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 In both cases, what seems from the outside as an irrational escalation of commitment to an outdated policy, from the inside looks like a fight to maintain an imperiled way of life.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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.”Continue reading
One of the eight Wuhan whistleblowers, Li Wenliang (李文亮) died on February 7, Chinese time. Most of the posts to my friends’ circle (朋友圈) are memorials to him. In addition to pictures of Li Wenliang wearing a face mask, these posts include images of his police file for creating rumors about a SARS-like virus and screenshots of relevant posts, including international posts in English and German. In addition, essays about his life and the meaning of his death are starting to appear. The more ‘viral’ of these essays emphasize the fact that he was an ordinary person doing his job and that he had the courage to speak truth to power. These posts imply a relationship between Li Wenliang’s status and his courage; only the ordinary, it would seem, are able to tell the truth, affirming both the need for public intellectuals to watchdog the public realm and the public’s right to have intellectual watchdogs looking out for their interests. Continue reading
On June 22, 2019, Handshake 302’s visiting artist, Xiao An celebrated her 28th birthday by preparing a Singleton Lunch. To prepare for the meal, she shopped the nearby street market like a professional, prepared “Whole Tomato Rice,” in the rice pot, and served up eggs, potatoes, and batchoy—all in two hours. In fact, this was the first time that the food at a Singleton Lunch was ready before the guests arrived. How did the meal come together so smoothly?
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the field,” Xiao’an said as she efficiently pulled everything together.
For this conversation, Xiao’an chose the topic “A Single Woman’s Fear and Love.” Four women and one man joined Xiao’an and Mary Ann, sharing stories about how it feels to be an unmarried married woman in contemporary Shenzhen. As the conversation developed, we realized that other issues, such as hometown and generation played important roles in what participants feared and how they felt about love.
Everyone at the table had made unconventional decisions in order to create a better life for themselves. Yet, this decision to come to Shenzhen and pursue professional dreams extracts a greater cost from women than from men. After all, a traditional man is expected to meet challenges and provide for his wife and family. In contrast, many young women do not work for themselves, but work for their natal families and then, once married, they work for their new family. So we shared this story: standing up our dreams when they came into conflict with social expectations.
This contradiction between our individual dreams and social expectations meant that our most common fear was that we would loose love if we became too much ourselves. If we didn’t act like a Hakka daughter and sister and help our brothers purchase a house and get married, would our parents still love us? If we didn’t get married and have a child before we turn 30 years, would our village still accept us or would they call us “a chicken who can’t lay eggs?” If we were still unmarried at 40, would there be a place for us in society, or would people be wondering, “what’s wrong with you that no man wants you?”
Consequently, most of us experienced love in relationships where our dreams were recognized and valued. When parents accepted a daughter’s choice to earn money for herself, this was experienced as love. When a friend encouraged us to ignore cruel gossip, this was experienced as love. And when we accepted our dreams and our decisions, this too was experienced as love. In other words, the “love” we sought wasn’t a passionate affair, but shared values and dreams, where our partners saw us as individuals and not a social role.
At the end of the meal, it was clear that we had all suffered when our individual desires came into conflict with traditional expectations. We all wanted our families to understand and accept our decisions. Consequently, it also became clear that we all shared a common wish for Shenzhen; we want the city to be a place where everyone—regardless of gender, hometown, or generation—can develop themself as an individual and find life-giving forms of love.
In 2006, I visited Dafen Oil Painting Village for the first time. This was several years before Dafen became an important landmark–both in and outside China–in the Shenzhen imaginary. This was also over a decade before the metro system connected Dafen to downtown. In fact, even the road signs reflected the segregation between “Shenzhen” and the rest of the city. Consequently, the first time I visited Dafen I experienced it as a typical urban village that produced an atypical product.