Working Paper: Western Orientalism and Chinese counter-narratives in anti-trafficking fictions

 Western benevolence in the Trafficking in People reports

Critical feminists have analysed the discourse of anti-trafficking as working in traditional (Western) gendered and neo-imperialist terms, in political and NGO discourse, as well as movies, documentaries, t.v. series, journalism and novels (see, for example, the works of Elizabeth Bernstein, Jo Doezema, (2010), Julietta Hua (2011), Nandita Sharma (2003, 2005), Gretchen Solderlund (2013), and Alexandra Moore and Elizabeth Goldberg 2015).

Much of the critique has elaborated a reinvented “civilising mission” in anti-trafficking discourse. Arguably, narrative devices such as the immorality of male traffickers and desirable vulnerability (Andrijasevic, 2007) of innocent female victims are central to the “rescue” trope that Carrie N Baker (2013) described as working across neo-abolitionist media, NGO and government. The civilising mission of “rescue” is a key element of the US Orientalist discourse of the West saving Asian and Middle Eastern society and culture from itself (see blog part two). This is a reinvention of the imperialist  “white (wo)man’s burden” in sociology Professor Kamala Kempadoo’s analysis, one which works at the convergence of the modern anti-slavery, feminist abolitionist, celebrity humanitarian movements, and neoliberal interests (See also Berstein, 2007). As an ideological myth, “Rescue” achieves a (self) image of the West as compassionate and benevolent. In the anti-modern slavery campaigns, this manifests in the figure of “the daring white knight morally obligated to save the world — especially Asia and Africa — affirming white masculinity as powerful and heroic”.

In feminist abolitionism, it manifests in a moral mission to rescue “poor ’prostituted’ women and children (victims) from male privilege, power, and lust (sex trafficking)” … thereby reproducing “a colonial maternalism in relation to the impoverished non-western world” and “reconfirming the white western middle-class woman as benevolent”. Kempadoo argues that celebrity humanitarian campaigns combine both of these approaches with — as Dina Haynes observed  — counter-productive results.

Baker (2013) observes contemporary US rescue discourse on sex trafficking of women and girls typically begins with

an evil trafficker or pimp who abducts, deceives, or lures a young, innocent, helpless, and often naive girl into a prison-like brothel and controls her with brutal violence until a heroic rescuer comes to save the day. The trafficker is often a man of colour from a foreign country, and the rescuer is often a white, Western man.

The rescue trope involves politically and culturally situated versions of what political scientist Nils Christie (1986) described as the construction of ideal victims and perpetrators. In general terms, the ideal victim is weak and blamelessly oppressed by a powerful perpetrator (or group of perpetrators). This construction works to elicit support for criminal justice measures to address the oppression.

Criminal justice academics Dr. Erin O’Brien and Michael Wilson (2016) analyses forms of idealised victim-perpetrator constructions in the US state Department’s TiP reports. Their analysis of the reports from 2001-12 shows that ideal victims are predominantly young and female, and most commonly from Asian countries (with very few from the US, and none from Western Europe, Canada and Australia). The researchers conclude that the ideal victims are represented as “weak due to their status as young women or girls, and their origin from regions of the global south” (2016:36-7). The represented weakness involves women as passive victims of abuse, rather than active agents of choice.

In terms of blamelessness, it’s notable that while the TiP reports in this period emphasize sexual exploitation, they have only one narrative of a woman who voluntarily migrated for sex work, and that women are otherwise consistently depicted as innocent young women or girls duped into sex work after migrating for non-sex work reasons. This impression is strengthened by the representing the perpetrator as someone who is unknown to the victim, rather than a known person she had a consensual arrangement with, and by representing participation in sex work as only being the outcome of brutality and subjugation  (O’Brien and Wilson, 2016:35-6, 38, 39).

The narratives that exemplify these ideal victim qualities (vulnerability, blamelessness) can be understood in terms of sociologist Nick Mai’s description of “good scripts” that might support “good cases”. Mai (2014, 2016) writes about the “humanitarian victimhood, vulnerability and gender/sex scripts” that migrant sex workers construct in order to fit with the legal requirements of the immigration and rights legal system and humanitarian support agencies in France: an escape script that includes details of abuse suffered at the hands of traffickers would support a “good case” for a trafficking victim visa, or, alternatively perhaps, an asylum claim. ” We might add that “good scripts” work to support (or legitimise) the ideological framework for anti-trafficking policy, including its gendered and “raced” aspects.

The TiP reports represent perpetrators as predominantly male, middle-aged, and involved in sex trafficking,  The ideal perpetrators are often represented as deviant: they are wealthy, Western middle-aged paedophiles consuming child-sex in developing countries. By making such a figure central to the moral panic on paedophilia typical, the TiP makes the ideal perpetrator ‘the embodiment of evil’ while also tarring the entire sex industry with this synecdochal representation.

The flip side of the evil sex-consumer is the producer.  The sex industry per se is represented as the collective noun for the “evil” individuals involved in prostitution and trafficking, often in the guise of gangs involved in transnational organized crime (TOC). Good scripts for the trafficking protagonists are those that fit the narrative and “evidential” requirements of anti-trafficking ideology. A recent example of the “typical” protagonist is the “South African brothel owner and human trafficker” who is represented as admitting that “there are situations where you have to force girls by using rape, abuse or torture. When she begins to fear for her life, she stops resisting and starts working”(TiP, 2017:32). This TiP narrative provides a “horror story” as a typical instance in order to support the urgency of the rescuers’ “moral crusade” (see Weitzer, 2007).

There are consistencies in the ways that such ideal types feed into the rescue trope across government, advocacy and media (including fictional) discourse. These include constants of race and nation, as the rescuing hero (whether a journalist, fictional character, the state or NGO actor) is most often white and male, while the villains are non-Western men (men of colour, Eastern Europeans). In TiP reports this manifests in consistent referral to non-Western states as the source of internal and international trafficking problems. In advocacy representations — including investigative journalism and NGO awareness raising campaigns — the scene of villainy is similarly Asian, Middle Eastern, Black and Eastern European, while the sex workers’ customers are (deviant kinds of) white westerners. The Orientalist representations thus work in conflation with Western moral panics about deviancy from and perversion of acceptable forms of social reproduction and sexuality.

Trafploitation fiction

The ideological anchoring work provided by good script narratives is central to a recent fictional genre we might call “trafploitation” in movies, documentaries, and t.v. series, and novels. This genre combines the theme of rescuing trafficking victims with the titillatingly and despotic aspects of contemporary Orientalism. The fictional ‘trafploitation’ genre often provides a fantasy rescue of traditional white masculinity and its social order. The Hollywood movies Taken and Trade both work in this way, with the emasculated male protagonists “learning or reasserting their manhood by rescuing females” (Baker, 2013), while being represented as having to do so because of failures or inadequacies of the formal justice system, and the extreme helplessness of the victims. These movies both climax in a restoration of traditional gendered social order with male authority — as benevolent protection  —  reasserted.

Eden poster with anti-trafficking cliches: voiceless, commodified, young & beautiful Asian victim

For the hyper-masculine rescue narratives to work the victim must be female, and is commonly sexualised, helpless, duped and sometimes Orientalised. However, recent fiction develops trafploitation with a feminist twist, wherein a “good script” version of female agency marries some of the key rescue tropes.

One such fiction is Melanie Griffith’s Eden (2012), which stumbles a drunken line between grindhouse trafploitation and feminist fiction. The film tells the story of a young Korean-American girl who — abducted and forced into prostitution by Texan human traffickers — cooperates with her captors in a desperate ploy to survive. The film begins in pitch black with an audio of fearful cries, before revealing the victim-protagonist’s perspective from inside of a car trunk, from where she views her abductor. This scene establishes the some of the film’s (softcore) grindhouse and trafploitative tropes, including a sexualised and “exotic” (Asian) victim whose innocent youth, escape and rescue narrative provides a good anti-trafficking script.

Eden screenshot abduction
Dialogue: screenshot 2: “Come on baby girl, be quiet now”.

The victim-protagonist’s blameless ideality is established by presenting her as a generally diligent schoolgirl who is respectful of her doting parents, and who has to hide her braces-smile in order to pass for 21 in the local bar. Eden’s story progresses as a coming-of-age narrative, in which “Hyun Jae” is represented as enjoying typical teenage rebellions, including the occasional cigarette behind her parents’ shop, and is willing to let a friend coax her into going to a bar to look for guys.The character’s childish innocence is reinforced throughout the scenes of her abuse by the traffickers:

Eden screenshots an ideal victim
Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “I don’t know where I am. I have to call my mum and dad.” 2. “God damn it, you go there right now or I’m getting the cigar cutter and cutting your fucking clit off.” 3. “I want to go home. I don’t want to be here anymore”.

Griffith’s draws on anti-trafficking stereotypes in portraying the traffickers as part of a transnationally organized gang (managed from Dubai), as well as on the staples of crime and grindhouse genres in having the local (“deep south” good-old-boy corrupt) police chief as a kingpin in the criminal network.  The gang members — ideal villains in anti-trafficking discourse terms — are adept multitaskers, simultaneously maintaining drugs, sex, and baby trafficking businesses. The representation of their business also fits the anti-trafficking ideal of people reduced to commodities: the operation is an industrial-style workhouse for forced prostitution in which (to add the Grindhouse touch) the victims are either killed off at adulthood — because they no longer fit the market for sex with young girls — or kept for the purpose of baby-farming.

Eden screenshots Melanie does Grindhouse
Eden screenshots: Melanie does Grindhouse

In the scene above, the protagonist maintains her good script by biting the (repulsively middle-aged) client’s penis instead of performing a blowjob. The scene then provides a chase-scene, with “Eden” fleeing her pimp. The good script combines with the grindhouse aesthetic: the protagonist refuses her commodification, yet is sexualized with the school-girl porn costume and blood-drenched cleavage as she struggles (and fails) to get away.

The good script/grindhouse combination works through the fictional conceit of “Hyun Jae’s” pretense of collaboration with “Vaughan” (the pimp), who is represented as coming to rely on her for her intelligence and wits, while the relationship between the two is played as a kind of romance doomed by “Hyun Jae’s” underlying virtue and “Vaughan’s” unredeemable awfulness. The pretence narrative culminates in “Hyun Jae’s” return to family, following the escapades of her (virtuous) murder of “Vaughan” and “Mario” (the baby-trafficker), and her rescue of a fellow victim “Priscilla” (who loses her baby to the business).

Eden screenshots Escape and rescue
Dialogues: Screenshot 2. “I’ll explain to you later, but we gotta go right now, OK?”  3. “Mom”.

Eden works as a fantasy in which female agency triumphs over the misogyny of its imagined trafficking industry. It differs from the good scripts of the TiP reports in presenting its victim-protagonist as owning agency, but remains within the ideological orbit of the anti-trafficking movement in portraying a good script victim who resists her forced prostitution as much as possible, and only complies because of force and coercion. This good script is reinforced in antitheses through the character “Svetlana”, whose ‘working her way up’ to a madam-like position is represented in terms of moral failure (she is represented as craven and cowardly).

The film’s narrative fits the TiP ideal form in portraying a transnational crime, whose perpetrators (the unseen bosses) are Middle Eastern and Eastern European; yet it differs in focusing on the local (American) arm of the business (instead of the TiP reports’ focus on American clients). If Eden can be said to be Orientalist to a degree, it is via the vehicle of the exotic sexualized protagonist yet — true to its grindhouse tropes — the protagonist is powerful rather than submissive. “Hyun Jae” is the agent rather than the subject of the film’s rescue narrative. Jenny Platz (2012) argues that the 1970s films of the Grindhouse genre and its later reinvention (in for example, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) Kill Bill I and II (2003, 2004), and Death Proof (2007), gives their female protagonist the agency that has predominantly belonged to the male hero, yet rely on frequent representations of female bodies subjected to the male camera and gaze. Arguably, this is also true of Eden, even if the effect of a female director —and thus the view through a “female camera” — is only to mitigate (its softcore aesthetic never becomes hardcore). Ultimately, the film’s feminist critique of sexual objectification is incoherent. “We” the viewers are invited to condemn the sexualizing misogyny of the drama’s villains while enjoying the sexualized agency of the protagonist whose titillating representation depends on the sex-trafficking scenario.

Trade of Innocents: Justice Needs a Hero

While Griffith’s  narrative traffics in sexploitation, Christopher Bessette’s Trade of Innocents  (2012) markets a kind of neo-missionary Orientalism. In this film poster, the white American middle-class rescuers (“Claire” and Alex Becker”) are foregrounded against a dangerously bloodshot sunset over Cambodia’s (exotic-for-Westerners) Ankar Wat. The poster faithfully reflects the film’s logic in which white western humanitarians must play the role of the hero in order for (criminal and Christian-moral) justice to be done.

Trade of Innocent’s American Christian protagonist’s  are represented as the film’s emotional focal point because of their grief for the loss of their own daughter, who had been kidnapped from their middle-class American home and murdered (prior to their relocation to Asia). The film privileges the working-through of the protagonist’s grief: Cambodia and the trafficking-story work as their therapeutic scene of emotional closure.

The story involves the Western hero’s rescue of very young (and therefore ideally innocent) girls from sex traffickers and their (deviant Western) pedophile customers in Cambodia, and the evil trafficker “Dude’s'” quest to satisfy his American customer’s grotesque desire for younger and virginal girls. This narrative structure places the film’s issues in the realms of Western moral panic and taboo, representing the extreme of pedophilia abuse as if it stands in for the broader realm of sex work in Asian countries.

Trade of Innocents victims and abuser
Trade of Innocents: victims and abusers

Several scenes place particular emphasis on the moral and cultural superiority of Western perspectives over “Asian/Cambodian” morality and culture. The first of these involves a dialogue where “Alex”, who is working for the UN/US as a Human Trafficking Inspector, seeks the cooperation of “Pakkaday”, the new Siem Reap Police Chief:

“Pakkaday”: There is something in your Western Culture you do not understand. I have rescued many children who themselves want to return to the brothels. In the Asian culture, it is the duty of the child to worry about the parents. Usually these families are so poor that they cannot live. A child is sacrificed for the rest.

“Alex”Poverty is no excuse to surrender a child to prostitution. In any culture.

“Pakkaday”And you think that if you catch this one criminal, you can change that problem? The tiger is dependent on the forest just as the forest depends on the tiger.

In this scene, the Cambodian officer is represented as an apologist for Asian/Cambodian culture’s collaboration with child sex trafficking and made to present what is represented as the “excuse” of poverty as the justification for families’ choices to send their children into prostitution.

The scene seeks to dismiss three of the dominant critiques of neo-abolitionism: First, that women (in this case girls) who return to prostitution after having been rescued have made a valid (rational) choice. Second, that poverty is reasonable grounds for participation in prostitution (but in this case, in regards to the extreme example of child prostitution). Third, that anti-trafficking effort would be better pursued by focusing on the larger underlying problems (the forest of poverty, not the trees of individual criminals). Each of these propositions is represented as intrinsic to the moral equivocations that belong to Asian/Cambodian (and by implication) Buddhist culture, against the moral certainty of the Western (Christian) investigator. Asian culture is represented as needing to learn from Western culture and its universal moral values. This theme of moral education is continued in a further scene where “Alex” teaches the “Cambodian police cadets” that their culture of secrets and silence (as embodied in the symbol of Ankor Wat) must be overcome in order to protect the innocent child victims.

Several scenes involving “Claire” and Cambodian women (and girl) characters further reinforce this missionary Orientalism. In the first of these “Claire” is shown visiting the girls who live at the “Serey Jorani” (Jewel of Freedom) rescue home for child victims of sex trafficking. The girls —whom we are told mostly come from very poor villages —are working on repairs for a local widow’s house.  The (un-named) rescue home manager tells “Claire” that “with this work, the girls learn to give back to their people positively”. The didactic message is that the girls’ involvement in prostitution to support their families is a result of ignorance that can be overcome via humanitarian education.

The second scene portrays the rescue home manager and “Claire’s” confrontation of the mother of a trafficking victim who is missing from the Serey Jorani home:

Trade of Innocents: the “bad mother” 1 Dialogues screenshot 1: “She cares for her family”. 2 “Kim-Ly is returned to the brothels?”.






In the scene above, the mother informs the manager and Claire that her daughter has returned from the rescue home to work in a brothel in order to support her family. In preceding scenes, the mother is shown looking accusingly at her daughter while she was working at the widow’s house with the other “rescued” girls, and in this scene, she arises from resting in a hammock (signifying that she is idle and possibly lazy).

Trade of Innocents : the “bad mother” 2     Dialogue: Screenshot 2: “As a mother, you should be ashamed!”

The white protagonist “Claire” then slaps the Asian “bad mother” and tells her she should be ashamed of herself (as one mother to another). This scene encapsulates the film’s message of the moral superiority of the universal humanitarian perspective and reduces the issue of poverty-led sex work to one of individual (and maternal) moral failing. The Cambodian rescue shelter manager and “Claire” confront the “bad mother” together, but it is the American mother who is represented as punishing the “offender”, thus embodying the “moral pornography”  (Joel Marks: 2011) of cathartic violence for the (American) audience’s collective disgust.

As noted above, the film privileges the white Christian protagonists’ working-through of their grief: The grief narrative climaxes in “Claire” and “Alex’s” rescue of a very young girl from “Duke” (the Cambodian Trafficker), and his murder by “Police Chief Pakkaday” (presumably in order to prevent “Duke” from informing on his collusion with the trafficking business).

Like the hyper-masculine hero of the film Taken, the male protagonist “Alex” works towards a form of restored masculinity via his rescue mission. “Claire” is represented as being given her resolution earlier in the narrative, when her empathy with a trafficking victim allowed that girl to gain some emotional closure over the trauma of her abuse and thereby enabled “Claire” to relive her own grief and accept her loss (for her daughter’s suffering and death). These mirroring therapeutic trajectories culminate in a scene that represents the romance of Western humanitarianism and its triumph over Eastern and deviant culture (note the setting of Christian graveyard in Buddhist Cambodia):

Trade of Innocents screenshot: “Claire” and “Alex’s” romantic climax with the child traffic victims

Trade of Innocent’s gendered representations differ from films like Taken as the character “Claire” is a key protagonist rather than just a narrative device to support a male protagonist’s heroic journey, and the Cambodian female characters are also represented as exercising (limited) agency. If the film can be said to provide a kind of feminism, it is that of the anti-prostitution and Christian Orientalist kind in which the positively portrayed Cambodian female characters are either “good script” heroes or victims.

Other recent Western feminist representations that have also attempted to broaden the rescue trope via a white middle-class female protagonist include the tv series Human Trafficking (2005), and the Hollywood movie The Whistleblower (2010). In the tv series,  Mira Sorvino plays a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who attempts to save a female trafficking victim (in the US). In “The Whistleblower”, Rachel Weiz plays an American peacekeeper who exposes a United Nations cover-up of sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia.

Baker (2013) argues that the degree to which these fictions challenge the traditional gender framing of the rescue trope is limited, as their protagonists’ attempts are failures. The feminist writer-director Jane Campion’s television drama series Top of the Lake: China Girl bears a stronger correspondence to Christopher Bessette’s film than Human Trafficking and The Whistleblower, inasmuch as its white, female and middle-class protagonist (“Robin Griffin”, a New Zealand detective in Australia, played by Elizabeth Moss) successfully saves her daughter “Mary” from a villain (“Alexander Braun/Puss”) apparently involved in sex and surrogate baby trafficking. China Girl is, however, more clearly feminist than Trade of Innocents, not least because its protagonist (the female detective) and most of the focalizing characters are female, while the supporting characters are male.


Campion’s tale is, in part, one of misogyny and migrant sex workers in harbourside Sydney, where the Australian male customers are generally creepy and pathetic, and the Asian migrant sex workers required to work off excessive debts ($30,000 for the drama’s victim), presumably to their traffickers, before being freed. Despite presenting a narrative in which its migrant sex workers might be read as exercising some degree of agency,  and in which female characters are generally not sexualized for the audience’s gaze, Top of the Lake: China Girl is not free of “trafploitative” representations.

This poster plays on the ideas of vulnerability and objectification presenting the protagonist’s damaged body nakedly, from the back-view. The image connotes the fragility of a damaged ceramic (“china”)  mannequin, not a woman but a commodity-image of an ideal female body. The damage appropriates the suffering of the drama’s victim (the murdered migrant sex-worker called “Cinnamom/Padma/China Girl”) onto the body/mannequin of the white middle-class protagonist whose holstered gun suggests, at least, some latent agency. Consistent with the poster’s appropriation, the credits omit reference to any of the drama’s Asian actors (who predominantly play the role of sex workers/surrogates). This is reflected throughout the six-part series where most screen time is  devoted to the white female focalizing characters (“Robin”, “Mary” (the daughter), “Julia” (Mary’s adoptive mother), and “Miranda” (the buddy cop).

China Girl procedural scene screenshot
China Girl screenshots: procedural Dialogues Screenshot 1 “She’s had unprotected sex and got herself pregnant” 2. “My guess, Asian student working in the sex industry. It’s a loophole”.

The body of a murdered Asian prostitute anchors Campion’s narrative. The exposition scene above shows the way in which the agency of the protagonist is foregrounded against images of the victim’s suffering.In this scene, the camera centres on the protagonist as she explains the sex-crime scenario, while an image of victim’s naked corpse works to anchor the explanation that blames the victim for her vulnerability (as she has had unprotected sex, and she has got herself pregnant).

China Girl’s story arc revolves around “Robin” whose key motivating trauma is the loss of her child, which she felt compelled to give away for adoption following her rape by a group of Australian men when a teenager (15 years old) in Sydney. In the preceding initial drama series (simply titled Top of the Lake) the protagonist lives in rural New Zealand where she investigates a child prostitution ring that turns out to involve the local police as key actors. She triumphs and as a result, the victims are rescued. New Zealand is the scene of the protagonists’ other misogyny-related trauma: her father turns out to be a sociopath, her boss a rapist and pedophile, her fiance a cheat, while in the later series some of her Australian male colleagues are sexist rednecks. The underlying generative theme of both series is the extreme, pervasive and ongoing misogyny of white New Zealand and Australian cultures.

The second series, China Girl, can be viewed as being, in part, a reflexive attempt to consider the race and class investments of the female agency belonging to its white characters —the white mothers, would-be-mothers, and daughters, in relation to the Asian migrant sex/surrogacy workers — within the wider misogynistic culture and inequitably globalised chains of social reproduction.

China Girl’s sex and baby trafficking narrative works as a device to enable the protagonist’s quest for reconciliation with her daughter. While the white middle-class resolution is achieved partially through “Robin’s” rescue of the daughter and burgeoning romance with the adopting father “Pyke”, she is represented as failing in her efforts to rescue the Asian sex and surrogate workers sex workers.  The series represents its iconic victims (the girl and her unborn child) as having suffered a fatally failed escape, with the suitcase her body is encased in drifting out to sea only to return ‘home’ to Bondi beach. If “Robin/Mary” and “China Girl/foetus” undertake inversely mirroring West/East journeys, then “Alexander/Asian surrogate mothers” might be viewed as making an anti-trafficking kind of escape, following their landlord “Alexander/Puss” back to a location in Asia, and in the process refusing their surrogate contracts, while they and/or “Alexander” pocket the money paid by the Australian would-be parents.

bad journey
“China Girl’s” journey to a watery Australian grave

Chinese reflections on “bride” trafficking

The engine that pushes Chinese migration from rural to urban and international spheres such as work in Australian cities is the inequality of urbanization that developed under the Maoist regime, and was then exacerbated by the reform era transformations. This was a focus of so-called “6th generation” Chinese film-makers, predominantly in terms of stories of the impoverishment and discrimination faced by the “floating population” in the rapidly swelling urban-industrial-service economy cities. Within this focus, many directors incorporate tales of sex work migration in genres that cross-over from neo-realist social commentary to crime procedurals and noir.

Li Yang’s 2007 film Mang Shan (“Blind Mountain”) narrates several kinds of refusal in relation to sex (in this case, “bride”) trafficking. Mang Shan’s story of internal trafficking is set in rural northwest China in the early 1990s. The film’s protagonist “Bai Xuemei” is a recent graduate searching for work in order to pay her parents back for their investment in her education. A couple recruits her to assist with their “rare herb gathering” business. However, she soon discovers that her new employers have tricked her: There is no job and she has in fact been sold to a rural family (the “Huang’s”) in order to provide a wife for their son “Huang Degui”.

mang shan screenshot welcome
Dialogues: screenshot 1: “Your family sold you to be my son’s wife”. 2. “the fact is I bought you for 7,000”.

The early scenes establish the rural context in which women of marriageable and child-rearing age and extremely rare, and indicate the high value placed on such women by the community and family (the 7,000 rmb paid for the “bride” in the early 1990s representing a large sum for a farming family).

mang shan wedding night a
Wedding night curiosity

The film quickly establishes key trafficking tropes; the young woman is commodified without her consent; once the trafficker and customers have made their deal, she is not free to leave; she is expected to fulfill the role of wife, including sex with the husband she is forced to marry, bear and raise a child for. Li Yang also establishes elements that are particular to the rural context, including the expectation that “Xuemei” will submit to traditional family authority (personified by the mother in law).

mang shan wedding night b
Wedding night toasts. Dialogue screenshot 1: “Drink or remain a bachelor”. 2. “Drink up or else no women in your next life either”.

Unlike the American anti-trafficking fictions, Blind Moutain is not a narrative of an individual evil predator. Instead, the community starved of young women is involved in “Xuemei’s” oppression. The “Huang’s” (her parents-in-law) physically restrain her in order to help their son “Degui” rape and hopefully impregnate her. Villagers work together to prevent her attempted escape and reject the price offered by her father for her release. The local governor stands by and allows the villagers to prevent her escape. The two local men she has consensual sex with both fail to support her (and one of them flees, fearing retribution from the villagers). “Xuemei’s” kidnapping is presented as typical for rural China: when she becomes pregnant she makes friends with other young mothers who turn out to have also been bought and have generally come to accept their situation. These formerly urban women are valued for their biological and cultural contribution to the villagers’ social reproduction: “Xuemei”, for example, is expected to contribute to the village community through teaching. Educational cultural capital is highly valued because it is one side of the urban/rural inequality divide.

The film’s climax presents an ambivalent picture of “rescue”.  In the international version of the film, the Huang family and the villagers are able to prevent the policemen from forcibly effecting her escape. “Mrs. Huang” prevents “Xuemei” from taking her child,

whose baby is it
Dialogues: Screenshot 1: “This is my baby”. 2. “The cops are taking the baby”. 3 “Leave the baby”.

while the police advise her to let Mrs. Huang have the child (“for the time being”) so that they may leave safely. However, they are unable to do so as “Xuemei’s” husband  “Degui” and the villagers accost the police and argue their case:

Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “It is illegal to steal away her rights. 2. “Many people buy wives. Have they all broken the law? 3. If she pays me back, then she can go.

Mang Shan’s title plays on the popular use of the term “mangliu (literally “blind flow” or drifting), one of several used pejoratively to refer to rural migrants as “blind”, and workers as “outsiders”in the 1990s. “Mang” — indicates those who cannot or will not see ugly or uncomfortable truths. As Amanda Weiss observes, Li Yang’s film reflects these popular ideas ironically, confronting the (Chinese) viewer with the proposition that it is the audience (or, perhaps, middle-class society in general) that is “blind” to understanding rural migration and its causes and effects.

The climax of the international version of Mang Shan might be regarded as the confrontation between urban privileged ignorance (“mang”) and the demands of the rural migrating class being played out in miniature, as the villagers refuse the proposition that the legal rights of the individual woman (the trafficked victim) outweigh their need for social reproduction and their common customs.

who is mangliu
Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “Get out of the way. We have to leave today”. 2. “Someone help!”

In the international version’s final shots, “Xuemei” stops “Degui” beating her father by hacking him with a cleaver. Her subsequent shocked expression may include a sense of freedom, even as she has become as “barbaric” as she says the farmers are, and the audience may know that her actions likely lead to prison and death rather than a return to urban family life.

The domestic-audience version painted a less confrontational scene. As Amanda Weiss observes,  in this version “Xuemei’s” mother-in-law still refuses to hand over “Xuemei’s” son. However, instead of “Xuemei” and “Degui’s” violent confrontation, several of the other mothers join the escape, but one of them changes her mind and refuses to go because she doesn’t want to lose her child. “Xuemei” gazes back at “Mrs. Huang” chasing the truck with the child clutched in her arms. Her expression is ambivalent. In both versions, the endings are a long way from the romantic climax that tends to end the Western rescue trope and trafploitation genre films.

Factional Fictions: situating trafploitation and the rescue narratives in relation to ethnographic research and counter-narratives

The governmental and fictional narratives discussed above can be considered in relation to the anti-trafficking ideology embodied in the TiF reports, and the relevant ethnographic research. The narratives of the TiF reports are clearly intended to work as synecdoche, particular instance examples that readers should take as typical of the situation as a whole. They are rarely well substantiated with verifiable research and even when credited to the ideal victim whose stories they narrate, are likely to be “good scripts” involving a conflict of interest between the alleged victims’ need to tell the kind of story that fits with her legal claim (for protection, for immigration status) and the narrative’s credibility. This may be particularly true of instances where the narrative goes against the grain of the prevailing ethnographic research. It is likely that the TiF reports, like other state-invested human rights research, is deliberately opaque precisely because the research methods used for their production are not credible. What matters, from a (US) state point of view, is not so much social-scientific credibility, but that the narrative and any “evidence” presented should fit the neo-imperialist and retro-gendered ideology of the neo-abolitionist movement in a way that resonates with its intended audience. In other words, “moral credibility” trumps factual credibility in practice, yet the TiP producers would have its readership understand it as being morally factual (not counter-factual).

Moral-factuality pervades the entertaining fictions that seek to interpellate viewers as part of the rescuing crusade.The fact that Eden was based on a “true story” that turned out to have been fictional does not matter in a sense, as it nonetheless provides a “good script” for anti-trafficking ideology not least because it manages the trick of relying on and critiquing the sexploitation of the female body. Trade of Innocents’ also claims to be based on facts but has a religious focus absent from Griffith’s film. It stars Mira Sorvino — a devout Christian and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking —and was designed for anti-trafficking awareness-raising. Speaking at a UNODC screening, Sorvino said “Most people are unaware that this terrible trade of children for sexual exploitation flourishes both in the United States and around the globe. Trade of Innocents will open their eyes and their hearts, and inspire them to become part of the solution.”

The film faithfully adheres to the American neo-abolitionist ideology, making it clear that “justice” requires a Western Christian hero (or to put it the other way round, it legitimises Western Christianity as heroic in contrast to Asian (and Buddhist) moral weakness. Like the TiF report narratives discussed by O’Brien and Wilson, it works as synecdoche, taking the extreme instance of commercial child prostitution in Cambodia as indicative of the general problem of “sex trafficking”. The film’s “evil” protagonists (the trafficker, clients, corrupt police) are morally taboo and their actions and justifications, therefore, figure as non-credible: In the film’s logic poverty is no excuse for child sex, familial pressure on daughters to engage in or return to sex work is a betrayal of maternal love; children are too young to exercise agency and therefore cannot consent to sex work. Each of these points works to emphasize the film’s moral (Christian) logic.

Trade of Innocents has been promoted as being factual. Its producers claim that the story is motivated by their own experience of encountering child-sex abuse in Cambodia, and Jeff Blom, (a human trafficking investigator), described it as “the most realistic representation of the work done on the front lines against the commercial sexual exploitation of children, particularly in Southeast Asia.” Sorvino’s involvement gives it added representational credibility as she is a key (celebrity) player in the UN/US anti-trafficking institutions’ representational “war on trafficking”.

Cambodia makes an apt choice of fictional site for neo-abolitionist symbolic politics because of the already-established moral panic over child sex abuse. The overdetermination of representations of trafficking in Cambodia by the American moral crusade provides a good example of the way in which the desire for ideologically good scripts outweighs the credibility of the evidence it relies on. Keo et al., (2014) explain the manner in which moral panic has worked in Cambodia, following Talbot’s (1999) elaboration of the concept of moral panic (Chen, 1973). Talbot’s elaboration includes

1) uncorrected statistical over-inflation;

2) refusal of credible counter-evidence;

3) non-credible research;

4) problematising via indiscriminate merging of varied crimes.

Keo et al., elaborate this schema further in terms of the trafficking moral panic. They note that Talbot’s schema works, in this context via the vehicle of highly emotive language and discourse. It is mobilised by interested parties including, in particular, moral entrepreneurs (journalists, politicians, rescuers, etc.,). The panic —working across local, national, global levels — produces negative consequences including “bad legislation, misuse of resources, demonization of certain groups, and criminalization of innocent people” (Keo et al., 2014: 220-1).

Sorvino’s idea that child trafficking is “flourishing” (presumably in Cambodia) is undermined by research showing that the scale of sex-trafficking (and child sex trafficking in particular) in Cambodia has been subject to highly exaggerated claims. Much use has been made of an erronous estimate of 80-100,000 prostitutes working in Cambodia made by the NGO Human Rights Viligance of Cambodia (HRVC, 2000). Subsequent estimates including UNICEF’s 2003 estimate of 55,000 sex workers in Cambodia have also been shown to be exaggerated. Steinfatt showed that the numbers were likely to be far lower, with 18,256 direct sex workers in 2003, of whom 2,000 may have been trafficked, and the Home and Community Care Program estimate of 17,000 sex workers in 2008 corroborated this finding (Steinfatt, 2011; Keo et al., 2014: 207).

Within the trafficking moral panic,  the agency of “victims” and the character of “traffickers” has been subject to sustained misrepresentation. Bessette’s filmic misrepresentations work through a horror story and reductively moralizing narration. In the moral universe of Trade of Innocents, consenting to sex work is not possible because the film narrows its focus to the abuse of very young children only. Ethnographic research with sex workers suggests a different worldview. For example,  Keo interviewed nine (older) boys and eight girls who had been “trafficked” from Cambodia to Thailand and subsequently returned to Cambodia (Keo 2006). He writes,

None saw themselves as “victims.” They had willingly followed their recruiters to Thailand to earn an income and support their impoverished family. They considered themselves “good children” because of their ability to work and share the burden of supporting their family. Most had been “trafficked” by family members, relatives, or neighbors, and a few by strangers. Few had suffered physical abuse and most of them had been treated well (Keo, 2014).

The villains in Trade Of Innocents include the (effectively) trafficking “bad mother” who is represented as choosing to exploit her own child for money, instead of working herself. Here, as in other instances, the film maintains its moral factuality by misrepresentation. Family members including mothers and other known persons are often involved in managing sex work, including recruitment, and as the testimony of Keo’s trafficking victims attests, in the context of Cambodian poverty sex work represents a sometimes invaluable contribution to families’ livelihoods.

Criminalising ‘trafficking’ in Cambodia —by way of US anti-trafficking pressure — has resulted in the criminalization of the poorest of the poor, and women, in particular, involved in sex work. Rather than the male cartoon-villain “Dude” being shot by the police chief, a factual representation might have portrayed an impoverished mother or female madam being convicted and given a long-term sentence. Moreover, as Keo et al. (2014) suggest, this kind of outcome would be likely because a) s/he was unable to pay the bribe to the police and/or court and b) the judge needed to support the Cambodian justice systems desire to maintain favour with the US by producing convictions, even where there were not sufficient actual crimes to do so. In this catch-22, such a judge might reason that his only route to successfully meeting his target is to target the powerless.

Trade of Innocent’s dismissal of the socio-economic context for sex work in Cambodia is culturally racist, and the anti-trafficking “rescue” imperative that it celebrates has been harmfully counter-productive. In the context of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and badly paid employment, sex work is one of the few routes available to rural young women that enable sufficient income and the possibility of social mobility and self-development. This is the socio-economic “forest” in which individuals make their grounded-rational decisions.

American style moralizing (prohibitionist) criminal justice approaches are counter-productive and often result in injustice because of geopolitical pressure and the partial dependency of the justice system on the informal economy.  Trade of Innocents represents that dependency in Orientalist terms, sheeting its moralizing blame to the roots of the whispering tree it suggests as an icon for Buddhist moral equivocation and its silencing and condoning of the imagined child-sex problem. Postcolonial and post-Marxist critics would sheet the blame instead to the ongoing legacies of colonialism and the enforced inability of Cambodia to escape its peripheral weakness. Trade of Innocents is able to perform its feat of racist transformation by reduction: the extreme horror of child sex trafficking stands in for the inferiority of non-Western non-Christian culture against the superiority of Western Christianity. This represents a severe form of the cultural silencing that works through the film: the one critical voice that might have spoken its narrative is that of the underage sex worker “Kim Ly”, who escapes the rescue house in order to return to work in the brothel. But this character’s perspective is subsumed within the white protagonist’s heroic punishment of the (morally) bad mother.

Campion’s China Girl also lays claim to factuality. The tv series was grounded by (a short period of)  research with sex workers and sex worker advocates in Sydney, and Campion stated that she incorporated their views into her work. The director told The Guardian

I really liked the idea of setting it in Sydney and making it very much about women and their bodies and the sex industry, in particular the experiences of migrants within the industry,” says Campion. “Just what the reality of the job might be like – not the way it’s usually presented with sex in bikinis or whatever but just the ordinariness of it, how you do it and earn money from it and keep earning money from it.

Some scenes work as Campion suggest, representing a kind of normality (rather than invested-gaze fantasy) of day-to-day sex work, and the world of the brothel (where, for example, the madam and her spouse are ordinary and down-to-earth, and the madam wears the trousers, not her inarticulate Australian husband). In the scene in which the sex workers tell “Mary” about the business, one sex worker states that she found the clients gross, but had a day when she earned $500 and so decided to continue with the work. This representation of a grounded rational decision for sex work corresponds to the views of Chinese (Chin and Finckenauer, 2012) and Chinese, Thai and South Korean migrant sex workers (Renshaw et al., 2015) given in recent ethnographic accounts.

Campion claims to have consulted sex workers in construction her fiction, recounting that

I met with the Scarlet Alliance [Australia’s national sex workers association] and they said, ‘Why the hell do you have to have a story about dead prostitutes – it’s such a cliche and pathetic’, and I was like, ‘Oh OK, well it is a crime story’, and they said, ‘Yeah, I know but’ and explained why they hated it. So, in the end, we included their viewpoint in the story to get that voice across.

It’s difficult to see how Campion included their objections, and also how the “inclusion” of their point of view, such as it is, works in a way that does not privilege the Western feminist point of view, and delegitimize that of the sex workers. China Girl’s inclusions are tokenistic and actually amount to representational silencing. “Knowledge is power”, as post-structuralists are fond of saying, and delegitimized knowledge is powerless. In this scene (below), the white protagonist’s penetrating gaze forces the sex workers advocate to “recognise” the violence of sex trafficking, using a horrifying image of the victim’s corpse. The protagonist’s (painfully informed) gaze trumps the (Asian) advocate’s “delusional” description of sex work in Sydney as being regulated and safer than walking the streets (it “obviously” isn’t safe to cross the street if you might end up at the bottom of the ocean in a suitcase).

Framing the sex workers perspective. Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “So, what makes you think she’s a sex worker?” 2. “It’s safer to work in a brothel than to walk home at night”. Screenshot three has the detective showing the sex workers’ collective the victim’s corpse.

Despite the attempted recognition of the sex workers’ point of view, their voice (to the extent that it could be claimed to be present) is generally ‘heard’ but not listened to (to employ Leah Bassel’s 2017 distinction), as in this scene with the sex worker advocate, and in the use of the dead prostitute trope (despite the Scarlett Alliance’s objections).

The delegitimization is reinforced by the series’s constant reiteration of the dangerous inadequacies of Australian masculinity and of its sex work clients represented by the “sex wizard, Brett” and his motley crew of friends” and the character “Alex/Puss”. The young men involved in the online sex worker rating club/meeting are caricatures of male inadequacy,  whose homosocial bonding depends on their objectification of women. When one sex worker performs the “girlfriend experience’ for the most empathetic of them (the one who turns out to be violently delusional), she comes across like a bad drag act performing Asian sexual submissiveness. Asian sex work is represented as supporting a normality of Australian misogynist fantasy and masculine inadequacy.

These themes of socially harmful objectification are reiterated in the complex representation of the character “Puss/Alexander”. This character is given the job of (mis)representing left-wing “post-feminist” views on migrant sex work. As discussed above, he organizes the surrogate sex workers’ rebellion and exodus, depriving the desperate Australian would be parent’s of their paid-for babies, claiming to restore the migrant women’s’ agency over their own bodies and fates, and redressing the economic inequality between the wealthy Australians and Asian women.

However, the sincerity of this emancipating mission is undercut by the way that this character is represented as exploitative and misogynist. The Asian sex workers’ affection for and trust in the man they named “Professor Puss” (he is the brothel’s landlord, and teaches them some English) is framed from the point of view of the focalising protagonist .”Robin” perceives their affection as delusional, given her “more realistic” perception of this man as a criminal suspect (he may have murdered “China Girl”), a paedophile (who abuses her teenage daughter “Mary”), and a mentally deranged and violent misogynist. He is also represented as using “Mary” as an object to shield himself from being shot, and as a bigamist who humiliates his wife by entertaining his underage “girlfriend” at the Cafe Stasi (their business). Finally “Alexander Puss” is represented as a fraud, a failed academic whose rebellions against bourgeois morality — including the “prostituting’ of “Mary” — may represent envy, resentment, and self-loathing (furthering the drama’s expressions of masculine inadequacy).

Like the corrupt police chief character in Bessette’s Trade of Innocents, Campion’s “Alexander/Puss” is a narrative device which works to delegitimize the poverty argument for involvement in migrant sex work or — in this case —migrant surrogacy work.  Moreover, there is little apparent agency for the migrant women in Campion’s representation of their “escape”; the agency is exploitative and belongs to “Alexander/Puss”. If Campion had wanted to represent an act of migrant agency, she might have made the sex workers themselves the agents of their escape. In the same vein, the sex worker’s view that their earnings provide sufficient grounds for sex work, and the sex worker advocate’s view that the work is safe in Sydney (where it has been legalised and regulated) is undercut by the representations of the unremitting awfulness, violence and pathetic nature of the clients and the villain, and the terrible fate of the title character “China Girl”.

China Girl, while grounding its examination of western women’s complex motherhood and mother-daughter dynamics, and focalizing on the white protagonist’s “wounded attachments” (as Wendy Brown puts it), uses the representations of sexualized Asian bodies, and the dead prostitute trope in particular, without giving that character anything more than minimal screen time (predominantly as a device to illustrate “Brett’s” girlfriend fantasy). The procedural climax – “Alexander/Puss’s” revelation that the “Asian” migrant “Padma” (“China Girl”) had committed suicide comes as a minor aside to the white family romance of “Robin-Mary-Pyke”. This exploitative use of the Asian-exotic scene for Campion’s Western post-misogynist romance undercuts the director’s claimed interest in the perspective of migrant sex workers.

One sex worker commented that

Campion’s women are “not passive victims” — unless, of course, they’re sex workers … Campion’s dead (and, hence, passive) woman is, specifically, a migrant sex worker, a population that is consistently denied a voice Western pop culture/Australian political discourse, despite there being a great deal to say. 

She went on to observe that the Scarlet Alliance “has done groundbreaking research by and for migrant sex workers, which, if Campion had bothered to look at it, trouble assumptions of migrant sex workers as necessarily “trafficked”, exploited, and voiceless”. Key to the misrepresentation of migrant sex workers as “trafficked, exploited and voiceless” prostitutes is the idea that such women must be acting under the duress of force or coercion, rather than on the basis of the informed consent that the commentator describes as “foundational to our work”.

China Girl’s white feminist politics works by providing a narrative world that corresponds to some of the factual phenomenon reported in recent ethnographic research. The Thai, Chinese and South Korean women who make up the majority of migrant sex workers in cities like Sydney and Melbourne reported generally good and fair working conditions, and high levels of satisfaction with their earnings.

As noted above, Campion’s series does reflect the research showing very few claimed to enjoy sex work, but most reported that the good income made it worthwhile. China Girl also reasonably represents the prevalence of sex work among migrants on student visas. This corresponds to the research indicating the vast majority entered Australia legally and work in the sex industry voluntarily. However, the drama undercuts its points of accuracy in order to make unfounded representations. As opposed to the $30,000 debt owed by a sex worker in China Girl, none of the migrant sex workers interviewed by Renshaw et al., (2015) reported extortion through debt, and very few claims of having been trafficked. Similarly, many of the Chinese migrant sex worker interviewed by Chin and Finckenauer (2012) self-funded their legal international migration or paid comparatively small amounts to facilitators for irregular migration.

Research with migrant sex workers in Australian cities  (Renshaw et al., 2015) demonstrates the inaccuracy of portrayals of migrant sex workers as passive exploited victims. Unlike the risk suggested in anchoring device of the drowned prostitute’s corpse in Campion’s tale, migrant sex workers in cities like Sydney and Melbourne report high levels of personal safety and safe sexual health, and none of the migrant sex workers they interviewed identified themselves as victims.

In the end, China Girl’s exotic Asian-in-Sydney scenario works like Bessente’s “Cambodia” as an anchoring device for white western rescue trajectories; if Campion’s drama climaxes with the protagonist’s white family romance based on appropriate (consensual, non-exploitative) sexuality, her failure to “rescue” the Asian sex workers from the exploitative (and now trafficking) “Alex/Puss” is sheeted home to the triumph of damaged masculinity and its misogyny disguised as anti-imperialist equality politics. Both migrant sex work and the refusal of surrogacy are represented as working in the realms of exploitation, not in the grounded rationality and female agency that recent ethnography recognises as central to migrant sex workers’ decision-making (As well as Chin and Finckenauer, 2012, and Renshaw et al, 2015., see for example Agustin, 2006; Ahmad, 2005; Kempadoo, 2004; Mai, 2016).

Conclusion: the moral pornography of trafploitative anti-trafficking representations

The American and Australian anti-trafficking dramas examined here share much of the Orientalist and undemocratic character of the TiP reports. They share in common a silencing of the non-scripted views of migrant sex workers. This silencing works in part by misrepresentation, providing good script characters and narratives in which ideal victims desire rescue from exploitation. Those fantasies work to legitimate the moral narcissism of neo-abolitionists (including Western feminists and Christians).

These narratives engage with issues of gender, class, nationality and “race” but are not intersectional: they progress by suppressing one category (class/political economy) in order to privilege another (gender/morality). The silencing involved allows for only good script voices: for example, the migrant sex workers taking their foetuses home to Asia at the end of China Girl beckon to Mary to join them. But she alone has seen through the illusion of “Alex/Puss’s” benevolence: he is (“actually’) just exploitative (she knows this from her greater intimacy with him). In contrast, the group of Asian migrant sex workers (they don’t really achieve the kind of individuality that focalising characters own) are delusional (“mangliu”, blindly following their exploitative pimp). This kind of silencing is central to the neo-abolitionist logic in which there cannot be consensual sex work because all sex work is actually exploitative prostitution. That kind of essentialising view replicates the alleged silencing of Althusserian models of non-scientific ideology: sex workers are subjects of gendered interpellation and misrecognise themselves and their (exploitative) situation. They need rescue from their ideological ignorance.

That ignorance is represented as belonging to the culture of trafficking “victims” and “perpetrators”. Hua (2011) locates American anti-trafficking representations as working with a cultural racism that continues (or reinvents) European modernity’s hierarchies of civilisational development wherein the non-Western society is always in a state of “non-yetness” (Chakrabarty, 2000), requiring education to facilitate its eventual journey towards Western modernity. This reinvents the liberal concept of capacity as the boundary of freedom, relegating those who do not (allegedly “cannot”) adopt a good script perspective as irrational, backwards, barbaric, incapable.

As noted, this logic is built on occlusions of the point of view of those represented as being involved, including the sex worker’s, migrant sex workers’, facilitators, community members (in the migrants’ place of origin). That silencing confines the dominant perspective (in the West) within an onanistic loop of non-communication that might be understood as a failure of desire for transcultural understanding in the registers of class as well as ethnicity, “race” or nationality. The West — in this neo-abolitionist form — cannot meet and engage with the other, will not open itself to the critical self-transformations involved in reciprocity, but merely projects a fantasy image of a lesser-self.

Counter-narratives, such as the ethnographies of Chin and Finckenauer (2012) and Renshaw et al., (2015) and those of film-makers like Li-Yang (and in Europe, Nick Mai) provide a more democratic account that listens to rather than just hears the voices of migrant workers and those left behind in the journey’s origin. In Li Yang’s case, this listening is potentially transformative as Blind Shaft give space to the rural perspective in which anti-trafficking law is viewed as a further entrenchment of severe culture-class inequality. The listening involved in that perspective is the inverse of the cultural imperialism of trafploitative narratives like those of the TiP reports, and mainstream Western film and tv dramas.


Draft: Lecture 1 (autumn semester) Political, media and academic representations of im/mobilities


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, chapter three, Verso

Cohen, S. (2011) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Routledge, chapter 3.

Downing, J and Husband, C., (2005) Representing Race: Racisms, Ethnicity and the Media, Sage, chapter one

Hall, S. et al, (2013) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Chapter four

Edward Said, (2008) Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, chapter one.


Working paper: A Tale of contested re/production: China’s labour inequality, transactional sexuality and relational filiality.

Introduction: a feminist-materialist approach to reform-era social re/production

1.1 This working paper gives a feminist-materialist reading of transactional sex, relational filiality and labour relations as aspects of contested social re/production during China’s reform and post reform eras (1978 onwards). Drawing on Gramscian and Fraserian theoretical frameworks to examine the politics of social re/production, it examines consent to and contest prevailing modes of post-reform era social re/production, its hegemonic ideologies and state-society complex among female migrant workers and actors involved in transactional sexual relations .

1.2 Social reproduction is generally regarded as highly stratified and multiscaled, encompassing individuals, families, communities, and entire social systems in biological, labour force and caring reproduction (Glen, 1992; Colen, 1995; Kofman, 2014:81; Bakker, 2007).  Throughout the paper I use the hyphenated term “re/production” to emphasize the feminist materialist argument that the productive realm of capitalist accumulation and labour depends on the reproductive realms of sexual relations and filial support (Federici, 2004; Mies, 1994). This dependency is an crucial component of the Chinese reform and post reform eras’  primitive accumulation and ongoing ‘market liberalisation’,  including its reliance on the surplus army of rural young women for industry, services, filial and sexual support.

1.3 This analysis of reform era social re/production draws on intersectional, historical-materialist and multivalent approaches to sexuality and sexual labour. Kempadoo (2004) examined the various practice of sexual labour in the colonial-era Caribbean that were partially determined by historically specific and intersecting dimensions of racism, gender oppression and class exploitation, within particular modes of re/production. Caribbean women experienced exploitative sexual relations within slavery regimes, being hired out to white and free coloured families for domestic work with the understanding that they would provide sexual and procreative services; concubines provided housekeeping as well as sexual services for their owners and other white men; Caribbean women were otherwise hired out as prostitutes to help maintain the profitability of plantations (Beckles, 1998: 143; Kempadoo, 2004: 5). In these circumstances, some slave and free colored women used sexual labour “as an income-generating activity, providing some autonomy from the harsh conditions of agricultural or domestic work, a means to obtain freedom for themselves or their children from slavery, or to economically survive once slavery was abolished (Kempadoo, 2004:53-4). Kempadoo thus argued that in the slavery and emancipation eras, Carribbean women’s sexuality  was not just a site of re/productive exploitation, but also a ‘pillar of resistance’.

1.4 Kempadoo’s  account reflects Caribbean women’s agent use and understanding of transacted sexual and reproductive relations. The sensitive historical listening of her approach  informs this paper’s analysis of Chinese migrant workers and other actors  involved in transacted sexual relations in terms of the modes of re/production particular to the reform era, the relationship of transactional sex to wider labour relations and socially-reproductive (filial) relations, and of intersecting forms of contest and consent within and across these dimensions.

1.5 The term ‘transactional’ sex refers to sex-related practices that involve transactions between parties such as commodified sex services (those provided in return for money), but also the broader range of practices that serves ‘production and reproduction’ in ways that include pleasure and the meeting of material, economic, spiritual and procreative needs (Kempadoo, 2004: 62; Truong, 1990; White, 1990; Lim, 1998). A broad range of commercial sex practices has been a feature the Chinese reform era including, for example, those of hostesses, second wives (èrnǎi), and compensated dating. The continuum of transacted reform era practices cannot be subsumed within categories of prostitution (Jeffreys, 2004), as practices such as dating and marriage that are commonly regarded as non-commercial nonetheless share elements of exchange with the more obviously transactional practices of commodified sex (Li, 1997).

1.6 The paper analyzes transactional sexuality alongside filiality and ‘public’ and ‘private’ labour contests of — and accommodations with — hegemonic social formations. It focuses, in part, on female migrant workers involved in transactional sex, as academics working on gender, labour and prostitution studies have taken their situation as exemplifying some of the key multidimensional faultlines of reform era inequality,  coercion, consent, and contest  (refs/fn). It thereby engages with questions of transformation and continuity that have been posed in reform era studies of gender, sexuality and prostitution (Zheng, 2009), as well as studies of labour relations and dissent (Pun, 2005; ). These include questions of the extent to which migrant workers’ use of transactional sex is or isn’t transformative in regards to Chinese patriarchy (for example, Zheng, 2009), and the extent to which their labour dissent is or isn’t transformative in regards to a working class political-subjectivity – the emergence of a labour movement — a ‘class for itself’ (Chan and Pun, 2009; Franceschini, 2017).1 These questions, respectively, posit (particular kinds of) gender equality and class equality as assumed horizons of justice, with writers taking corresponding objects of transformation as their targets. Zheng (2009) for example, targets sex workers’ beliefs and values, the patriarchal state and market, and Chinese filiality. Chan and Pun (2009) target the hegemonic party-state and Chinese neoliberalism (2009).

The intersectional character of Chinese social relations

1.7 Studies of Chinese patriarchy recognise the intersection of gender with other forms of inequality. The classical view describes filial relationships organised by patrilineal descent and inheritance, patrilocal residence, strong parental authority, with power invested in the senior generation, reinforced by state law and property ownership. Patriarchy is thus viewed intersectionally: male-to-female gender inequality is considered as one dimension in relation to others: including class, age, and rural/urban location (Santos and Harrel, 2017: 4-5; 7-10).As the political theorist Nancy Fraser argues, the dominant position of any one dimension of inequality is historically contingent. In the Maoist and reform eras, for example, rural/urban or political-status inequality has been the dominant dimension of inequality and patriarchal gender inequality might not have been the primary lens of analysis, even where the subjected group were primarily women or men.

1.8 As a category of analysis, class-inequality has moved from the mainstream to the margins of Chinese social science. Many Chinese social science scholars, including academics working on prostitution had, until recently, abjured class as a category of analysis (Wu, 2014: x). This was, in part, a reaction to the deligitimising of the Mao-era ideology of class warfare. Gender studies academics, for example, rejected framing womens’ inequality in terms of employment, in favour of examinations of psychology, marriage, sexuality, crime and education (Jeffreys, 2004: 91). Chinese social scientists, more broadly, have generally preferred a language of stratum to one of class in order to avoid the relational and conflictual character of class within historical materialism, in accordance with the party-state’s discourse of ‘harmonious’ society (Guo, 2008:51). 

1.9. This shift has been coterminious with the deminise of class analysis in Anglophone social sciences where postmodernism and postructuralism have overtaken historical materialism as preferred paradigms, with a preference for the language of discourse and disciplinary and actutarial forms of government and power, in contrast to ideology, hegemony and contest. Intersectional studies have focussed on gender and ‘race’ while generally eliding or neglecting class (Mann, 2012: 112). This has sometimes been a means of redressing the tendency of some Marxists towards an overdetermining economism and neglect or subordination of other dimensions as aspects of class  (Bohrer, 2018: 49-50; Giminez, 2001 ;Smith and Smith, 1983:122; Alcoff, 2011; Gedalof, 2013).

1.10 Bohrer (2018:54), however, follows Gimenez in arguing for retaining class as a category of analysis as “class oppression is distinctive and necessitates a different kind of treatment, politically and theoretically, than race and gender”. This specific treatment

requires a wholesale analysis of capitalism as a system and a structure of material
relations of production and reproduction, accumulation and dispossession,
which has its roots in political economy and effects in the multifaceted
realms of culture, ideology and politics (Bohrer, 54).

1.11 For Bohrer (2018), capitalism is the ‘matrix of domination’ in which slavery, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy were forms of  inseparable oppression that were historically concreted in and through one another. Within this Marxist-intersectional analysis, capitalism is the synthesis of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonisation and imperialism systems of dispossession. Thus while class cannot be considered the sole dimension of capitalist accumulation and antagonism, each dimension should be viewed as one of the interlocking aspects of oppression.

1.12 Arguably then, if capitalism is taken as the matrix of domination then class remains an important category of analysis in the Chinese context, given the prevailing view that social inequality has intensified and the position of those who might be categorised as workers worsened during and as a result of the reform era opening to neoliberalism (Goodman and Zang, 2008:2; Wu, 2014, x). Measured by the Gini coefficient, the PRC shifted from 0.22 in 1978 – one of the most equitable scores ever recorded (Adelmen and Sunding, 1987), to 0.465 in 2016, while the coefficient for wealth rose to 0.739 in 2010 (Li and Wan, 2015). These figures might be read as suggesting  However, to conclude that China’s reform involved a denigration from  one of the most to one of the least equitable societies may be debatable insofar as Maoist-era equality has been overestimated (as discussed below). It may be more accurate to observe that legacies of Maoist era inequitable class relations and conflict continue in transformed and exacerbated form in the reform and post-reform era. These transformed continuities were evident in the realigned form of party-state-society complex that includes hegemonic dominance of the managerial and professional classes in partnership with, or direct participation in the entrepreneurial class (Goodman and Zang, 2008:5-6, 13; Goodman, 2008: 24-5).

1.13 Historical materialist studies of commodified sexual relations suggest that viewing capitalism alone as the matrix of domination may be insufficient in the Chinese context. Pan Suiming’s work (2009), for example, demonstrates transformed continuities of class domination. The sexologist critiques prostitution as reform era exploitation of public resources and working class women by elite cadre involving cooperation with the entrepreneurial class involved in entertainment. However, most of the literature on reform era prostitution cites the inequitable position of marginalised women as a key driver of widespread commodified sexuality and sexual relations without reference to class relations (see for example Liu, xx). This refusal of historical materialist perspectives is particularly striking given that the majority of those involved in commodified sexual practices come from some of the most exploited stratum of Chinese labour.

1.14 Analysis of class relations is more evident in academic studies of reform and post reform era political economy and labour relations. For some writers, class exploitation is key to reform era state-corporate complex, which utilises flexible mass production and classic low wage regimes dependent on flexible and cheap labour (Luthje, Luo and Zhang, 2013:24).These regimes have differing consequences for migrant and urban labour. In terms of the former, the party-state’s hukou system ensured a massive supply of surplus (rural-urban) migrant labour, restricting migrant-workers’ status to that of rural residents and thereby limiting their access to the benefits of urban residence, including the leverage that urban residence would have given in wage disputes. In terms of the latter, these reform era regimes have witnessed the party-state withdrawal from the ‘iron bowl’ social contract with urban ‘master workers’ wherein the state supplemented wages with secure welfare benefits including health, housing and old age pensions. Instead, the reform era wages and benefits have been negotiated in the private sector with a far smaller supplement of state-provided welfare.

1.15 The intersectionality of the view that class domination works through Chinese ‘neo-liberalism’ is furthered in studies of gendered and generational and locational labour stratification and contest. Urban labour studies have also included a focus on class and generation,  younger generations of workers competing outside of the ‘iron bowl’ social contract constitute an urban precariat with insecure employment and welfare benefits, while the generation of older workers have fought to retain what they can of the benefits of the Maoist social contract.

1.16 The contestation of exclusion from the benefits of urban citizenship (Pun (2012) has been, for example, particular to young female migrants’ adverse inclusion in the Chinese-global circuits of production, on the basis of marginalisation in all of these dimensions. Pun Ngai argued that “the demand for cheap and productive labor to fuel transnational capital accumulation requires a gendering process of the working class” involving the construction of a gendered-class subject and gendering of production and reproduction  (Pun, 2012: 178). China’s export industries’ dormitary system providing on-site housing for young female rural migrants combined with the bifurcated rural/urban political economies to maintain a supply of (supposedly) compliant, productive and temporary labor.  

1.17 The multidimensional situation of young female migrant-workers bears some similarity to that of women involved in transactional sex in part because they form the social segment from which most sex workers come. Beyond that overlap their are further similarities in terms of academic perspectives regarding the degrees to which female migrant workers and sex workers  consent to and contest their situation. Both feminist labour studies and prostitution studies tend to see young women as victims compelled or coerced by structural factors into poorly paid work or recourse to prostitution. In labour studies, for example, young women are viewed as having been compelled to leave rural backgrounds since the decollectivisation of the 1980s and loss of land rights, and limited to low level factory work by lack of access to higher education. They are also percieved as having been compelled to return before the end of their perceived marriagable age by the difficulty of finding an urban resident for marriage. Yet the feminist view is more nuanced than one of pure victimhood-sans-agency. Pun et al, for example, see the dormitary regime and female workers’ solidarity as sites of resistance, and many studies reflect the degree to which female migrants’ choice of urban factory work reflects a refusal of rural gendered marginalisation. Sex workers, similarly, are not only viewed as victims but recognised as having consented to their work and having done so, in part, as a form of refusal of the marginalisation of rural life and urban factory and service work

Multivalent and intersectionali contests for substantive citizenship

2.1.2 In the section above I observed that the accomodations and contests of female migrant labourers and sex workers are set within particular horizons of justice,with labour studies positing the overcoming of class, gender and locational  inequality within the paradigm of Chinese neoliberalism, and prostitution studies positing the overcoming of gender inequality within the paradigm of patriarchy. In the former, Pun and others focus in part on access to the status of urban citizenship, and we could gloss the anti-patriarchal perspective as advocating access to the benefits of citizenship-sans-gender discrimination. The accomodations and contests of female migrant workers and sex workers can be thought of in relation to substantive citizenship, the status of enjoying the rights and benefits of membership in the national community. This may be best thought of in terms of matters of degree, rather than a dichotomy between inclusion and exlusion. That is because the empirical evidence in regards to these groups in the reform era does demonstrate forms of exclusion (for example, from the status of urban residence), at the same time there is a continuum of forms of inclusion in the circuits of the Chinese-transnational economy ranging from adverse to beneficial.

2.1.2 Nancy Fraser’s (1995) trivalent concept of ‘parity of participation’ is useful in considering intersecting accommodations and contests over degrees of substantive citizenship in enabling consideration of cultural, economic  and political valencies . Trivalence parity involves issues of status recognition, issues of exploitation, marginalization, and deprivation (material redistribution), and political representation – the extent to which the architecture of political space denies or allows groups a voice (Fraser, 1995: 70; 2010: 365-6; 2003: 43). Deficits in one or more of the trivalencies result in disparity of participation, and groups suffering such deficits are denied equitable access to substantive rights and benefits of citizenship.

2.1.3 As noted above, the marginalisation of female migrant workers is multidimensional, simultaneously involving inequalities of class, gender, generational and locational status (Pun, 2012). In Fraser’s terms, female migrant workers have contested their labour conditions, refusing misrecognition on the basis of gendered rural status, and the lack of urban status and its rights and benefits. The have contested maldistribution, often protesting against poor pay, late and non-payment. Political representation has also been important because the architecture of industrial dispute management has generally worked to contain workers’ claims (So, 2013), and has been particularly silencing in terms of female workers’ claims. Female migrant workers contests have thus been cultural, economic and political. As I will argue below such trivalent protests are akin to the refusal of those involved in transactional sex of subordinate service and industrial work in urban centres under the hukou and sexist-labour systems (key elements of the architecture of their marginalisation).

2.1.4 The concept of trivalent parity does not, in itself, address the question of the degree to which contest or consent challenge or reaffirm dominant norms and institutions. Fraser approaches such questions in terms of ‘affirmative’ and ‘transformative justice’. Contests may be “affirmative”, “correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them” (Fraser 1995: 82). Transformative justice requires restructuring of “the underlying generative framework” (Fraser, 1995: 82). This might, for example, accord with social justice feminist’s aim of addressing the causes of underlying inequalities that coerce impoverished women into ‘prostitution’ (Liu, 20xx). Affirmative and transformative justice initiatives are not simply opposites: Although an affirmative contest might merely reaffirm an underlying paradigm, an accumulation of affirmative changes may also lay the ground for future transformative change.2 For example reducing maldistribution may involve affirmative improvements that lay the ground for transformed gender relations as occured, to an extent, following the new Communist regimes’ Marriage Law (1950). On the other hand, actors may be conflicted between affirmative and transformative tendencies in regards to particular horizons of justice: Zheng (2009),as we will discuss below, argued that migrant sex workers were engaged in actions and beliefs that worked to overcome some aspects of gender equality but at the same time further entrenched them in patriarchal oppression.

2.1.5  Gramsci’s concepts of ‘commonsense’, ‘good sense’ and ‘contradictory consciousness’ are useful starting points for considering the ways in which actors might both affirm and attempt to transform the underlying generative paradigms — hegemonic discourse and common sense, in Gramscian terms — giving structure to inequalities. Hegemony is the ideological dominance of the values and norms of a dominant group over its subordinates. A hegemonic state-society formation maintains power through a balance of consent based on popular beliefs and values (common sense), and coercion (backed by the use of force). “Common sense” refers to the ‘everyday consciousness or popular thought of the masses’, while “good sense” is a people’s ‘instinctive understanding of its basic conditions of life and the nature of the constraints and forms of exploitation to which it is commonly subjected’ (Hall, 1996: 432). These are reflexive and sometimes incoherent and contradictory aspects of popular thought. Gramsci argued that actors might experience contradictory consciousness in the conflicts between their critical ‘good sense’ grounded in experience and their ‘commonsense’ positions aligned to the a hegemonic ideology.

2.1.6 While the dichotomy of ideological common sense opposed to “instinctive” good sense have been subject to a great deal of useful criticism, I will argue that the idea of conflicted consciousness can be usefully reworked if we combine the critique of critical theories’ opposition between science and myth with a concept of intersectional consciousness. In the former regard we can follow Jo Doezema’s account of myth and ideology. …..

Dis/harmonising labour relations.

2.1.8 In this section I will draw on Fraserian and Gramscian approaches to discuss hegemony and resistance in the dimensions of migrant labour relations, filial and sexual relations, beginning with Gramscian accounts of Chinese party-state-society transformations, the maintenance and contest of hegemony and its modes of production in the dimension of Maoist and reform era labour relations. 

2.1.9 Transformations in China’s state-society formation developed in waves of hegemonic crisis throughout the late and post-Maoist era. The CCP political power structure and its centrally planned production regimes enabled the party-state to extract surplus labor on a massive scale, mobilising the rural, rural-to-urban and urban populations for rapid capital accumulation, while overcoming some of the major pre-existing social inequalities.

2.1.10 The Maoist regime also created a new socio-political hierarchy. The party-state’s classification system ranked categories of people on a scale of sociopolitical merit combining a Marxist categorisation of socio-economic position with explicitly political criteria. Rural categories ranged from the valorised proletariat hired agricultural workers and poor peasants through to the disparaged bourgeoisie including rich peasants and landlords (Wu, 2014:40; Kraus, 1981, 185-7). By the mid-1950s,  most residents urban residents had been also classified on the basis of sociopolitical merit, with the scale ranging from valorised proletarian ‘workers,’ through to the less valued urban poor, and disparaged and discriminated bourgeoisie including ‘capitalists’, so-called ‘bad elements’, and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ etc (Wu, 2014:40; Kraus, 1981, 185-7). 

2.1.11 This status-based classification system allocated degrees of socialist citizenship on the basis of sociopolitical merit. At the abject end of the scale were the vilified groups who were regarded and treated as non-citizens (and often as enemy aliens).  At the higher end of the scale valorised groups received the status and substantive benefits  of citizenship in degrees, in direct relationship to their supposed socio-political merit. Those belonging to proletariat categories, for example, recieved preferential treatment in terms of political positions, educational opportunities and employment (Meisner, 1999: 317). This merit system was cut-across by the rural-urban divide: although theoretically equal, urban citizens were privileged over rural citizens from the mid-1950s onwards, when the hukou system began to restrict peasant’s mobility and prevent their settlement in and access to the benefits of urban areas.It was also undercut by the disproportionate valorisation and reward of party cadres.

2.1.12 Political and socio-economic power was entrenched in the hands of the party-states’ vanguard, an elite bureaucratic cadre. As Wu (2013: 166) argues, while the bureaucratic stratum did not ‘possess private property in the means of production’, its ‘property was the state’: ‘surplus extraction was achieved by the extra-economic power monopolised by the state, unmediated by commodity relations’.3 Elite party cadre enjoyed ‘yituhua’— the term Chen Erjin coined to describe their fusion of economic-and-political power — which provided the basis for the excessive status and privileges granted to them and their families (Wu, 2014:206; ). 

2.1.13 From the mid-1950s onwards, the bureaucracy swelled in size and in the proportion of state resources used to support it (dipping briefly only to re-enlarge after the Cultural revolution). Dominating the social hierarchy, the bureacratic was itself was steeply hierarchical, with the highest grade receiving a salary greater than 30 times that of the lowest grade (Wu, 2014:25; Yang, 2007; Lee, 1991: 195, 199). Cadre ranking determined a range of privileges on top of salaries, including size and quality of housing, mode of travel, access to domestic services including chefs and nurses, access to special medical services, quality of schooling (Wu, 2014: 25). Senior cadre reportedly received perks on top of their high wages, including private, villa-like residences, domestic servants, chefs, private cars, etc (Wu, 2014:32-3).

new and multiple forms of social inequality, including wage inequality, severe shortages of food and other consumer-items, housing shortages; and domination ….a lack of civil rights and political agency (Wu, 2013: 159, 166-7).

These hardships were experienced alongside the emergence of  

Despite the intended class revolt of the Cultural Revolution,


2.1.12 The intense  socio-political inequality in the 1970s led to widespread dissent in the form of “primitive” political protest including illegal economic activity, production slow-downs, sabotage and theft (Bergère, 1979), as well as a proliferation of anti-bureaucratic forms of political critique (Wu, 2013). 


2.1.13 Deng’s (post-1978) reforms commenced a top-down passive revolution in which the party-state made  consent-based and coercive adjustments in order to maintain its hegemony. These included the opening of the market economy and the opportunity for participation in consumer society promoted by a discourse of “xiaokang” in which economic development would “lead Chinese people to common prosperity in the future” (Cai, 2008: 15; Wu 2013; Su, 2011). …. crack downs …

2.1.14  Market-reform privatisation and its primitive accumulation of former state-run and owned entities and resources led to further social inequality and injustice. Key problems include corruption, rural-urban inequality, uneven economic growth, income disparity, abusive industrial regimes, widespread unemployment, welfare withdrawal and the breaking of the ‘iron bowl’ social contract with ‘master workers’, authoritarian suppression of dissent, and environmental degradation.

2.1.15 Rural residents and migrant workers whose surplus labour fueled the engine of China’s ‘fourth-wave industrial revolution’, bore the brunt of reform era inequality. As noted above, the urban registration (hekou) system works to extract their surplus labour cheaply (Zhang, F., 2014; Fan, 2008), while restricting their access to the benefits of urban citizenship (subsidized housing, education, healthcare, welfare), and ability to raise the price of their labour (Ngai, 2012; Sum, 2017).

2.1.16 Rural migrant workers have been subject to flexible mass production and low wage classic regimes (Luthje, Luo, and Zhang, 2013) in low-end construction, manufacturing and service jobs (Zhang, F., 2014; Fan, 2008). Along with low wages, these regimes have been characterised by long working hours, forced overtime, pay arrears, a lack of collective agreements, and routine violations of legal standards including inadequate safety measures (Luthje, Luo, and Zhang, 2013; Hui and Chan, 2011; Lee, 2007).

2.1.17 Amongst this group, young women have been the most marginalised, experiencing greater precarity, lower wages and greater employment restriction than men (Ngai, …).

2.1.18 Consequently (as discussed below) there has been a sustained period of resistance and rebellion amongst those deprived of former ‘iron bowl surities and the younger generation of urban workers, and particularly among migrant workers.  In response to the sustained hegemonic crisis represented by working class dissent and leftist agitation, the party state worked to deflect potential mobilization of the masses against the inequalities of China’s reform and opening up (So, 2014). Party-state discourse worked  to ensure conflicts that were no longer presented as matters of class-conflict but instead in terms of societal stratficiation and confrontations requiring ‘harmonisation’ (Xing, 2014). The ideological vision of the ‘harmonious  society’ (2002), was one in which “all people will do their best, each individual has his/her proper place, and everybody will get along in harmony with each other” (Renmin Ribao, 2005/02/20, in Holbig, 2006).

2.1.19 However, workers frequently rejected the harmony myth in favour of collective actions such as protests, strikes, demonstrations and other collective and individual acts, including intentional negligence and self-harm. The frequency of ‘mass incidents’ (the official term for protests, strikes and demonstrations) in the Reform era rose from 10,000 in 1993 to 127, 467 in 2008 (CLB, 2009a; 2009b). These forms of resistance refuse both the maldistribution of exploitative working conditions, and misrecognition and misrepresentation inherent in the party-states’ ‘harmonising’ architecture of justice and its limited space for voicing dissent (see, for example, So, 2013).

2.1.20 In response the party-state supported harmonization discourse with new laws, mediation and material benefits in order to attempt to maintain workers’ consent. Measures aimed at containing labour unrest included partial amelioration of the urban registration system, and industrial regulation (Su, 2011; Hui, 2017; Hui and Chan, 2012; Shaopeng, 2016:66). Formal mechanisms —generally under the umbrella of the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions  — for industrial mediation have been a key element for supressing dissent and maintaining consent.

2.1.21 … reform era = war of position … passive revolution … affirmation of hegemonic consent? or entrenching of despotic government … 

in terms of good and common sense … not=; no faith in ACDTU and mediation … no faith in “harmony”? …amongst those who resist (subject of labor surveys etc) …

Dis/harmonising filial relations

2.2.1 The myth of harmonious society stretches across all aspects of social re/production. State discourse seeks to render the family as central to the hegemony of its model of harmony (Shue, 2004; Zavoretti, 2016:1219), building on commonsense norms of filiality, gender, and sexuality (Zhang, L. 2009). Within this, family’s filiality has been valorised as the prime means of social welfare (Su, 2011; Hui, 2017; Hui and Chan, 2012; Shaopeng, 2016:66). Zavoretti (2016a) suggests that sex is, moreover, subsumed with concepts of zeren (responsibility), including filial relations of material and emotional support between bride and groom, and with children, parents, and parents-in-law.

2.2.2 At the same time, the ideology and experience of market competetion has affected good and common sense regarding filiality. Reform era market economic pressures have intensified the economic aspect of filiality and sexual relations, including marriage. For example, a combination of the One Child policy and an inadequate social security system has meant that marriages between two single-child spouses in urban centres must often bear the weight of care for four aging parents as well as a child (Wang and Zhou, 2010:266; Fowler, Gao and Carlson, 2010:347). Urban male spouses are expected to own an apartment (or have a substantial deposit) in order to attract a wife of sufficient suzhi  (Jeffreys, 2015: 33, 43; Xu, 2013: 4), at a time of expensive urban housing (Huang, 2013). Many parents — traditionally responsible for their child’s wedding costs — now view housing as one of their responsibilities. Marriage choices involve families in financially burdensome issues of housing, social welfare, and security, including urban household registration. In this context, the traditional criteria of “a marriage between families of equal social rank” (mendang hudui) often prevails, requiring balance between couple’s familial economic and social status (Wang and Nehring, 2014: 585).

2.2.3 For some commentators, Reform era transformations in socio-economics and social values include some movement away from the collective value system to individualization (Hansen and Svarverud, 2010; Yan, 2009, 2010; Jeffreys 2015:50). Yan (2009; 2011) argued that there had been a shift from a willingness to sacrifice in the service of the collective and extended family to a narrower concern for the immediate family and that intergenerational reciprocity now works on the basis of market exchange rather than filial piety. However, the degree to which values have transformed from collective to individualist has been subject to critical reappraisal.  Xiaoying Qi (2016:48) argues that both young and elder generations are engaged in a process of reinventing traditional values and practices of filiality in a manner that allows for altruism and self-interest —”tempered altruism’ (Lucas and Stark, 1985) — rather than rejecting them in the pursuit of individualisation. She argues “the dominant family pattern is neither individualistic nor collectivistic but tends to be relational: individual members of families collaborate to secure cross-generational interests” (Qi, 2016: 49; see also Davis and Friedman, 2014; Fong, 2004: Ikels, 2004a).

2.2.4 Yan (2016: 245; 2011: 219) similarly described transformations in filiality in the rural (northeastern) context where an “increasing number of the elderly praised their married children (sons and daughters alike) for their wide-ranging support and care’ while noting that their children were supportive but not obedient. The transformed character of filiality and marriage decision-making has been based, in part, on the rising power of rural young women in relation to their parents-in-law (Yan, Y. 2006).  Young women have challenged their subordination as ‘voiceless dependents’ and gained authority over mate choice, family division — with most couples establishing independent households soon after marriage  —  and marriage transaction, the latter involving converted bridewealth paid directly to the bride and commonly used towards the couple’s housing (Yan, op cit). Young women engage in filial support from these positions of relative independence, rather than as subordinates within the patrilineal family household. These are shifts from vertical relationships of elder authority and filial obedience to horizontal relations of mutual care and support. Moreover, families have to collaborate because the state’s residual  welfare provision is matched by policies that make the family corporation the key provider of parental welfare (Wong 2008:90, in Qi, 2016:46; see also Zheng, 2009).4

2.2.5 The social norms that the discourse of harmony build on delineate positive status as the performance of reinvented filial duties, demonstrated by the taking of responsibility (jeren) while performative failure runs the risk of loss of “face” (mianzi) (Qi, 2011:46). Filiality is an aspect of hegemonic ideology, bringing state and family together under the rubric of social harmony, allowing the state to deflect contest of inadequate provision of welfare through shared “commonsense” beliefs and practices related to caring for parents and other family members. At the same time, relational filiality is a “good sense” renegotiation of values in the face of socio-economic pressures including massive domestic migration, urbanisation, market competition (without the safety net of state welfare), and intense and ongoing (primarily rural-to-urban) inequality that follow from the party-states committment to prosperity for the people.

Dis/harmonising sexual relations and sexuality

“Raise the Technological Level” 1956 One of many Maoist posters showing ‘iron women’ as equal contributors to production

2.3.1 The new PRC had sought to transform gender relations equitably, including an end to “feudal” practices of commodifying women. In the early Maoist era, the Marriage Law (1950) outlawed open concubinage, child betrothal, and forced marriage, and required that marriage should be a monogamous relationship based on socialist conjugality — balancing mutual affection and political affinity (Evans, 1997).  For many Chinese and Western commentators, the Maoist era has been represented as a period of conservative attitudes to sexuality in which the commodification of sexuality disappeared because of the repression of prostitution and the restraints imposed on rural sexual relations (see, for example, Jeffreys, 2015; Honig, 2003:144). Brothel-based prostitution was abolished and romantic love and sexuality were suppressed in some contexts (Zhang and Yue, 1998; Diamant, 2000:281-312), including repression of published texts concerning romantic or sexual themes (Honig, 2003: 147). However, transactional relations continued in forms that resisted or adjusted to communist norms and political economy (Pan, 1996: see also Hershatter, 1997: 332-3; Ruan, 1991). In rural society, the new Marriage Law led to an increase in hypergamic relationships with many women seeking to marry — and divorce in order to remarry  —  into more advantageous and, ideally, urban circumstances (Diamant, 2000). Rural male cadre also engaged in hypergamy, seeking to divorce peasant wives in order to marry new urban partners. Rather than disappearing, transactional practices such as the payment of brideprice involved an escalation of costs (Parrish and Whyte, 1978; Siu 1993), with rural males and older women losing out in relation to younger women in the increasingly expensive marriage market (Johnson, 1985: 124-6). Within urban areas, working classes “often entered into friendship, marriage and sexual relations” driven by status and economic concerns, urban or rural residence, sexual desire, and the pursuit of fun and leisure” (Diamant, 2000: 271, 224; Honig, 167-8). Working-class women commonly sought partners on the basis of ‘material possessions, money, and status’, and frequently changed partners in the pursuit of advancement (Women’s Federation, 1955: 17, Diamant, 2000: 187, 80).  Amongst female cadre mate-choice favoured higher status cadre for their high income, and many low-level male cadres found it difficult to find marriage partners (Women’s Federation, 1959: 32, Diamant, 2000:191). Conversely, women married to elite urban men feared the potential for divorce under the new marriage law for they often lacked independent means of support (Diamant, 2000: 56).

Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree idealizes pre-Reform Era relationship

2.3.2 These examples of hypergamic practice and leisure-sex suggest that political-class status was an object of relational exchange because of the advantages it brought.  Moreover, trading of scarce resources for sexual services was common amongst cadre and rural and urban women during the 1950-60s (Pan, 1996; Yang and Cao, 2016; Diamant, 2000; Honig, 2003: 162, 166). Pan (1996) described a culture of bargaining between ‘those who use their power and authority to obtain sex (yiquan moxing)’ and those who use sex to obtain privileges of the powerful (yixing moquan). Cadres engaged in sexual abuse of female factory workers (Lee, 2007: 148-9), and sexual abuse of young female and male rusticates (women sent to work in rural areas) was frequent (Wu, 2014: 163; Honig, 2003:161-164; Deng, 1992; Shi, 1996).

2.3.3 Transactional sexual relations in the reform era evince both transformations and continuities with those of the Maoist era, despite a view common to studies of prostitution and sexuality that there has been transition from the abolition to the proliferation of prostitution, from chaste socialist relations to liberal sexual practices, and from egalitarian gender relations to sexualised gender inequality. Some of the continuities in sexual relations can be seen in the reform era tensions between harmonization and market opening. In line with the centrality of filial relations to a harmonious society (described above), official discourse encourages heteronormative relations which subsume love and sexuality within the private sphere of stable family life ( Zavoretti, 2016a: 1200; Yan, 216-7). This discourse is built on the common sense views prevalent amongst many youths who view sex as  “a reproductive function” (Jeffreys, 2015, 46; Liu, M. 2012). Accordingly, for many, sexual activity is limited to the context of serious adult relationships or as a precursor to marriage, and pre-marital sexual activity prior is still regarded as immoral and irresponsible (Jeffreys, 2015: op cit; Evans, 1997:83; Fang, 2013; Zavoretti, 2016b).

2.3.4 However, policies of reform era market opening, social reproduction and a degree of tolerance for cultural representations of sexuality have reportedly also encouraged a ‘sexual revolution’  amongst urban residents, and youth in particular (Zhang, E. 2011). For many youth, sex is “a form of play” or “a shortcut towards financial security” (Jeffreys, 2015:48, Pan, S. 2009).

Ren Hang’s photographic art attests to the culture of play amongst segments of urban youth

2.3.5 The reform era has seen sex services become available at a wide range of facilities while “sellers and buyers of sex come from all sectors of society” (Pan, 2009; David and Friedman, 2014; Jeffreys, 2015Jeffreys, 2012). The opening towards transacted sex is coterminous with the continuing policy of opening to the market. This correspondence is most evident in special economic zones like the Yunnan-Vietnam border, where a discourse of “gaohuo jingli” (to make alive, banging) prevails, incorporating the ideals of economic and sexual openness (Zhang, 2012:99). Zhang argues, following Aiwa Ong, that such liminal spaces represent (neoliberal) states of exception to the prevailing norms wherein the state pathologizes and criminalizes prostitution as one aspect of deviancy resulting from market opening (Bassi, 2016; Jeffreys, 2015). However, many local authorities and economies benefit from the sex industry in the entertainment, tourism and related sectors (Zheng, 2011). Police, like other officials, also view prostitution as a source of income (Jeffreys, 2006; Liu, 2007), and have only limited ability to identify and restrict transacted sex in any case, in part because much of it falls into the grey area between hospitality services and paid for sex (Jeffreys, 2004). Consequently, “local governments without exception turn a blind eye and only respond reluctantly to occasional pressure from Beijing to crack down on pornography and prostitution” (Chin and Finckeneaur, 2012: 217; see also, Zhang, 2006; Jeffreys, 2006). The pattern that Barbara Hershatter (1997: 390) noted towards the end of the 1990s — oscillating between ’rounds of cleanup campaigns’ and periods of benign neglect and local local payoffs’ — has continued into the present. Thus, rather than seeing a criminalising normality versus a regulating exceptionality, it might be more useful to regard these countervailing tendencies as aspects of nationally pervasive norms and governance whose faultlines lie between local and national government.


2.3.6 The  proliferation of transacted sexual relations works across the continuum of relationships including sex work, marriage, and other forms of sexualised labour. He Qinglian (2005) categorized sexual relations in monochromatic shades, ranging from ‘prostitution’ (the “black” sphere) to romantic/marriage relationships (the “white” sphere). In between these, she places “grey women” (huise nuxing) involved in sexualised affective work and physical-sex work including escorts(bao po), second wives (er nai), and some ‘xiaojie’and KTV hostesses.

Picture 180
Lee Chen Dao paintings evoke the sometimes playful lifeworld of hostesses

2.3.7 He’s categorisation relies on a dichotomy between commodified (improper) and non-commodified (proper) sexual relations.  Contra He’s moralising categorisation, however, marriage is, arguably, more of a ‘grey’ than a ‘white’ area as it has historically involved forms of transaction including major marriage and brideprice, wife-sale, polyandry and polygamy, and in-between practices (see xxx). Major marriage typically requires a great investment of economic and other forms of capital, and non-normative marriage practices such as wife-purchase have reappeared in the period since the financial crash (2008). The grey area also includes the beauty industry and retail, clerical and service jobs involving the commodification of young women’s sexuality within the
ascendancy of the ‘sexual economy’ (Osburg, 2013:144; Gaetano, 2008: 635; Zurndorfer, 2016). With youth culture and commerce increasingly focused on displays of youthful sexiness (Jeffreys, 2015: 46; Latham, 2007; Liu, F. 2011; Moore, 2005; Sima and Pugsley, 2010), sexual attractiveness has been generally deemed necessary in women’s employment (Jieyu, 2017). Consequently, women’s work in general might be regarded as a ‘grey’ area; as  TianTian Zheng remarked, “the line between what defines a sex worker and what is necessary to maintain employment is not substantial” (Zheng, 2009: 22).

2.3.7 Attitudes to self-commodification demonstrate some continuity across the field of sexual relations. Just as sex workers regard their bodies and other attributes as assets to be capitalized on, so do participants in the broader field of relationships. As one postgraduate told Wang and Nehring (2014), “career is men’s biggest capital, while youth and beauty are the most important capital for women”. This view echoes those of an er nai who argued, “[i]n essence, men using their power and connections and women using their youth and beauty are the same. Both are a rational utilization of one’s personal resources” (Osburg, 2013).  Common acceptance of the commodification of sexual relations reflects the pragmatic need for sufficient economic and social capital as prerequisites for relationships and filiality in the context of socio-economic inequality. Such beliefs inform the dating strategies of Beijing university graduates, where “unspoken rules of dating include a desire for a wealthy partner” (Wang and Nehring (2014:585).  As noted above, the ability to provide urban housing is a key criterion for mate-choice. A typical situation involved a government company employee who tried to set up a friend with a suitable man who did not own his own home. Her friend said, “What’s the point? Without an apartment, love isn’t possible” (NYT, 2012).

2.3.8 The shades of grey sexual relations are highly stratified. Many “jienu” sex workers providing services for poorer clients including migrant workers are likely to be rural migrants themselves, sometimes older and therefore less sexually attractive than young women, and unable to perform the cultural aspects of attractive appearance through fashionable dress, hairstyling, make-up, plastic surgery and fitness routines (Jeffreys, 2015; Zheng, 2009; Tsang, 2017). Their lack of economic and bodily capital present barriers to work in better-paid realms of sex work, just as their lack of socio-cultural capital limits their ability to develop connections with higher status clients.

Rural migrant housing in Beijing 2017: underground rooms and homelessness after urban village demolition

2.3.9 The limits of low-level sex work arguably corresponds to that of lower level rural-rural marriages. Rural migrants experience status-inequality, sometimes being viewed as júwàirén [“ignorant “outsiders”] (Zhang, 2001). The lack of urban residency, exclusion from urban property accumulation (Zhan, 2015), and their low suzhi (quality) in the regard of urban residents means most — and particularly males without higher education  — are regarded by urban residents as undesirable partners for marriage (Wang and Nehring, 2014). Female rural migrants themselves seek to avoid rural-rural marriages (Gaetano, 2008). Instead, migrant women working in urban centres, like migrant sex workers, seek to utilise their bodily, cultural and economic capital, in order to find a marriage partner with the most advantageous conditions possible. Arianne Gaetano (2008: 637) summarises their criteria for marriage partners as including

the man’s household economic and social situation, such as hukou, property, and assets; occupation; whether his parents were still living and what sort of care they might require of a daughter-in-law; and how many of his siblings are unmarried and hence would require financial support.

2.3.10 Such criteria helped determine whether the potential spouse would be able to fulfil his cao (‘being responsible and dependable’). Rural men without urban migration experience were deemed ineligible, those with marketable skills and savings were esteemed, and men with urban status were deemed highly desirable but generally unobtainable (Gaetano, op cit). As Pun Ngai (2012: 180)  observes, many female migrant workers spend between x-5 years working in urban factories before returning to their rural areas because they have been unable to find a marriage partner in the city.

2.3.11 Migrant workers of both sexes increasingly self-represent as diaosi [“losers”] (Sum, 2017), sharing underprivileged backgrounds, poor wages, low consumption, and low social status (Sum, 2017: 303). Male diaosi depreciate themselves as being  “poor, short and ugly” in contrast to the ‘wealthy, tall and handsome’ men likely to date wealthy, fair-skinned and pretty (bafumei) girls. Sum’s (2017) neo-Gramscian analysis shows that their self-representation involves a “good sense” understanding of their abject exclusion from the sphere of middle-class urban social reproduction and sexual relations: being ‘a loser’ is in part an ironic critique of the common inequality of their doomed aspirations.

2.3.12 In the overlapping sphere of low-level rural-urban hypergamy and sex work, participants hope to leap-frog over their subordinate position either through the independence granted by money or through the wealth and status of higher-level partners (see Tsang, Lowe, and Scambler, 2017). Low-level sex workers in Dongguan prefer sex work to dead-end factory or service work, and return to rural communities (Tsang, Lowe, and Scambler, 2017:x). These young sex workers make great use of their bodily and sexual capital, enacting filiality by taking on the role of breadwinner for rural families, establishing themselves in urban centres with economic independence, and using their wealth to ally or overcome the status subordination of rural migrants in urban cities. For an exceptional minority, sex work may even lead to access to a hukou, or an er nai position with a wealthy client.

2.3.13 In contrast to low-level sex workers, mid-and-high-level sex workers are able to draw on greater economic and cultural resources (Tsang, 2017a; Choi and Holroyd, 2007).  Employing these resources enables the pursuit of higher levels of reward, economic independence and personal autonomy (Zheng, 2009) and, for some, long-term intimate relationships with elite clients (Tsang, 2017:452-3). The character of such commodified relationships are not exploitative but rather include friendships, mutual trust, and romance (Tsang, 2017: 452-3). This level of sex work corresponds to the mid-high levels of rural to urban marriages, wherein undergraduate and graduate migrants generally have the advantage over less-educated rural women.5

2.3.14 Urban resident undergraduates and graduates generally have the highest value in commodified sexual relations (Osburg, 2013; Wang and Nehring, 2014). Relations with them are regarded as bestowing status because of their high suzhi embodied in economic and cultural capital, including education, lifestyle, and civil dispositions (Ren, 2013: 34-44; Xiao, 2010; Zhang, 2010: 19, in Sum, 2017: 300). For such women, possession of sufficient parity of participation in urban society grants them the freedom of appearing to make mate-choices on the basis of romance. However, such choices are based on the knowledge that they represent a high socio-economic value to aspiring partners. This relative and commodified freedom reflects that of the high-end hostesses in Tsang’s (2017) study, who chose a period of sex work with elite clients because their valuable levels of cultural, social, bodily and economic capital enabled them to do so and to have their work represented as esteemable.

Multi-dimensional war of position and passive revolution in labour, sex and filiality.

3.1 How might such intersecting contests inform an understanding of the underlying paradigms that structure inequality? For Zheng, an underlying paradigm of patriarchy and neo-Confucian filiality is supported by exploitative social structures including families, the state, patriarchy, and the market economy.  Zheng argues that hostesses mis-recognised their situation as advantageous when their work, and their support of their families actually “reproduce[s] the structure that victimizes them.” In this view, hostesses are recognised as rightly arguing that the income derived from sex work increases their capacity for enacting filial responsibilities and for self development, increases their rural status through these enhanced capacities, empowering them in relation to parents and other relations, and allows them to challenge their subordinate status in urban environments where, for example, urban boyfriends respect the character they demonstrate in undertaking migrant sex work. However, Zheng (2009) argues that sex hostesses  have in fact further entrenched the objectification of women, and the state and family’s of exploitation of their youthful attractiveness and filiality. In this view, sex worker’s belief in their work’s subversion of gender and rural-urban hierarchies fails to disrupt their unconscious internalization of patriarchal dispositions; their view that it does is a form of symbolic misrecognition that embeds them further in patriarchal filiality and exploitation, reproducing patriarchal state hegemony (Zheng, 2009: e133).

3.2 Zheng’s analysis points to the intersecting dimensions of party-state hegemony that I have categorised in terms of transactional sexual relations, filiality and the market economy. However, rather than viewing sex workers as exemplifying ‘bad sense’ in relation to dominant norms and structures that require transformative rupture, it might be useful to note the ways that hegemony is contested by a range of actors in multiple and historically specific fields and dimensions.

3.3 Viewing filiality as a component of a timeless over-determining patriarchy that allows for continuing exploitation of daughters by families, I would argue, reduces it to its oppressive character, missing the reciprocity and tempered altruism involved in the good sense of its contemporary relational reinvention. Adherence to relational filiality cannot be reduced to gendered  ‘false consciousness’ for family members may be critical of welfare inadequacies and patriarchal relations whilst still pursuing filial responsibilities. While such countervailing tendencies might be considered in Gramscian terms of ‘contradictory consciousness’ (Sum, 2017), they might also be regarded as evidencing a kind of reflexive consciousness in which subjects renegotiate their normative positions in light of party-state power and their multidimensional stratification.

3.4 Transactional sex and rural-to-urban hypergamy strategies increase young women’s income or access to resources and sometimes empower their ability to fulfill filial responsibilities (Zhang, 2012:100).  Zheng (2009: 152) suggested that migrant sex workers in Dalian typically spent “about half of what they earned” to support their families, and notes their avowed pride in their ability to support their parents and other family members. These are shifts from vertical authoritative to horizontal reciprocal relations of care with parents and, correspondingly, towards improved perceptions of the value of daughters.  As Zheng (2009:x) recounts, for example, mothers relinquished authoritative control, came to advocate the single independence of their daughters as preferable to the trap of rural marriage, and developed tolerance of non-traditional expressions of gender. These strategies may yield access to the benefits of urban citizenship that is not possible within the realm of so-called ‘white’ relations for women from rural and rural-migrant backgrounds. That the losers in these wars of position may include poor rural village and rural-migrant young men who are neglected as ‘bare sticks’ points to legacies of intersectional inequality in the late imperial, republican and Maoist eras that cannot be reduced to a male-dominant form of over-determining patriarchy.

Honda factory protesters
Protestors at the Honda factory strike,  Zhongshan                              photo by Arianna Lindquist, New York Times,  June 10, 2010

3.5 In terms of the hegemony of the market economy, the so-called ‘black-grey’ spectrum of sexual relations points to the excessive inequity of the commodification common to all forms of social reproduction, including sexual relations, and in which many are intersectionally excluded from the benefits of sufficient citizenship. It is subordination as rural residents and migrant workers that those involved in commodified sex and industrial protest resist (see Tsang, 2017b; So, 2014), not the comparatively advantageous conditions of a sex work economy, including advantages of employing attractiveness towards hypergamic ends.  There is here a form of gender protest refusing relations on subordinate terms in favour of independence or recognition of greater value. Reform era commodification including, for example, mid-to-high end sex work and brideprice paid to the bride (rather than her parents) has involved a partial shift away from the realms of exploitation for male profit towards women’s use of their capital for their own projects.

3.6 The engagement of rural migrant women across the spectrum of sexual relations involves contestation of social, economic and, ultimately, political subordination. These projects contest subordination in multiple dimensions, seeking economic redistribution, and refusing misrepresentation. This is the case, for example, of young male and female sex workers refusing rural and urban subordination. Female migrants seek to overcome the subordination of women’s rural lives.6 Both male and female migrants have often first worked in menial service and construction jobs in cities, and the move to sex work represents a refusal of the shameful ‘dead-end paths’ of urban labour regimes that incorporate unbearably long hours with low pay (Kong, 2012; see also Zheng, 2009:x; Jeffreys, 2015: 99), and the near-impossibility of achieving the benefits and agency of urban citizenship (particularly when non-graduates). In the case of the female sex workers of Dalian, the ability to transcend that abject state was a source of pride, and the subject of envy and admiration among male peers and female relatives stuck in more subordinate socio-economic positions, even as such views were conterminous with moral condemnation (Zheng, 2009; x, x).

3.7 The frequency of such refusals of subordination in low-end work and abject (rural-rural) major marriage correspond to workers’ refusals of maldistribution misrecognition and misrepresentation. Sex work and mass incidents might both be considered forms of anti-hegemonic resistance: strikes and protests are “unharmonious” while sex work is represented as being “improper”. As Zheng (2009: x,x) observes, migrant sex workers contest moralizing views of sex work as improper, arguing that all sexual relations are commodified.  Sex workers’ refusal of mainstream society’s right to denigrate their work as immoral involves the argument that moralists should first reflect on the criteria for their own “white” relations: only if these were actually free of the inequitable commodification that unfairly stratifies relational competition would it make sense to draw a line between “white” and darker shades of relationships. Arguably, like rural migrants seeking ‘hypergamic’ relations with urban residents rather than marriage to rural men, what sex workers such as those interviewed by Zheng (2009; 12, x) were refusing was not romantic attachment in itself, but relations made on a socially abject basis of low-paid jobs, poverty, and social subordination, and temporary relations made on the basis of insufficient price. Sex work is thus analogous to migrant workers’ “unharmonious” industrial protest in its temporary refusal of participation in a structurally inequitable field  — the field of “proper sexual relations” — which, like the field of industrial relations, has also been inequitably stratified by the hekou-suzhe system (Sum, 2017).

3.8 To what degree do these forms of resistance bear an affirmative or transformative relationship to party-state hegemonic formations in the intersecting fields of sexual relations, filiality and the market economy? The multidimensional contests of those involved in commodified sexual relations represent a bottom-up social equality war-of-position, coterminous with the state’s top-down passive revolution involving improved social rights, economic growth and the freedoms of consumer society, improved industrial relations and the accommodation between market opening and filiality.

3.9 Anti-hegemonic resistance of intersectionally-subordinate subjects has led to a series of consent-focussed accommodations on the part of the party-state, along with a reiteration of coercive repression. Accommodations have included .local and widespread regulation and tolerance of sex work, measures of mediation and containment in industrial relations, amelioration of rural inequality and some extension of universalist welfare.  Coercive measures have included the (sporadic) criminalisation and pathologising of “prostitution”, crushing of independent industrial protest, enforcement of the hekou-suzhi system, and restrictive (and punitive) regulation of social and mainstream media. Where the accommodations work to limit the range and intensity of social instability and protest, coercive measures serve to limit possible forms of resistance and protest.

3.10 In between resistance and passive re-incorporation lies changing and uneven forms of intersectional subjectivity. Sexuality is marked by increased recognition of the commodification of the wider range of relations, filial piety has been transformed into relational filiality and tempered altruism, and worker protests are marked by a growing class-and-gendered consciousness that vascilates between legal accommodations and extra legal forms of protest, as well as between cellular economic issues and wider forms of class, gendered and collective awareness.


  1. @para 1.4  A “class in itself” exists as a historical reality. A “class for itself” has acquired consciousness of its identity and possesses a capacity to act on this basis (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy; Bendix and Lipset, 1967).
  2. @para 1.1 Note Ruth Lister’s (2007) explanation.
  3. @ para 2.1.5 As discussed below, this perspective re-illuminates histories of the transformation of transactional sexual relations in the Maoist era: alongside the elimination of brothel-based prostitution there continued the extraction of (sexual) surplus value unmediated by commodification.
  4. @para 2.2.4 Welfare entitlements vary from province to province, with some like Gansu providing none at all.
  5. @para 2.3.13 Wang and Nehring note, for example, that more than 40% of Beijing marriages involve a male urban resident and female waidiren (rural migrant).
  6. @para 3.6 Zheng (2009)  observed that the desperation of such lives had led to high levels of rural female suicide (fieldwork, 1999-2004; See also, Wu, 2011). Sommers (2015:7) similarly notes that suicide rates were historically particularly high among rural young women (see also, Wolf, 1975:112).


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