In the opening pages of his book, Lost Dimension, Paul Virilio records the words of the mayor of Philadelphia who, in the 1960s, watched as his city burned. “From here on in,” claimed the nervous mayor, “the frontiers of the State pass to the interior of the cities.” As Virilio notes, this mayor was prescient for the burning of the American cities presaged even greater global troubles that lay just beyond the horizon. 1 All around the world, it seemed, the dreamy utopian promise of yesteryear that the city had represented was turning into the nightmare of today as city after city “bunkered down” for what looked like a bleak tomorrow. From Beirut to Berlin and on to Belfast, race, religion, class, color, and politics seemed to be rending the city asunder.
There were many reasons for this turmoil, but at least one was that, by the 1960s, the city had become hostage to its own past propaganda. Rising expectations of jobs and the good life could never hope to keep pace with the messages of wealth and luxury promoted by advertisers. For the ordinary citizen, let alone the starry-eyed migrant, everything that was advertised as being within reach seemed palpably out of reach, and those things that weren’t simply weren’t worth having. Much to the satisfaction of the political Left, capitalism seemed on the brink of devouring itself. The disenchantment with the capitalist promise of a materially affluent tomorrow fueled calls for a materialist revolution today. As migrant populations entered the cities of the world in unprecedented numbers, it appeared, albeit briefly, as though Lin Biao’s prophecy—that the revolution was nigh because the cities of the world were being surrounded by the countryside of the world—might well turn out to be true.
In the end, it was Lennon—“and if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”—not Lin who turned out to be sagacious. A calm despondency settled on the Western city as revolution ended up enveloping, and finally blowing away, all those who had once promoted it. “Back in the USSR” was no longer a geographical location, it was history!
Meanwhile, back in the PRC, things were different. Once the chairman shuffled off this mortal coil, the curtains lifted on a new party performance called economic reform. In sharp contrast to previous party [End Page 63] efforts, economic reform unleashed market forces, opened China to the outside world, and introduced the benefits and vices of globalization to the Chinese people. For this, the reform program received widespread applause. But as the clapping dies away, one begins to wonder whether reform has bought off or merely postponed the same kind of crisis that turned “big brother” Russia into a very poor cousin. Indeed, as Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV beams in 1960s reruns to an ever eager Chinese audience who are ordered not to watch, one is left wondering whether other types of 1960s reruns are also about to be aired. Maybe the 1960s show that sent shivers down the spine of the mayor of Philadelphia is about to be relayed to China.
The streets of China aren’t burning . . . yet. But the endless caravans of rural migrants heading for the cities in search of work and wealth may well have their own plotlines to add.
In conditions reminiscent of those outlined by Marx in his description of the formation of the European working class, tens of millions of would-be proletarians are now streaming into the cities of China in search of employment. 2 As they reach their destination, some find jobs but most find their lives increasingly circumscribed by ever tightening laws against vagrancy, prostitution, and hooliganism. Under these circumstances, the odor of the backstreet begins to reek of social unrest. For the Marxist, this is the smell of the backyard furnaces of revolution. For me, I guess, there is the whiff of a different form of sedition.
While Marxists look to the macrolevel story, sifting through the tea leaves of change to discern the beginnings of a revolutionary class, more localized street-level divination suggests something else. That “something else” tells of more intimate and private rebellions. It is a story line straight from Brecht, for it is not about revolutionary heroes but antiheroes. It is in the lives of these often “resourceful, humorous nobodies” that one begins to recognize a form of backstreet biopower that leads to a kind of resistance very different to that imagined in Marxist dreams. 3
Strategy and Tactics
Biopower is an interesting expression. 4 It forces us away from grand homologies and makes us attend to the seemingly insignificant. It introduces a new concern for the interstices of government that turns, in so many ways, on microlevel “ways of doing things” that produce calculable outcomes for government. From social security to public security, government, it seems, is about the disciplining of the everyday. Moreover, under the Maoist-inspired mass-line local security systems, such disciplinary forms appeared to operate everywhere. Indeed, the picture being [End Page 64] presented would be a perfect image of totalitarianism but for the fact that it is less than “total.” As we shall see, ordinary people have their own forms of “disciplinary technologies” that can, and do, run counter to those of government. In other words, just as there can be no display of power without resistance, so can there be no deployment of biotechnology without a struggle. 5
An entirely different picture of the art of struggle in this era of global maneuver emerges in these diminutive and modest forms of resistance, which belie the Marxist message of revolution. Indeed, the artful subversions of the sly dominate and work to ensure that government is not the only thing generating “calculable outcomes.” Here, one discovers a form of “sly civility,” 6 to steal a line from Homi K. Bhabha, that reveals through its shadowy forms Michel de Certeau’s “art of the weak.” 7
“Sly as a fox and twice as quick, there are countless ways of making do,” proclaims de Certeau as he lists innumerable examples of the heterogeneous tactical plays on life by the antiheroes of this more modest form of rebellion. From a stolen word to a stolen wallet, these are the petty thieves of the everyday whose actions are crouched just below the threshold of the label “rebellion.” My concern, then, is not with the political dissident whose words we all too readily know and whose voice we hear so clearly. Rather, it is with those whose words are whispered or whose contempt is articulated just out of earshot. Their words are mere murmurs, for should they be otherwise, it would be an open declaration of war on a “strategic field” that could only result in failure. A guerrilla war of the everyday is going on just below the surface, requiring, it seems, far more subtle forms of maneuver and resistance.
“A society,” writes de Certeau, “is composed of certain foregrounded practices organising its normative institutions and of innumerable other practices that remain minor. The former practices he labels strategies while the latter he names the tactic. While a strategic field of government emerges out of “monotheistic” panoptic power, de Certeau quickly adds that “a polytheism of scattered practices survives, dominated but not erased by the triumphal success of one of their number.” 8 The “tactics of the weak” come into play through these latter “subjugated” forms of power or even through the “exchanges” opened up between them and triumphant power. If power trades time for space, then resistant tactics will always attempt to “turn the tables” and trade it back again. Thus the prisoner in the cell has “all the time in the world” to map the cracks in the wall that offer the opportunity to escape, for, as Catherine Ingraham notes, even panoptic power must blink. 9
If power moves either to extend or deepen its reach, such strategic realignments always raise the specter of resistant practices dissipating its efforts. Thus, as the Chinese government attempted to secure a market [End Page 65] for “its Mao” on his hundredth birthday in 1993, the skies rained down other more “tactical” deployments of his tale. These would parasitically grow on the back of the official description; and while the official Mao was never entirely swallowed up by these dubious understudies, he was, in part, disfigured by them. These other Maos were the Maos of the many.
Mao as youth market icon was brought back to life neither by God nor country but by the searing guitar rhythms of punk rock heroes like Cui Jian, who would sing of the fading red flags of China and of the colorless party cadres who now seem too tired to care. Mao would also be revived by the screeching of car brakes. Superstitious taxi drivers adopted him as their talisman to ward off traffic accidents after strange stories of survival by southern drivers who hung his image in their cabs percolated north. As strange as that tale may be, there are even stranger stories accompanying this revival of Mao.
“Why did you decide to turn your house into a Mao badge museum?” I asked “badge master” Wang, whose entire living space was given over to the image of the chairman. For an espoused materialist, Wang’s reply was novel, to say the least:
About five years ago I had a vision and in that vision Mao came to me. “Old Wang, old Wang,” said Mao, “you have had my badges locked up in these boxes now for quite some time. Let them out and let the world see my face again for I fear I am being forgotten.” 10
If the eccentric Wang first had a vision of the chairman that spoke of social forgetfulness, the following day he would have a revelation about how to best remember:
On the very next day, I read a newspaper report from Shanghai [where] a private person organized an exhibition of precious stones. From that, I decided that it was in this way that I could honour my promise to Chairman Mao. 11
Wang’s promise grew into a museum project that transformed his tiny house into a shrine. Much to the chagrin of the local party officials, the “very small museum” (xiao xiao bowuguan) he established was a success; it led to the founding of a magazine (aptly named Contemporary Cultural Relic) and to the formation of an international communist alliance. (See figure 1.) Like the rhetoric of Polus that Socrates so sarcastically labeled his “museum of ornaments,” Wang’s museum was a “turning of the tables” on the official Mao. It resurrected a Mao obsessed with cultural revolution, a Mao as excessive as the badges that are pinned to the chest and tell the Mao story. Wang’s efforts spike the drinks of the [End Page 66] teetotaling homogeneous party accounts of Mao by mixing a more potent radical otherness into the cocktail. This is champagne Mao, and one we readily recognize, for it is on the surface of every badge ever made in his image. It is a Mao who trades on the sacred, the erotic, and the excessive. It is this other Mao who, quite by accident really, reveals the scandal of both the chairman and the party’s selective history of him. The party, it seems, may set the strategic field, but the procedures within that field always leave room for tactical maneuvers that can undermine it. Yet de Certeau’s account of tactics is remiss in at least one respect. It fails to adequately recognize that the government of the strong plays its own tactical games. 12 In other words, tactics are not “of the weak,” but are “anybodies.” Indeed, it is their very promiscuity that gives them protean life.
While Wang burrows away with his own form of backstreet resistance, telling the life of Mao through the badge, the party blasts forward with endless rewrites of the Mao story that refocus attention on party good times. Repeated so often and with such gusto, the gray Mao of the party advertising machine always wins out over the mad Mao of Wang. In the end, the party Mao is a party member. In retelling their Mao story endlessly and always in the same way, the party’s tactic is to transform “the uncertainties of history” into “readable spaces” that promote not his but their image. So, while the badges of the cultural revolution will [End Page 67] tell the story of the revolution under the sun-God image Mao, more recent party re-creations promote the same story under the party rather than the chairman. This is pure tactics. Nowhere is this subtle rewrite more graphically demonstrated than in the theme park of revolution constructed in Mao’s home village of Shaoshan. (See figure 2.)
On a hill overlooking the home of his birth, party entrepreneurs have put their money where Mao’s mouth once was and built a U.S.$6 million Mao Zedong Memorial Park. Yet, despite the title, the “theme” of the park is less Mao than one might expect. What one discovers is that it is constructed around the theme of the liberation of China by the party rather than by Mao. It is history reenacted as theme park, whereby park space is transformed into revolutionary time. For the price of an entry ticket, one can walk the highlights of the communist long march and then toddle on to victory without having to cross the six thousand miles of terrain, the eighteen mountain ranges, twenty-seven rivers, or fight the two wars the Red Army did. Part “stations of the cross,” part sideshow, the park, so the advertising brochure claims, is a “history book without words.” “Through visiting the park people can both learn and play. They are likely to experience the revolutionary process in China for themselves by walking down this revolutionary road.”
This revolutionary road, rebuilt as tourist journey, is, if anything, a homage to the power of economic reform. Less Orwellian than Saatchi and Saatchi, this park constitutes a fine example of the transformative power not of the party but of commodification. As economic reform makes way for global commodification, one discovers that the Maoist mass-line ends up strangely resembling an advertising jingle. In this respect, economic reform has forced both party and opposition onto a strategic field that neither can fully control. While the party clearly has the upper hand, this is, in some crucial ways, being transformed into merely a tactical advantage. And, like everything else in post-economic-reform China, such an advantage means little if the people don’t buy the image. [End Page 68]
Mao becomes their Nike tick, and selling his image is one way of getting the populace to buy theirs. Yet, as the heterogeneity of the marketed Mao shows, the party has its share of problems with pirated copies that would not only steal their thunder but will also steal their logo. That, however, is not the end of their problem. So quickly and completely has this moment of commodification struck down the Chinese city that it has rendered virtually everything either for sale or open to negotiation. An Adornoesque moment appears on the horizon as everything is commodified. Yet in that transformation process, and despite the limits that the process imposes, not everything is consumer betrayal. 13 The always-the-same nature of the commodity that Adorno focuses on ignores the never-the-same quality of the politics of sale.
Reform in China has put a monetary price on everything, and once-taboo items now become the most valued of all. From sex to secrets, added value can always be squeezed from the forbidden fruits of the past, especially when it involves the party’s past. As a result, party secrets now find their way into novel marketable forms, both literally and figuratively. When the party boss of Beijing, Chen Xitong, was arrested on corruption charges, a pulp fiction version of the whole affair was quickly released, which changed the names of those accused, but contained accurate and specific details of the whole affair that were leaked straight from party central. 14 When the party launched a campaign against pornography, countless street vendors joined in with alacrity, selling salaciously detailed accounts of the “evils” of vice. In the China of economic reform, banned books become under-the-counter best-sellers forcing even the “official” publishing houses to vie for semidissident works in order to make a profit.
In music, too, the market favors dissent. When Sid Vicious stumbled down the stairs and went straight into a rendition of “My Way,” he probably never imagined he would spawn a punk “cover” industry. Chinese punks imagined it, though, and, in a classic album of punk covers called “Red Rock,” a motley collection of singers cut and slashed their way through such communist revolutionary classics as “Socialism Is Good.” The way they sing it, however, you just know they think it ain’t! 15 According to them, it’s like living in the dustbin of history. 16
The market arrives in China in what appears to be an Adornoesque moment where everything is rendered “for sale.” Yet what one quickly discovers is that saleability has chiseled away the certainty of meanings on which party propaganda relied. The party is forced to learn new tricks. Yet market discipline is not the only thing the party learns about. As large numbers of peasant migrants move into the cities, those who cannot find work employ their own “tactics” of survival, leading the party to institute a bit of disciplining of their own against vagrants, hooligans, [End Page 69] and prostitutes. In examining these “hooligan” forms of dissent that occasion a sporadic but often draconian response from the party, we move into yet another suburb of subversion opened up by reform.
“Let the use of words show you their meaning,” writes Ludwig Wittgenstein. 17 But what meaning do we take as given from the examples that flow from the latter-day “museum of ornaments” of the Chinese migrant underclasses? Their use of words is a veritable dictionary of dissent. Honorifics are transformed into terms of abuse, the actions of their enemies sardonically mimicked, the heroes of myth appropriated as their own. Here are some of the endless ways the subalterns in China both “make do” and “make out.”
When the party launches a campaign against pickpocketing, thieves respond with mimetic wit, calling their own actions “campaigns to steal from the top pocket” (lihuai yundong). When bodies are targeted for theft, they become grid-like maps of treasures and tribulations to be had by nimble fingers. Such body maps also reveal temporal and positional qualifications to action. An unguarded wallet in the back pocket may be known as a “free gift” (baigeihr) when it proves to be an easy mark, but with a slight change of bodily position the opportunity passes and the free gift is turned into “hell” (didong). Likewise, an unguarded top pocket is referred to as “eating from heaven’s window” (chi tianchuang). Nevertheless, once the guard of the target is up even that becomes Shanggan mountain (Shanggan liang), a place that is virtually impossible to get to. 18 (See figure 3.) In this way, language is transformed into a variable code for the marking of different bodies, times, and positions. The dexterity and speed of re-marking the body illustrates the nature of the tactical lives these people live. But flexibility of meaning isn’t always to be found in the quick turn of phrase. It is also about remarking the landscape to highlight one’s own values and aspirations. 19 While thieves marked the body, it was always the party that marked the ground on which these bodies walked. Indeed, when it came to the social landscape, the Communist Party proved itself to be the past master of renaming and remapping.
After the revolution and, especially, during the cultural revolution, the Communist Party played this card in an attempt to force a change of consciousness. In the cultural revolution, in particular, one could not think of going home or going out without “going red,” for virtually every street name demanded it. Red Guard Alleyways, Young Red Militia Lanes, and The East Is Red Streets abounded. In Beijing alone, during [End Page 70] the cultural revolution, some 475 streets were renamed to include the word revolution. Between the “Red Sun” Roads and Study Chairman Mao Alleys, one could not help but think revolution when thinking about where to go. But renamings sometimes also had more immediate and obvious political goals. At the height of the cultural revolution, the street on which the Soviet embassy stood was renamed and the embassy was given a new number. Their new address: 1 Oppose Revisionism Road, Beijing. Who said Maoism had no sense of humor?
Such humor also finds voice in the renaming practices of criminal dissidents. Detention centers and prisons are recoded as the homes of heroes. In one instance from Guiyang, inmates renamed their center Liang Mountain. Drawn from the classic novel The Water Margin, Liang Mountain was where 108 righteous rebels fled the unjust rule of a tyrannical government. The analogy is obvious. Other terms also have obvious meanings offering open and bitter critiques of the penal conditions inmates have suffered under. Caves of bitterness (kuyao), caves of depression (menyao), cellar caves (diyao), or zoo cages (langzi) are just some of the expressions used by inmates to rename and therefore describe their prisons. Police and prison guards fare little better. Traffic cops are called the “dogs that watch the street” (kanjiegou), while the armed police who guard buildings are known as the “dogs that watch the entrance” (kanmengou). Mostly, however, it is the inversion of family honorifics that enable the hoodlums of China to play their language games. Male police are called erge or laoge. This translates as a polite expression for the second eldest brother in majority society. In the hands of the hoodlum, however, it means “cock.” Similarly, female officers are called eryi, which is again a family honorific, but one that in the slang of the hoodlum translates as “cunt.” Like most slang, terms for females usually involve references to sex. In the case of China, it also combines with another delicacy, food. Thus, to fondle breasts is referred to as “eating meat dumplings” (chi roubao), while fellatio is called “licking the plate” (tian panzi). To chase women is often called “eating bean curd” (chi doufu), and female sex organs are described as “dumpling skin” (hezipi).
This recoding of bodies is not restricted to language. Indeed, bodily markings and tattoos offer another way of “listening” to the murmurs of these other voices. What is significant about bodily marking in China, however, is that it operates under the continued shadow of familialism that proscribes bodily defacement. Thus, the body marked is the body outcast. The dynastic Chinese state recognized this from very early times and employed the tattoo for its own ends.
The body, it is commonly said, is a temple. In traditional China, it was thought to be an unmarkable altar to family and lineage descent. To [End Page 72] mark the body was to mark the family out. Employing this taboo for their own ends, successive dynastic governments used the “ink punishment” (moxing) to stigmatize both criminal and family. It was a punishment that transcended life itself for, in the afterlife, even one’s ancestors may have difficulty recognizing a body that was marked. To mark the body, therefore, was a serious social transgression. This transgression was to be inverted by gangs and triads who began to use such markings as a form of membership badge. This is a kind of mimetic inversion that recognizes the stigmatizing code of bodily marking but then celebrates it. It is the way the gang forges an identity for itself by marking itself outside of society. Such tattoos constitute telltale signs of entry into the gang and out of majority society. 20
Within this underworld of the tattoo, however, there are also more private forms of marking and rebelling. To tattoo the character “endure” or “avenge” on one’s body, or to mark oneself with a pictograph of a knife or sword, is to indicate a desire for revenge, while a tattoo of a heart with many arrows through it boasts of innumerable romantic conquests. 21 Here is an underworld of meaning the government has little tolerance for and little tactical interest in. Here is a language of dissent signaling practices that have to be repressed for they are unmarketable. And here, in dealing with these people that no society wants, the tale becomes a story of human rights abuse.
It is the migrant and criminal for whom state repression proves to be both the most arbitrary and the harshest. 22 Yet this is not the Chinese human rights story that one hears of in the West. That is because our accounts of Chinese human rights abuse are frozen by loftier and more overtly political images of dissent. Our ideas of Chinese human rights are frozen to an agenda set by an altogether different image: the image of the man and the tank. In this image, the anonymity and individuality of the hero standing up to the weapons of the strong forms a binary account of power that we, in the West, all too readily understand and accept as morally clear. It is an image that feeds into certain understandings of human rights that freezes out the migrant, the poor, and the criminal.
The Flow of Rights
“No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs to the Unknown Soldier,” says Benedict Anderson. This is because the anonymity of the soldier enables the cenotaph to be “filled with ghostly national imaginings.” 23 On 5 June 1989, the West found its own unknown soldier of democracy on the main street [End Page 73] of Beijing, and, with a single click of a camera, the image of this man before the tanks was transformed into iconography. The binary opposition so central to the power of this image reproduced, in contemporary terms, the antithesis of good and evil so central to Western theology and philosophy. Here was the binary of life and death: Montesquieu’s Oriental Despot reawoken in mechanical form, locked in an eternal battle with the unknown soldier of democracy.
The backstreets speak of different conflicts and less clear battle lines. Backstreet conflicts are aimed at survival, not the articulation of principles. They are ways of “making do,” not seizing power. Taken together, such actions form the basis of the everyday wars of maneuver that shape the nature of streetlife China and are of particular importance to anyone who is outside majority society. Our antiheroes are no pristine harbingers of any future civil society any more than the despotic state or Communist Party is the single source of their oppression. Our antiheroes are the “collateral damage” suffered in the globalization processes we have come to call economic reform.
Rights are always about the Other, just as rights abuse is all about Otherness. Western liberal accounts of rights abuse in China, however, tend to restrict this discourse of Otherness to the domain of the political. The principal focus of Western human rights concerns is the abused Other of the Communist Party. These are political dissidents whose Otherness manifests itself as being outside the party. It is this outsider-otherness that I would like to focus on because it needs to be understood far more broadly than Western liberal accounts allow. Outsider-otherness is condemned in China for political as well as cultural reasons. When the political and cultural bump into one another to produce the migrating foot soldiers of economic reform, they become the potential bearers of a different and far more damning kind of Otherness to that experienced by the overt political dissident. Theirs is the Otherness of the stranger.
They are the migrants who populate the cities but for whom the city will always be a foreign place. They are despised as uncultivated or uneducated tramps, or as morally unworthy streetwalkers. They are marked out not only by overt signs of difference, such as the tattoo, but by a series of less visible birthmarks. The way they dress, their speech patterns, their dialects and customs all mark them out from city people. With one designation, one Chinese character, they are marked as the eternal undesirable. That character is liu and it means “to float.” In combination with other characters, liu marks out the social lepers of Chinese society.
Together with the character mang (common people), the compound word liumang is formed, meaning hoodlum, hooligan, or criminal. 24 Together with another character that is also pronounced mang, but which [End Page 74] means blindness, another pejorative compound word is formed. This time it is mangliu which means, literally, “to float around blindly.” All Chinese who hear these words immediately think of unruly and dangerous outsiders. More than anything else, these people of liu stand for all that is foreign to majority society. They are the rootless characters of the everyday who form the opposite of the respectable and sedentary citizens of the city. These are the footloose forces that China most fears. Indeed, if there is to be a binary of abuse in China, it is less about the man and the tank and more about this distinction.
Chinese, claims Yi Zhongtian, have traditionally been obsessed with stability and place. So obsessed have they been that stability came to constitute an important consideration even in the afterlife. In dynastic times, Yi notes, it was not uncommon to find a brightly colored coffin on display in the homes of the aged and venerable. For Yi, this form of display is telling:
Superficially, this is unimaginably strange but, on closer inspection, there are some important reasons for this. While it is admittedly true that the fear of death was great, Chinese people are even more scared of “dying and being without a place of burial.” Should this happen, they would be nothing more than “orphan ghosts and strange ghosts.” Therefore, to place the coffin in the house is a glorious and auspicious thing to do. In fact, one does not even call the coffin a coffin (guancai) but refers to it as the “wood of good fortune and long life” (shoumu). . . . In summary then, no matter whether it is in life or death, everybody wants a place that they can rely on. They want a place to settle down, and if they don’t get this it can very easily lead to a strong sense of loss and feeling that they are like homeless dogs. 25
This dream of a stable place runs deep in China. But as Freud notes, dreams always refer to yesterday. 26 Working through the Maoist yesterday of China, one comes to understand how this dream of “stability” and suspicion of the rootless supplied Chinese conceptions of socialism with certain unconscious understandings of what is proper that now feed into the problems of human rights abuse today.
The Stable Streets of Socialism
“The Chinese people have stood up,” said Chairman Mao in 1949, as he proclaimed the new China. Having stood up, however, the people quickly realized they had nowhere to go. Two separate and unrelated acts of government ensured this stilling of city populations. The first act symbolized the type of mobile city life that was to be left behind, while the second flagged the stable, static, socialist life to come. Both acts were [End Page 75] designed to halt the movement of people and things and to set in place a regime of perfect calculation.
Act one of this two-part performance began at ten o’clock on the morning of 10 June 1949 when the head of the newly formed Shanghai Public Security Bureau led a team of 400 police and garrison troops down to the Shanghai stock exchange. After surrounding the building and calling on the occupants to come out, the police immediately arrested 238 of the occupants as speculators and registered the rest as suspects before sending them home. 27 The chaotic and fluid world of shares and speculation came crashing down. A registered, stable life, not the floating world of the share, would, in the future, determine one’s fortune and fate. A new equity came to displace old (in)equities! This alternative vision of the future was unveiled a few months later.
This second act began in September when the Social Section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed an edict instructing all workplaces to establish personnel security sections to monitor, survey, and register all staff and workers. 28 This was the final brick in a wall that surrounded a social arrangement known as the work-unit system. The panoptic quest of the work-unit security forces could only succeed, however, if these units supplied what Mauss, in a very different context and with a slightly different meaning, referred to as a system of “total services.” 29 Local work-unit-level party committees, therefore, developed a system to provide for virtually all of life’s material needs. As a consequence, the concept of the main street, of shopping precincts, and of city life as we know it began to fade into memory, and as these things waned the work unit spread into most areas of life.
So it was that hidden behind compound walls that designated their jurisdiction, work units set about establishing a labyrinth of small institutions to provide for life’s needs if not its pleasures. Shops, hospitals, schools, workers’ apartments, and entertainment venues all appeared behind the compound walls. There was, therefore, little need to leave one’s work unit and, with the abolition of the labor market and the introduction of a system of job allocation, precious few means to do so. A tight policing of migration through the household register, which ensured that there was little movement anywhere, further reinforced stability. 30 From the perspective of socialist planners, this was ideal, for China stilled was China made calculable. An inventory of registered bodies joined the calculation of inanimate resources to offer the communists the basic “stock lists” of socialist planning. 31
“The revolution,” says He Xinghan, “was pregnant with the expectation of the work unit.” Well might he say this, for it was through this institution that the once fluid world of stocks, shares, and labor markets would be drained of life. 32 Work units became the foundation stone in a [End Page 76] new and elaborate mechanistic and collectivist dream of society and the future. That dream imagined an “algebraic society” of registers (of workers) and (work) units that would make everything visible and measurable. The dream of a mathematically calculable socialism seemed but a few sums away. It was as though Mao’s China was set to outdo even the arithmetic of Lenin, for while Lenin would boast that Soviet power + electrification = communism, 33 Mao’s China seemed to proclaim that the sum total of all (work) units = the sprouts of communism.
Yet the closer this form of calculation came to fruition, the more it unraveled. The absence of a money economy to allocate scarce resources meant that unit members traded in various kinds of symbolic capital. As a result, the “total services” designed to stabilize a calculable workforce took on a more Maussian hue. 34 Units were dominated not by the plan but by a private economy of “favors” that Mauss would no doubt describe as gift-like. By trading in obligations, connections, and reciprocity, work units not only began to cohere as tiny societies but were able to live up to the production demands of party planners. 35 In other words, these “socialist new things” that were supposed to bring forth an absolutely calculable, transparent China produced the very opposite of this. Opacity reigned where clarity should have prevailed. Yet it was the very demands of the planners that produced this outcome. In the absence of monetary incentives, the production quotas of the planners could not be achieved without an emotive appeal to collective comradely relations. While “working hard for socialism” may have been the advertised slogan of the spin doctors of socialism, work units, for the most part, when they worked, did so to satisfy demands much closer to home. Thus, far from being mechanisms of capital production that would ensure clear calculability, units were driven by this flow of symbolic capital that was, by definition, always opaque.
In hindsight, this hardly seems surprising. After all, consciously or otherwise, the Communist Party had always traded on such localized emotive bonds. The lengthy period of apprenticeship in rural China made communists believe such emotionally charged relations were “natural” and a precursive form of socialism. Indeed, in the Yan’an way, the collectivism of the countryside became the model for all future social relations. 36 The collectivist dynamics that emerged within the work units, then, tended to replicate those existent in rural China. 37 While communists radically reworked village collectivism to ensure they were socialist rather than patriarchal, they tended to break with the “content” of patriarchal village life but maintained its “form.” 38 As a consequence, work units became the “urban plots” of socialism, reproducing a new kind of hybridic rural socialist consciousness among city dwellers. From these “urban plots” would grow a very new China which was, in so many [End Page 77] ways, also very old.
The language of revolution that enveloped the cities began to reflect this new-old, urban-rural quality as city-speak developed a rural and “revolutionary” inflection. Young communist cadres were referred to as “straight-rooted red seedlings” (gengzheng miaohong), while cadres carrying out training or dispensing advice were said to be “irrigation channels” (jiaoguan). 39 In effect, with the socialist revolution, the country came to the city; and in the name of socialism, work units enforced a style of life that had been the basis of the communist rural collectivist lifestyle. Consciously or otherwise, the built environment of the work unit reinforced this. Work units were built along the lines of the basic compound household forms of rural and northern China. As with social relations, the architecture of the work unit played with the “content” of the architectonic while maintaining its form. Only by altering the content, it was thought, could the obvious patriarchal nature of this traditional structure be overcome.
The architectonics of the traditional compound house reinforced patriarchy by ensuring an internal economy based on the hierarchical ordering of family members. The ordering of rooms in the house hierarchizes bodies, privileging the central gaze and guidance of the patriarch. At the same time, its closed nature reinforces the powerful bonds of interdependence between family members. A floor plan of the compound house is, in this way, a map of the ethical and moral order of the Confucian world. Space, symbolically coded and hierarchized in this manner, makes every home a temple to the family and a “machine” to train bodies in the art of Confucian comportment. (See figure 4.)
It was as “transforming machine” rather than as temple that the communists would mimetically recast the architecture of the compound. In reworking the symbolic code of patriarchy, socialist architects maintained the wall but put party space in the space of the patriarch. Under conditions where the relations of emotion are simply replayed to a different tune, however, it is hardly surprising that economic production ended up reproducing everything on the basis of oeconomic relations under a new party patriarch. 40 The mimetic processes employed by the revolution to bring forth its victory were, it seems, to have their revenge.
“The work unit is like one’s parents and one’s family,” says Yi Zhongtian. “It is the place where one is no longer friendless or wretched,” adds He Xinghan. “It is a place that has developed into a clan-like organization,” concludes Lu Feng. 41 Work units, it seems, became like home, and, like all homes, they relied on a complex set of emotional and symbolic ties to internally order “family” members. In other words, the “algebraic society,” with its clear, calculable resources, grew utterly and increasingly dependent on its opaque gift-like underside [End Page 78] to give the appearance of working. The more it insisted that it was successfully producing, the more it relied on the slave-like, gift-like relation of dependence that was building up between local party organs and the people. 42 This economy of gift relations gave rise to what Yang Dongping has called the “walled culture” of China. 43 This is a culture of dependence on work-unit comrades that reinforces suspicion of all those outside it. Those who are not tied into such networks of social relations are always on the outside, and limits are placed on their action. They are the people to fear and the ones who remain huddled under the character liu. (See figure 5.)
“From the perspective of traditional Chinese society,” says Yi Zhongtian, “the day when every single person has a place that will secure their fate and enable them to have a roof over their head is the day when there will truly be great harmony under heaven.” The opposite of this, he continues, “is a state of great confusion.” 44 If work units represented stability, the people of liu are its opposite. Outside of any compound wall, they signal danger to a society unused to movement. After all, as Yi goes on to note, “floating or drifting is a form of movement and movement leads to chaos.” Under the sign of erasure (chai), economic [End Page 79] reform is tearing down the certainty of work-unit socialism. Under the character liu emerges the specter of a new social constellation that may well, one day, break the hold of this dreamy state of stability. Until it does, however, liu will always stand as the central character in human rights concerns in China, whether the West recognizes it or not. [End Page 80]
It was Siegfried Kracauer who once wrote that the street was not only the “arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters” but also the “place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself.” 45 In China, it is generally in the backstreets that one finds scrawled on the walls of the ancient or decrepit socialist-built environment evidence of Kracauer’s point. Perversely, however, the evidence is gathered under the sign of death, chai. Chai literally means to tear down, but on the buildings of the Chinese city it is more like a tombstone engraving in the cemetery of the Maoist lived environment. From house to hall, from work unit to department store, chai marks out those sites where the old revolutionary forms are to be buried beneath the avalanche of commodification and alienation that economic reform has brought in its wake. In tearing down the old, however, chai stands as a sign of things to come.
Once, in the era of socialism and under the red flag of proletarian productivity, there was the work unit. Now, under the sign of chai, the bulldozer’s blade clears this space to make way for a new living and working arrangement. The utopian space of China is no longer the work space. Indeed, the redness of the Mao era, with its once blinding promises of utopianism in a productive life, now turns pale before this power of commodification. Here life reasserts itself, and, as it does, the revolution itself is commodified.
From Mao-themed restaurants to theme parks of the revolution, the insatiable appetite to commodify everything transforms even the most revolutionary and sacred sites into tourist traps. For Chinese socialism, the bitter twist of fate must surely be that it is only through such a process of mimetic reinvention that the revolution stands any chance of being remembered. Yet while the youth of today learn of the revolution of yesteryear at a conscious level in this way, what they learn at an unconscious level is a particular “art” of desire that is invested in the commodity form. It is this that, to steal a line from Lenin, is being reproduced “continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale” on the streets and alleyways of contemporary China. 46 As the political materialism of communism is replaced by a new and very different form of materialism, what Benjamin would have called the “aura” of communism—an “aura” held together by the unique figure of Mao, who personified its spiritual power—is dead. Commodification has killed it off and in the process has transformed the nation. But like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there is a dual story to be told about this process of social transformation. Above ground, the neon lights and bright window displays dazzle us. Beneath the surface, however, live the people of liu. [End Page 81]
The “people of liu” are the Chinese subaltern. They are the floating outcasts of a society that is organized to ensure that everyone has a place. They signal a challenge to this stability in a way that fundamentally threatens the Chinese sense of community and self. If chai is the mark of destruction of the old, then liu flags a fear of what the future might bring. If chai signals a physical reorganization of the city-space to promote a consumer-based future, liu signals the underside to this new more mobile and more class-based society. Economic reform has left the people of liu—the internal migrants, the poor, the destitute, the criminal, and the undesirable—more vulnerable than at anytime since the 1949 revolution. Without connections, money, or position these people are vulnerable both to police harassment and arrest and to popular local resentment. Theirs is the human rights story all too often ignored in the West, for it is a tale that seriously challenges the Western approach to the question of rights. There are reasons for this.
Economic reform, so the Western mantra goes, is not only “rational” but leads to political reform, and this, in turn, solves the human rights problem. In economic reform, the West sees itself in a Chinese mirror. Here is the story of its own history and trajectory written with “Chinese characteristics.” Here is yet another version of a Western trope that rereads Third World history as a precursive form; where difference emerges only as “lack”; and where the end of history emerges in the full flowering of the modernization process. 47 The existence of the people of liu throws this universalizing logic in doubt. Certainly, their tale is, in crucial respects, universal. The ambiguous logic of economic reform forces them from their homes and into the city. Here, they are “disciplined” by state legislation against hoodlums, transients, and criminals. At the same time, however, theirs is a very local story, for they are caught on the horns of a cultural prejudice that treats outsiders of this type with great suspicion. As a result, the people of liu end up as one of the most abused groups in Chinese society. Viewed in this way, one understands why they cannot be seen as mere “stand-ins” for a general category of the universally oppressed worker. There are cultural differences that mark them out.
Benjamin suggested that the proletariat and the migrant share a similar experience of the metropolis. 48 Yet in the metropolises of China, Benjamin’s migrant, when she appears, is tied just as tightly to the character liu and to the notion of criminality. 49 Etymologically linked into a signifying chain that threads through the world of the criminal or miscreant, this unconscious sense of migrancy remains a potent factor in popular assessment of outsiders. Migrant as miscreant, as criminal, as whore, here is the new class marker that unconsciously relies on the prejudices of the past. It is a prejudice that the bright lights and show windows of [End Page 82] the reform process try to hide. Perhaps inadvertently, Western human rights advocates seem inattentive to the plight of this character also. Perhaps it is time to ask questions about the unconscious politics of such selective blindness.
Michael Dutton teaches at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the codirector of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Melbourne, and the coeditor of the journal Postcolonial Studies. His most recent book is Streetlife China (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
* This essay is based on arguments rehearsed and translations excerpted in my book Streetlife China.
1. Paul Virilio, Lost Dimension (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 9–10.
2. For an elaboration of this argument suggesting a family resemblance between developments in China today and Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s yesteryear, see my Streetlife China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 11–14; hereafter cited as SLC.
3. Stanley Mitchell, introduction to Understanding Brecht, by Walter Benjamin (London: New Left Books, 1993), vii.
4. Biopower, it is said, is a way of rethinking government that turns it away from the macrolevel concerns of state and toward population and people. This, in turn, shifts the focus to a different set of governmental questions about health, welfare, and property. These concerns turn on more localized expressions of social organization and power. For further elucidation of this idea see Michel Foucault, “The Birth of Biopolitics,” in Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954–1984, vol. 1, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New, 1994), 73–79.
5. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gorden (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 142.
6. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 97. I would like to thank Gyan Prakash for bringing this link to my attention.
7. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 37.
8. Ibid., 48; emphasis in original.
9. Catherine Ingraham, “Architecture and the Scene of Evidence,” Postcolonial Studies 1 (July 1997): 207.
10. “Interviews with the Badge Masters Wang Anting and Dang Miao,” in SLC, 254.
11. Ibid., 245.
12. There is another problem that flows from what I am referring to that would require more time and space to elaborate than I have available here. Briefly, however, if, as Schwartz suggests, “between strategy and tactics is the drill,” then tactics themselves rely, quite often, on training. While Foucault’s work highlights the disciplinary regimes operative in barracks, schools, prisons, and hospitals, one might well ask about the disciplinary technology required of a well-trained thief who expertly extracts a wallet from the pocket of her victim. A disciplinary society can spawn resistance via the very disciplinary technology it invents. It is, therefore, not limited to “earlier procedures” that “vampirize” the disciplinary forms, as de Certeau seems to suggest. Far from leading to homogeneity, the deployment of disciplinary power trains a heterogeneous collection of techniques that can, and sometimes do, cancel each other out or mark the limits of governmentally based technologies. On drill see Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimilies (New York: Zone, 1996), 260. On disciplinary power see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Peregrine, Penguin, 1997). On “vampirizing” of disciplinary power see de Certeau, Practice, 49, and also his Heterologies, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 195. In the latter a similar argument is run under the rubric of “cannibalization.”
13. Of the commodity Adorno had this to say: “A sensory pleasure turns into disgust as soon as it is seen how it only still serves to betray the consumer. The betrayal here consists in always offering the same thing.” Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 44.
14. The name of the novel is Heaven’s Rage and the claim that the information in the work is quite accurate came from senior party officials.
15. Assorted Artists, Red Rock [Hongse yaogun] (Beijing: Dianying shiyuan yinxiang chubanshe, n.d). “Socialism Is Good” is sung by Zhang Qu.
16. Punk rocker He Yong makes this clear in his song “Garbage Dump”; “Our lifeworld is like a garbage dump, and the people in it are like worms.” “Garbage Dump” [“Lajichang”], from the album of the same name by He Yong (Shanghai: Shengxiang chubanshe, 1994).
17. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Notebooks, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), 220.
18. This is a reference to a mountain that the Chinese army found virtually impossible to take during the Korean War.
19. On criminal slang see Liu Yanwu, A Compendium of Slang and Hidden Language [Yinyu, Heihuajishi] (Beijing: Chinese Public Security University, 1992). See also SLC, 175–79. On the language of the cultural revolution see Yang Dongping, City Monsoon [Chengshi jifeng] (Beijing: Dongfang chubanshe, 1994), 262–76, or the excerpt in SLC, 165–69.
20. For more on tattooing in China see Yu Yiqing and Zhang Hexin, A History of Life Faiths: The World of the Tattoo [Xinnian de huashi: Wenshen shijie] (Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 1988), and Gao Jian, “Tattoos—A Revival,” Social News 690 (1993): 2–3. Both are excerpted in SLC, 181–87. On the history of prison tattoos see Xu Zhangrun, Penology [Jianyu xue] (Beijing: Public Security University Publishing House, 1991), 79–80.
21. Among prisoners, the tattoo is quite common. Sun Xiaoli notes that in one survey from Xinjiang it was reported that over 90 percent of all inmates had tattoos. See Sun Xiaoli, The Chinese Prison System: Theory and Practice, History and Reality [Zhongguo laodong gaizao zhidu de lilun yu shijian-lishi yu xianshi] (Beijing: China’s Political Science and Law University, 1994), 260–61. What are these tattoos depicting? In another survey of prisoners’ tattoos from the province of Hubei, it was found that 20.8 percent of all inmates in custody had tattoos with characters meaning “avenge,” “revenge,” “brought into custody,” or “taken in for questioning.” See Jiang Fuyuan, “A Survey of Criminal Tattoos and How the Situation Should Be Rectified,” Special Teacher 27 (1989): 24–25.
22. There is little room here to detail this point. Suffice it to say that whether one argues this in terms of rates of arrest, processes and conditions of arrest, or conditions suffered while under arrest, transient criminals are probably the most abused of all major groups in China. Indeed, even the Ministry of Public Security, which is in charge of pre-trial detention, argues in their internal documents that conditions in their centers were far worse than the conditions in other sectors of the penal regime. For that specific argument see The Handbook on Preparatory Investigations and Watchhouse Work [Yushen, Kanshou Gongzuo Shouce], vol. 2 (Beijing: Masses Press, 1985), 191–92. For more details of this general argument in English see Michael Dutton and Lee Tianfu, “Missing the Target? Policing Strategies in the Period of Economic Reform,” Crime and Delinquency 39 (July 1993): 316–36.
23. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 17.
24. Mang hasn’t always meant “common people.” It is in the stored etymological meaning carried over from former times that one begins to see why it has such a pejorative ring to it. In Shanghai during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the same expression (with a slight difference in the character form) meant either hooligan or a type of biting insect. Vagrants, it seems, bite just like insects. See Chen Baoliang, A History of Chinese Hooligans [Zhongguo liumangshi] (Beijing: Chinese Social Science Publishing House, 1993), 2–7; translated in SLC, 63.
25. Yi Zhongtian, Casually Talking Chinese [Xianhua Zhongguoren] (Beijing: Hualing Chubanshe, 1996), 195; translated in SLC, 58–59.
26. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, 1966), 239.
27. Public Security Historical Materials [Gong’an ziliao], vol. 2 (12), 1993, 255.
28. The Social Section was a party-based police force that would later form the leadership backbone of the post-1949 public security or police force. See Public Security Historical Materials [Gong’an ziliao], vol. 2 (28) 1993, 207.
29. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Hall (London: Routledge, 1990), 5.
30. While migrants now constitute something like 25 percent of the population of some of the larger coastal cities of the east coast such as Beijing, this is quite a new phenomenon. Estimates of movement in the period from 1949 to 1957 suggest that on average no more than 3 percent of the total city population was made up of migrants. While this rose slightly in the 1957–76 period to 5 percent, it is minuscule compared with today’s rates. Indeed, even in the 1960–62 famine, when millions died of starvation and millions tried to avoid starvation by fleeing into the cities, the percentage of migrants only ever reached 8 percent of the total city population. For more details on migrant flow see Xu Hanmin, Forty Years of People’s Public Security [Renmin Gong’an 40 nian] (Beijing: Jingguan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1992), 133–36.
31. This, at least, was the view of the first minister of police, Luo Ruiqing, who said as much in his discussion about the newly implemented household registration laws of 1958. See Luo Ruiqing, On People’s Public Security Work [Lun Renmin gong’an gongzuo] (Beijing: Masses, 1994), 353.
32. He Xinghan, “People in the Work Unit” [“Ren zai danwei zhong”], in People and Prose [Sanwen yu ren], ed. Shao Yanxiang and Lin Xianzhi (Guangzhou: Huachen chubanshe, 1993); trans. in SLC, 49.
33. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, translated Julius Katzer (Moscow: Progress, 1966), 419.
34. That is to say, the “total services” offered forged an economy of reciprocity within the planned economy that is based more on a gift-cycle of favors than on clear “rational” orders from planners.
35. Mauss, The Gift, 5–6.
36. Yan’an was the main base of communist operations from the 1930s right up until the civil war. It was an area where Mao Zedong was able to develop his own distinctive style of socialism and has now become part of the legend of the Chinese Communist Party. For more details see David Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).
37. At a more empirical level, Lu Feng argues that work units emerged from the rural base areas of the communists and it is in this way that one can account for their rustic nature. See Lu Feng, “Dan wei: Yizhong testu de shehui zuzhi xingshi” [“The work unit: A special form of social organization”], Chinese Social Science 1 (January 1989): 71–88; excerpted in SLC, 53.
38. Communist art work offers the clearest example of this. Most revolutionary songs of Communist China are reworked local peasant songs. Even the revolutionary operas of the cultural revolution were a mimetic reworking of the “content” of traditional opera while keeping in place certain key elements of the form.
39. Yang, City Monsoon, 265; translated in SLC, 167.
40. Oeconomy is here used to mean the traditional homology forged between economic and moral matters. See Keith Tribe, Land, Labour, and Economic Discourse (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 80–82.
41. Yi, Casually Talking, 189, in SLC, 59; He, “People,” in SLC, 47; Lu “The Work Unit,” in SLC, 55.
42. Note, for example, the endless use of the nurturing mother metaphor in the time of “revolutionary China.” Lei Feng, the model of communist virtue, spoke in 1963 of the party being “just like a loving mother,” while Minister of Public Security Luo Ruiqing reminded his police force in 1958 that the masses should be treated as though they were the mother of the force. See Live Like Lei Feng [Xiang Lei Feng Huozhe] (Jiangsu: People’s Publishing House, 1984), 49; and Luo Ruiqing, “Let the Masses Be Our Mother,” in On People’s Public Security Work [Lun renmin gong’an gongzuo] (Beijing: Masses, 1994), 363–66.
43. Yang, City Monsoon, 111, in SLC, 210.
44. Yi, Casually Talking, 236, in SLC, 61.
45. Siegfried Kracauer, “Once Again on the Street,” in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (London: Oxford University Press, 1960); qtd. in Anthony Vidler, “Agoraphobia: Spatial Estrangement in Georg Simmel and Siegfried Kracauer,” New German Critique 54 (fall 1991): 31.
46. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, 24.
47. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work highlights the extent to which this trope of development informs virtually all Western accounts of non-Western history. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian Pasts,’ Representations 87 (winter 1992): 4.
48. Benjamin, qtd. in Susan Buck Morss, “The Flaneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” New German Critique 39 (fall 1986): 115.
49. Etymology betrays the link revealing that the current term used for hooligan criminal actually meant “to leave, or to be forced to leave one’s land” (liumang zhi min). See Chen Baoliang, A History, in SLC, 63.