In the November 2003 issue of Cultural Anthropology Pun Ngai writes of dagongmei, women migrant laborers from China’s countryside, situated at the intersection of production and consumption in the circuit of global capital. “Subsumption or Consumption? The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in “Globalizing” China” examines how the dagongmei figures as both a desired producer and a desiring consumer, asking whether the ceaseless cycle of capitalism can bolster a democratic social space or whether it furthers socioeconomic inequity. The productivist logic of Maoist China serves as a foundation for a consumer revolution, and Pun uses the “golden travel holidays” and the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen to explore how the state has engineered a new cultural economy. Pun argues that the circuit of global capital is less a process of individualizing than of binding dagongmei into a “collectivity through their shared dreams and desires to become a new kind of subject,” a process taking hold in China and other postsocialist countries.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on value and consumerism. See Robert J. Foster’s “The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation” (2007), Debra Curtis’ “Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires” (2004), Priti Ramamurthy’s “Material Consumers, Fabricating Subjects: Perplexity, Global Connectivity Discourses, and Transnational Feminist Research” (2003), and Elizabeth Emma Ferry’s “Inalienable Commodities: The Production and Circulation of Silver and Patrimony in a Mexican Mining Cooperative” (2002).
Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on labor flows. See for example, Danny Hoffman’s “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007), Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006), Yan Hairong’s “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003), and Carla Freeman’s “Designing Women: Corporate Discipline and Barbados's Off-Shore Pink-Collar Sector” (1993).
Pun Ngai is associate professor of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
LINKS FROM THE ESSAY, "SUBSUMPTION OR CONSUMPTION?"
"Dagongmei - Female Migrant Labourers
Overview by the China Labour Bulletin (03/06/04)
The Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen
Overview from the Shenzhen Government Online
China National Tourism Administration
Asian Financial Crisis, 1997-1998
US Congressional Research Service Report by FAS (02/06/98)
James Fallows on future US China relationship
"Those with Justice" - Sweatshop Watch
Shenzhen Window of the World - Slideshow
OTHER MEDIA LINKS
"China Makes, The World Takes"
Article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2007
"Golden Weeks or Silver Days?"
Article on China's public holidays in The Economist, November 2007
"China's Household Registration System: Sustained Reform Needed to Protect China's Rural Migrants"
Topics paper from the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China
OTHER ORGANIZATION LINKS
The Chinese Working Women Network
Nongovernmental organization established in 1996 to better the lives of Chinese migrant women workers
China Study Group
New York based non-profit organization that networks scholars and provides information on China in the context of globalization
China Labour Bulletin
Hong Kong-based NGO, established in 1994 to monitor and research workers rights in the People's Republic of China
Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network
Volunteer network of 400 health and safety professionals disseminating information about workplace safety and rights
Asia Monitor Resource Centre
NGO established in 1976 to promote workers rights and democratic labor movements in Asia
California-based coalition committed to ending sweatshop exploitation
RELATED SCHOLARLY WORKS
Chen, Nancy N., Constance D. Clark, Suzanne Gottschang, and Lyn Jeffrey, eds. China Urban. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Chen, Shuxun and Charles Wolf, eds. China, the United States and Global Economy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001.
Davis, Deborah, ed. The Consumer Revolution in Urban China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Ngai, Pun. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Ngai, Pun. (1999) "Becoming Dagongmei (Working Girls): The Politics of Identity and Difference in Reform China." The China Journal 42: 1-18.
Wang, Jing. (2001) "Culture as Leisure and Culture as Capital." Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 9(l):69-104.
Wang, Shaoguang. (2000) "The Social and Political Implications of China's WTO Membership." Journal of Contemporary China 9(25):373-405.
IN-CLASS ACTIVITY or HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT
A) Using a blank piece of paper, students should use the top half to write down their employment experiences—wage, hours worked a week, benefits, and whether they felt that they were treated fairly or well on the job. Did they need to travel far to work? Were many jobs available to them, or were job opportunities limited? On the bottom half of the paper, have students write down their consumption practices—what major purchases were made in the last week, month, or year? Where do they shop and what is bought? Do they know where the products come from? Have student estimate how much time they spend consuming (the class can have a discussion about what this means). Students should analyze the balance between their own labor and consumption.
As a follow up activity, have the class watch “The Story of Stuff”, a twenty minute streaming video on production and consumption practices.
B) What are labor rights? Students can come to class after researching what labor rights are, how they are governed and enforced, the history of labor rights, and evaluating if labor laws focus on some industries more than others. This activity will help to piece together the story of labor rights and laws.
Alternatively, divide the class into small groups or pairs and have each group research the history and current status of labor rights in chosen countries. One group should focus on international government organizations in order to determine involvement at the supranational level. Another group should research the US. How do labor rights or laws vary from country to country? Also discuss the sources students used to gather information, and have the class generate a labor rights/laws resource list.