The Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Human Rights Fund has supported my dissertation writing during my residence in the People’s Republic of China in the year of 2021. My dissertation, entitled “Cruel Activism: Affect, Labor and Governance of Feminist and LGBT Rights NGOs,” explores the political, economic, and affective dimensions of precarity surrounding NGO activism that shape the lived experiences of feminist and LGBT rights NGO workers. My doctoral research is based on archival study, participatory observation and fifteen-month of institutional ethnography in three NGOs (a migrant sex worker NGO, a LGBT NGO, and a rural women NGO), as well as my decade-long work as a bisexual activist in the People’s Republic of China.
I conducted my ethnographic fieldwork from June 2019 to May 2020 and I started my dissertation writing in July 2020. So far, I have completed three content chapters of my dissertation, including chapter two on “Triple Erasure of NGO Labor Precarity”. Chapter two explores the ways in which the labor precarity of NGO workers in China is structured by both political and economic precariousness that are intimately connected with the party-state’s technologies of governance and the overarching logic of market economy. The problem of NGO labor precarity is rooted in the three mechanisms of erasure; namely: moralization, illegalization and professionalization, which render NGO workers as low-skilled and/or undesirable workers in China’s market economy and social governance.
Chapter four on “Solidarity Stalled: Affective Regime, Emotional Labor and the Politics of Care,” excavates undocumented and forgotten stories of feelings in the NGO world. It examines the affective dimensions of precarity as workers in gender equality and LGBT rights NGOs forge affective ties with their donors and beneficiaries that traverse liberal demarcations of public and private. I follow the footsteps of the feminist social scientists in excavating and unpacking the fragmented, enduring, or discontinuous, fraught feelings and emotions in NGO work. The relations of care and reciprocity that NGO workers foster in their work complicate the professional relationship of giving and receiving. Nevertheless, such ties are affected by different notions and standards of care, as well as economic imperatives of NGO workers and their beneficiaries. I aim to demonstrate that the care and solidarity between NGO workers and their beneficiaries can be easily compromised by affective and material constraints. In particular, I make the connection between emotional labor and the affective regimes of NGO work, parceling out the gendered ethics, standards of care that comprise the mechanics of NGO work, and its (un)intended consequences of affective disengagement. I then explore in detail the state of burnout in activism which is a result of such affective disengagement. Lastly, this chapter ends on the discussion of the limitation of the politics of care in NGO activism and its possible futures.
Chapter five is entitled “Managing ‘Unproductive Workers’: Ableism, Depression and NGO Labor Disputes.” Grounded in recent labor disputes in gender equality and LGBT NGOs, this chapter examines how NGOs manage unproductive workers, including workers with depression. It highlights able-bodied and able-minded practices in NGOs and interrogates the non-profit sector which internalizes the logics of the market and neoliberal governance by valorizing standards of ableism, competence and productivity. By drawing the connection between productivity and ableism, I seek to foreground labor disputes in NGOs which are oftentimes dismissed as the cost and consequences of activism under political pressure. The displacement of labor rights issue with the fear of political suppression works to justify oppressive violations of the Labor Law and anti-feminist work ethics around the workplace, and thus render them inconsequential and random episodes of a growing movement.
These months of data analysis and dissertation writing have been valuable moments during my stay in my home country. It has also been a challenge for me to remain a critical distance to my ethnographic sites as writing requires both emotional and spatial clarity. Besides dissertation writing, I continued to be active as the leader of the national bisexual organization, r&B bisexual group China. In September, we published our second version of the Handbook on Bisexuality and Pansexuality which contains important content on our community building histories, common myths and misconceptions on bisexuality and pansexuality, as well as fun facts and oral histories of bisexual and pansexual persons. Our oral history project does research on bisexual and pansexual persons to document the lives and voices often made invisible in contemporary queer politics in China. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, we have also expanded our mental health and support program by financially aiding bisexual and pansexual persons in need of psychological counseling services and initiating online self-help groups.
COVID-19 has created enormous difficulties in maintaining human relationship, sustaining livelihoods and keeping a positive attitude. Nevertheless, being persistent in my scholarship and activism has helped me in processing depression, anger and trauma and living in the present moment.