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2012-2013 China Seminar Series

One Life For Sale: Youth Culture, Labor Politics, & New Idealism in China - Xia Zhang

Event Date and Location

Thursday, June 6, 12:00-1:30pm - Urban Center Room 220


In recent years, China’s labor market deregulation and increasing unemployment and underemployment have hit Chinese youth particularly hard, which created a massive underclass – “ant tribe” – in China’s major cities. How are unprivileged Chinese urban youth responding to these new labor conditions? What is the cultural implication of the existence of “ant tribe” for China’s urban development? I argue that the Chinese youth are not only creating news form of work by engaging in affective labor, but also creating a “new idealism” – a sense of hope for their future rooted in commercial activity and conditioned by state supervision that results in the formation of new subjectivities. This presentation provides a close reading of Chen Xiao’s story, one member of the “ant tribe” in Beijing who started to sell her “remaining life time” online in 2008. For a small fee, Chen would do whatever her clients requested within reason, and blogged about her daily activities. Her services, especially her charitable activities, aroused much public attention and inspired imitators nationwide. I contend that selling “remaining life time” should not be ignored as ephemeral “fast-food” popular culture or assumed to be an escapist tactic of the youth. Instead, it is a creative experiment that young urban Chinese adopt to confront their present realities: precarious employment conditions, unfulfilled social value, unraveled solidarity, and uncertain self-worth. The allure of “selling remaining life time” lies in its capacity to reconcile the seemingly incompatible discrepancies between the market economy’s need to profit from engaging workers’ subjectivities, the state’s desire to produce depoliticized yet self-enterprising citizens, and the individual’s desire for meaningful work and life. Ultimately, Chinese youth developed a “new idealism” that enables them to imagine and create a viable social order that fits within China’s unique labor context. However, this idealism is problematic as it fails to directly address structural inequalities and fails to acknowledge the fact that youths’ novelty has become the new engine of future capitalist accumulation in post-reform China. The story of Chen Xiao and her peers also has important implications for urban planners and developers in terms of how urban planning can help large cities in China better accommodate the needs of the young urban dwellers whose form of work and ways of life are undergoing radical changes due to the recent employment crisis and the rise of creative labor. Join us for a special presentation addressing these issues and their relationship to planning by Manhattanville College Assistant Professor in Anthropology Xia Zhang.