outlets.  In the pre-war French Concession, it was called Avenue Joffre, and was known for its cosmopolitan character, with the upscale cafés and other gathering places depicted in modernist haipai literature.  As Shanghai began its reform-era transformation in the 1990s, in an effort to revive that cosmopolitan spirit, the district authorities stipulated that the majority of retail establishments on Huaihai Rd. should feature international brands.  The blocks to the north, on Changle and Julu Roads, contained a mixture of pre-war and post-1949 low-rise housing with small retail outlets at street level, mostly catering to everyday needs: hardware, sundries, tailors. During the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, some buildings in the area were replaced with upscale hotels and high-rise apartments, yet these were intermixed with slum-like single-story alley housing as well as subdivided, crowded residences.  Expensively renovated single apartments sometimes share buildings with small single-room dwellings with shared kitchens.  Small fashion boutiques and restaurants gradually joined the mix. 

Over the past several years, the area has evolved into a something like a youth entertainment district.  One anchor is INS (which stands for “into nothing serious”) next to a plaza in Fuxing Park, a six-story mixture of extremely upscale and moderately downscale clubs and bars.   There is also the embarrassingly named Youth Energy Center (青年力中心) on Huaihai Road, a collection of clothing and shoe stores, clubs, and restaurants, with a large streetside plaza scattered with food and beverage carts.  To the north, in recent years, Changle and Julu Roads have seen an explosion of small beer and cocktail bars, ranging from grungy to upscale.  Some of the beer bars have little or no indoor seating; customers buy drinks and spread out by the dozens on the sidewalks and curbs.  The area thus had appeal to a wide-range of young people: fashionista clubbers, slackers, students, white collar employees just off work.   I got to know a few of the young people who frequented a beer bar on Julu Road: rock-and-rollers, former skateboarders; some thought of themselves as rebels too. Several had participated in the demonstrations on November 26th and 27th 2022 on Wulumuqi Rd.,” the so-called “white paper” revolution.[4]  They didn’t think of themselves as particularly political; their orientation was to their small subculture of musicians, artists, and fans.  One thing that stood out about them was that they weren’t glued to their mobile phones, posting pictures and texts every few minutes on social media, as most young people are.  More on this, and other crowds, below.


Huaihai Road was closed to traffic early in on Halloween night, and the Middle Huaihai Rd. subway station (line 13) was closed as well.  Most of the police, as well as the biggest crowds, were on Huaihai Rd.  Several shopkeepers I interviewed estimated the numbers at 20,000 or more. When I got to Changle Road., east of Shanxi South Road it initially looked like a huge demonstration: the road was filled with marching people, not many of whom were in costume.   It turned out that the excitement centered on the cosplayers, dressed in elaborate costumes based mostly on characters from anime, imperial costume dramas, popular films and music, and video games, who vogued in front of picturesque storefronts as the crowds pressed around them to take photos. Not a small number were cross-dressers, who sometimes posed with other cosplayers in exaggerated tableaux vivants, sometimes acting out small skits. The police had a subdued presence.  One friend heard a policeman explain to the people he was telling to move along that “I’m not a cos.” A friend drinking at a streetside bar wrote that the red and blue flashing lights of the police cars among the costumed crowd gave the scene the atmosphere of an outdoor disco.    Many photos of the more political costumes— 大白 (”big white” health workers from the COVID times), the young men dressed as Lu Xun with the quotation “medicine will not save China”, PCR testers taking throat swabs, the woman festooned with sheets of white paper in reference to last fall’s protests, the woman carrying a small doll labeled “third child”, in reference to recent policies encouraging three children– have circulated online and in news reports such as here and the NYT article here (the NYT piece notes the strong LGBTQ presence). Interested readers can find a video compilation here.  Last year before Halloween, the authorities circulated admonitions noting that costumes referring to COVID or COVID policy were forbidden (there were a few anyway).  The warning was not repeated this year. 

The street-sign meme recurred in various ways.  I liked the multiple layers of this one, which I haven’t seen reprinted in Western media:

The Chinese sign, modeled on the “I’m in Shanghai and really want you to die” sign mentioned above reads “I’m in my company and really want to celebrate New Year’s Eve.”  Chu xi, “New Year’s Eve”, is a homophone for “Remove Xi”.  For this reason, at many workplaces last year, New Year’s Eve was neither celebrated nor mentioned by name.

Another variant of the street-sign meme:

The street sign reads: “I’m in Shanghai and I really want rats”.  Shu (rats) is a homophone in the Shanghai dialect for “die”; in Shanghainese the spoken line could read “I’m in Shanghai and I want to die.” The crowd is dressed in hospital-patient garb, and the address printed in smaller type at the bottom is that of the Mental Health Center affiliated to Shanghai Jiaotong University Hospital.  The organizer of this display explained that he thought that writing the regular character for “die” might be too sensitive.[5]   

A compendium of participants’ stories about their Halloween preparations, as well as the evidence from the costumes and tableaux themselves, mention months of preparation, and several mentioned coming to Shanghai from afar.  Many who might have shared only virtual connections in fan communities found themselves together for the first time, checking each other out.[6]  Costumes from anime, imperial costume dramas, popular films and music, and video games were the vast majority.  I didn’t personally see any of the political ones, and I didn’t talk with anyone who had.  But I’m sure that the tens of thousands of people on the scene scoured social media records in the following days.  They found images like the following  (photos and text from the Youthology site cited above):

“The world is like shit” (The characters for “the world” are in small typeface. “Like shit” is a homophone for “elephant shit”).

“It was really hard to find the toilet-paper costume… The guy we bought it from online said he’d been getting hundreds of inquiries a day for toilet-paper costumes.  Weird…  Every time we posed for a photo, we’d always have the toilet paper wiping the head on the shit costume. That’s because even though the world is shit, we wanted to help people wipe clean their beautiful bodies. We want to tell everyone: you must be as a beautiful flower in a world of shit.”

“Halloween is a lot about blood, and my period is my most common and most intimate experience with blood.  I originally wanted to dress as a blood-stained pad, but couldn’t find any of those costumes online…  At first I was a bit nervous going out dressed like this because there were a lot of really elaborately costumed people on the street; it was a really extroverted scene[7]. But after a woman posed for a photo with me I relaxed.  I didn’t know who she was and couldn’t see anything but her eyes, but she said to me, ‘You’re awesome. You’re beautiful’.  At that moment I realized that the feeling of power you get from the support and praise that women give to each other was stronger than I had ever known.”


“I wanted to join the festivities after work, but I was so tired that I just put on some black eyeshadow and wrote on a piece of ordinary paper “Party B” [“debtor”, “payer”, etc.]. Other than that, I wore what I had worn to work that day.  A lot of people got very excited when they saw me, and they would come over to comfort me, and some of them would say, ‘I’m Party A,’ or ‘I hope you become Party A soon’.”


I went back to the area on November 4 after a few days spent reading social media discussions to talk to shopkeepers and others on the scene about what they had seen, especially in places where I hadn’t been that night.  I ended up at the beer bar, whose denizens were largely disdainful of the social media circus on Halloween night.  None thought it had been political, calling it instead a mass instance of 发泄 , “letting off steam”. There was nothing on the scale of Shanghai’s Halloween elsewhere in the country.   Some saw in that an indication of Shanghai’s relatively more open and cosmopolitan culture, mixed with lingering resentment over the 2022 lockdown.   One person at the beer bar that night opined that the crowds were mostly 外地 , “non-Shanghainese”, i.e. rubes easily carried away by the latest superficial trends.  I heard the remark about “non-Shanghainese” from others too.  There is a Shanghai imaginary that sees all that they don’t like about the city as the fault of “non-Shanghainese”, including those who staff municipal government offices. In this city, as elsewhere, popular resentment can take many forms.

There has been much recent reporting in the west about youthful malaise in China, given the state of youth unemployment, including among university graduates. One friend, who has just begun her career as university faculty member, has been stunned at the number of her students who are trying to join the CCP, not out of any ideological or political conviction, but as a way to securing advantage in their search for a job.   She thinks that university students today, particularly those not in the top ten or twenty universities whose job prospects after graduation are fairly secure, are much more conservative and risk-averse than non-student youth.  Faculty across the arts, social sciences, and humanities remark often about the changed state of their institutions: less space, more control, more hopelessness. 

My impression from talking with young people of varying backgrounds over the last couple of months has been of a growing orientation towards small groups or communities, a desire that became more salient after the COVID lockdowns and Dynamic Zero measures of last year.  Most of this is fairly innocuous, at least on the surface: fan/idol/gamer/consumption-oriented culture. These “communities” most commonly encounter each other, as elsewhere in the world, online.  Particularly salient is the Little Red Book (小红书 ) platform, skewed toward the under 30 crowd and often described as a combination of Instagram, Pinterest, and Amazon, featuring v-logs, podcasts, narratives, and product reviews.  Founded in 2013, it is the fastest growing consumer/lifestyle platform in China, and in addition to its e-commerce presence is a major way for members of “lifestyle” subcultures to find and communicate with each other.  Recently the platform has sponsored off-line group activities such as city walks, used clothing exchange, and zero-waste practices.  Halloween in Shanghai was in many respects a physical and social manifestation of these fan communities that exist on Little Red Book or elsewhere online: the visual referents were the same as the photo-feeds, just on the street this time.  

Some alternative community spaces have begun to emerge recently, though, especially in the big cities: small groups of young people, largely from middle-class and university backgrounds, who hold book discussions, film viewing, and other meetings in bookstores, small galleries, or shared living spaces, “temporary autonomous zones”,  some inspired by Japanese anarcho-activist Hajime Matsumoto, whose Sekai manuke hanran no tebikishoFuzaketa basho no tsukurikata(Handbook for the World Revolt of the Idiots: How to Create Playful Spaces; Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo,  2016) has been translated into Chinese[8]. Matsumoto is one of the main players in the scene clustered around the Koenji Temple neighborhood of Tokyo, a group devoted to lives of self-reliance, withdrawal from mainstream consumption, used book and cast-off appliance stores, cheap bars, and play. Matsumoto eschews the overtly political in favor of the ludic, which might be part of his appeal in China, where mutual aid and autonomy need to be practiced without direct reference to politics. The handbook includes a list of bookstores, bars, art spaces and other scenes from around the world, mostly in Asia, where kindred spirits can be found, and there is a gathering of like-minded souls from around Asia every November. Few would describe the Chinese version as “strong” communities; they can exist only at the margins, and the closer they get to politics, or the more visible their activities, the more precarious are their existences. 

I doubt that many of this crowd participated in the Halloween festivities, which they would likely view as too mainstream and too spectacular. Perhaps the more political costumes came from those in or at the margins of that scene.  But mass gatherings of any kind are what the state fears most.  November 2022 saw a brief eruption of something like politics; this Halloween was more of a carnival, albeit in carnival’s multiple registers, from the transgressive to the celebratory.  Not a few in Shanghai seemed to feel, though, that there was something in the air.

 Christopher Connery is professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz



[1] For a review of state and unofficial reporting on the premier’s death, see David Bandurski, “Sidelined in Death, As in Politics”.  China Media Project Nov. 1, 2023. .   

[2] For a discussion of the street sign incident of 2022, see Christopher Connery, “Wulumuqi Road”. Made in China Journal, December 2022.

[3] No author, 城市的地得/对新的纪念的观察 (In the city: observations of the recent commemorations)  My thanks go to my Shanghai friends, much better versed in local social media than I, for forwarding me several posts of interest, including this one.

[4] See Christopher Connery, op. cit.

[5]  Xiao Xia, 别解读了,来听上海万圣节的年轻人自己说说 (Enough with the Interpretations, Come listen to the voices of the young people from Shanghai’s Halloween). Posted November 7, 2023 on the 青年志 (Youthology) WeChat group.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The word for extroverted in the original is the letter “e”, an internet slang term (there’s “e” and “i” are both used). Its sense in Chinese is a bit different from the English word, referring to ostentatious or powerful display for others.

[8] Hajime Matsumoto 2010 (Ji Chenjia, trans.),  世界大笨蛋反叛手册 3rd edition. DGT. DGT (an unregistered and unofficial publishing entity) has published other titles aimed at those interested in autonomist, feminist, and social space issues.

Youngju Ryu, Teaching about Korea in the Time of Palestine

As campuses and cities around the country have been in the throes of vigils, rallies, and counter-rallies since October 7, I am teaching a course called “From Truman to Trump: Introduction to US-Korea Relations.” The course examines the seventy-year period extending from Harry Truman’s presidency to Donald Trump’s, a period during which the US played a decisive role in dividing and maintaining the partition of the Korean peninsula, fought a catastrophic war on Korean soil, and expanded its military presence around the globe. Designed as a sustained exercise in anti-imperialist thinking, the course offers lessons aplenty for our contemporary moment, but I have yet to discuss what is happening in Gaza with the class. And the silence has grown to deafening proportions in my own mind over the last month as Israel’s ostensible war against a burrowed terrorist organization, fought with the support of the Biden administration, unfurls over a ground densely populated with civilians and now littered with their corpses. 

One of the objectives of “From Truman to Trump” is to learn from the lessons of the unended and unending Korean War. Even though the course bills itself as an “Introduction to US-Korea Relations,” it eschews the conventional international relations (IR) approach and relies heavily on cultural texts instead. This is largely because I am a literary scholar by training and would not be able to take up IR in any serious way even if I wanted to, but also because I feel strongly that where the Korean peninsula is concerned, the IR approach has been singularly unable to give us practical solutions to problems that continue to shackle people’s lives there, like ending the Korean War once and for all by replacing the 70-year-old armistice with a peace agreement. So in our class, we try to understand the relations between the US and Korea by reading primary materials ourselves, and turning to writers and artists, not political scientists, to diagnose the problems and imagine creative solutions.

The first assigned reading is Henry Luce’s “The American Century,” the famous 1941 essay that preached the gospel of American exceptionalism and interventionism to a public as yet unwilling to wade fully into other people’s troubles. The last text we read is a short story by Pak Wan-sŏ called “Granny Flowers,” set in a Korean village under American control during the Korean War where the soldiers’ nightly prowl in search of sex keeps women in a constant state of fear. Pak’s story traces how this fear of American violence turns into a sense of relief and even gratitude when the women are made to imagine the greater brutality they would suffer under Russians and the Japanese. The process of transmutation is further mediated by the materiality of American goods.

What are the lessons of the unended and unending Korean War that we have discussed in the class so far? Here is one: the moral bankruptcy of “rationalizing” collateral damage as a necessary wartime evil by applying the “rational” principle of proportionality to it. Of the Korean War’s four million casualties, more than half were civilian (Cumings 2010). What precise ratio of combatant and non-combatant deaths could ever be considered proportionate enough to set our minds at ease over so much destruction and human suffering? How is the category of “civilian” refracted through the lens of race in the first place, so that not all deaths of civilians “count” and are grievable in the same way? 

Here is another lesson: the ineffectiveness, let alone the inhumanity, of aerial bombardment campaigns in totally eliminating the enemy. Throughout the Korean War, US airstrikes succeeded in razing much of North Korea to the ground by dropping more bombs there than in the entire Pacific theater of World War II. By the US military’s own estimates, more than twelve North Korean cities were destroyed at 75 percent or more. Seventy years after the last American bomb was dropped, the brutality of the air war remains a fresh fount of memory that continues to feed a virulently self-defensive nationalism in North Korea. Americans, on the other hand, are constantly surprised whenever a new, “unprovoked” provocation by North Korea makes its way into the news cycle, having had the luxury to forget. Here in the US, we have long had the habit of conflating ignorance, especially of historical context, with innocence, and innocence, in turn, with virtue.

A different kind of forgetting has strengthened the US-ROK “alliance” (tongmaeng). In December of 1950, facing the onset of Chinese People’s Volunteers, the US forces withdrew from North Korea by sea. Panicked at the news of the imminent withdrawal, Korean civilians amassed in large numbers at the port of Hŭngnam, clamoring to find a way to escape with the retreating US forces. In an episode that has been celebrated as one of the greatest displays of American humanitarianism in history, a Merchant Marine freighter dumped materiel to make room for 14,000 refugees, who thereby became the human cargo of “Operation Christmas Cargo.” Today, in South Korea’s Geoje Island where this cargo was offloaded, a monument commemorates the humanitarian “rescue.” Alluded to time and again by South Korean presidents on their US state visits, the operation has become part of the lore elevating a military alliance into a moral one. As hyŏlmaeng, an “alliance forged in blood,” indeed an alliance baptized by blood, US-ROK tongmaeng becomes sacrosanct, not merely strategic. Peering, however, at the list of North Korean cities destroyed by American bombs and encountering the name of Hŭngnam there, one is forced to ask a simple question at the enormity of the knowledge that the withdrawal of the US forces marked the beginning of aerial bombardment that left only 15 percent of the port city standing: From what were the Korean refugees who made up the Christmas cargo fleeing? The Chinese “human wave” or American carpet bombing? 

There are many other lessons besides that extend beyond the active years of warfare. The tortuous saga of the efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula has shown that adjectives like “evil” and “savage” should be permanently ejected from the discursive universe of international relations as the idiom of warmongers, not peacemakers. Anyone who advocates a peace achieved as a victory of “civilization” over “barbarism” speaks with a forked tongue. In the Korean “theater,” it has also become clear that competing discourses of victimhood impoverish the collective political imagination of humanity as a whole. Hazel Smith (2000) has written that Western perceptions of North Korea fall into three caricatures: “bad, mad, sad.” Of the three, I have found “sad” to be the most intractable, precisely because it emanates from the desire to feel sympathy for the North Korean people. But it takes little reflection to realize that the very desire to turn the North Korean people into pure, sad victims of the North Korean state denies them the dignity of their own political subjectivity. This is why the only North Koreans who can be embraced in the West are negativities: “women and children,” the objectionable shorthand for turning people into human-animals that cannot occupy the position of human-subjects because their lives are seen as playing out on a terrain of desperate survival where all possibility of political will has been evacuated; or “defectors,” the human-animals who can now speak as human-subjects having escaped the terrain of mere survival to reach the land of opportunity, but whose political subjectivity can be recognized only when they speak against the North Korean state.  

Here is the last lesson, perhaps the most important one of all: the danger of a fused short-circuit between subject positions that require a slower and more meandering traversal. I once heard Kim Dong-choon, a sociologist who led South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2005 to 2010, describe the difficulty he had in trying to change the nomenclature around acts of state terror committed before, during, and after the Korean War. A substantial proportion of civilian casualty from the war had come not only from the “punitive” killing of those suspected of having aided the enemy, but also from the “preemptive” slaughter of those whose suspected proclivities may lead them to aid the enemy in the future. For the period of 1952-1953 alone, 122,799 civilian deaths have been officially categorized by the South Korean government as resulting from haksal or “massacre.” Until quite recently, the standard term referring to such state violence was yangmin haksal, literally the slaughter of “good folk.” “Good folk” being a veiled way of referring to people who are not communist, the assumption underlying the term was that only the violence perpetrated against those who are ideologically “clean” can be considered unjustified. Objecting to the implied suggestion that it was okay for the South Korean state to kill civilians if they held, or were suspected of holding, leftist views, Kim Dong-choon proposed that the official term be changed from yangmin haksal to min’ganin haksal, the slaughter of civilians rather than the slaughter of “good folk.”

Ironically, the staunchest resistance to the change came from the families of the victims themselves. Through the long decades of anti-communist authoritarian rule that followed the unended Korean War, the victims’ families had lived under the shadow of “guilt by association,” suffering persecution for the crime of being blood kin to those that the government had seen fit to eliminate. In order to secure the conditions of their survival, many of these families ended up internalizing as well as externalizing the state ideology. The little appreciated tragedy of this history is that every family seeking justice for their father by declaring that he was one of the “good folk”–and therefore the government had no right to slaughter him–also ended up damning another family, another father. It took years for the change of terminology from yangmin haksal to min’ganin haksal to take effect, and for there to be broader acceptance of the view that all civilians, even the ones who might hold communist beliefs, deserve the due process of law. 

As the death count in Palestine climbs and surpasses 10,000, one reads with utter dismay published opinions that clash on the bombing of civilian targets like hospitals. Who’s more inhumane, they ask, the belligerent that is willing to use humans as “human shields” or the belligerent that is no longer deterred by human shields in its quest to extirpate the enemy? This way of debating justification for the war demeans the humanity common to us all. So I have decided that the lessons of Korea are too important to ignore in the time of Palestine, though I am wary of the differences of opinions and passions that I might encounter among my students on a subject about which it might be impossible to “agree just to disagree.” With painful freshness untempered by the distance of time, the ironies of the Korean War, a “police action” undertaken to repel an invasion that itself turned into an invasion, a “limited war” that ended up counting its casualty numbers in the millions, impress themselves anew. In the classroom discussion that will conclude “From Truman to Trump,” I will start by inviting my students to agree with me that we ignore history at our own peril.   

Youngju Ryu is associate professor of Korean literature at the University of Michigan.