“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

RAS China Zoom Event – 28 July: China and the ILO, 1919–1935

Posted: July 24th, 2020 | No Comments »

The Integration of Republican China into the League of Nations’ labour regime in the 1920s under the leadership of the International Labour Office (ILO) was a profound challenge that Western modernity posed to modernizing China. From its very beginning in 1919 and 1920, the ILO put the Chinese labour question on the agenda, yet without directly engaging with the Chinese conditions. This rather ambivalent and tense relations of imperial aspirations to order a global labour regime from Geneva and Chinese national resistance to everything that came from the “imperialists” in Geneva under the League of Nations’ banner lasted until the mid-1920s. The seminal field trip by the director of the ILO, Albert Thomas, in 1929 changed this deadlock of competing worldviews by engaging with the problems of labour on both global and local scales.
This talk exposes the general relations between China and the ILO from 1919 to the mid-1930s by placing the China visit of Albert Thomas in 1928/29, its exchanges and its outcomes and transnational formations at the centre of understanding transnational co-operation and exchange beyond international structures of competing imperial and anti-imperial claims. It argues that Thomas, as one key actor in the ILO, was very much interested in understanding the situation of workers in China and the development of political parties and labour associations that could be integrated into the ILO tripartite system of representation of labour interests and of correspondents to the notoriously understaffed ILO secretariat. The talk also illuminates the fragile political framework of the Republic under which new standard of labour law were established in China. It raises the question whether China was integrated into a global labour regime under the Eurocentric globalizing auspices of industrial modernization imposed by the West, or whether China explored its own agency in shaping labour laws and mechanisms of industrial labour following a transnational exchange of knowledge and expertise on equal footing. It will also explore the ILO efforts to integrate China with its specific problems of labour legislation and political parties into the international system of the ILO while assessing how far China was interested in actively promoting their inclusion into a global labour regime in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Christian Müller is Associate Professor in History at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. He holds an M.Stud. from University College, University of Oxford and an M.A. and a DPhil from the University of Heidelberg. Dr. Müller is a social, political and cultural historian who focuses on the intersections of British and European Imperialism and Internationalism and their local manifestations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in November 2018 and has held several Visiting Fellowships, among them at the Rothermere American Institute, University College and St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and the University of Ghent as well as a Mellon Prize Post-Doctoral Fellowship at King’s College Cambridge. He is currently also a Visiting Fellow of the University of Oxford. His essay to conceptualize the transnational relations between the ILO and China under the League of Nations and the role of Albert Thomas was published in the 2018 RAS Journal.
Christian’s latest projects focuses on identifying key actors and personal networks that help transform structures and mechanisms of international, transnational and global interactions in and between nation-states and Empires, mainly between North America, Europe and Asia. In his projects on Humanitarianism and Empire and on Inter-Imperial Knowledge Exchange, Slavery and Labour under the League of Nations, Christian focuses on the European use of civilisation and development as normative tools for global alignment and their contestations from regional actors. In following these dialogic contestations, Christian aims to show how imperial aspirations are transformed into mutual efforts of exchange, complex co-operation and transnational alignment.

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