On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China - SOAS China Institute

//On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China

On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China

By Margaret Hillenbrand | 12 October 2023

In a world rife with precarity, in which “we are all precarious now” – or so the saying goes – China has not assumed the place it merits within the vast academic literature which has built up around the theme of fragile life and labour since the millennium. China is prime precarious, but only in the last few years has it begun to be explicitly named as such. What’s more, those studies which do define China as precarious have done so mostly from social science perspectives. My new book, On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China, addresses these imbalances. It establishes China as a core crucible for global thinking about precarious experience, and it takes cultural practice as the prism for analysis. More than this, the book shows that bringing China more fully into the picture means expanding the theoretical parameters of precarity. Conditions in the world’s second most populous nation compel a shift in the debate, and my book tries to develop a set of conceptual tools which enable that move.


At the heart of the book is China’s underclass: as a social presence, a political threat, and an affective force. I argue that the ranks of the immiserated in China, the largest underclass in human history, frequently endure much more than inequality, exclusion, and insecure work. Their experiences are better understood in the idiom of expulsion, which they suffer on multiple fronts; banishment, for them, is a flexible and hydra-headed thing. It ranges from forced eviction to life-changing workplace injuries to the extraction of back-breaking labor without pay. But it’s consistent in that it deepens estrangement from the polis for those already condemned to lesser life.


On the Edge argues that experiences of expulsion in contemporary China have created an aberrant socio-legal condition. I call this state of being zombie citizenship. Symbolically enshrined within the constitution and nominally protected by a panoply of other legal provisions, Chinese workers technically enjoy full, even special, personhood under the law. Yet many millions actually endure de-citizenization as the law of the land is stripped of substance in lives which are eked out in sliding states of exile and denuded of safeguard. The term “zombie citizenship” captures the sense in which many working people in China, like the original zombies of Haitian folklore, are locked in quasi-slave labor and cut adrift from the shelter of the law. This makes their state fearsome, since they have every right to seek revenge for the maltreatment they suffer. Their insurrection always hovers at the edge of the horizon. The notion of zombie citizenship also embodies the threat and strife which surge when segments of society are effectively rendered into surplus matter yet cannot be physically purged, either because there is no next place or because their labour might prove useful again.


Above all, the zone of the undead symbolizes the fear that anyone and everyone in a society that applies the shelter of the law capriciously might find themselves cast into a similar state of civic half-being. This sense of jeopardy shapes the experience of precarity in China at its core. To witness zombie citizenship is to apprehend its menace. It is to wonder: who is next? Nowadays, a sense of trepidation trails the witching hours of even those who should feel more privileged and secure, but who face anxious mismatch between long-held expectations and their actual living conditions: university graduates, entry-level trainees, small-scale entrepreneurs, cultural creatives, IT employees, and white-collar workers. I call this the fear of the cliff edge: the slow slide or sudden tumble downwards into states of penury, risk, and civic threat. And as it looms, that imminent fall exacts a socio-affective toll. It breeds strife between different social classes.


This unease, and the conflict it stirs, are by no means exclusive to China, just as expulsion runs rife across the planet. But Chinese experience illuminates the state of surety under siege in vivid ways, and for a set of interlinked reasons. These include the vast size, and thus unmissable visibility, of China’s underclass; the dark memories of the class violence which blazed during China’s still quite recent socialist past; the strategic silencing of class as a category of political action even as a de facto caste system has steadily hardened; the huge policy and policing power wielded by the authoritarian Chinese state, a power which impacts the most vulnerable the most absolutely; the prejudicial propaganda which divides China’s people into the civically deserving and the not; the emergence of a social credit system which proliferates the protocols for citizenship while remaining liable to potentially devastating algorithmic error; and the ever-tighter web of surveillance which monitors conduct and misconduct. This matrix of factors makes China a place without parallel for the study of the cliff edge as a zone of discord.


To make this argument is to push against a strong current in recent discourses on the relationship between precarity and fellow-feeling in both the Global North and China itself. For many researchers, precarity can be a means of making common cause: it melds cohesion amid shared experiences of brittleness. My book acknowledges the vital role that NGOs, politically-engaged researchers, public intellectuals, lawyers, students, and artist-activists play in building solidarity across the class divide. I also try to plot a path through the minefield of so-called “dark anthropology”: research that becomes rubbernecking in its scrutiny of hard lives. Yet the fact remains that in the era of the China dream, and amid state mantras about the “harmonious society,” tensions between different social groups are roiling.


Social scientists have begun to document this surge of rage and resentment via ethnography, participant-observation, in-depth interviews, and so on. By contrast, this book argues that cultural forms offer a still more striking purview on zombie citizenship and the social toxins it brews. Artworks, poetry, performance, and social media are material forms in which the dynamics of the cliff edge are concretized. My case studies show that, in a party-state which wants to prescribe happiness and proscribe hostility, cultural practices serve as a stage on which stifled class tensions burst through, as people face each other in postures of grievance, anger, resentment, rivalry, or disdain. Yet these cultural forms do more than simply represent social strain under the regime of zombie citizenship. They are sites in which art and politics collide fractiously, even transformatively.


Citizens of democratic states might well wonder why these dark feelings so often toxify laterally in precarious China rather than boiling upwards towards the true makers of the policies which hurt. This direction of travel seems counter-intuitive. But it makes more solid sense when we consider that a tolerance for the logic of sacrifice – in particular, the martyrdom of the powerless – is a tacit feature of societal understandings of China’s rise and its human costs. And in the struggle not to be culled, those nearest to hand are one’s most obvious opponents. But my book concludes by arguing that while these cultural practices are often bleak, their force of feeling also asserts the vivid agency of precarious people – and their inalienable, furious right to resist that precarity and claim full citizenship for themselves. 

Margaret Hillenbrand is Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford. In addition to On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China (Columbia University Press, 2023), her books include Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China (Duke University Press, 2020).

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.