With the simultaneous growth of the manufacturing and service industries and the rapid expansion of information and communication technology, what do Chinese workers actually do in order to survive, and what methodological approaches are useful for exploring their subjectivity? In this article, the labor trajectory of Zuo Mei, a young migrant woman, is traced over six and a half years. The author relates Zuo's experience to what Mario Tronti calls the “social factory,” where the extraction of surplus occurs not just on the factory floor but also through social relations inside and outside multiple workplaces; at the intersection of factory, service, volunteer, and domestic labor; encompassing urban and rural, waged and unwaged, (re)productive and distributive, and on- and offline work. By detailing the interactions between these multiple forms of labor, the article argues that Zuo's suffering does not end outside the factory but extends to wherever social relations are capitalized, unveiling how alienation results from the resistance to that alienation.
The People's Republic of China has been characterized as the “world's factory” for several decades. This label has survived despite the relocation of many factories to other countries due to rising labor costs and workforce reductions from automated manufacturing and robotization. “Made in China” still prevails in global consumer culture, and labor disputes loom large despite state repression; despite growing interest in “a multiplicity of figures of labour to appear,” industrial capitalism and the working class (or the proletariat) have constituted the dominant discourses in labor studies in China (Franceschini and Sorace 2022: 22; see also Lee 2007; Chan 2012; Leung 2015).
However, the simultaneous growth of the manufacturing and service industries, as well as information and communication technology, suggests that China should not be excluded from post-Fordist discussions of precarious labor, class, and production (Zhang 2015). Labor activists whom I met in China often mentioned Chun Tae-il, whose suicide protest in 1970 woke South Korean workers to their miserable condition. Unlike Chun Tae-il, however, many young workers in China oscillate between factory labor and service labor, like insurance or real estate sales, and labor both on- and offline, as reflected in the country's boom in e-commerce. Based on communication, collaboration, and affective relationships, labor is increasingly oriented toward the creation of forms of social life—that is, the production of new subjectivities (Hardt and Negri 2004: 66).
Foxconn workers, with whom I have been meeting in Shenzhen since 2013, are no exception. Since 2010, when fourteen young migrant workers jumped to their death at the Longhua plant in Shenzhen, Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer and the primary supplier for Apple, has emerged as a critical site through which labor activists and researchers in Greater China have unveiled the grueling working conditions of Chinese workers as well as the de facto collusion of global capital, the local state, and the IT industry (Pun and Chan 2010; Pun, Chan, and Selden 2015). However, my interviewees, for whom Foxconn was just one of many workplaces, were lukewarm about the serial suicides. Zhang Ying1 was only seventeen years old when he started working for Foxconn. When I raised the incidents, he asked, “Is it really a big deal that in a company with more than a million employees, a few people died from falling?”2
Yet I am not suggesting that the condition of Chinese workers is not as grievous as activists and scholars have proclaimed. Two years after I first interviewed him, Zhang Ying suddenly texted me that he had been in a psychiatric hospital in Beijing for several weeks. Zhang, like the other twenty-odd Foxconn workers whose life trajectories I have traced, moved from one precarious job to another. They experienced various forms of alienation and discrimination beyond the assembly line while reacting in more complex and elusive ways than what is often seen as “resistance,” reminding us of “how vulnerability and politics are interwoven in concrete lives” (Han 2018: 340).
What does a Chinese worker today actually do in order to survive? What methodological approach is useful if we are aware of the fact that the bounded concept of the working class does not fully align with the empirical reality, while being attentive to the workers’ vulnerability under the increasingly sophisticated regime of capital accumulation? As a possible response, I have constructed the ethnography of one woman, whom I call Zuo Mei, pointing out the intersection of different forms of labor she engaged in instead of anchoring her to one specific factory. Zuo Mei was one of the Foxconn workers-cum-volunteers whom I interviewed at a community service center in Shenzhen's Foxconn town in 2013. Contingency is inherent in anthropological fieldwork, in which an ethnographer seeks “the actual performances of social life” rather than “underlying ‘real’ identities and orientations” (Ferguson 1999: 97–98). While I continued research on social work in Shenzhen as I had originally planned (Cho 2017), following Zuo's labor trajectory for over six and a half years allowed me to expand my understanding of the fluid boundaries of labor. Through an unavoidably fragmentary process, I went back and forth between Shenzhen and her hometown in Jiangxi. With her permission, I explored how Zuo engaged in on- and offline labor, how her participation in different forms of labor changed, and how her experience in one type of labor affected her perception of another.
My navigation of Zuo Mei's zigzag trajectory goes beyond predetermined notions of what constitutes “factory” and “labor.” In doing so, I move from a Foxconn factory to what Mario Tronti (2019: 26, 20) calls the “social factory,” where “the whole society becomes an articulation of production” and “labor-power is no longer only exploited by the capitalist but integrated within capital.” Tronti's notion of the social factory calls attention to how paid and unpaid forms of labor are inseparable under the conditions of late capitalism. However, Kylie Jarrett (2018) draws on the feminist scholarship on social reproduction and asserts that seeing the social factory as a novel effect arising from the digital and financial economy risks missing the fact that the family and the domestic sphere have always been crucial sites for interrogating the permeation of the capitalist mode of production into all aspects of life. The social factory “began and was centered above all in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the home—insofar as these were the centers for the production of labor-power”—where the unpaid reproductive labor of women was assumed (Federici 2012: 7–8).
Reconsidering the concept of the social factory through a feminist lens, I view waged and unwaged, productive, and reproductive labor through a broader lens that sees labor as a “value-creating practice” (Hardt and Negri 1994: 7). As Hardt and Negri suggest, the practices that comprise labor are not fixed: “The definition itself constitutes a mobile site of social contestation” (9). In Zuo's trajectory, I attend to the intersections of forms of labor (factory, service, volunteer, and domestic), across the urban and rural, the material and immaterial, and on- and offline. Factory and service labor belong to the waged labor regime: the former refers to Zuo's work in a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen and a garment factory in Jiangxi, while the latter entails her work at a gas station in Jiangxi, in insurance sales in Shenzhen, and in e-commerce. Volunteer labor, part of the unwaged labor regime, which Zuo passionately undertook at a community service center in a Foxconn town, “produces and accumulates the value of the relation” (Muehlebach 2012: 7). Domestic (unpaid) labor encompasses not only reproductive labor but also what James Ferguson (2015: 97) calls “distributive labor”: a series of processes of “seeking and securing distributive outcomes.” Against the coupling of the concept of labor with the process of production, this notion helps us better understand Zuo's pursuit of marriage as part of her struggle for family survival.
In tracing intersected labor in the social factory, what I found most poignant is that Zuo's suffering did not end outside any specific factory but extended to wherever social relations become capitalized. Her suffering was not just due to the institutional constraints or labor exploitation but was also a consequence of her efforts to overcome alienation and seek dignity. Zuo's ethnography unveils the paradox in which actions taken against suffering produce other types of suffering as multiple forms of labor are encountered in often unforeseeable ways. This paradox is related to the question that Wanning Sun, in her article in this special issue, raises as she notes that from a Marxist-feminist perspective, the poet Zheng Xiaoqiong and her interlocutors (migrant workers) do not seem politically transgressive: “What viable, realistic options are actually available to migrant men and women?” Vigilant about the leftist preoccupation with the history of class struggle, Jacques Rancière (2005: 80, 82) warns about the danger of reducing the proletariat to “someone who has only one thing to do—to make the revolution” while the “desire to do something else” is elided. Although this critique leads us to attend to workers’ creation beyond what is assumed to be the proletariat, the desire to do something else is limited by the resources and opportunities accessible to migrant workers like Zuo Mei.
This article is divided into two parts. The first introduces my ethnographic methods—how I followed Zuo's trajectory on- and offline.3 I present an outline of Zuo's intersected labor and then analyze her WeChat Moments, which I see as a mediated diary, from that period. The second part comprises ethnographic descriptions of how Zuo Mei navigated various affective and material circuits that gave form to her world and herself while engaging in multiple forms of labor. I pay particular attention to marriage—a contingent outcome of this trajectory and a precarious, desperate act that shows how the society she struggled to belong to was reduced to just family.
Zuo Mei's Labor Trajectory
In January 2013, I visited a Foxconn town in Shenzhen not long after a spate of suicides at the company. A professor in Shenzhen University brought me to a community service center where he had served as an adviser. Opened in December 2011 under a contract with the local government, the center was expected to “help young migrant workers—particularly Foxconn workers—to relieve stress, extend social networks, and build a sense of belonging to the city.”4 The center invited Foxconn workers to act not only as service recipients but also as volunteers (Cho 2018). Out of about three hundred volunteers, twenty-four-year-old Zuo Mei was so active that the social workers proudly introduced her to me first. She and I became friends quickly, in part because both of us, a volunteer and a fieldworker, often had a lot of free time at the center.
Zuo was born in a remote village in Jiangxi. After graduating from high school, she worked in a small textile factory in Wenzhou for three years and then moved to Shenzhen in 2011 to “find a new path in the south to develop myself.” In fall 2013, Zuo began to sell life insurance after an introduction by another volunteer. She quit Foxconn in January 2014 to focus on insurance, but in the end, sales were disappointing. Succumbing to parental pressure to marry, she returned to Jiangxi in December 2015.
While working at a gas station near her village, Zuo got engaged in November 2016 to a man from a nearby village that her cousin introduced her to. While her fiancé worked in Guangdong, Zuo stayed in the village and prepared for marriage. In the summer of 2017, she stopped working at the gas station and moved to a small garment factory in a nearby township and conducted e-commerce through WeChat's micro business (weishang 微商). While working full-time at the factory, Zuo frequently visited her fiancé’s family to help with the household chores.
However, the wedding, scheduled for spring 2018, was canceled. Zuo's fiancé already had another relationship in Guangdong, so he did not return. In March, Zuo returned to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen while continuing her e-commerce. In early summer, an uncle introduced her to Su Yang, a man from a nearby village. Since Su was also working in a factory in Shenzhen, he and Zuo dated there until they married in January 2019. After the Spring Festival, they returned to Shenzhen and started working at Foxconn together.
This has been a brief summary of Zuo's labor trajectory at the intersection of factory, service, volunteer, and domestic labor, January 2013–May 2019 (table 1). This will be considered alongside Zuo's online trajectory, introduced in the next section.
WeChat Moments as Mediated Diary
How did digital media reflect and shape Zuo Mei's labor trajectory? In an ethnography of marriage markets in China, Jean-Baptiste Pettier (2016: 88) notes that participant observation is significant since it widens the affective scope—“one in which the researcher does not work against emotions but with emotions by giving affect its due consideration.” However, not every subject is suited to intersubjective engagement through direct interaction. Although Zuo Mei was sincere, she was not necessarily able to voice her feelings. To describe a subaltern subject who struggles to express her emotions verbally, I look at social media in ways similar to how Wanning Sun attends to poetry in her article. My understanding of Zuo's thoughts and feelings about marriage, family, youth, the city, and life in general came as much from her WeChat Moments—pictures she shared and the captions—as from our conversations. She recorded daily events and publicized her views of the world by way of social media messages coordinated in particular ways. In this sense, Zuo's WeChat Moments served as a mediated diary through which she developed her own style of communication.5
WeChat 微信 is the most popular social media platform in China. Its interface mainly consists of one-to-one chats, group chats, Moments (personal profiles), and subscriptions to public accounts. With Zuo's consent, I collected and analyzed her posts in Moments, which she shared with her WeChat friends.
Between August 2013 and May 2015, Zuo Mei posted 376 Moments: 92 were her own, while 284 were reposts of other people's.6 She created her diary by sharing photos, text, and memes that drew her interest. Drawing on Xinyuan Wang's (2016: 58) work on the use of social media among migrant youth in China and partially revising her genres of visual posts, I have classified Zuo's posts into eleven categories and subcategories.7 Though there is some overlap, the categories show the distinctiveness of her posts (table 2).
In the following sections, I explore the intersection between Zuo's on- and offline lives through juxtaposing tables 1 and 2, my field notes, and her WeChat Moments. Online socializing is important for young migrant workers, who have few opportunities to develop their self-awareness or share interests offline. It is in this context that Wang (2016: 6–7) sheds light on “dual migrations” in the daily lives of Chinese rural migrants—“one from rural to urban, the other from offline to online.” Given the floating, insecure, and inequitable conditions of the migrants’ offline lives, Wang argues that online social relationships are perceived as “more authentic” and “much purer,” and seen as providing “new possibilities of sociality free from social hierarchy” (118–19).
Without denying the increasing role of social media in the lives of young migrants, taking a longitudinal perspective reminds us that their often unbearable offline lives are as intimate and dynamic as their online lives. I draw on E. Gabriella Coleman's (2010: 489) proposal to “provincialize” digital media with the questions of “how, where, and why it matters” to attend to problems that emerge when the material and affective production of value is made through the intersection of on- and offline lives over time.
Ephemeral Dignity in Affective Labor
Zuo Mei's WeChat diary begins with a post of a beach photo of herself and a friend on August 10, 2013, at a picnic for volunteers from the community service center in Shenzhen. From August 2013 to May 2019, this is the only travel photo with a friend, although Zuo posted some with coworkers in April 2014 when she was selling insurance in the city. She also reported on a work trip to Xiamen, uploading a picture of her name tag, selfies with her roommate, a picture of their hotel, and a group photo with a short message: “Thank you for your support. I will work hard with all of you in 2014!”
In Zuo's WeChat Moments, travel photos are rare; except for some photos taken when she and her sister went to Shanghai in April 2018, her online travel diary was limited to volunteer and service labor—particularly insurance sales. As forms of relational labor, volunteering and selling insurance seem to be opposites. Whereas the former is unwaged labor that is “intent on building social relations through acts of intense moral communion and care” (Muehlebach 2012: 7), the latter is waged labor aimed at transforming human relations into market-related ones.
Zuo and I agreed that the two forms of labor had something in common, although from different perspectives. I noted that both volunteering and insurance sales engage in the neoliberal dispersal of state redistributive functions by placing them on the shoulders of ethical citizens and they do so in the profit-seeking business sector. In contrast, Zuo perceived commonality between the two in terms of caring (guanhuai 关怀) and dignity (zunyan 尊严). She often complained that people did not appreciate commercial insurance and even saw it as fraudulent. Their distrust frustrated her because she was convinced she was helping others by selling insurance. In Moments, Zuo shared many posts about laws, policies, opinions, and interviews that she found helpful in understanding the importance of life insurance. The following post conveys her view that selling insurance is a very “altruistic” act:
Why should you sell insurance to those closest to you? I don't care if others buy insurance, but for those closest to me, I do. When a crisis comes, friends can lend you 300–500 yuan, relatives 3,000–5,000 yuan, and families 30,000–50,000 yuan. Even if they want to help more, they can't. Only insurance companies can provide 300–500 thousand yuan or more. So, don't complain about the people who try to sell you insurance. They love you more than anyone in the world! (shared post, August 14, 2014)
Zuo Mei valued volunteering and service labor as kinds of affective labor, which is “itself and directly the constitution of communities and collective subjectivities” (Hardt 1999: 89). Significantly, her convictions about caring for others and having horizontal relationships with her coworkers gave her a sense of self-respect and belonging that was rare at Foxconn. The QQ volunteers chatroom was full of photos of prizes and activity records that were updated like a competition, as well as emoji for encouragement.
This desire for self-worth and equal membership as fellow citizens, not peasant workers (nongmingong 农民工), runs through Zuo's posts about selling insurance. She proudly told me, “Retired teachers and bankers sell insurance, just like I do.” She posted pictures of her nameplates and badges that she was given at pep rallies and business meetings. On the photo of her desk name plate, for instance, Zuo added a short message: “Dear Customer, I can't contact you for three days because I have meetings. I will be in touch with you immediately afterward” (December 16, 2013). Attractive facilities sponsored by her insurance company also helped to enhance her self-worth. Sharing a photo of “XX Life Insurance Hall” at Beijing University, she wrote in Moments, along with a smiley face and a thumbs up emoji, “I am proud to say that I'm attending a company meeting at Beijing University! I'm so proud of XX!” (August 9, 2014).
Can we conclude that whereas Zuo's product in the Foxconn factory remained an alien object, her production of social bonds and self-worth in the social factory allowed her to have control or ownership over what she produced? Tracing Zuo's trajectory, I found that the seemingly horizontal relationship through which she identified herself with Shenzhen citizens was blocked by cultural and structural barriers. With access only to ethical citizenship that binds people with “moral and affective ties” (Muehlebach 2012: 43) and not to the legal rights of urban citizens, Foxconn workers-cum-volunteers like Zuo were encouraged to contribute to the growth of cooperation and communication networks in Shenzhen, while their structural exclusion from the city was ignored: they were seen as “flawed” subjects even by their supporters (Cho 2018: 91–94). A social worker was skeptical about Zuo Mei's desire to become a social worker, saying, “She asked me how to prepare for the exam, but she doesn't have enough suzhi (素质, human quality) for it, let alone the education” (July 11, 2014).8
Over time, Zuo began to feel unwelcome in and unsuited to service and volunteer labor. Once, she proudly brought up an ex-banker as an insurance salesperson that she was equal to, but when he was later depicted as a successful entrepreneur rich in social capital, she stopped comparing herself to him. In a study of young cell phone novelists in Japan, Gabriella Lukacs (2015: 46) notes that people who engage in affective labor invest not only their emotions but also “their subjectivity—affective commitments, intimate beliefs, personal memories, and political sensibilities—as the raw material for the extraction of surplus value.” However, the creativity, affect, and selves that people invest into the production process are differentially and hierarchically valued in society (Zhang 2015: 519).
In the social factory where “social relations directly become relations of production” (Federici 2012: 7), Zuo's robust production of the value of the city brand and affective care was not compensated fairly. Unable to endure the uncertainty of insurance sales (she was only given an allowance, not a salary), Zuo eventually quit her job and returned to her hometown. Her four years in Shenzhen were no longer a topic of our online conversations. Back in her hometown, she posted a picture of homemade millet bread that she had baked with her mother (fig. 1).
Factory Labor Repositioned
It was rare for Zuo to directly express her problems on WeChat: they appear only in a few posts under “generation” and “city.” When she tired of insurance sales, for example, Zuo posted a meme about China's post-1980s generation: “We've become the first ‘only children’ in the nation's history,” and she added her own text: “Does our generation have an easy life?” (October 30, 2015). As for Shenzhen, her posts were ambivalent. She describes it as full of “passion” and a “sense of loss,” and as “a city where no one can be underestimated. It's also a city where no one looks at you however much you cry for help. In this city, I get swindled one day and I swindle another” (February 6, 2014).
Interestingly, no explicit criticism of factory labor appeared in her Moments. Zuo had worked in the quality control department at Foxconn. In offline interviews, she referred to the low wages, overtime work, and militaristic labor discipline. In her WeChat Moments, however, mentions of the factory are almost nonexistent. Pictures of Foxconn's annual banquet appeared only once in a shared post about how Shenzhen was forcing people out. Her criticism targeted the city, not the factory: “Why are so many people unable to leave this city where living is no better than dying?” (May 24, 2016).
To better understand what factory labor meant to Zuo Mei, we can see how her feelings about factory labor changed in its intersection with other forms of labor: it unfolds in its relationship to her insurance sales, gas station work, and preparation for marriage.
First, Zuo highlighted the cruelty of factory labor at Foxconn by contrasting it with insurance sales. Since commercial insurance is blamed for the individualization and privatization of risk, I was puzzled by her positive attitude toward it. For Zuo, insurance provided what Foxconn didn't: freedom (not surveillance), openness (not secretiveness), useful knowledge (not a repetitive skill), entrepreneurship (not working for others), and the expansion of personal networks (not reduction). Her comparison prompted me to reread my field notes, and I realized how she had criticized factory labor in terms of its negation of freedom and self-identity, from the excessive surveillance (she had to be “careful about sleep in my eyes or earwax in my ears”) to the dormitory system (it “put ten people into one small room”). Yet, the more she engaged in other forms of labor, the less she criticized factory labor. When her insurance sales dropped, Zuo quickly returned to a factory to seek more clients. By her account, factory labor was reduced to a side job of little significance.
Next, Zuo's experience at the gas station in Jiangxi shows how factory labor made her feel deprived of fellowship as well as individuality. Unlike the case with Foxconn, Zuo was willing to talk to me about her work environment at the gas station. Soon after starting to work there, she sent me a photo that showed her in a blue uniform with a big smile, unfolding her salary of a few 100-yuan notes. When we were chatting online, she sent more pictures taken with coworkers in restaurants or karaoke. In a photo taken in the station lounge, Zuo and her coworkers were smiling and flashing peace signs while standing behind a table with some dumpling soup they had cooked together. Unlike Foxconn, the small gas station provided Zuo with neither social insurance nor grand banquets, but it did allow a little margin for pleasure and intimacy. She played this up as her insurance sales cooled in the face of competition. “XX Insurance Friends” was no longer in her WeChat group chats, but “XX Gas Station Friends” was.
Finally, as Zuo prepared for marriage, she lost interest in problematizing factory labor. Despite good memories of her coworkers, she quit her job and moved to a small garment factory after becoming engaged to the man from a nearby village. When I visited her hometown in summer 2017, she told me, “I left the gas station for fear of aluminum intoxication. It could affect a baby I may have in the future. I need to be careful for at least six months before I get pregnant.” The garment factory where she took me was only twenty minutes from her village by scooter. She explained, “We take cloth from Fujian and make pants and hats. I don't know where they are exported to. They are too big and the quality is poor.” Zuo preferred the small workshop of only thirty-five employees to large-scale factories. Imagining her life after marriage, she emphasized freedom—that is, the freedom to look after her child at lunchtime, pick up her child after school, return to work after feeding, and see a doctor if her child got sick.
From the perspective of feminist critiques about how the reproduction of labor-power carried out in the home is made invisible and mystified as “women's labor” (Federici 2004: 74–75), Zuo's narratives of “freedom” may seem perplexing. Although what she meant by “freedom” indicated the numerous duties imposed on women without payment, Zuo looked determined and emphasized the word. However, she did not take a traditional role in the family for granted; it was only when she realized that she had little chance of surviving in the city with dignity that she began to see marriage as the only viable option. At that point, her desire to marry (a type of distributive labor) superseded the other forms of labor, and she began “working hard to press a distributive claim” by performing a family role and invoking traditional morality (Ferguson 2015: 101). She valued the flexibility of working in the small factory while taking care of her prospective husband's family and preparing the ideal environment for a future family. It is significant that marriage is not external to labor but materializes through intersected labor. In particular, some of the values learned through insurance sales led Zuo to rethink her approach to marriage and family.
Between Marriage as Insurance and Insurance for Marriage
In the summer of 2014, Zuo and I were chatting in her tiny room in Shenzhen. After arguing on the phone with her father, who was urging her to get married, Zuo said to me, “I'm not thinking about marriage now. People keep introducing men to me. I'm against it. I can make my own money, wash my own clothes, and cook. I also send my parents money for building a house. Why should I marry?” (July 29, 2014). Listening to her complaints, my eyes were drawn to a faded wedding photo of a celebrity hanging on the wall. What she wanted was to find a capable man who could pay for her labor, not make claims about wages for housework or emancipation from it. Marrying a poor man was what she needed to avoid if she was to take responsibility for herself and her parents. Zuo's father had injured his fingers while farming. With a small lot of only two mu (about 1,333 square meters), Zuo's parents had been peasants throughout their lives and they received dibao 低保 (minimum livelihood guarantee) from the government.
No matter how ambivalent she felt about it, marriage became a reality when she failed at insurance sales and returned home. Zuo eventually got engaged to a man nine years older than her. She sent me several photos of him, her engagement ring, and the three-story house he was building in his village.9 “I've already received 2,000 yuan from his family, and 30,000–40,000 yuan will be sent to my family as bridewealth.” When marriage seemed to be the only insurance for her family, Zuo calculated its benefits and passionately pursued it. While her fiancé was working outside, Zuo often engaged in distributive labor by taking care of his family. One evening in August 2017, she brought me to his house and helped his mother bathe the grandchildren. On our way back, Zuo indicated a new house under construction: “After marriage, his parents will live on the third floor and we will move downstairs!” At this time, Zuo's WeChat Moments were full of posts about family matters: filial piety, family events, and a friend's wedding.
However, Zuo's pursuit of marriage resulted in failure. Posts she shared after the engagement reflected her frustration. She responded to a video clip about a man who regretted his marriage, “Your wife is not your mother. Don't complain even if she doesn't cook or do laundry for you” (February 6, 2018). In a post titled “Making Money—the Most Beautiful Words in Life,” she wrote, “I try to make money, not because I love money too much, but because I don't want a lifetime of humiliation” (March 10, 2018).
Significantly, Zuo's online posts show a series of messages about “insurance for marriage” as well as “marriage as insurance.” For example, “Marriage without insurance is no better than ‘naked marriage,’ ” or “Find a lover, but be sure to find a lover with insurance!” On her Moments, most posts fell under Life Advice. Mainly produced by insurance companies, this category consists of story ads about women, family, and marriage, including the requirements for an ideal marriage, the qualifications of a good husband, and women's advice to men. Even after she returned to Jiangxi, Zuo continued to share Life Advice posts. One example is a picture (fig. 2) of a woman walking confidently while men greet her politely: “Sister Xia says that the struggle is not making money, but realizing one's own value in the world.” In a meme (fig. 3) highlighting red high heels, women are told to “be the queen of yourself.” Competent, independent, and confident, the “woman” in many of these posts is not a docile subject who surrenders her destiny to a man but a self-sufficient subject who can lead a man.
In the summer of 2018, Zuo was introduced to another man, Su Yang, from a nearby village; after dating him briefly, she decided to marry him. Although Su's family was poor, Zuo and her family thought that given her age, it would be hard to find a better match. Zuo's actions show how she coordinated her affective labor while negotiating between a marriage that was a barely adequate survival strategy and her aspirations to be a self-reliant woman.
At first, on her social media accounts, Zuo posted warm messages about her new fiancé. Su first appeared in Zuo's Moments on August 11, 2018, when Zuo posted a chat with him saying, “My life is good thanks to you.” The next day, she posted another chat message with Su: “Thanks. I hope you will hug me for the rest of my life!” A few days before the wedding, Zuo posted pictures of their dates in Shenzhen and of their marriage certificate.
Still, Zuo's offline practices never seemed particularly romantic. In January 2019, I visited her village in Jiangxi again to attend her wedding ceremony. Every night, she confessed her worries: “Su's family sent about 40,000 yuan to my parents as bridewealth but we still didn't have enough money to buy furniture and electronics. My parents added the 10,000 yuan that I gave them while working in Shenzhen and they sent 50,000 yuan back to us. My family lost more.”10 Since Su's brother's family was staying with his parents, I suggested that Zuo and Su stay with her parents after the wedding. Zuo refused, “No way. If things go wrong, Su's parents’ house could be handed over to his brother. When his parents pass away, Su and his brother have to divide their parents’ property anyway.” The couple argued while preparing for their wedding. The night before the wedding, Zuo even mentioned divorce:
I'm going to manage my income separately after marriage. I need to secure a retreat. What if Su and I don't like each other and eventually divorce? I'll collect money and buy a house in my own name. It's like buying insurance. Who knows what the future will bring? I won't say anything now. Anyhow, I have to find a lawyer. A house would definitely be mine if I bought it before registering for marriage. But after that, I might have to divide my property. My parents only have two daughters, and if I get divorced with nothing, things will get bad. (January 24, 2019)
When Zuo told me this, I thought of one of her shared posts that suggested a strategy for women under China's New Marriage Law: “Buy insurance first and marry late. . . . A house purchased before marriage is individual property. If a man buys a house before marriage, his wife will be penniless after the divorce” (July 6, 2014). Despite viewing marriage as an insufficient form of insurance and continuing to seek other options, Zuo pursued romantic relationships, relying on “an array of knowledge and expert systems to induce self-animation and self-government” (Ong 2006: 6). Although her life insurance sales ended in failure, the cautiousness that resulted had a significant impact on her labor trajectory, making her more “rational, responsible, knowledgeable, and calculable” (McFall 2010: 144). The way she managed the potential risk (divorce) was intended to ensure both her own dignity and the security of her family.
On the morning of her wedding, Zuo Mei became upset with Su Yang again. She almost missed her hair appointment because he picked her up late. Despite this, the wedding ceremony went smoothly. After enjoying a feast with her extended family and visiting the family shrine, Zuo left for Su's village, literally on his back. The loud suona horns gave way to the wailing of her aunt. Zuo's father began to clean up the firework debris in the alleys (fig. 4) while her mother and female relatives washed the dishes. Su's extended family feasted until late, and Zuo had to go to Su's brother's home to take a bath. (Due to lack of money, the new house that Su's parents had begun to build the previous May still had no plumbing.) After New Year's Day, Zuo and Su returned to Shenzhen to work at Foxconn together.
As before, Zuo posted nothing about her work at Foxconn. She continued with her e-commerce while working there, filling her Moments with posts about those products. On May 5, 2019, Zuo uploaded a video to WeChat showing her walking beside some dirty water, with the caption, “Forced to move.” She complained to me, “My landlord asked us to leave due to the landslide risk. Su Yang procrastinated until we were forced to move out. He is so lazy!”
My ethnography of Zuo Mei began with her work for Foxconn and ended with her return to it. Yet the extraction of a surplus occurred not just in a specific factory but in the social factory across the assembly line, the service station, the internet, and, above all, the home, where women's social reproduction work has always had a central place. Across urban and rural, waged and unwaged, (re)productive and distributive, and on- and offline labor, Zuo's trajectory in the social factory reveals her experience of alienation as she navigated multiple forms of labor. In this ethnography of one person, I have attempted to unveil concrete, intimate experiences that more conventional, large-scale ethnographies cannot capture.
Marx's (1844) alienation of the worker—alienation from the products of labor, from the production process, from human essence, and from society—explicitly runs through Zuo's factory labor at Foxconn. Her insurance work and voluntarism seemed to liberate her from this estrangement by bolstering her self-worth and weaving social bonds through affective labor. However, Zuo was alienated from urban citizenship despite her contribution to the production of affects and desires, and to communities in the city. What she produced in insurance sales was not so much “care” for others, as she claimed, but her own subjectivity as a responsible, independent life manager. The sale of insurance shaped distinctively both her understanding of her past Foxconn experience and her attitude toward the future marriage. Deeply capitalized, marriage remained an arrangement which she had to bolster with other forms of insurance. Her strategic pursuit of marriage shows how inequality affects intimate relationships while contesting hegemonic notions of romantic love (Zheng 2008; Sun 2017).
In sum, the intersections of labor in the social factory unveil the alienation resulting from resistance to that alienation. Yet this reality is not predetermined but contingent. Moreover, Zuo's resistance to alienation was informed by her desires, aspirations, and passions—no matter how limited or stymied. Given the complex entanglements of affect and conduct at the intersection of different forms of on- and offline labor, I suggest that we recognize inequality and vulnerability as a struggle and not as a passive condition. We must pay more attention to the kinds of life opportunities and resources that can reach migrant youths like Zuo Mei.
My unreserved gratitude goes to Zuo Mei, who generously allowed me to observe and be connected to her life. I am also grateful for thoughtful comments from anonymous reviewers and all contributors in this special edition. This research was supported by the AMOREPACIFIC Foundation. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2020 Summer Meeting of the Korean Association for Contemporary Chinese Studies and a talk invited by the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2021.
In this article, except for large areas like Shenzhen and well-known names like Foxconn, all names are pseudonyms.
The statements of my interviewees were originally given in Chinese. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
Fieldwork in a Foxconn town in Shenzhen was conducted in January, July–August, and October 2013; July–August 2014; January and July 2015; and August 2018. Fieldwork in Zuo's hometown in Jiangxi was conducted in August 2017 and January 2019. I also continued conversing with Zuo on WeChat and collected her WeChat Moments between August 2013 and May 2019.
From internal material from the community service center. On Foxconn workers’ volunteer labor, see Cho 2018.
Unlike many migrants who embrace anonymity in their WeChat profile due to “frustration in their ‘floating’ offline life” (Wang 2016: 44), Zuo Mei used her real first name and a real picture taken in a photo studio.
Zuo Mei opened her WeChat account in August 2013. Previously, she had used the QQ social media platform, mostly for group chats with volunteers in Shenzhen.
Of the fifteen main categories Wang suggests, four (“compulsorily shared,” “children,” “food,” and “anti-mainstream”) were not found in Zuo's Moments.
No single English term fully captures the meaning of suzhi. See Anagnost 2004.
Having only two daughters, her parents wanted Zuo to marry a man who would stay close to them. That desire resonates with what Yan Yunxiang (2003: 180) found in a village in northeast China, where “maintaining a good relationship with married daughters has become an increasingly important investment strategy for old age.”
Bridewealth (caili 彩礼) refers to marital gifts (money and goods) that the groom's family gives the bride's family. Since the mid-1980s, though, it has been offered to the newlywed couple, not to the bride's parents, thus becoming “a way of distributing wealth from one generation to the next” (Yan 2003: 157).