dagongmei: gendered troubles in the city of dreams

Over at Made in China, Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace have co-edited Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, which traces the history of Chinese labor since 1898. Compiling events from the late Qing, Republican, and PRC eras, the book offers a diversity of voices and perspectives on the meaning and experience of work in China. Indeed, the brevity of each chapter allows for a comprehensive introduction into how political movements, economic restructuring and individual desires have constantly shaped and redirected the norms and forms having (or not) a job and the meaning of said job within and against a landscape of shifting national goals. Moreover, the scope of the volume allows for more refined comparison; for example, the unstable meaning of women’s labor, how technology has been mobilized inside factory walls, or even how the spatialization of labor has changed in the years from the rise of Shanghai to the socialist factories of Tianjin and then the emergence of assembly manufacturing in Shenzhen. I contributed a chapter on the moral geography of Shenzhen’s dagongmei 打工妹 during the early years of the Special Zone, mapping how the path to respectability was differently manifest in Shekou, Luohu and Bao’an.

An early and famous picture of Shenzhen dagongmei.

gaslighting 101: shanghai hasn’t reopened because it was never locked down…

That’s what they’re going with? This is a popular gloss on the press conference that didn’t announce that the city had reopened. Instead, government spokespeople performed a master class in gas lighting.

The past two months are being presented as if neighborhood offices acted independently of the municipal government and Sun Chunlan 孙春兰 never came to take charge of the pandemic; and indeed, unlike in Wuhan and Hong Kong, Sun’s tenure in Shanghai was brief and remarkably not lauded. There is no official position on the not-lockdown, which reads like blaming the victim with Chinese characteristics. So to speak.

In response to the blatant buck-passing, testimonial videos about what happened during the lockdown have been posted. In addition, stories about how the Shanghai government has not taken responsibility for the recent lockdown are also circulating. The pleasure of these second category of stories is that they show an actual representative of the Party and government telling the truth. Below I’ve translated one of those stories that I’m calling, “Speechless 无语 in Shanghai.”

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Shanghai Music Party, 28 April 2022

Yesterday evening between 7 to 9, depending on the housing estate, Shanghai people took to their balconies and clanged on pots and pans to demand food. The event, “Music Party” seems to have been widespread, with organizers making and circulating individualized posters, telling neighborhood participants when their group would be playing. “Music Party” allowed Shanghai residents to tactically fill the city with alternative sounds–sounds that were meaningful to them, rather than the sounds of impersonal management.

As Jing Wang observed, sound has become a critical feature of locked-down Shanghai. Robotic dogs and drones carry loudspeakers through neighborhoods, instructions blaring. On repeat. Everyday. In a city where isolation has become the new normal and cell phones mediate intimacy, the materiality of a common voice (or clamor) shared across time and space allows for the mutual recognition that makes us human. Videos of the clanging and robotic dog (and yes the ‘bitch’ speaks with a female voice) as well as some of the posters, below.

lock(ed) down thinking

It turns out that Covid-19 is good to think if your goal is to understand ‘China’ as imagined, perceived and, of course, enforced. (Winning?) After all, even if there are no countries outside are heads, nevertheless, there are test stations, checkpoints, police, and all sorts of social monitoring. Moreover, how different groups–both at home and abroad–are responding to the lockdown shows up interesting aspects of my experience in Shenzhen. So, I’m providing a round-up of some of the Covid related blogs, essays and books that I’ve been reading to embed Shenzhen’s experience into national and international discourses about biological governance, moral geography and new forms of self expression. And yes, they’re all over the place because we don’t really know how the ground has shifted. Moreover, I find comparison and contrast both necessary and useful because the intellectual and political challenge is to provide rich, on the ground accounts of lived experience within and against political-economic systems that are (to use a harsh neologism) always already glocal–the suffering caused by Covid-19 is universal, but responses to and cultural expressions of pain have been highly specific.

The cartoon caption which comes via the 2022 Shanghai lockdown reads, “Who dares call a meal with pig feet and bear’s claw anything less than a feast? You can’t hide that we’re living in a flourishing age.”

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‘social reset’

Question du jour: how do we translate ‘社会面清零’? As conventionally used, my sense is that it means something like ‘zero-Covid in society,’ with the unspoken predicate ‘because all the positives have been locked away.’ It’s the unspoken half of the phrase–the unspoken threat of violence–that has me thinking we should translate directly–社会面 means “social aspect’ and 清零 means ‘clearance’ or ‘reset.’ I’m hearing that the people with the most power in Shanghai today are security guards, representatives from neighborhood offices (居委会), and the ‘big whites (大白)’ whose presence has become equated with arbitrary violence and detention. Apparently, these are the people enforcing zero-Covid, while most low and mid-level cadres are being replaced with people who do not question the policy. This means that when Shanghai re-opens (whenever and however), there will be a new political hierarchy in place, in addition to the completely devastated economic situation. So, why not be translation literalists (in this particular case), and call what’s happening in Shanghai a ‘social reset’?

At this writing, the art channel, 一条 has posted an exhibition of photographs of the abandoned city.

word of the day, “unwilling”

I first saw the chat record in a chat group,, dated April 16. Two days later, I saw it in my moments in a circulating WeChat post. The group leader said, “I’ve received an urgent notification from the top, everyone in the building is required to go down stairs for a corona test. Please respond with whether or not your willing to go downstairs.” He followed with his response, “unwilling.” It was followed by 50+ “unwillings.” The chat leader then said, “Thank you everyone. There have been enough responses. I’ll go negotiate with them.“ After three thank you emogis, he added. “Some leaders notified the neighborhood office at 5:45 p.m, to have us all go downstairs at 6:00. The teachers in the community office are helpless, so don’t blame them. Many of them only get 6 or 4 hours of sleep a night.” The same day that I saw the circulating WeChat post, I also saw a series of “will not participate in any more corona tests,” circulating on TikTok post, with music.

describing the crazy to u.s. americans

When I speak with U.S. Americans about China’s commitment to zero-Covid, I find myself comparing it to north American support for second amendment rights. We are no longer talking about a policy that is or is not working, but rather about a belief that the country itself is in danger. In China, the central government is acting as if any form of living with Covid will harm the country more than disrupting daily life for millions of people; and many agree. Similarly, the NRA acts as if the foundations of U.S. American democracy will be permanently damaged by background checks on people who want to purchase guns; and many agree. In both cases, what seems from the outside as an irrational escalation of commitment to an outdated policy, from the inside looks like a fight to maintain an imperiled way of life.

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hallucinating in shanghai

The stories coming out of Shanghai are increasingly distressing. Thousands of people are being rounded up and forcibly moved to quarantine centers, which are still under construction. Once inside the centers, detainees are told that they are on their own until testing can be arranged because it takes two consecutive negatives to get out. Indeed, the situation is so fraught that it has brought the specters of Xinjiang and the Cultural Revolution into the conversation. Some have started commenting under pictures of the Big Whites (大白 nickname for those in hazmat suits), “the red guards have arrived!” Offline, the outraged assumption that Shanghai (SHANGHAI!) could be treated like Xinjiang is more vocal, and occasionally mentioned online. But I’ll get to that, below. There’s much to unpack in all of this, especially Xi Jinping’s fraught relationship with the CR, Xinjiang and, of course, Covid. After all, the 20th Party Congress will be held (presumably) some time in October, and Xi has hitched his coronation third term to zero-Covid. Today, however, I’m translating and commenting on a copy of a chat record that’s low key circulating on WeChat. I’ll be responding in the next post.

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covid booster shot

I’m in Dali, enjoying the weather and corona-test-free days. But in preparation for re-entry into Shenzhen, yesterday afternoon several of us went to get our third covid jab. We arrived at the station around 3:15 and were told that the computer was on the blink so we couldn’t get the shot. However, the computer would be up and running the next morning, when we should come back. We asked if they were sure that the computer would be fixed the next day, and they were positive. No question, the computer would be fixed. So we left, but then one of the volunteers came running out after us, saying that the computers were fixed and we could get the shot, which we did.

The process was incredibly bureaucratic, so bureaucratic that if the computers were down, then the information couldn’t be entered into the national database–and this was the reason that was given for not allowing us to get the jab. Indeed, there were four bureaucratic steps to getting the jab: at station 1, we signed a paper with our thumbprints that said we were getting the jab; at station 2, our identifications were checked against the paper we had just signed and this information was entered into the computer system; at station 3, we handed our papers to a worker who entered this information into a computer with the registration number of the bottle of vaccine that we used (its two dosages per bottle). Also at station 3, our paper was collected and we were given a receipt that confirmed our jab, and; at station 4, we showed our receipts to a representative from the neighborhood office 居委会 where we are living, and they wrote down our information and confirmed that this was jab 3.

Hopefully, this info will appear on our telephones. However, we’ve heard reports that corona tests performed in Dali may not appear in the national register and so it is important to hold tight to the receipt.

how do shenzheners map covid elsewhere?

A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”

Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.

Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?

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