2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 322

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The Dis/Appearance of the Political Mass in Contemporary China

Organizer and Chair: Anup Grewal, University of Toronto, Scarborough, Canada

Discussant: Chaohua Wang, Independent Scholar, USA

For much of the twentieth century, the imagery of both actual and imagined masses in action was central to evoking political discontent, power, and even subjectivity in different representational forms. Such imagery is seemingly largely missing in contemporary China: either actively disappeared or relegated to crowds harnessed for state rituals, stirred up by entertainment, or yoked to a historical past in official politics and culture; and appearing as oblique and sometimes nostalgic imagination in the wider cultural realm. Is China witnessing what has been deemed a global end to the “era of the crowd,” in which masses as literal physical assemblies, when they do appear, are cast in the mold of anomalies or anachronisms? Or, is there a re-appearance of the lure of collective action, real and imagined, in new formations of the “multitude”? How do we consider recent upsurges of mass action in China today? What/who do they represent and how are they represented? What possibilities are generated for political collectivity in the dispersed masses mobilized by new media networks, or creative expressions evoking stealthy forms of political identification? Is the necessity of assembly, simultaneity, and physical participation in collective action for the transformation of both political subjectivity and large-scale political communities possible, revised or limited by these emergent forms? Fundamentally, what place does the political power of the masses have in the cultural imagination of contemporary China? This panel addresses such questions through historical and contemporary perspectives of actual and imagined masses in China and beyond.

Cultural Representation and Self-Representation of Dagongmei in Contemporary China: Can there be a minor genre of resistance?
Justyna Jaguscik, University of Zurich, Switzerland

In the 1980s, working women migrant labourers, known as the dagongmei or “working sisters,” emerged as an object of interest in popular films and television dramas. These initial visual representations have since been reiterated in sequels adjusted to fit best the current rhetoric of the party-state. Concurrent to the mass media is the less-widespread phenomenon of labourer’s literature (dagong wenxue), through which we can read the dagongmei’s own (self-) representations. Eventually, after the Millennium the number of scientific publications on the dagongmei topic has also increased significantly. Bringing these different media together, this paper thematizes the aporias of dagongmei’s (self-) representations and scrutinizes various acts of utterance, asking what they mean in terms of class and gender subjectivity. I argue that for blue-collar women, becoming part of the popular media culture does not necessarily lead to the emergence of novel mass subject identifications. It can be regarded much more as a strategy of appeasement of the rural “other” based upon the idea of a high modern, highly flexible subjectivity that does not really offer much more agency than the possibility of smoother adjustment to the logic of global capitalism. Thus, the “dagongmei” is thematized as an individual, while her specifically gendered and class-related problems remain largely silent. This tendency recalls Dai Jinhua’s statements on the ongoing erasure of class struggle vocabulary in China, simultaneous to the construction of the “rural” inimical “other” (Dai, 1999).

Thinking with crowds in contemporary Xinjiang?
Gardner Bovingdon, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

To the world outside China, Xinjiang is a notoriously contentious region in which the violent legacy of Qing conquest still lingers in popular memory and the "national question" has not been decisively answered. Yet for years it has been Beijing's standard practice to dismiss all protests and riots in Xinjiang as "planned and organized by an extremely small number of radicals," and to explain away the large numbers of participants in those events as evidence that wily provocateurs had "hoodwinked gullible members of the masses" into taking part in events they did not understand. While this unchanging interpretation is interesting as ideology, it is also interesting as social science. Evidently (if only implicitly) only spontaneous mass mobilizations can be legitimate, but all protests in Xinjiang are by definition planned, hence not spontaneous, and therefore inadmissible as evidence of popular sentiment. This paper will make the case that the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang were indeed mass mobilizations and can, like previous large-scale events in Xinjiang, be understood - and read - as signs of widespread popular discontent. Emerging reports, even if fragmentary and mutually inconsistent, suggest the same of the violence in Hotan in July 2011.

Envisioning a New Hong Kong Subject: Political Activism and Artistic Intervention
Chun Chun Ting, University of Chicago, USA

This paper examines the upsurge of urban social movements in post-handover Hong Kong and considers the active envisioning of a collective Hong Kong subject through political activism and artistic intervention. As creative expression and symbolic action have become one of the trademarks of this wave of social movements, my analysis focuses on the use of different art forms in articulating political dissent and self-definition – live art performances and art fairs in urban ruins, penitent walks in business and political centers, poetry writing and recital in the midst of political action, illegal squatting in public space, etc. These art/political actions alone raise important questions about how the political community is imagined: how to preserve and facilitate individual reflection and agency in the midst of mass action, how to turn political engagement into an everyday practice, how to underline social class as an indispensable category of social understanding without subsuming other identities under its rubric, how to empower victims to speak without appropriating their voices … These considerations significantly inform a movement that is concerned not only with redistributive equality but also with rethinking developmental priorities and reintegrating political, artistic, and everyday lives. They also give shape to a new Hong Kong subject that defies the stereotype of Hong Kong people as “economic animal” and challenges a lingering colonial system that continues to justify itself in the rhetoric of stability and prosperity.

Masses from the Margins: Collective Action and Imagined Solidarities at the Edges of Official Public Space in Contemporary China
Anup Grewal, University of Toronto, Scarborough, Canada

This paper considers the question of the transformative potential of actual participation in popular collective action or through confronting its imagery in different forms of media for the creation of political subjectivities and large-scale social solidarities. Despite a recent upsurge of official mobilizations of the language of the “revolutionary masses” in public spaces that may hold the possibility of creative citizen appropriations, the State has both revamped its efforts since the popular movements of the 1970s and 1980s to dominate, appropriate and severely limit the meaning of any actual popular demonstrations or their images, local or international, and has simultaneously sought to depoliticize public space. What is the relationship of the state’s current choreography of popular political collectivity to the wider political culture of contemporary China? My focus is on formations of collectivity and political solidarity in spaces that have an “edgy,” if not purely oppositional, relationship to official culture. Apart from discussing online/cellphone media mobilizing citizen actions and expressive political speech countering official distortions, and the emergence of small-scale alternative communities aimed at constructing new types of social/political identities, I emphasize the revitalization of longstanding forms of activist participant reportage and documentary positing transformative intersubjective encounters between author, subjects and audience. I read these forms historically and for potentially creating new social solidarities and the imagination of political collectivity, which, while still existing in the space of what author Yu Hua has called “May 35th speech,” may, though their practical experimentation, offer models for a new “June 4th speech.”