Engendering a New Working Class: Social Trauma and Labor Resistance in China
A talk by Pun Ngai
The dominant intellectual discourse in China has abandoned talk of "class" and the Chinese government has embraced a "reform" that has brought China into the fold of global capitalism, but at the same time a new category of class -- dagong -- has emerged in the industries of China. The formation of dagongmei ("working sisters" or "working girls"), their life trajectories, and their resistance formed the theme of a recent talk by Pun Ngai, professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a labor activist.
Death of the "Working Class"
In China today, intellectual discourse on social issues focuses on social stratification and social inequality -- not on "class analysis." This coincides with, in Professor Pun’s words, "the Western declaration of the death of 'class analysis.'" This erasure, which sustains China reform ideology, "empties out any possible critique of China’s transformation into [a integral part of] global capitalism."
However, Pun argued, "the lived experience of class is very acute for Chinese workers." To illustrate what this means, Pun told two little stories:
- A worker, bearing no hope of survival, jumped from a dormitory corridor after three years of working in the city. She died without leaving a reason, not even a letter to explain her death.
-- A story told by a migrant woman who worked in a small town in the Pearl River Delta, July 4, 2004.
- Five women migrant workers, ranging in age from 14 to 17 years old, were found in the dormitory of their textile factory on the morning of December 23, 2004, apparently dead from inhaling the fumes of charcoal that they had burned in a metal bucket.
-- A report released by Human Rights in China, March 22, 2005.
These kinds of incidents, Pun contended, are contributing to the emergence of a new class consciousness among Chinese workers. In fact, "a new Chinese working class is struggling to be born at the very moment that the language of 'class' has been sentenced to death." This new class is being made from below, by the workers themselves, Pun said, while the Chinese "working class" as it existed in Maoist China is being unmade from above.
In Maoist China, "the process of 'proletarianization' was unique in that political forces rather than market forces dictated the whole process." In 1949, as the Communists came to power in China, the Chinese industrial proletariat was still small. Nonetheless -- and despite the fact that the Communist revolution was won with the blood of the peasants -- after Liberation (the 1949 revolution) it was "the urban subjects, not the rural masses, who were proclaimed as the avant-garde of the Chinese proletariat, and thus the owners of new China."
To make this small proletariat into the "owners of new China," the Chinese Communist Party set about creating a new and privileged working class. "The Chinese working class," Pun continued, "was formed within a short period -- a few years -- under a command state economy, in contrast to the English or other European working classes, whose formation, dictated by a market economy, took at least half a century."
However, once Mao was gone, and the reformists, led by Deng Xiaoping, were in charge, the concept of "class" and "class struggle" was rapidly abandoned. After his famous "southern tour" in 1992, Deng openly declared that, in Pun's words, "the party-state had to guard more against radicalism from the left than from the right." Thus, the Chinese working class, "previously created by 'politics' and then fed with a structural content by state or collective enterprises with a job and a class position, was forced to go."
Paradoxically, "at this particular moment" when the Maoist language of "class struggle" was abandoned, "a new workforce was quickly poured into the newly industrialized or development zones, which constituted the base [in China] for global capital."
A New Class Subject?
"The formation of the new dagong subjects," Professor Pun declared, "with all their struggles, rich, heterogeneous, and multi-sited, can no longer be described or politicized as mere 'class struggle.'"
Pun argued that is not simply that "class struggle" is no longer relevant or useful, but that it "can only be reactivated by rooting it in class experience from below, that is, in the everyday mico-politics of a dormitory labor regime of Chinese workers themselves in confrontation with capital and the market."
Gendering the Dagong Subject
Dagong simply means "working for the boss," a term, Pun pointed out, "that powerfully connotes the commodification of labor, or the exchange of labor for a wage." Dagongmei ("mei" from the Chinese word for "little sister") refers to the young women -- primarily immigrants from the countryside -- who work in the industries that feed products into the global market and who live in factory dormitories. Dagongzai ("zai" meaning "son") is the term for the male counterparts of dagongmei. This terminology sharply contrasts with the gender-neutral gongren (worker) , the popular term during the Maoist era.
Although the gongren were supposedly the "owners of new China," in actuality, as Pun notes, "the Chinese gongren virtually worked for the state, with the state as a socialist boss." The shift to the term dagong means "not just a departure from the 'socialist boss,' but also the coming of new bosses from global capitalist societies." The biggest change signaled by the movement from gongren to dagong is the workers of China are no longer under state protection. Dagong consist of "casual labor, labor that can be dismissed at will." Thus, Pun argued, the term dagong "signifies the change to capitalist labor relations [with] the dagongzai/mei as a new configuration imbued with awareness of labor exploitation, and with class and gender consciousness."
The rise of the dagong has entailed two intertwined processes. One is the "depreciation of rural work," which is disdained for its very low pay and its association with people who are "rough, dirty, rustic, or lazy," in contrast to the "sharpness and dexterousness of industrial bodies, who are often said to be young, female, single, and particularly suited to the new international division of labor." The other is the "proliferation of sexual discources and female bodily images." Mao's China, Pun pointed out, "highlighted class while negating sexual differentiation . . . ; capitalist production and consumption rely on a sexual discourse as the basis of the system of difference and hierarchy."
China’s new, global capitalist enterprises recruit dagongmei because females are "imagined to be cheaper and easier to control. . . . [They are] imagined to be obedient, tolerant, and conforming to the factory machine."
In resisting this dagongmei regime, Pun continued, young Chinese female workers are not engaged in "a workers' struggle as defined in the traditional sense, . . . [but in a] collective resistance that is at once a social conflict and a cultural project."
The Workers’ Dormitory as a Space of Resistance
This project, as Pun explained it, makes dagongmei into more than "docile bodies"; they are, rather, "tactical and resistant bodies." The site of their resistance, and also much of their domination, is the factory dormitory.
"With the class experience rooted from below; with the workers sleeping together in the dorms; with young women being fed in communal canteens; with communal entertainment provided on days off; with state restrictions on unfettered mobility unless tied to employment, and employment and accommodation tied together in the same space; with all these constraints against them, Chinese migrant workers, at these 'right moments' and 'right places,' experience themselves as a new dagong class, coming together and fighting through the dormitory labor regime which provides them no other alternative."
Professor Pun's talk was sponsored by the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, and co-sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies, and the Center for the Study of Women.
Pun Ngai (Ph.D., SOAS, University of London) is Associate Professor of Social Science at the University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong. Professor Pun's current research focuses on Chinese labor and global production as well as transborder issues between Hong Kong and China. Among her publications is Made in China: Subject, Power, and Resistance in a Global Workplace (Duke Univ. Press, 2005), which won the 2005 C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, given "in recognition of advancement of social scientific understanding and critical orientation toward a contemporary social justice issue." Professor Pun’s research for the book involved taking a job as a worker on the production line of a Hong Kong-owned electronics factory in Shenzhen in November 1995, where she worked 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for seven months.
Pun Ngai is the founder of the Chinese Working Women's Network
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2007