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.
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.
“Big Whites (大白)” are the omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent figures of China’s 2022 lockdown, so named for their white full-body hazmat suits. Big Whites have been the Chinese government’s social interface for managing the Omicron outbreak. Big White teams consist of medical workers, police officers, community office representatives, and volunteers who come (as the government repeatedly emphasizes) from all walks of life. In their capacity as service providers, Big Whites conduct COVID tests, deliver food to residents in locked-down buildings, and coordinate other public services within a designated area. However, Big Whites are also the public face of COVID security. They conduct building sweeps for testing holdouts, they act as gatekeepers at locked-down estates and neighborhoods, and they patrol locked-down areas to ensure everyone else is in their homes.
The moniker “Big White” has a double origin story. First, it derives from the gear that the management teams wear. In addition to being fully masked, hands are gloved and shoes are covered. There is a turquoise blue stripe which runs along suit seams and some Big Whites have personalized their suits with magic marker inscriptions. Second, “Big White” is also the Chinese translation for the plus-sized inflatable healthcare robot named Baymax, a character from the 2014 Disney film Big Hero 6. In the film, Baymax teams up with 14-year-old robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada to save their hometown San Fransokyo from an evil supervillain. Baymax and Hiro team-up with four other nerds to form a band of high-tech warriors against evil uses of technology especially biotech.
In a 23 March post on the English language WeChat account, EyeShenzhen, author Li Dan explained the connection between pandemic work teams and an animated film: “Chinese netizens use it [Big White] as a nickname for frontliners who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic because they wear white protective coveralls on the job, and they work selflessly to protect the safety of the public.”
This essay touches upon two interrelated issues in the social media representations of Big Whites in Shenzhen—the gender of caregiving and the role of animation in conceptualizing pandemic management.
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.
It’s hard to know what’s happening in Shangsha, but stories are flying, people are being admonished not to spread rumors, and weibo accounts are being closed. This morning, Shangsha residents who had been locked in their buildings to prevent illegal exits and entries during quarantine were posting to Weibo, Douyin (Chinese Tik Tok), and We Chat, that their food wasn’t being delivered. They also claimed that people living in next door Xiasha were getting fat, eating five times a day (three meals, afternoon tea, and a late-night snack). The focus of ire for one building was their “nexus person (网格员)” who was responsible for food deliveries. Nexus persons are volunteers, who are navigate between administrative levels. Their job is to make sure that food and supplies delivered to a community are brought to the doors of the quarantined. However, this particular nexus person posted statements to the effect he couldn’t make deliveries because the people in charge wouldn’t let him do his job, despite tears and reminders of the people’s well-being. Then, abruptly, he posted he was quitting.
Borders are breached, daily. Breached despite guards, despite fences, despite and through raging anger, which accumulates like garbage, no longer hidden from sight. Stupid plastic bottles, we scream, 打！As if the bottle we threw away yesterday was the cause of our suffering.
Anyway, images from a Shenzhen, where some imagine themselves as under siege, and others find themselves working even harder (yes, the city is involuted) to keep the boat steady.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come and gone with neither a bang, nor even a whisper. Whatever officials hoped to gain from the spectacle of Chinese athletes winning gold on snow and ice didn’t manifest. Even in my more nationalistic we chat groups, I saw few posts about the Olympics even during the games, and now that they’re over, no one has mentioned them. Instead, three topics obsess people across my we chat groups–the upsurge of Covid in Shenzhen, the Xuzhou mother, and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Moreover, as the above cartoon illustrates, how these issues are stitched together reveals social fault lines.
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.
The other day, I was asked for my thoughts on the trending hashtag, “Shenzhen girl (深圳女孩儿).” I didn’t understand the question because I don’t Tik Tok. According to my young friend, the hashtag origin story occurred when a couple Shenzhen girls walked into a Beijing bar. The Beijing girls chatted about falling in love and relationships; the #shenzhengirls talked about making money and what they would buy with their cash. Apparently, this generation of #shenzhengirls are too materialistic. I wasn’t shocked by the hashtag because sexing the greed is an ongoing Shenzhen conversation, where people have tended to attribute a woman’s economic success to an immoral character.
But things aren’t so straight-forwardly chauvinistic.
Here’s a story for a Monday morning: My husband and I recently bought a condo in Dali, where we plan to retire. This past Chinese New Year, we opened the condo, calling the gas company to send someone over to connect our gas line. A team of three people showed up. The best dressed of the group carried a clipboard and explained to us what was happening. One of the electricians set to connecting the line. The third was there to oversee the young man making the connection and insure that he didn’t make any mistakes. The entire process–explaining, connecting, and checking the connection–took about ten minutes. Once they had finished their work, they moved on to the next condo.
I found it ridiculous to send three people to complete the job. However, when I told a 20-something friend this story she half-jokingly responded, “Wow, Dali is really efficient!” She then told me that most government and central enterprises had an even higher ratio of bureaucrats and supervisors to actual workers. At her company, she explained, actual work didn’t start until Wednesday because on Monday mornings top level executives met to decide on the week’s work, Monday afternoons, vice-executives informed managers of their responsibilities, on Tuesday mornings, managers further refined jobs for office heads, and then on Tuesday afternoon, office heads assigned tasks to actual workers. I laughed (as I was supposed to) and then clarified, “You’re exaggerating, right?” And she said, “Not really. There are at least four or five levels of management above my level, where the work actually happens. Even in Shenzhen, it has all become too guanliao.”