In recent years, China's labor market deregulation and increasing unemployment and underemployment have hit Chinese youth particularly hard. How are Chinese urban youth responding to these new labor conditions? This article argues that they are not only creating new forms 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 article provides a close reading of Chen Xiao's story, a young unemployed college graduate 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 she 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 postreform China.
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Xia Zhang; One Life for Sale: Youth Culture, Labor Politics, and New Idealism in China. positions 1 August 2015; 23 (3): 515–543. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-3125875
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