no time passing… The melody is Pete Seeger’s, but the context is Shenzhen. Last night I was talking with friends, older friends of many years who have lived in Shenzhen since the early 1990s. We ended up talking about China’s population crisis and how it has been manifest in Shenzhen as the aging of menial laborers, the ongoing removal of affordable housing stock as urban villages are razed, and the flight of young families to cities like Changsha, which are actively trying to attract young people using methods that range from housing policy to social media campaigns to create a hip and friendly city image.
The current situation in Nantou illustrates how these issues come together on the ground. The sanitation crews for the area comprise older people, many who had joined their children in Shenzhen to take care of grandchildren, but once the grandchildren started attending school full-time found themselves both with time on their hands and in need of supplemental income. Many of these crew members are past the age of retirement and ineligible for retirement benefits in the city, making them a vulnerable workforce. In terms of affordable housing, Vanke has upgraded many of the handshake buildings on the two main streets in Nantou, replacing family housing with transitional rentals for singletons. Indeed, last time I went to Nantou, the rates for upgraded housing stock was 5,500 yuan a month, while older housing was still priced between 2,000 to 3,000 yuan, depending on location and size. Moreover, over two years of zero-Covid enforcement means that many mom and pop shops have closed up with generational implications. On the one hand, older entrepreneurs have lost accumulated capital and income. On the other hand, that wealth can no longer be passed on to children who may have been raised in Shenzhen, but do not have city hukou.
So yes, restructuring with a vengeance.
This past week, the story of Xiao Huamei, the woman who gave birth to eight children under suspicious circumstances has unleashed other stories about human trafficking in rural China and the complicity of low-level government officials, who have overlooked obvious violations of Chinese law to facilitate…what? Chinese public opinion has focused on the Xuzhou government’s inept handling of the case, outraged at their indifference to the rights of women and children. Family life, they rightly assume, should be a safe place for all members. I’ve been thinking the question is worthy of a dissertation: Why has it been so important for marginalized rural men to marry that local and regional officials, not to mention family and friends, have ignored the illegality of these households for decades? Xiao Huamei’s videotaped answer is quite clear, “This world doesn’t want us.”
My inner North Americanwants to snark: are these incels with Chinese characteristics? But this is bitter humor, a laugh that obscures as much as it reveals about cultural difference and demographic transition. On the one hand, China’s rural wife-purchasers, like North American incels seem to truly believe that they are owed a woman, albeit to satisfy different desires. And in both China and North America questions of women’s roles continue to be framed in terms of men’s needs. Sigh.
On the other hand, these Chinese and north American forms of male chauvinism and misogyny are cultivated in and deployed to sustain different communities. In rural China, for example, the network of traffickers who have supplied women and the family, friends and officials who have made sure (both actively and through negligence) women don’t escape share beliefs about the filial obligation to continue family lines, which are traced from father to son. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–the birth of a son and social coming of age. It is a generalized value judgement, held by many who oppose human trafficking. For example, rural wives who don’t give birth are known as “hens who can’t lay (下不了鸡蛋的).” It is an ugly, dismissive label that emphasizes a woman’s reproductive function without or despite her rights as a human being. In contrast, participants in north American online forums where young men are groomed and radicalized share ideas about how sexual intercourse makes men out of boys. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–by ejaculating into a vagina a boy comes of age. It is also a generalized value judgement, held even by those who maintain that consent is fundamental to healthy sexual relations. A north American woman, for example, who doesn’t put out is known as a bitch. And yes, the short linguistic jump from not putting out to being put down hovers at the tips of our collective tongues. Incels, many now suggest, are terrorist threats, even as Chinese intellectuals and urban residents continue to frame the nation’s problems in terms of improving the quality of its rural population.