I am a new PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In late August, 2019, I defended my dissertation, “Polanyian Trap: Trade Union Reform and Labor NGO Activism in South China, 2007-2017.” In this project, I look at how state-run trade unions and independent labor NGOs experiment with different strategies to institutionalize labor unrest in China.


I grew up in a workers’ village in China’s northeast rustbelt, where my dad was a welder in a shipyard and my mom was a garment worker. As a teenager, my life was shaped by the turbulent post-Mao market transition, in which tens of millions of urban workers were laid off, triggering massive labor protests in the country throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Michael Burawoy’s Politics of Production and Andrew Walder’s Communist Neo-Traditionalism inspired me to explore how the country’s well-organized urban workers had become marginalized in China's labor politics. In my Master's program, I worked as a shipyard apprentice, writing a thesis describing how globalization, marketization, and reorganization of production on the shop-floor disciplined workers and deprived workers of the organizational resources needed to build solidarity.

 

In the doctoral program in Madison, I began to pay attention to worker insurgency in South China, exploring the dynamics of a labor upsurge in the Pearl River Delta – the epicenter of China’s labor protests. How much do China’s labor struggles reflect common dynamics under the influence of globalization? How might the institutionalization of labor unrest under China’s post-socialist authoritarianism differ from the patterns observed in other late industrializers? 


With support from Chinese sociologists, labor activists, and progressive state officials, I gained exceptional access and was able to conduct participant observation in both state-run trade unions and independent labor NGOs for about two years. During weekdays, I joined a task force working on community union reform; during my spare time on weekends and holidays, I joined grassroots labor activists in efforts to mobilize workers. 


Writing from an insider’s perspective, I have written my dissertation, which describes how, over the past decade, the competition between labor bureaucrats and activists has shaped the institutionalization of labor struggles amid China’s global economic integration. Now, I am turning the dissertation to a book, as well as a few articles for peer-review journals.


As I finish my doctoral degree, I plan to apply for tenure-track faculty positions and relevant fellowships. I am currently developing two future research projects. One will examine transnational labor migration from Southeast Asia to the new special economic zones in China's southwestern border towns —an important aspect of China’s "Belt and Road Initiative" that has not received much attention. My second long-term research project will look at the industrial transformation in China’s rural hinterland -- another aspect of China’s political economy that has received less attention in the scholarship on China’s development.


Apart from research, I continue to support labor activism in China. Because the current regime has cracked down on civil society and sanctioned academics engaging in activism, I have taken advantage of the fact that I am now outside the country to help Chinese labor activists design viable projects and apply for grants.


While I stay busy with research, teaching, and activism, I also make time for hobbies and family. Since primary school, I have been playing competitive soccer games and follow the English Premier League. I played trumpet for a school brass band in China, and still enjoys playing music. I also enjoy going to the theater with family for movies, dramas, and symphonies.
 

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© 2019 by Frank Lefeng Lin.
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