AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 288

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Session 288: Can the Subaltern speak Chinese?

Organizer: Felix Wemheuer, University of Cologne, Germany

Chair: Dru C. Gladney, Pomona College, USA

Discussant: Dru C. Gladney, Pomona College, USA

Subaltern Studies have developed in Indian and Latin American contexts, but less so in the field of China Studies. This panel raises questions about how subaltern groups in the PRC such as migrant workers, peasants and displaced urban residents protect their interests, and how these groups relate to the state. It asks how the party-state and its institutions respond to claims and resistance from below. Based on Gayatri Spivak’s provocative question, “Can the subaltern speak?”, the panel will also discuss the problems that arise when analyzing the voice and the actions of subalterns in official documents, interviews and documentaries. The panel will address the question of whether or not subalterns are able to find their own words, or whether they speak in the language of the state. Diana Fu will show how activists and workers in an illegal labor organization in Guangdong imagine the state and why officials tolerate their activities to a certain degree. Wanning Sun explores the politics and poetics of violence as they unfold in the Chinese media, and argues that news discourses play an important role in the struggles of construction workers in Beijing. Qian Ying will show how citizens’ documentaries about the demolition of houses subvert the hegemonic historiography of natural disasters. And Felix Wemheuer will critically explore the paradigm of peasant resistance in the research of the Mao era. The panel will contribute to understanding subaltern existence in the PRC, and reflect on the methodological challenges in coming to terms with the resistance of the “voiceless”.

Imagining State and Society: Illegal Labor Activism in a “Harmonious” Society
Diana X. Fu, University of Toronto, Canada

In a decade during which the goal of attaining a “harmonious society” has been bedeviled by intensifying labor conflict and a flaccid state-organized labor union, a few handfuls of workers founded their own unofficial labor organizations in the early 2000s. Although scholars (Fu 2009; Jacka 2006) have studied China’s first officially sanctioned migrant workers’ organizations, few have so far paid attention to this second generation of thirty to fifty unofficial labor organizations which constitute in part today’s “unofficial” civil society and which “are more likely to clash directly, even violently, with the Chinese state” (Gallagher 2004: 420). This paper examines the formation, the political strategy, and the achievements to date of one of the most important illegal labor organizations in Guangdong province. It asks: “What strategies do labor activists use to survive in an authoritarian state? What repertoire of rights activism do workers deploy? And what is the state’s logic of tolerance for illegal labor organizations?" It argues that state-society interactions at the local level are based upon mutually incongruent imaginings which inform action. Because local labor bureau officials imagine activists to be rent-seeking “black” lawyers, they tolerate their activism as long as it does not threaten social stability. Because activists imagine a fragmented state, they expand their activities to other localities while staying within the boundaries of acceptable rights activism. And because workers imagine an all-powerful central state betrayed by corrupt local officials, they employ a dual model of rights activism which combines “weapons of the law” with “weapons of the desperate.” These findings provide novel insight into how illegal organizations survive in an authoritarian state and how state officials, activists, and workers in China are imagining their state and their society.

Desperately Seeking My Wage: Rural Construction Workers and the Cultural Politics of Voice in Urban China
Wanning Sun, Independent Scholar, Australia

To date, much has been written about the working conditions, experiences of injustice and exploitation in the sector of construction sector in China. However, this sociological literature, while framing workers’ struggles and resistances as evidence of class tensions and social conflicts, tends not to consider the communicative aspect of workers’ experience. In other words, little attempt is made to consider workers’ the success or failure of their struggles within the larger framework of cultural politics of public visibility, voice, and power. Still less do we know the role of media in the process of giving voice and visibility to construction workers. This paper takes, as its point of departure, the widely perceived tendency to violence which has come to be associated with construction workers’ efforts to resolve the issue of wages arrears. Combining ethnography in Beijing in 2009 and 2010 with analyses of media material, this paper seeks to address a number of questions. What is the politics and poetics of the violent behavior? And in deciding on the angle and strategies of covering these violent incidents, how does news discourse practice juggling acts between neo-liberal economic strategies on one hand and the rhetoric of social harmony on the other?

Demolition as Crisis: Documentary Cinema and the Subaltern in Today’s China
Ying Qian, Columbia College, Australia

In the past two decades, independent documentary cinema has flourished in China. Many of the films deal with experiences of people relegated to the social margins by rapid social transformations. This paper investigates documentary film as a possible medium to register subaltern experiences, and the filmmakers’ various positionings that allow them to access, however partially, subaltern subjectivity and subject-effects. In particular, I focus on “demolition films”, i.e. films that document the process of deconstruction of old human habitats to provide room for the state’s development plans. I argue that these massive acts of demolition are grasped by filmmakers as moments of crisis, where contradictions of the existing historiography are laid bare, experiences from the displaced are in need of urgent inscription before erasure, and struggles for past and future claims of ownership bring about articulations of subaltern perspectives. Films analyzed include Jia Zhangke’s “Dong” (2006), which documents demolition of towns near the Three Gorges area; Zhao Liang’s “Petition” (2009), framed by the imminent demolition and re-construction of Beijing’s South Train Station, temporary shelter for homeless petitioners; Ou Ning’s “Meishi Jie” (2006), filmed by a Beijing resident resisting the demolition of his neighborhood; and earthquake films by Ai Xiaoming and Ai Weiwei, where the sites of the earthquake ruins become sites of investigation where citizens’ cameras subvert a hegemonic historiography of natural disaster, and bring about a real political crisis.

Subalterns in Maoist China: A critical exploration of the “resistance paradigm”
Felix Wemheuer, University of Cologne, Germany

In Maoist China, the CCP claimed to empower and present the poor. However, the large majority of people, especially the peasants, were not integrated into the welfare state. In field of China studies, many scholars published on resistance of subaltern groups such as peasants and migrant workers. Inspired by James C. Scott work on the “weapons of the weak”, stealing, “eating green” (chiqing), underreporting (manchan) and so on was discovered as everyday forms of resistance. The paper will critically explore the “resistance paradigm” in the work of China scholars and ask the question of how we can read the actions of subalterns in official documents. According to Gayatri Spivak, the voice of the subaltern can never fully be recovered. The position of the subaltern itself is a result of hegemonic discourse. The paper will show that whether or not actions are considered as resistance depends on the eye of the beholder - the local official, the central authority or the historian. Reports from the internal magazine Neibu Cankao will show the methodological challenges to analyse resistance. The question will be asked why did reports about resistance sometimes appear and disappear against the background of state policies. Furthermore, the paper will raises the question of what the term “subaltern” in the context of Maoist China has to offer compare to “class”, “masses” or “people”. It will show what the China studies can learn from Indian and Latin American Subaltern studies.