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Investigating the cultural practice of migrant workers in China: ideology, collective identity and resistance

Wang, Ziyan (2020) Investigating the cultural practice of migrant workers in China: ideology, collective identity and resistance. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Cultural practice and collective identity formation are crucial dimensions for the expression of agency within labour struggles. Although these have been eroded, alongside the erosion of the glory of the old urban working class in the post-reform era, working-class culture has played a significant role in China’s modern history of revolution and socialist industrialisation. This thesis investigates the cultural practices of Chinese rural-urban migrant workers in relation to history and to collective political struggles in the wave of labour unrest in post-reform China. Based on extended participant observation, fieldnotes and interviews over the course of a year between 2013 and 2014, mainly with two grass-roots labour organisations, my thesis answers the following questions: What kinds of collective identities and working-class/migrant workers’ culture do these new proletarian organisations construct? How do they understand and define the relationship between culture and collective struggle? What kinds of tensions are evidenced in the production of migrant workers’ culture? Focusing on how ideology, culture and collective identity are contested in relation to gender, class and workers’ resistance, the thesis contributes to better understanding of the on-going process of working class formation. My primary findings sustain the thesis that the migrant labour activists have devised a new version of collective identity and culture for migrant workers in order to contest the cultural hegemony of the state and the market, to raise class consciousness, build alliances and potentially mobilise their collective power to challenge the structural inequalities and injustices in contemporary China. They have developed ideological innovation and hybrid methods to communicate and articulate class identity, interests and political agendas both inexplicitly and explicitly. Moreover, through analysis of ethnographic data, I also reveal the dynamic nature and complexity in the process. The politically charged new version of collective identity and culture sometimes encounters difficulties in articulating itself to ordinary workers. The cultural practices of migrant labour 4 activists are constrained by various factors in the surveilled and limited political space in China. In order to mobilise resources to survive and sustain their struggle, various compromises are made in the interaction with other social actors and in turn, these inflect the representation of their cultural practices. Gender also revealed itself as a significant tension within the ongoing cultural practices of working class solidarity and collective identity construction. Solely stressing the axis of class in the construction of ‘new worker’ identity and the migrant worker’s culture, older male worker activists tended to ignore the gendered working class experiences of rural women migrant workers and activists in labour activism. Consequently, even as they sought to counter the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism in China, the cultural practices of the migrant worker organisations rendered women as subjects of resistance and reinforced the hegemony of patriarchy in Chinese society. This entrenched gender and class dilemma was challenged by the practice of women labour activists who proposed intersectional understandings of collective identities, incorporating gendered subjectivities into practice and expanding the struggle to the realm of social reproduction to liberate women worker’s agency in the class struggle and build broader alliances in striving for a more just society for all.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2020 Ziyan Wang
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Meng, Bingchun and Banaji, Shakuntala

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