Working-class youth enrolled in China’s urban vocational schools spend years hanging out and sleeping through their classes. Rather than condemning this as a failure of the students’ ability or the schools’ pedagogy, this essay argues that attending vocational school is a form of mimetic labor in China today. Based on a year of ethnographic research in two vocational schools and theorized using Diane Elson’s value theory of labor, this essay analyzes China’s current regimes of human capital accumulation. I argue that these regimes structure nonelite education such that working-class youth generate value by laboring at the mimetic production of a school-like environment.

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