Joining The Australian National University in 2015, Dr Ivan Franceschini is an expert on labour and civil society in China. As an erudite and open-minded scholar, he also takes great interest in Chinese classical literature and is a documentary filmmaker. Dr Franceschini — Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and at the Australian Centre on China in the World — spoke to us about the significance of labour and civil society in contemporary Chinese politics, the success of Made in China Journal, and his current research. If you happen to be a fan of sci-fi novels, you will also find a few recommendations from him!
1) Tell us a little bit about your background.
I come from Venice, and I did all my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Venice University.
Before joining the ANU back in 2015, I spent a decade in China, mostly in Beijing. I first moved there in 2006 with a scholarship to study Chinese labour law at Renmin University, but then stayed on to work for an Italian trade union NGO while simultaneously pursuing my PhD.
It was a very interesting time to be in China. In the Hu–Wen era, Chinese civil society was extremely dynamic, Chinese media outlets were producing cutting-edge investigative journalism, and workers were restless. I had the opportunity to explore all these things.
In those years, I wrote and edited a series of books on Chinese society aimed at an Italian audience, starting with a volume on the ‘black brick kilns’ scandal of 2007 in which I tried to convey the strength of the reaction of Chinese civil society in the face of this terrible case of human trafficking. I thought it was a way to dispel some common misconceptions about Chinese society that at that time were very common in Italy.
With the same aim in mind, in those years I also experimented with other mediums. For instance, in 2010 Tommaso Facchin and I co-directed a documentary entitled Dreamwork China, which looked into the plight of younger migrant workers in southern China.
2) What attracted you to the ANU?
I first came to ANU at the invitation of Luigi Tomba in 2012, when CIW was just being established. I had spent the previous six years in China doing research on my own, and it was my first exposure to a dynamic, international academic environment. The vision that was behind the establishment of CIW — Geremie Barmé’s idea of ‘New Sinology’ — and the daily interactions with groundbreaking China scholars left a deep mark on me, so when I applied for a fellowship from the European Union in 2014 I had no doubt about where I wanted to be.
3) What’s the latest novel you are reading?
At the moment I am reading through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, a terrible testimony of life in Stalin’s gulags that should be rediscovered today in light of all the discussions about re-education camps and forced labour.
Besides that, recently I have been reading some amazing sci-fi novels from the 1960s and 1970s, in particular Ursula Le Guin’s masterpieces The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and the writings of other sci-fi writers from East Europe and Soviet Union such as Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers.
I am not particularly into science fiction as a genre, but it is always interesting to look at ideas of utopia and dystopia from other ages and places, especially considering the general disenchantment of this age we are living in.
4) While your research focuses on labour and civil society in China and Cambodia, you also enjoy Chinese literature. What do you like about works by Lu Xun and what motivated you to translate his work into Italian?
It all has to do with my early stay at CIW back in 2012. At that time, I had been researching Chinese labour and civil society for several years, but I had never forgotten what first prompted my interest in China — that is, a fundamental curiosity about Chinese history and classical literature.
Stimulated by Geremie Barmé’s idea of New Sinology, I decided to translate Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold, his last oeuvre of fiction from 1936, and Li Gui’s A Record of Pondering Pain, a 1881 memoir about the Taiping Rebellion that has never been translated into any Western language.
I chose Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold because it provided a powerful critique of any attempt to manipulate Chinese ‘tradition’ for political purposes. In particular, I was thinking mostly about the kind of discourses promoted by the Chinese government through the Confucius Institutes, but also about all the nonsense on supposedly Confucian values that at that time was so often peddled in mainstream media.
5) Of all the facets of Chinese studies, what is significant about labour and civil society?
Labour has always been an essential component of the political discourse in China — to this day the Chinese Communist Party presents itself as the ‘vanguard of the Chinese working class’ in the incipit of its Constitution.
At the same time, as China’s economic rise since the early 1980s was deeply related to the exploitation of its migrant workforce, issues related to labour rights feature prominently in international discussions of China. Today, with China going global, the real question is whether Chinese investment is going to have any impact on labour rights abroad, which is exactly what I am exploring in my new research in Cambodia.
As for civil society, the Hu–Wen era saw an extraordinary rise of grassroots movements in China. Under Xi Jinping, these movements have been largely crushed. Aided by the development of new surveillance technologies — often in collaboration with international partners — the Chinese authorities have reasserted strict control over Chinese society, arresting activists, reining in investigative journalism, and incarcerating Uyghurs en masse. This authoritarian turn not only has global implications, but also takes advantage of international complicities with ramifications that extend far beyond China, and thus deserves our full attention.
6) Since 2016, the Made in China Journal has become an important reference for those working on Chinese labour and civil society? As the founder and co-editor in chief, what do you think has made it such as success?
When we published the first issue of the Journal back in 2016, we did not even know whether there would be a second issue. Four years later, we are sitting on an archive of over 250 essays contributed by junior and senior scholars from all over the world, which have been published in the Journal. We have also produced a series of books (including the latest one, Afterlives of Chinese Communism), and all of this content is freely available on our new website.
The success of the Made in China project is grounded in the collective work of all the people who have sat on our editorial board over the years — many of whom were based at CIW for a time — and the extraordinary work of all the scholars and practitioners who have agreed to write for us in the full knowledge that we are not a ‘traditional’ academic publication.
I think many readers appreciate the format we chose, i.e. shorter articles with a clear argument and written in an accessible language, in an attempt to bridge the gap between academia and a general audience. Also, over the years we have been able to publish a wide range of articles with provocative views from all sides of the political spectrum, which has elicited significant debates related to engagement with China.
7) What are some new and exciting projects you are working on in 2020?
Beside my own research on the impact of Chinese investment on Cambodian society, I am currently working on several collaborative projects with my colleagues at the Made in China Journal. We are putting together two edited volumes, one on Chinese labour history and one on Xinjiang, which will hopefully see light over the next few months.
We are also collaborating with other universities in Asia and Europe on an exciting new project on Global China that we hope to be able to unveil by the end of 2020. Finally, Tommaso Facchin and I are putting the final touches on a new documentary that took us almost three years to complete, a story related to spirit possessions in garment factories in Cambodia.
To learn more about Ivan Franceschini’s research and publications, please visit the ANU Researchers’ page.
Read the latest analysis on Chinese labour, civil society, and rights on Made in China Journal website.