Human Trafficking

Working paper: A Tale of contested re/production: China’s labour inequality, transactional sexuality and relational filiality.

Introduction: a feminist-materialist approach to reform-era social re/production

1.1 This working paper gives a feminist-materialist reading of transactional sex, relational filiality and labour relations as aspects of contested social re/production during China’s reform and post reform eras (1978 onwards). Drawing on Gramscian and Fraserian theoretical frameworks to examine the politics of social re/production, it examines consent to and contest prevailing modes of post-reform era social re/production, its hegemonic ideologies and state-society complex among female migrant workers and actors involved in transactional sexual relations .

1.2 Social reproduction is generally regarded as highly stratified and multiscaled, encompassing individuals, families, communities, and entire social systems in biological, labour force and caring reproduction (Glen, 1992; Colen, 1995; Kofman, 2014:81; Bakker, 2007).  Throughout the paper I use the hyphenated term “re/production” to emphasize the feminist materialist argument that the productive realm of capitalist accumulation and labour depends on the reproductive realms of sexual relations and filial support (Federici, 2004; Mies, 1994). This dependency is an crucial component of the Chinese reform and post reform eras’  primitive accumulation and ongoing ‘market liberalisation’,  including its reliance on the surplus army of rural young women for industry, services, filial and sexual support.

1.3 This analysis of reform era social re/production draws on intersectional, historical-materialist and multivalent approaches to sexuality and sexual labour. Kempadoo (2004) examined the various practice of sexual labour in the colonial-era Caribbean that were partially determined by historically specific and intersecting dimensions of racism, gender oppression and class exploitation, within particular modes of re/production. Caribbean women experienced exploitative sexual relations within slavery regimes, being hired out to white and free coloured families for domestic work with the understanding that they would provide sexual and procreative services; concubines provided housekeeping as well as sexual services for their owners and other white men; Caribbean women were otherwise hired out as prostitutes to help maintain the profitability of plantations (Beckles, 1998: 143; Kempadoo, 2004: 5). In these circumstances, some slave and free colored women used sexual labour “as an income-generating activity, providing some autonomy from the harsh conditions of agricultural or domestic work, a means to obtain freedom for themselves or their children from slavery, or to economically survive once slavery was abolished (Kempadoo, 2004:53-4). Kempadoo thus argued that in the slavery and emancipation eras, Carribbean women’s sexuality  was not just a site of re/productive exploitation, but also a ‘pillar of resistance’.

1.4 Kempadoo’s  account reflects Caribbean women’s agent use and understanding of transacted sexual and reproductive relations. The sensitive historical listening of her approach  informs this paper’s analysis of Chinese migrant workers and other actors  involved in transacted sexual relations in terms of the modes of re/production particular to the reform era, the relationship of transactional sex to wider labour relations and socially-reproductive (filial) relations, and of intersecting forms of contest and consent within and across these dimensions.

1.5 The term ‘transactional’ sex refers to sex-related practices that involve transactions between parties such as commodified sex services (those provided in return for money), but also the broader range of practices that serves ‘production and reproduction’ in ways that include pleasure and the meeting of material, economic, spiritual and procreative needs (Kempadoo, 2004: 62; Truong, 1990; White, 1990; Lim, 1998). A broad range of commercial sex practices has been a feature the Chinese reform era including, for example, those of hostesses, second wives (èrnǎi), and compensated dating. The continuum of transacted reform era practices cannot be subsumed within categories of prostitution (Jeffreys, 2004), as practices such as dating and marriage that are commonly regarded as non-commercial nonetheless share elements of exchange with the more obviously transactional practices of commodified sex (Li, 1997).

1.6 The paper analyzes transactional sexuality alongside filiality and ‘public’ and ‘private’ labour contests of — and accommodations with — hegemonic social formations. It focuses, in part, on female migrant workers involved in transactional sex, as academics working on gender, labour and prostitution studies have taken their situation as exemplifying some of the key multidimensional faultlines of reform era inequality,  coercion, consent, and contest  (refs/fn). It thereby engages with questions of transformation and continuity that have been posed in reform era studies of gender, sexuality and prostitution (Zheng, 2009), as well as studies of labour relations and dissent (Pun, 2005; ). These include questions of the extent to which migrant workers’ use of transactional sex is or isn’t transformative in regards to Chinese patriarchy (for example, Zheng, 2009), and the extent to which their labour dissent is or isn’t transformative in regards to a working class political-subjectivity – the emergence of a labour movement — a ‘class for itself’ (Chan and Pun, 2009; Franceschini, 2017).1 These questions, respectively, posit (particular kinds of) gender equality and class equality as assumed horizons of justice, with writers taking corresponding objects of transformation as their targets. Zheng (2009) for example, targets sex workers’ beliefs and values, the patriarchal state and market, and Chinese filiality. Chan and Pun (2009) target the hegemonic party-state and Chinese neoliberalism (2009).

The intersectional character of Chinese social relations

1.7 Studies of Chinese patriarchy recognise the intersection of gender with other forms of inequality. The classical view describes filial relationships organised by patrilineal descent and inheritance, patrilocal residence, strong parental authority, with power invested in the senior generation, reinforced by state law and property ownership. Patriarchy is thus viewed intersectionally: male-to-female gender inequality is considered as one dimension in relation to others: including class, age, and rural/urban location (Santos and Harrel, 2017: 4-5; 7-10).As the political theorist Nancy Fraser argues, the dominant position of any one dimension of inequality is historically contingent. In the Maoist and reform eras, for example, rural/urban or political-status inequality has been the dominant dimension of inequality and patriarchal gender inequality might not have been the primary lens of analysis, even where the subjected group were primarily women or men.

1.8 As a category of analysis, class-inequality has moved from the mainstream to the margins of Chinese social science. Many Chinese social science scholars, including academics working on prostitution had, until recently, abjured class as a category of analysis (Wu, 2014: x). This was, in part, a reaction to the deligitimising of the Mao-era ideology of class warfare. Gender studies academics, for example, rejected framing womens’ inequality in terms of employment, in favour of examinations of psychology, marriage, sexuality, crime and education (Jeffreys, 2004: 91). Chinese social scientists, more broadly, have generally preferred a language of stratum to one of class in order to avoid the relational and conflictual character of class within historical materialism, in accordance with the party-state’s discourse of ‘harmonious’ society (Guo, 2008:51). 

1.9. This shift has been coterminious with the deminise of class analysis in Anglophone social sciences where postmodernism and postructuralism have overtaken historical materialism as preferred paradigms, with a preference for the language of discourse and disciplinary and actutarial forms of government and power, in contrast to ideology, hegemony and contest. Intersectional studies have focussed on gender and ‘race’ while generally eliding or neglecting class (Mann, 2012: 112). This has sometimes been a means of redressing the tendency of some Marxists towards an overdetermining economism and neglect or subordination of other dimensions as aspects of class  (Bohrer, 2018: 49-50; Giminez, 2001 ;Smith and Smith, 1983:122; Alcoff, 2011; Gedalof, 2013).

1.10 Bohrer (2018:54), however, follows Gimenez in arguing for retaining class as a category of analysis as “class oppression is distinctive and necessitates a different kind of treatment, politically and theoretically, than race and gender”. This specific treatment

requires a wholesale analysis of capitalism as a system and a structure of material
relations of production and reproduction, accumulation and dispossession,
which has its roots in political economy and effects in the multifaceted
realms of culture, ideology and politics (Bohrer, 54).

1.11 For Bohrer (2018), capitalism is the ‘matrix of domination’ in which slavery, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy were forms of  inseparable oppression that were historically concreted in and through one another. Within this Marxist-intersectional analysis, capitalism is the synthesis of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonisation and imperialism systems of dispossession. Thus while class cannot be considered the sole dimension of capitalist accumulation and antagonism, each dimension should be viewed as one of the interlocking aspects of oppression.

1.12 Arguably then, if capitalism is taken as the matrix of domination then class remains an important category of analysis in the Chinese context, given the prevailing view that social inequality has intensified and the position of those who might be categorised as workers worsened during and as a result of the reform era opening to neoliberalism (Goodman and Zang, 2008:2; Wu, 2014, x). Measured by the Gini coefficient, the PRC shifted from 0.22 in 1978 – one of the most equitable scores ever recorded (Adelmen and Sunding, 1987), to 0.465 in 2016, while the coefficient for wealth rose to 0.739 in 2010 (Li and Wan, 2015). These figures might be read as suggesting  However, to conclude that China’s reform involved a denigration from  one of the most to one of the least equitable societies may be debatable insofar as Maoist-era equality has been overestimated (as discussed below). It may be more accurate to observe that legacies of Maoist era inequitable class relations and conflict continue in transformed and exacerbated form in the reform and post-reform era. These transformed continuities were evident in the realigned form of party-state-society complex that includes hegemonic dominance of the managerial and professional classes in partnership with, or direct participation in the entrepreneurial class (Goodman and Zang, 2008:5-6, 13; Goodman, 2008: 24-5).

1.13 Historical materialist studies of commodified sexual relations suggest that viewing capitalism alone as the matrix of domination may be insufficient in the Chinese context. Pan Suiming’s work (2009), for example, demonstrates transformed continuities of class domination. The sexologist critiques prostitution as reform era exploitation of public resources and working class women by elite cadre involving cooperation with the entrepreneurial class involved in entertainment. However, most of the literature on reform era prostitution cites the inequitable position of marginalised women as a key driver of widespread commodified sexuality and sexual relations without reference to class relations (see for example Liu, xx). This refusal of historical materialist perspectives is particularly striking given that the majority of those involved in commodified sexual practices come from some of the most exploited stratum of Chinese labour.

1.14 Analysis of class relations is more evident in academic studies of reform and post reform era political economy and labour relations. For some writers, class exploitation is key to reform era state-corporate complex, which utilises flexible mass production and classic low wage regimes dependent on flexible and cheap labour (Luthje, Luo and Zhang, 2013:24).These regimes have differing consequences for migrant and urban labour. In terms of the former, the party-state’s hukou system ensured a massive supply of surplus (rural-urban) migrant labour, restricting migrant-workers’ status to that of rural residents and thereby limiting their access to the benefits of urban residence, including the leverage that urban residence would have given in wage disputes. In terms of the latter, these reform era regimes have witnessed the party-state withdrawal from the ‘iron bowl’ social contract with urban ‘master workers’ wherein the state supplemented wages with secure welfare benefits including health, housing and old age pensions. Instead, the reform era wages and benefits have been negotiated in the private sector with a far smaller supplement of state-provided welfare.

1.15 The intersectionality of the view that class domination works through Chinese ‘neo-liberalism’ is furthered in studies of gendered and generational and locational labour stratification and contest. Urban labour studies have also included a focus on class and generation,  younger generations of workers competing outside of the ‘iron bowl’ social contract constitute an urban precariat with insecure employment and welfare benefits, while the generation of older workers have fought to retain what they can of the benefits of the Maoist social contract.

1.16 The contestation of exclusion from the benefits of urban citizenship (Pun (2012) has been, for example, particular to young female migrants’ adverse inclusion in the Chinese-global circuits of production, on the basis of marginalisation in all of these dimensions. Pun Ngai argued that “the demand for cheap and productive labor to fuel transnational capital accumulation requires a gendering process of the working class” involving the construction of a gendered-class subject and gendering of production and reproduction  (Pun, 2012: 178). China’s export industries’ dormitary system providing on-site housing for young female rural migrants combined with the bifurcated rural/urban political economies to maintain a supply of (supposedly) compliant, productive and temporary labor.  

1.17 The multidimensional situation of young female migrant-workers bears some similarity to that of women involved in transactional sex in part because they form the social segment from which most sex workers come. Beyond that overlap their are further similarities in terms of academic perspectives regarding the degrees to which female migrant workers and sex workers  consent to and contest their situation. Both feminist labour studies and prostitution studies tend to see young women as victims compelled or coerced by structural factors into poorly paid work or recourse to prostitution. In labour studies, for example, young women are viewed as having been compelled to leave rural backgrounds since the decollectivisation of the 1980s and loss of land rights, and limited to low level factory work by lack of access to higher education. They are also percieved as having been compelled to return before the end of their perceived marriagable age by the difficulty of finding an urban resident for marriage. Yet the feminist view is more nuanced than one of pure victimhood-sans-agency. Pun et al, for example, see the dormitary regime and female workers’ solidarity as sites of resistance, and many studies reflect the degree to which female migrants’ choice of urban factory work reflects a refusal of rural gendered marginalisation. Sex workers, similarly, are not only viewed as victims but recognised as having consented to their work and having done so, in part, as a form of refusal of the marginalisation of rural life and urban factory and service work

Multivalent and intersectionali contests for substantive citizenship

2.1.2 In the section above I observed that the accomodations and contests of female migrant labourers and sex workers are set within particular horizons of justice,with labour studies positing the overcoming of class, gender and locational  inequality within the paradigm of Chinese neoliberalism, and prostitution studies positing the overcoming of gender inequality within the paradigm of patriarchy. In the former, Pun and others focus in part on access to the status of urban citizenship, and we could gloss the anti-patriarchal perspective as advocating access to the benefits of citizenship-sans-gender discrimination. The accomodations and contests of female migrant workers and sex workers can be thought of in relation to substantive citizenship, the status of enjoying the rights and benefits of membership in the national community. This may be best thought of in terms of matters of degree, rather than a dichotomy between inclusion and exlusion. That is because the empirical evidence in regards to these groups in the reform era does demonstrate forms of exclusion (for example, from the status of urban residence), at the same time there is a continuum of forms of inclusion in the circuits of the Chinese-transnational economy ranging from adverse to beneficial.

2.1.2 Nancy Fraser’s (1995) trivalent concept of ‘parity of participation’ is useful in considering intersecting accommodations and contests over degrees of substantive citizenship in enabling consideration of cultural, economic  and political valencies . Trivalence parity involves issues of status recognition, issues of exploitation, marginalization, and deprivation (material redistribution), and political representation – the extent to which the architecture of political space denies or allows groups a voice (Fraser, 1995: 70; 2010: 365-6; 2003: 43). Deficits in one or more of the trivalencies result in disparity of participation, and groups suffering such deficits are denied equitable access to substantive rights and benefits of citizenship.

2.1.3 As noted above, the marginalisation of female migrant workers is multidimensional, simultaneously involving inequalities of class, gender, generational and locational status (Pun, 2012). In Fraser’s terms, female migrant workers have contested their labour conditions, refusing misrecognition on the basis of gendered rural status, and the lack of urban status and its rights and benefits. The have contested maldistribution, often protesting against poor pay, late and non-payment. Political representation has also been important because the architecture of industrial dispute management has generally worked to contain workers’ claims (So, 2013), and has been particularly silencing in terms of female workers’ claims. Female migrant workers contests have thus been cultural, economic and political. As I will argue below such trivalent protests are akin to the refusal of those involved in transactional sex of subordinate service and industrial work in urban centres under the hukou and sexist-labour systems (key elements of the architecture of their marginalisation).

2.1.4 The concept of trivalent parity does not, in itself, address the question of the degree to which contest or consent challenge or reaffirm dominant norms and institutions. Fraser approaches such questions in terms of ‘affirmative’ and ‘transformative justice’. Contests may be “affirmative”, “correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them” (Fraser 1995: 82). Transformative justice requires restructuring of “the underlying generative framework” (Fraser, 1995: 82). This might, for example, accord with social justice feminist’s aim of addressing the causes of underlying inequalities that coerce impoverished women into ‘prostitution’ (Liu, 20xx). Affirmative and transformative justice initiatives are not simply opposites: Although an affirmative contest might merely reaffirm an underlying paradigm, an accumulation of affirmative changes may also lay the ground for future transformative change.2 For example reducing maldistribution may involve affirmative improvements that lay the ground for transformed gender relations as occured, to an extent, following the new Communist regimes’ Marriage Law (1950). On the other hand, actors may be conflicted between affirmative and transformative tendencies in regards to particular horizons of justice: Zheng (2009),as we will discuss below, argued that migrant sex workers were engaged in actions and beliefs that worked to overcome some aspects of gender equality but at the same time further entrenched them in patriarchal oppression.

2.1.5  Gramsci’s concepts of ‘commonsense’, ‘good sense’ and ‘contradictory consciousness’ are useful starting points for considering the ways in which actors might both affirm and attempt to transform the underlying generative paradigms — hegemonic discourse and common sense, in Gramscian terms — giving structure to inequalities. Hegemony is the ideological dominance of the values and norms of a dominant group over its subordinates. A hegemonic state-society formation maintains power through a balance of consent based on popular beliefs and values (common sense), and coercion (backed by the use of force). “Common sense” refers to the ‘everyday consciousness or popular thought of the masses’, while “good sense” is a people’s ‘instinctive understanding of its basic conditions of life and the nature of the constraints and forms of exploitation to which it is commonly subjected’ (Hall, 1996: 432). These are reflexive and sometimes incoherent and contradictory aspects of popular thought. Gramsci argued that actors might experience contradictory consciousness in the conflicts between their critical ‘good sense’ grounded in experience and their ‘commonsense’ positions aligned to the a hegemonic ideology.

2.1.6 While the dichotomy of ideological common sense opposed to “instinctive” good sense have been subject to a great deal of useful criticism, I will argue that the idea of conflicted consciousness can be usefully reworked if we combine the critique of critical theories’ opposition between science and myth with a concept of intersectional consciousness. In the former regard we can follow Jo Doezema’s account of myth and ideology. …..

Dis/harmonising labour relations.

2.1.8 In this section I will draw on Fraserian and Gramscian approaches to discuss hegemony and resistance in the dimensions of migrant labour relations, filial and sexual relations, beginning with Gramscian accounts of Chinese party-state-society transformations, the maintenance and contest of hegemony and its modes of production in the dimension of Maoist and reform era labour relations. 

2.1.9 Transformations in China’s state-society formation developed in waves of hegemonic crisis throughout the late and post-Maoist era. The CCP political power structure and its centrally planned production regimes enabled the party-state to extract surplus labor on a massive scale, mobilising the rural, rural-to-urban and urban populations for rapid capital accumulation, while overcoming some of the major pre-existing social inequalities.

2.1.10 The Maoist regime also created a new socio-political hierarchy. The party-state’s classification system ranked categories of people on a scale of sociopolitical merit combining a Marxist categorisation of socio-economic position with explicitly political criteria. Rural categories ranged from the valorised proletariat hired agricultural workers and poor peasants through to the disparaged bourgeoisie including rich peasants and landlords (Wu, 2014:40; Kraus, 1981, 185-7). By the mid-1950s,  most residents urban residents had been also classified on the basis of sociopolitical merit, with the scale ranging from valorised proletarian ‘workers,’ through to the less valued urban poor, and disparaged and discriminated bourgeoisie including ‘capitalists’, so-called ‘bad elements’, and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ etc (Wu, 2014:40; Kraus, 1981, 185-7). 

2.1.11 This status-based classification system allocated degrees of socialist citizenship on the basis of sociopolitical merit. At the abject end of the scale were the vilified groups who were regarded and treated as non-citizens (and often as enemy aliens).  At the higher end of the scale valorised groups received the status and substantive benefits  of citizenship in degrees, in direct relationship to their supposed socio-political merit. Those belonging to proletariat categories, for example, recieved preferential treatment in terms of political positions, educational opportunities and employment (Meisner, 1999: 317). This merit system was cut-across by the rural-urban divide: although theoretically equal, urban citizens were privileged over rural citizens from the mid-1950s onwards, when the hukou system began to restrict peasant’s mobility and prevent their settlement in and access to the benefits of urban areas.It was also undercut by the disproportionate valorisation and reward of party cadres.

2.1.12 Political and socio-economic power was entrenched in the hands of the party-states’ vanguard, an elite bureaucratic cadre. As Wu (2013: 166) argues, while the bureaucratic stratum did not ‘possess private property in the means of production’, its ‘property was the state’: ‘surplus extraction was achieved by the extra-economic power monopolised by the state, unmediated by commodity relations’.3 Elite party cadre enjoyed ‘yituhua’— the term Chen Erjin coined to describe their fusion of economic-and-political power — which provided the basis for the excessive status and privileges granted to them and their families (Wu, 2014:206; ). 

2.1.13 From the mid-1950s onwards, the bureaucracy swelled in size and in the proportion of state resources used to support it (dipping briefly only to re-enlarge after the Cultural revolution). Dominating the social hierarchy, the bureacratic was itself was steeply hierarchical, with the highest grade receiving a salary greater than 30 times that of the lowest grade (Wu, 2014:25; Yang, 2007; Lee, 1991: 195, 199). Cadre ranking determined a range of privileges on top of salaries, including size and quality of housing, mode of travel, access to domestic services including chefs and nurses, access to special medical services, quality of schooling (Wu, 2014: 25). Senior cadre reportedly received perks on top of their high wages, including private, villa-like residences, domestic servants, chefs, private cars, etc (Wu, 2014:32-3).

new and multiple forms of social inequality, including wage inequality, severe shortages of food and other consumer-items, housing shortages; and domination ….a lack of civil rights and political agency (Wu, 2013: 159, 166-7).

These hardships were experienced alongside the emergence of  

Despite the intended class revolt of the Cultural Revolution,


2.1.12 The intense  socio-political inequality in the 1970s led to widespread dissent in the form of “primitive” political protest including illegal economic activity, production slow-downs, sabotage and theft (Bergère, 1979), as well as a proliferation of anti-bureaucratic forms of political critique (Wu, 2013). 


2.1.13 Deng’s (post-1978) reforms commenced a top-down passive revolution in which the party-state made  consent-based and coercive adjustments in order to maintain its hegemony. These included the opening of the market economy and the opportunity for participation in consumer society promoted by a discourse of “xiaokang” in which economic development would “lead Chinese people to common prosperity in the future” (Cai, 2008: 15; Wu 2013; Su, 2011). …. crack downs …

2.1.14  Market-reform privatisation and its primitive accumulation of former state-run and owned entities and resources led to further social inequality and injustice. Key problems include corruption, rural-urban inequality, uneven economic growth, income disparity, abusive industrial regimes, widespread unemployment, welfare withdrawal and the breaking of the ‘iron bowl’ social contract with ‘master workers’, authoritarian suppression of dissent, and environmental degradation.

2.1.15 Rural residents and migrant workers whose surplus labour fueled the engine of China’s ‘fourth-wave industrial revolution’, bore the brunt of reform era inequality. As noted above, the urban registration (hekou) system works to extract their surplus labour cheaply (Zhang, F., 2014; Fan, 2008), while restricting their access to the benefits of urban citizenship (subsidized housing, education, healthcare, welfare), and ability to raise the price of their labour (Ngai, 2012; Sum, 2017).

2.1.16 Rural migrant workers have been subject to flexible mass production and low wage classic regimes (Luthje, Luo, and Zhang, 2013) in low-end construction, manufacturing and service jobs (Zhang, F., 2014; Fan, 2008). Along with low wages, these regimes have been characterised by long working hours, forced overtime, pay arrears, a lack of collective agreements, and routine violations of legal standards including inadequate safety measures (Luthje, Luo, and Zhang, 2013; Hui and Chan, 2011; Lee, 2007).

2.1.17 Amongst this group, young women have been the most marginalised, experiencing greater precarity, lower wages and greater employment restriction than men (Ngai, …).

2.1.18 Consequently (as discussed below) there has been a sustained period of resistance and rebellion amongst those deprived of former ‘iron bowl surities and the younger generation of urban workers, and particularly among migrant workers.  In response to the sustained hegemonic crisis represented by working class dissent and leftist agitation, the party state worked to deflect potential mobilization of the masses against the inequalities of China’s reform and opening up (So, 2014). Party-state discourse worked  to ensure conflicts that were no longer presented as matters of class-conflict but instead in terms of societal stratficiation and confrontations requiring ‘harmonisation’ (Xing, 2014). The ideological vision of the ‘harmonious  society’ (2002), was one in which “all people will do their best, each individual has his/her proper place, and everybody will get along in harmony with each other” (Renmin Ribao, 2005/02/20, in Holbig, 2006).

2.1.19 However, workers frequently rejected the harmony myth in favour of collective actions such as protests, strikes, demonstrations and other collective and individual acts, including intentional negligence and self-harm. The frequency of ‘mass incidents’ (the official term for protests, strikes and demonstrations) in the Reform era rose from 10,000 in 1993 to 127, 467 in 2008 (CLB, 2009a; 2009b). These forms of resistance refuse both the maldistribution of exploitative working conditions, and misrecognition and misrepresentation inherent in the party-states’ ‘harmonising’ architecture of justice and its limited space for voicing dissent (see, for example, So, 2013).

2.1.20 In response the party-state supported harmonization discourse with new laws, mediation and material benefits in order to attempt to maintain workers’ consent. Measures aimed at containing labour unrest included partial amelioration of the urban registration system, and industrial regulation (Su, 2011; Hui, 2017; Hui and Chan, 2012; Shaopeng, 2016:66). Formal mechanisms —generally under the umbrella of the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions  — for industrial mediation have been a key element for supressing dissent and maintaining consent.

2.1.21 … reform era = war of position … passive revolution … affirmation of hegemonic consent? or entrenching of despotic government … 

in terms of good and common sense … not=; no faith in ACDTU and mediation … no faith in “harmony”? …amongst those who resist (subject of labor surveys etc) …

Dis/harmonising filial relations

2.2.1 The myth of harmonious society stretches across all aspects of social re/production. State discourse seeks to render the family as central to the hegemony of its model of harmony (Shue, 2004; Zavoretti, 2016:1219), building on commonsense norms of filiality, gender, and sexuality (Zhang, L. 2009). Within this, family’s filiality has been valorised as the prime means of social welfare (Su, 2011; Hui, 2017; Hui and Chan, 2012; Shaopeng, 2016:66). Zavoretti (2016a) suggests that sex is, moreover, subsumed with concepts of zeren (responsibility), including filial relations of material and emotional support between bride and groom, and with children, parents, and parents-in-law.

2.2.2 At the same time, the ideology and experience of market competetion has affected good and common sense regarding filiality. Reform era market economic pressures have intensified the economic aspect of filiality and sexual relations, including marriage. For example, a combination of the One Child policy and an inadequate social security system has meant that marriages between two single-child spouses in urban centres must often bear the weight of care for four aging parents as well as a child (Wang and Zhou, 2010:266; Fowler, Gao and Carlson, 2010:347). Urban male spouses are expected to own an apartment (or have a substantial deposit) in order to attract a wife of sufficient suzhi  (Jeffreys, 2015: 33, 43; Xu, 2013: 4), at a time of expensive urban housing (Huang, 2013). Many parents — traditionally responsible for their child’s wedding costs — now view housing as one of their responsibilities. Marriage choices involve families in financially burdensome issues of housing, social welfare, and security, including urban household registration. In this context, the traditional criteria of “a marriage between families of equal social rank” (mendang hudui) often prevails, requiring balance between couple’s familial economic and social status (Wang and Nehring, 2014: 585).

2.2.3 For some commentators, Reform era transformations in socio-economics and social values include some movement away from the collective value system to individualization (Hansen and Svarverud, 2010; Yan, 2009, 2010; Jeffreys 2015:50). Yan (2009; 2011) argued that there had been a shift from a willingness to sacrifice in the service of the collective and extended family to a narrower concern for the immediate family and that intergenerational reciprocity now works on the basis of market exchange rather than filial piety. However, the degree to which values have transformed from collective to individualist has been subject to critical reappraisal.  Xiaoying Qi (2016:48) argues that both young and elder generations are engaged in a process of reinventing traditional values and practices of filiality in a manner that allows for altruism and self-interest —”tempered altruism’ (Lucas and Stark, 1985) — rather than rejecting them in the pursuit of individualisation. She argues “the dominant family pattern is neither individualistic nor collectivistic but tends to be relational: individual members of families collaborate to secure cross-generational interests” (Qi, 2016: 49; see also Davis and Friedman, 2014; Fong, 2004: Ikels, 2004a).

2.2.4 Yan (2016: 245; 2011: 219) similarly described transformations in filiality in the rural (northeastern) context where an “increasing number of the elderly praised their married children (sons and daughters alike) for their wide-ranging support and care’ while noting that their children were supportive but not obedient. The transformed character of filiality and marriage decision-making has been based, in part, on the rising power of rural young women in relation to their parents-in-law (Yan, Y. 2006).  Young women have challenged their subordination as ‘voiceless dependents’ and gained authority over mate choice, family division — with most couples establishing independent households soon after marriage  —  and marriage transaction, the latter involving converted bridewealth paid directly to the bride and commonly used towards the couple’s housing (Yan, op cit). Young women engage in filial support from these positions of relative independence, rather than as subordinates within the patrilineal family household. These are shifts from vertical relationships of elder authority and filial obedience to horizontal relations of mutual care and support. Moreover, families have to collaborate because the state’s residual  welfare provision is matched by policies that make the family corporation the key provider of parental welfare (Wong 2008:90, in Qi, 2016:46; see also Zheng, 2009).4

2.2.5 The social norms that the discourse of harmony build on delineate positive status as the performance of reinvented filial duties, demonstrated by the taking of responsibility (jeren) while performative failure runs the risk of loss of “face” (mianzi) (Qi, 2011:46). Filiality is an aspect of hegemonic ideology, bringing state and family together under the rubric of social harmony, allowing the state to deflect contest of inadequate provision of welfare through shared “commonsense” beliefs and practices related to caring for parents and other family members. At the same time, relational filiality is a “good sense” renegotiation of values in the face of socio-economic pressures including massive domestic migration, urbanisation, market competition (without the safety net of state welfare), and intense and ongoing (primarily rural-to-urban) inequality that follow from the party-states committment to prosperity for the people.

Dis/harmonising sexual relations and sexuality


“Raise the Technological Level” 1956 One of many Maoist posters showing ‘iron women’ as equal contributors to production

2.3.1 The new PRC had sought to transform gender relations equitably, including an end to “feudal” practices of commodifying women. In the early Maoist era, the Marriage Law (1950) outlawed open concubinage, child betrothal, and forced marriage, and required that marriage should be a monogamous relationship based on socialist conjugality — balancing mutual affection and political affinity (Evans, 1997).  For many Chinese and Western commentators, the Maoist era has been represented as a period of conservative attitudes to sexuality in which the commodification of sexuality disappeared because of the repression of prostitution and the restraints imposed on rural sexual relations (see, for example, Jeffreys, 2015; Honig, 2003:144). Brothel-based prostitution was abolished and romantic love and sexuality were suppressed in some contexts (Zhang and Yue, 1998; Diamant, 2000:281-312), including repression of published texts concerning romantic or sexual themes (Honig, 2003: 147). However, transactional relations continued in forms that resisted or adjusted to communist norms and political economy (Pan, 1996: see also Hershatter, 1997: 332-3; Ruan, 1991). In rural society, the new Marriage Law led to an increase in hypergamic relationships with many women seeking to marry — and divorce in order to remarry  —  into more advantageous and, ideally, urban circumstances (Diamant, 2000). Rural male cadre also engaged in hypergamy, seeking to divorce peasant wives in order to marry new urban partners. Rather than disappearing, transactional practices such as the payment of brideprice involved an escalation of costs (Parrish and Whyte, 1978; Siu 1993), with rural males and older women losing out in relation to younger women in the increasingly expensive marriage market (Johnson, 1985: 124-6). Within urban areas, working classes “often entered into friendship, marriage and sexual relations” driven by status and economic concerns, urban or rural residence, sexual desire, and the pursuit of fun and leisure” (Diamant, 2000: 271, 224; Honig, 167-8). Working-class women commonly sought partners on the basis of ‘material possessions, money, and status’, and frequently changed partners in the pursuit of advancement (Women’s Federation, 1955: 17, Diamant, 2000: 187, 80).  Amongst female cadre mate-choice favoured higher status cadre for their high income, and many low-level male cadres found it difficult to find marriage partners (Women’s Federation, 1959: 32, Diamant, 2000:191). Conversely, women married to elite urban men feared the potential for divorce under the new marriage law for they often lacked independent means of support (Diamant, 2000: 56).


Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree idealizes pre-Reform Era relationship

2.3.2 These examples of hypergamic practice and leisure-sex suggest that political-class status was an object of relational exchange because of the advantages it brought.  Moreover, trading of scarce resources for sexual services was common amongst cadre and rural and urban women during the 1950-60s (Pan, 1996; Yang and Cao, 2016; Diamant, 2000; Honig, 2003: 162, 166). Pan (1996) described a culture of bargaining between ‘those who use their power and authority to obtain sex (yiquan moxing)’ and those who use sex to obtain privileges of the powerful (yixing moquan). Cadres engaged in sexual abuse of female factory workers (Lee, 2007: 148-9), and sexual abuse of young female and male rusticates (women sent to work in rural areas) was frequent (Wu, 2014: 163; Honig, 2003:161-164; Deng, 1992; Shi, 1996).

2.3.3 Transactional sexual relations in the reform era evince both transformations and continuities with those of the Maoist era, despite a view common to studies of prostitution and sexuality that there has been transition from the abolition to the proliferation of prostitution, from chaste socialist relations to liberal sexual practices, and from egalitarian gender relations to sexualised gender inequality. Some of the continuities in sexual relations can be seen in the reform era tensions between harmonization and market opening. In line with the centrality of filial relations to a harmonious society (described above), official discourse encourages heteronormative relations which subsume love and sexuality within the private sphere of stable family life ( Zavoretti, 2016a: 1200; Yan, 216-7). This discourse is built on the common sense views prevalent amongst many youths who view sex as  “a reproductive function” (Jeffreys, 2015, 46; Liu, M. 2012). Accordingly, for many, sexual activity is limited to the context of serious adult relationships or as a precursor to marriage, and pre-marital sexual activity prior is still regarded as immoral and irresponsible (Jeffreys, 2015: op cit; Evans, 1997:83; Fang, 2013; Zavoretti, 2016b).

2.3.4 However, policies of reform era market opening, social reproduction and a degree of tolerance for cultural representations of sexuality have reportedly also encouraged a ‘sexual revolution’  amongst urban residents, and youth in particular (Zhang, E. 2011). For many youth, sex is “a form of play” or “a shortcut towards financial security” (Jeffreys, 2015:48, Pan, S. 2009).


Ren Hang’s photographic art attests to the culture of play amongst segments of urban youth

2.3.5 The reform era has seen sex services become available at a wide range of facilities while “sellers and buyers of sex come from all sectors of society” (Pan, 2009; David and Friedman, 2014; Jeffreys, 2015Jeffreys, 2012). The opening towards transacted sex is coterminous with the continuing policy of opening to the market. This correspondence is most evident in special economic zones like the Yunnan-Vietnam border, where a discourse of “gaohuo jingli” (to make alive, banging) prevails, incorporating the ideals of economic and sexual openness (Zhang, 2012:99). Zhang argues, following Aiwa Ong, that such liminal spaces represent (neoliberal) states of exception to the prevailing norms wherein the state pathologizes and criminalizes prostitution as one aspect of deviancy resulting from market opening (Bassi, 2016; Jeffreys, 2015). However, many local authorities and economies benefit from the sex industry in the entertainment, tourism and related sectors (Zheng, 2011). Police, like other officials, also view prostitution as a source of income (Jeffreys, 2006; Liu, 2007), and have only limited ability to identify and restrict transacted sex in any case, in part because much of it falls into the grey area between hospitality services and paid for sex (Jeffreys, 2004). Consequently, “local governments without exception turn a blind eye and only respond reluctantly to occasional pressure from Beijing to crack down on pornography and prostitution” (Chin and Finckeneaur, 2012: 217; see also, Zhang, 2006; Jeffreys, 2006). The pattern that Barbara Hershatter (1997: 390) noted towards the end of the 1990s — oscillating between ’rounds of cleanup campaigns’ and periods of benign neglect and local local payoffs’ — has continued into the present. Thus, rather than seeing a criminalising normality versus a regulating exceptionality, it might be more useful to regard these countervailing tendencies as aspects of nationally pervasive norms and governance whose faultlines lie between local and national government.


2.3.6 The  proliferation of transacted sexual relations works across the continuum of relationships including sex work, marriage, and other forms of sexualised labour. He Qinglian (2005) categorized sexual relations in monochromatic shades, ranging from ‘prostitution’ (the “black” sphere) to romantic/marriage relationships (the “white” sphere). In between these, she places “grey women” (huise nuxing) involved in sexualised affective work and physical-sex work including escorts(bao po), second wives (er nai), and some ‘xiaojie’and KTV hostesses.

Picture 180

Lee Chen Dao paintings evoke the sometimes playful lifeworld of hostesses

2.3.7 He’s categorisation relies on a dichotomy between commodified (improper) and non-commodified (proper) sexual relations.  Contra He’s moralising categorisation, however, marriage is, arguably, more of a ‘grey’ than a ‘white’ area as it has historically involved forms of transaction including major marriage and brideprice, wife-sale, polyandry and polygamy, and in-between practices (see xxx). Major marriage typically requires a great investment of economic and other forms of capital, and non-normative marriage practices such as wife-purchase have reappeared in the period since the financial crash (2008). The grey area also includes the beauty industry and retail, clerical and service jobs involving the commodification of young women’s sexuality within the
ascendancy of the ‘sexual economy’ (Osburg, 2013:144; Gaetano, 2008: 635; Zurndorfer, 2016). With youth culture and commerce increasingly focused on displays of youthful sexiness (Jeffreys, 2015: 46; Latham, 2007; Liu, F. 2011; Moore, 2005; Sima and Pugsley, 2010), sexual attractiveness has been generally deemed necessary in women’s employment (Jieyu, 2017). Consequently, women’s work in general might be regarded as a ‘grey’ area; as  TianTian Zheng remarked, “the line between what defines a sex worker and what is necessary to maintain employment is not substantial” (Zheng, 2009: 22).

2.3.7 Attitudes to self-commodification demonstrate some continuity across the field of sexual relations. Just as sex workers regard their bodies and other attributes as assets to be capitalized on, so do participants in the broader field of relationships. As one postgraduate told Wang and Nehring (2014), “career is men’s biggest capital, while youth and beauty are the most important capital for women”. This view echoes those of an er nai who argued, “[i]n essence, men using their power and connections and women using their youth and beauty are the same. Both are a rational utilization of one’s personal resources” (Osburg, 2013).  Common acceptance of the commodification of sexual relations reflects the pragmatic need for sufficient economic and social capital as prerequisites for relationships and filiality in the context of socio-economic inequality. Such beliefs inform the dating strategies of Beijing university graduates, where “unspoken rules of dating include a desire for a wealthy partner” (Wang and Nehring (2014:585).  As noted above, the ability to provide urban housing is a key criterion for mate-choice. A typical situation involved a government company employee who tried to set up a friend with a suitable man who did not own his own home. Her friend said, “What’s the point? Without an apartment, love isn’t possible” (NYT, 2012).

2.3.8 The shades of grey sexual relations are highly stratified. Many “jienu” sex workers providing services for poorer clients including migrant workers are likely to be rural migrants themselves, sometimes older and therefore less sexually attractive than young women, and unable to perform the cultural aspects of attractive appearance through fashionable dress, hairstyling, make-up, plastic surgery and fitness routines (Jeffreys, 2015; Zheng, 2009; Tsang, 2017). Their lack of economic and bodily capital present barriers to work in better-paid realms of sex work, just as their lack of socio-cultural capital limits their ability to develop connections with higher status clients.


Rural migrant housing in Beijing 2017: underground rooms and homelessness after urban village demolition

2.3.9 The limits of low-level sex work arguably corresponds to that of lower level rural-rural marriages. Rural migrants experience status-inequality, sometimes being viewed as júwàirén [“ignorant “outsiders”] (Zhang, 2001). The lack of urban residency, exclusion from urban property accumulation (Zhan, 2015), and their low suzhi (quality) in the regard of urban residents means most — and particularly males without higher education  — are regarded by urban residents as undesirable partners for marriage (Wang and Nehring, 2014). Female rural migrants themselves seek to avoid rural-rural marriages (Gaetano, 2008). Instead, migrant women working in urban centres, like migrant sex workers, seek to utilise their bodily, cultural and economic capital, in order to find a marriage partner with the most advantageous conditions possible. Arianne Gaetano (2008: 637) summarises their criteria for marriage partners as including

the man’s household economic and social situation, such as hukou, property, and assets; occupation; whether his parents were still living and what sort of care they might require of a daughter-in-law; and how many of his siblings are unmarried and hence would require financial support.

2.3.10 Such criteria helped determine whether the potential spouse would be able to fulfil his cao (‘being responsible and dependable’). Rural men without urban migration experience were deemed ineligible, those with marketable skills and savings were esteemed, and men with urban status were deemed highly desirable but generally unobtainable (Gaetano, op cit). As Pun Ngai (2012: 180)  observes, many female migrant workers spend between x-5 years working in urban factories before returning to their rural areas because they have been unable to find a marriage partner in the city.

2.3.11 Migrant workers of both sexes increasingly self-represent as diaosi [“losers”] (Sum, 2017), sharing underprivileged backgrounds, poor wages, low consumption, and low social status (Sum, 2017: 303). Male diaosi depreciate themselves as being  “poor, short and ugly” in contrast to the ‘wealthy, tall and handsome’ men likely to date wealthy, fair-skinned and pretty (bafumei) girls. Sum’s (2017) neo-Gramscian analysis shows that their self-representation involves a “good sense” understanding of their abject exclusion from the sphere of middle-class urban social reproduction and sexual relations: being ‘a loser’ is in part an ironic critique of the common inequality of their doomed aspirations.

2.3.12 In the overlapping sphere of low-level rural-urban hypergamy and sex work, participants hope to leap-frog over their subordinate position either through the independence granted by money or through the wealth and status of higher-level partners (see Tsang, Lowe, and Scambler, 2017). Low-level sex workers in Dongguan prefer sex work to dead-end factory or service work, and return to rural communities (Tsang, Lowe, and Scambler, 2017:x). These young sex workers make great use of their bodily and sexual capital, enacting filiality by taking on the role of breadwinner for rural families, establishing themselves in urban centres with economic independence, and using their wealth to ally or overcome the status subordination of rural migrants in urban cities. For an exceptional minority, sex work may even lead to access to a hukou, or an er nai position with a wealthy client.

2.3.13 In contrast to low-level sex workers, mid-and-high-level sex workers are able to draw on greater economic and cultural resources (Tsang, 2017a; Choi and Holroyd, 2007).  Employing these resources enables the pursuit of higher levels of reward, economic independence and personal autonomy (Zheng, 2009) and, for some, long-term intimate relationships with elite clients (Tsang, 2017:452-3). The character of such commodified relationships are not exploitative but rather include friendships, mutual trust, and romance (Tsang, 2017: 452-3). This level of sex work corresponds to the mid-high levels of rural to urban marriages, wherein undergraduate and graduate migrants generally have the advantage over less-educated rural women.5

2.3.14 Urban resident undergraduates and graduates generally have the highest value in commodified sexual relations (Osburg, 2013; Wang and Nehring, 2014). Relations with them are regarded as bestowing status because of their high suzhi embodied in economic and cultural capital, including education, lifestyle, and civil dispositions (Ren, 2013: 34-44; Xiao, 2010; Zhang, 2010: 19, in Sum, 2017: 300). For such women, possession of sufficient parity of participation in urban society grants them the freedom of appearing to make mate-choices on the basis of romance. However, such choices are based on the knowledge that they represent a high socio-economic value to aspiring partners. This relative and commodified freedom reflects that of the high-end hostesses in Tsang’s (2017) study, who chose a period of sex work with elite clients because their valuable levels of cultural, social, bodily and economic capital enabled them to do so and to have their work represented as esteemable.

Multi-dimensional war of position and passive revolution in labour, sex and filiality.

3.1 How might such intersecting contests inform an understanding of the underlying paradigms that structure inequality? For Zheng, an underlying paradigm of patriarchy and neo-Confucian filiality is supported by exploitative social structures including families, the state, patriarchy, and the market economy.  Zheng argues that hostesses mis-recognised their situation as advantageous when their work, and their support of their families actually “reproduce[s] the structure that victimizes them.” In this view, hostesses are recognised as rightly arguing that the income derived from sex work increases their capacity for enacting filial responsibilities and for self development, increases their rural status through these enhanced capacities, empowering them in relation to parents and other relations, and allows them to challenge their subordinate status in urban environments where, for example, urban boyfriends respect the character they demonstrate in undertaking migrant sex work. However, Zheng (2009) argues that sex hostesses  have in fact further entrenched the objectification of women, and the state and family’s of exploitation of their youthful attractiveness and filiality. In this view, sex worker’s belief in their work’s subversion of gender and rural-urban hierarchies fails to disrupt their unconscious internalization of patriarchal dispositions; their view that it does is a form of symbolic misrecognition that embeds them further in patriarchal filiality and exploitation, reproducing patriarchal state hegemony (Zheng, 2009: e133).

3.2 Zheng’s analysis points to the intersecting dimensions of party-state hegemony that I have categorised in terms of transactional sexual relations, filiality and the market economy. However, rather than viewing sex workers as exemplifying ‘bad sense’ in relation to dominant norms and structures that require transformative rupture, it might be useful to note the ways that hegemony is contested by a range of actors in multiple and historically specific fields and dimensions.

3.3 Viewing filiality as a component of a timeless over-determining patriarchy that allows for continuing exploitation of daughters by families, I would argue, reduces it to its oppressive character, missing the reciprocity and tempered altruism involved in the good sense of its contemporary relational reinvention. Adherence to relational filiality cannot be reduced to gendered  ‘false consciousness’ for family members may be critical of welfare inadequacies and patriarchal relations whilst still pursuing filial responsibilities. While such countervailing tendencies might be considered in Gramscian terms of ‘contradictory consciousness’ (Sum, 2017), they might also be regarded as evidencing a kind of reflexive consciousness in which subjects renegotiate their normative positions in light of party-state power and their multidimensional stratification.

3.4 Transactional sex and rural-to-urban hypergamy strategies increase young women’s income or access to resources and sometimes empower their ability to fulfill filial responsibilities (Zhang, 2012:100).  Zheng (2009: 152) suggested that migrant sex workers in Dalian typically spent “about half of what they earned” to support their families, and notes their avowed pride in their ability to support their parents and other family members. These are shifts from vertical authoritative to horizontal reciprocal relations of care with parents and, correspondingly, towards improved perceptions of the value of daughters.  As Zheng (2009:x) recounts, for example, mothers relinquished authoritative control, came to advocate the single independence of their daughters as preferable to the trap of rural marriage, and developed tolerance of non-traditional expressions of gender. These strategies may yield access to the benefits of urban citizenship that is not possible within the realm of so-called ‘white’ relations for women from rural and rural-migrant backgrounds. That the losers in these wars of position may include poor rural village and rural-migrant young men who are neglected as ‘bare sticks’ points to legacies of intersectional inequality in the late imperial, republican and Maoist eras that cannot be reduced to a male-dominant form of over-determining patriarchy.

Honda factory protesters

Protestors at the Honda factory strike,  Zhongshan                              photo by Arianna Lindquist, New York Times,  June 10, 2010

3.5 In terms of the hegemony of the market economy, the so-called ‘black-grey’ spectrum of sexual relations points to the excessive inequity of the commodification common to all forms of social reproduction, including sexual relations, and in which many are intersectionally excluded from the benefits of sufficient citizenship. It is subordination as rural residents and migrant workers that those involved in commodified sex and industrial protest resist (see Tsang, 2017b; So, 2014), not the comparatively advantageous conditions of a sex work economy, including advantages of employing attractiveness towards hypergamic ends.  There is here a form of gender protest refusing relations on subordinate terms in favour of independence or recognition of greater value. Reform era commodification including, for example, mid-to-high end sex work and brideprice paid to the bride (rather than her parents) has involved a partial shift away from the realms of exploitation for male profit towards women’s use of their capital for their own projects.

3.6 The engagement of rural migrant women across the spectrum of sexual relations involves contestation of social, economic and, ultimately, political subordination. These projects contest subordination in multiple dimensions, seeking economic redistribution, and refusing misrepresentation. This is the case, for example, of young male and female sex workers refusing rural and urban subordination. Female migrants seek to overcome the subordination of women’s rural lives.6 Both male and female migrants have often first worked in menial service and construction jobs in cities, and the move to sex work represents a refusal of the shameful ‘dead-end paths’ of urban labour regimes that incorporate unbearably long hours with low pay (Kong, 2012; see also Zheng, 2009:x; Jeffreys, 2015: 99), and the near-impossibility of achieving the benefits and agency of urban citizenship (particularly when non-graduates). In the case of the female sex workers of Dalian, the ability to transcend that abject state was a source of pride, and the subject of envy and admiration among male peers and female relatives stuck in more subordinate socio-economic positions, even as such views were conterminous with moral condemnation (Zheng, 2009; x, x).

3.7 The frequency of such refusals of subordination in low-end work and abject (rural-rural) major marriage correspond to workers’ refusals of maldistribution misrecognition and misrepresentation. Sex work and mass incidents might both be considered forms of anti-hegemonic resistance: strikes and protests are “unharmonious” while sex work is represented as being “improper”. As Zheng (2009: x,x) observes, migrant sex workers contest moralizing views of sex work as improper, arguing that all sexual relations are commodified.  Sex workers’ refusal of mainstream society’s right to denigrate their work as immoral involves the argument that moralists should first reflect on the criteria for their own “white” relations: only if these were actually free of the inequitable commodification that unfairly stratifies relational competition would it make sense to draw a line between “white” and darker shades of relationships. Arguably, like rural migrants seeking ‘hypergamic’ relations with urban residents rather than marriage to rural men, what sex workers such as those interviewed by Zheng (2009; 12, x) were refusing was not romantic attachment in itself, but relations made on a socially abject basis of low-paid jobs, poverty, and social subordination, and temporary relations made on the basis of insufficient price. Sex work is thus analogous to migrant workers’ “unharmonious” industrial protest in its temporary refusal of participation in a structurally inequitable field  — the field of “proper sexual relations” — which, like the field of industrial relations, has also been inequitably stratified by the hekou-suzhe system (Sum, 2017).

3.8 To what degree do these forms of resistance bear an affirmative or transformative relationship to party-state hegemonic formations in the intersecting fields of sexual relations, filiality and the market economy? The multidimensional contests of those involved in commodified sexual relations represent a bottom-up social equality war-of-position, coterminous with the state’s top-down passive revolution involving improved social rights, economic growth and the freedoms of consumer society, improved industrial relations and the accommodation between market opening and filiality.

3.9 Anti-hegemonic resistance of intersectionally-subordinate subjects has led to a series of consent-focussed accommodations on the part of the party-state, along with a reiteration of coercive repression. Accommodations have included .local and widespread regulation and tolerance of sex work, measures of mediation and containment in industrial relations, amelioration of rural inequality and some extension of universalist welfare.  Coercive measures have included the (sporadic) criminalisation and pathologising of “prostitution”, crushing of independent industrial protest, enforcement of the hekou-suzhi system, and restrictive (and punitive) regulation of social and mainstream media. Where the accommodations work to limit the range and intensity of social instability and protest, coercive measures serve to limit possible forms of resistance and protest.

3.10 In between resistance and passive re-incorporation lies changing and uneven forms of intersectional subjectivity. Sexuality is marked by increased recognition of the commodification of the wider range of relations, filial piety has been transformed into relational filiality and tempered altruism, and worker protests are marked by a growing class-and-gendered consciousness that vascilates between legal accommodations and extra legal forms of protest, as well as between cellular economic issues and wider forms of class, gendered and collective awareness.


  1. @para 1.4  A “class in itself” exists as a historical reality. A “class for itself” has acquired consciousness of its identity and possesses a capacity to act on this basis (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy; Bendix and Lipset, 1967).
  2. @para 1.1 Note Ruth Lister’s (2007) explanation.
  3. @ para 2.1.5 As discussed below, this perspective re-illuminates histories of the transformation of transactional sexual relations in the Maoist era: alongside the elimination of brothel-based prostitution there continued the extraction of (sexual) surplus value unmediated by commodification.
  4. @para 2.2.4 Welfare entitlements vary from province to province, with some like Gansu providing none at all.
  5. @para 2.3.13 Wang and Nehring note, for example, that more than 40% of Beijing marriages involve a male urban resident and female waidiren (rural migrant).
  6. @para 3.6 Zheng (2009)  observed that the desperation of such lives had led to high levels of rural female suicide (fieldwork, 1999-2004; See also, Wu, 2011). Sommers (2015:7) similarly notes that suicide rates were historically particularly high among rural young women (see also, Wolf, 1975:112).


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Categories: Human Trafficking

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