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Will Peasants and Migrant Workers Forge China’s New Political Vanguard?

10:01 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Wukan protests (Image via

Cross-posted from In These Times.

China is no longer a sleeping giant. The past few months have seen riots, strikes, and peasant clashes with police. If you lay out all these incidents on a map, you get more than a random data cloud; you see a slow seismic shift in a society of contrasts, where boundaries of class and power are being constantly redrawn.

The most high-profile uprising of recent weeks is the revolt in the Guangdong village of Wukan. Peasants began protesting to defend their land rights, accusing officials of handing over land to developers and bilking farmers out of millions of dollars worth of real estate.

By December, as with many land-rights struggles in the Global South, direct action was apparently the only leverage villagers had to push back against the local government. The death of a leading protester in police custody catalyzed their outrage, and after driving out local officials, the activists launched an ad-hoc self-governing occupation. Read the rest of this entry →

Documenting Undocumented Youth

6:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Adrian Gonzalez

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses art and activism in the struggle for immigrants’ rights.

A few years back, Julio Salgado and his friends graduated from college and found themselves, like many of their peers, adrift: no good job prospects, hard-earned diplomas gathering dust under a slumped economy. But their drift was anchored by a heavy secret: they didn’t have papers, so every post-college hurdle that young people commonly face was thickened by the politics of a broken immigration system.

An epiphany came on the Day of the Dead, the Día de los Muertos that celebrates mortality and the afterlife. In the spirit of the holiday, Salgado and his colleagues, Jesus Iñiguez, Fernando Romero, and Deisy Hernandez, decided to create an altar in memory of their dreams. And the video they made of the mock memorial inspired them to keep going and see where their art would take them.

Today, the California-based team of four “DREAMers”–named for the thus far-failed DREAM Act legislation, which would provide legal status to undocumented immigrants who get a college education in the U.S.–run a nationwide media project devoted to telling stories about life as an undocumented youth.

Despite the name, DREAMers Adrift has a serious mission: to give voice and vision to an emergent political movement through media, ranging from spoken word to visual art to blogging. And despite their legal quagmires, they’ve made the plight of countless young people visible with a video series called “Undocumented and Awkward,” which whimsically depicts the absurdities of everyday life without papers. Read the rest of this entry →

While Wall Street Quakes, Greece’s Fire Still Burns Bright

8:06 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Police detain demonstrators and attack press photographers in Athens, Greece during a protest rally marking the 24-hour general strike on October 5, 2011. (Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

While we may be inspired to see a leaderless mass movement finally crystallizing in U.S. cities, the American occupations still can’t hold a candle to the fire raging across Greece.

This past week, demonstrators again unleashed their rage across the tiny Mediterranean republic, blocking government agencies and clashing with government thugs amid plumes of tear gas, with assorted spectacles like trying to burn a European Union flag in effigy. Wilder than the spontaneous encampments in New York, Boston and other cities, the Greek tempests of the past several months have been persistent and rancorous enough to actually shake up the trading floor and the halls of Eurozone-IMF officialdom, as the troika hover, anxious and vulture-like, over a smoldering pyre of sovereign debt.

The explosion in Greece (along with Spain) illustrate how common assumptions about the neoliberal consensus of the industrialized world can be overturned if people become desperate enough. Despite the draconian austerity policies, writes Times columnist Floyd Norris, virtually nothing could persuade the Greeks at this point to swallow more misery:

The tax collectors, of all people, have staged job actions because they fear being laid off. To say the least, there is no sign of a national spirit of sacrifice to save the country.

The message from Greece now may be summarized as, “I’m small. I’ve suffered. You can afford to rescue me. If you don’t, I can create chaos for all of you.”

They may be right.

Are there lessons for the Liberty Plaza protesters to learn from the Athenian class warriors? The Greece context is politically and culturally unique, but it does embody the principle of fierce solidarity. The Greek left is working to harness widespread bitterness into a united front against austerity, linking unions, the jobless young, professionals and laborers. Read the rest of this entry →

To Stop Corruption, Fight the Power, Not the People

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Protestors rally against corruption in Bangalore, India. (CC/akshaydavis)


Cross-posted from

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in a world where the gap between the powerful and powerless grows wider each day, corruption in political and economic institutions spreads much faster than shame.

Political power is abused wherever it exists—with scandals ranging from political graft in India to white collar crime on Wall Street to bribery of government regulators in China. Nonetheless, some communities seem especially vulnerable to the cycle of corruption, repression and impunity. And lately, we’ve seen many of them getting fed up with living under regimes that have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Corruption has been one of the major issues driving the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, and it has catalyzed a Gandhi-esque movement in the streets of New Delhi.

Indian activist Anna Hazare has inspired huge demonstrations in support of his hunger strike to promote a strict, controversial anti-corruption measure known as the Jan Lokpal bill. The government’s recent crackdown on Hazare only steeled protesters’ resolve under the slogan “India is Anna, Anna is India.”

Yet not all have been swept up in Hazare fever. Author and activist Arundhati Roy boldly challenged the public framing of the corruption issue, arguing it has been whitewashed by a bourgeois, nationalistic political class.In a commentary in The Hindu, she describes the obsession with the Lokpal bill, which would institute a “draconian” bureaucracy to monitor officials, as a well-managed charade, designed to absorb popular grievances into a more palatable but no less hierarchical concept of “accountability”:

Read the rest of this entry →

The Globe’s Not Only Getting Hotter. It’s More Unjust and Unstable, Too

4:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Republished from


Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the next few decades, tens of millions of people will be driven from their homes. Braving violence and poverty, they’ll roam desperately across continents and borders in search of work and shelter. Unlike other refugees, though, their plight won’t be blamed simply on the familiar horrors of war or persecution; they’ll blame the weather.

If you haven’t heard about the rising tide of environmental migrants, that’s because throngs of displaced black and brown people don’t evoke the same public sympathy as photos of polar bear cubs. The governments of rich industrialized nations will scramble to shut the gates on the desperate hordes with the same self-serving efficiency with which they’ve long ignored the social, ecological and economic consequences of their prosperity. But both efforts at blissful ignorance will fail, because climate change is forcing society to confront the mounting natural and man-made disasters on the horizon.

In 2010, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “more than 90 percent of all disasters and 65 percent of associated economic damages were weather and climate related (i.e. high winds, flooding, heavy snowfall, heat waves, droughts, wildfires). In all, 874 weather and climate-related disasters resulted in 68,000 deaths and $99 billion in damages worldwide.”

Those numbers look worse on the ground. In rural Bangladesh, where some of South Asia’s major riverways converge, rising waters are threatening to swallow vulnerable coastal communities and leave millions without homes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the sea level need only rise by a few feet to turn a cultivated area of 1,000 kilometers squared into sopping marsh. The frequency and intensity of floods continues to escalate exponentially, pushing young workers into the cities to earn a living and eroding rural communities and their cultures.

While some places soak, others bake. Read the rest of this entry →