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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 189-208

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The Corporeal Politics of Quality (Suzhi)

Socialism could be described as the winning back of the gift supplement into responsibility.
Gayatri Spivak, "Ghostwriting"

The phantom-like nature of value—what could be a more compelling topic in the wake of the bursting of the 1990s economic bubble, when the value of the new economy seemed suddenly to dissipate overnight? Where did value go? And how can it be that, in the midst of a global restructuring of capitalism, certain things that formerly seemed to have so much value are now deemed to be what society (or something called that) can no longer afford?

The topic of value is particularly compelling in light of the momentous social transformations taking place in China during the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the movement from a planned to a market economy, the representation of value has undergone a reorganization in the realm of the biopolitical in which human life becomes a new frontier for capital accumulation. This changing relationship [End Page 189] between value and bodies is encompassed by the term suzhi, which roughly translates into English as "quality." Suzhi is hardly a neologism, but it acquired new discursive power when it became conjoined with the idea of population (renkou) in the economic reforms that began in 1976. The discourse of population quality (renkou suzhi) may have first appeared in the 1980s, in state documents investigating rural poverty that attributed China's failure to modernize to the "low quality" (suzhi di) of its population, especially in rural areas. This idea represents a shift in state policy focus from regulating births to raising the quality of the population as a whole; in other words, a shift from quantity to quality. Anxieties about the low quality of the Chinese people entered into the culture fever (wenhua re) of the late 1980s, in which intellectuals debated the cultural impediments to modernization. By the early 1990s, population quality had become a key term in the party-state's policy statements and directives to cadres, even as it began to circulate more broadly as a general explanation for everything that held the Chinese nation back from achieving its rightful place in the world. At the same time, as economic reforms increased privatization and dismantled the institutions and entitlements of state socialism, suzhi appeared in new discourses of social distinction and the discursive production of middle classness. Suzhi's sense has been extended from a discourse of backwardness and development (the quality of the masses) to encompass the minute social distinctions defining a "person of quality" in practices of consumption and the incitement of a middle-class desire for social mobility. How suzhi articulates the boundaries of China's newly differentiating social strata, even as it produces subject positions necessary for capitalist accumulation, is the subject of this essay.

The discourse of suzhi appears most elaborated in relation to two figures: the body of the rural migrant, which exemplifies suzhi in its apparent absence, and the body of the urban, middle-class only child, which is fetishized as a site for the accumulation of the very dimensions of suzhi wanting in its "other." My pairing these two figures as a strategy of writing responds to the apparent refusal of my middle-class interviewees to make the linkage between them. One of my interviewees, who was an urban professional fully invested in managing the educational career of his child, testily interrupted me to say that the use of the term suzhi in evaluating the embodied value of both child and migrant referred to "two entirely different kinds of suzhi." For him, suzhi represented a differential, a play between plenitude and lack that could not be set into relation with each other. As in this instance, strategies of middle-class social positioning employ a rhetoric and practice of separation. This is stunningly concretized by the construction of [End Page 190] new gated communities far away from the pinmin ku (the Chinese translation of what Marx called "ghettos of the poor" in Capital). My ethnographic project...