Chinese Workers in the COVID-19 Era

2:00 pm–3:45 pm

  • Organised by Giles Guiheux
  • Giles Guiheux, Chair
  • Ke Huang, “Food Delivery Platform during the Covid-19 Crisis in China: ‘Job Reservoir’ and Its New ‘Always-Online workers’”
  • Manon Laurent, “Care Work in China during the Pandemic”
  • Renyou Hou, “Chinese Migrant Workers at the Time of Covid-19”
  • Ye Guo, “Covid-19 and the Digitalisation of the Publishing Sector in China”
  • Jun Li, “Liuxue in the Context of the Health Crisis: A Revised Social Norm?”
  • Giles Guiheux, Discussant

Discussions are lively in Europe on the impact of the pandemic on employees, either so-called essential workers kept at their workstations or those confined to their homes and remote working. During Spring 2020, our research seminar at Université de Paris, originally scheduled to analyse recently collected materials on Chinese workers switched to the study of the immediate consequences of the health crisis. Preliminary results have been published on two digital academic platforms. Our 2021 Spring seminar continues this enquiry and an EACS panel would give us a unique opportunity to share our results.

Before the health crisis, China had been facing slower economic growth and rising unemployment and the labour market was going through major restructuring – a growing number of flexible workers, temporary workers and trainees, an increasing share of services which represent the majority of new blue-collar jobs, in trade, personal care or the platform economy. Then came COVID-19. In late January 2020, people were urged to stay at home, and the majority of businesses closed. Workers were at risk of losing their jobs or had to accept reduced working hours, furlough, or extended leave, paid or unpaid. The COVID-19 crisis has severely affected the employment of women and migrant workers employed in the hardest-hit sectors -such as accommodation and catering or the textile industry. At the same time, the digitalization of the economy has accelerated, to the benefit of the Chinese Internet giants. And the crisis has also revealed a number of “invisible” actors, such as street cleaners or deliverymen. The development of staff-loaning schemes between companies has also been highlighted as one possible way to stabilize the labour market. At the same time, platform enterprises have relied more heavily than ever on precarious workers who are paid by the job, have no protection in the event of an accident, and are generally not entitled to any social benefits. Chinese capitalism has left some workers, mainly migrants from rural areas, without protection, and this irregularity has intensified.

The situation that has developed for Chinese workers in the COVID-19 era is not unique to the People’s Republic. What is specific to China, is the simultaneous coexistence of both commercial and political logics. In today’s China, the social-control institutions – such as the Communist Party, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, and the residents’ committees have found volunteers and helped companies to recruit replacement workers

during the crisis. China is facing immense challenges in terms of employment and the crisis has only served to highlight that the country’s political logics, which aim at social control, coexist with market logics, which seek to serve the powerful interests to Chinese capitalism. All contributors to the panel will deal with an important epistemological issue for social scientists working on contemporary China: as we are prevented from conducting field surveys, how can we carry our research? What kind of resources can we access and how reliable are they? The panel therefore intends to discuss what it means to carry remote surveys when we have no other choice, using materials coming from the media and online sources such as discussion forums, blogs, videos etc.

Ke Huang, “Food Delivery Platform during the Covid-19 Crisis in China: ‘Job Reservoir’ and Its New ‘Always-Online workers’

circumstances, many unemployed workers in these two industries have seen a turning point in their career paths and entered the platform economy. The Chinese food delivery platform, Meituan (美团), was known as the “job reservoir” (jiuye xushuichi, 就业蓄水池) after the health crisis. According to Meituan (2020), its active delivery workers reached 2.952 million, of which 1.386 million active deliverymen had joined Meituan in the first six months of 2020. Among these new delivery workers, 35.2% were originally factory workers, 31.4% were entrepreneurs or small businessmen, 17.8% were white-collar workers, and 17.4% were salespeople. During the fieldwork, we noted this great heterogeneity among the unemployed who enter the platform economy. The motivations for doing this job are linked to the specificities of this work system. After becoming delivery workers, their experience of working time changed dramatically. On the platform, deliverymen feel “free”: unlike their previous jobs – for example, factory workers have to follow strict work disciplines, and the time to go to work and leave work is well regulated, the start and end time of platform work is no longer fixed, working hours are uncertain and even whether going to work or not is determined by themselves. If the clock and the watch brought the shift from “task orientation” to “clock orientation”, algorithms have made “task-oriented work” back again and blurred the lines between private time and working time of delivery workers, who have become a kind of “always-online worker.”

This study is based on an ethnographic survey of food delivery workers in 3 cities (Xiamen, Shenzhen & Guangzhou) of China from April to October 2020. The data were collected in participant observations, in-depth interviews, and online ethnography. This presentation, focusing on the delivery workers who have experienced changes in their work in the crisis context, examines the impacts of the pandemic on the Chinese platform workers’ career paths and the changes in their working time experiences at the time of Covid-19.

Manon Laurent, “Care Work in China during the Pandemic

In most countries around the world during a short or long period some form of lockdown measures has been enforced to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown measures mean that the population is confined to the house or apartment and going outside is restricted. However, houses and apartments are not just geographical location, but also social spaces. During the pandemic the private sphere and the public sphere were colluded in the same space, our “home”. The lockdown has visibilised care work as the private and public were confined in the same space. Thus, we have seen uninvited toddlers on news broadcasting during guest interviews. In this paper, I examine the consequences of the lockdown measures on the work-family balance? More specifically I look into the social reproduction crisis7 during the pandemic in China. In our neoliberal societies, the private sphere is often considered as a black box, where the workforce is reproduced and regenerated, where social reproduction is happening. In China, in the last decades, due to the reduction of public investment, care work has been familiarised and commodified. During the pandemic, the lockdown suppressed the remaining public support to childcare that is schools; the little commodified in-home care work was also extinguished as the domestic workers were confined in their home village. Finally, the support of the extended family was difficult to mobilize, due to travel restriction inside of China.

In urban China, the lockdown had two main consequences on care work: on the one side domestic workers who went back to their home village for the Lunar New Year never came back to the cities; on the other side in the urban centres middle-class household re-organized life at home and it usually fell on the mother to take on childcare responsibility and to supervise online schooling. When possible, the elders were also mobilized to help out with care work, in particular with household chores.

Based on the analysis of online testimonies, I examine the transformations of care work during the pandemic in China, I focus on the challenges shared online mostly by women, the solutions which were suggested and the debates which arose. I assume that care work challenges were dealt with differently across social classes. The pandemic has reshuffled the cards of the care work dependence chains, as the urban middle class could not outsource household chores and childcare to domestic workers.

Renyou Hou, “Chinese Migrant Workers at the Time of Covid-19

In 2020, the total number of Chinese migrant workers exceeded 290 million, constituting the main strength of China’s labour market. The arrival of covid-19 has further impacted the career path of migrant workers. On the one hand, some enterprises have been forced to lay off a number of their employees due to the shrinking market and reduced orders, on the other hand, some migrant workers choose to stay in their hometowns for work opportunities instead of returning to urban areas.

Based on a study of press articles, government reports and discussions in online forums, this presentation aims to examine the issues and challenges that Chinese migrant workers face in the era of Covid-19, and more particularly, to explore two main axes. The first axis concerns the employment opportunities of migrant workers who have decided not to migrate to the city, some of whom have started their own businesses through e-commerce and livestream sales. The second axis focuses on the living and working conditions of migrant workers in urban areas, where the overall supply of jobs in the labour market has decreased and the industries that attract mostly young migrant workers have been severely affected by the pandemic: catering and accommodation, entertainment, transport, manufacturing, etc.

Ye Guo, “Covid-19 and the Digitalisation of the Publishing Sector in China”

All around the world the publishing industry has suffered from the detrimental impact of Covid-19, the Chinese publishing sector is no exception, but at the same time it shows some characteristics in its short-term reactions to the pandemic and in its gradual transformation in the general context of digitalisation.

Mainly based on academic articles and press articles, this study aims at analysing how the publishing sector tried adjusted itself to difficult circumstances by innovating and responding to social, political and geopolitical incentives. During the first three months after the outbreak of Covid-19, in spite of the lockdown of many cities, 560 book titles about the pandemic have been published by 244 Chinese publishing houses. Some of these books were commercialized in multiple forms: paper book, electronic book, audio book and multimedia book. This reveals that the question of publishing digitalization is especially important for many actors in China: it may help to reach a larger group of readers, to ensure access to textbooks for children staying at home, to provide online medical consultation by connecting an ebook to doctors, to pursue government’s intention to “overtake on a corner” (wandao chaoche 弯道超车) in the world publishing industry, and to pursue its international cultural ambitions within the framework of the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” as well as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, especially through book translation projects. In this context, Chinese editors are witnessing the acceleration of the long-term evolution of their role, as many have to undertake new forms of activities such as hosting live-streaming sales or organizing social media readers’ groups. Behind these trends, we may find two major driving forces: a guideline established in 2015 by the Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, promoting the integration of traditional publishing sectors and new media actors; more and more Chinese choose to read digital content, with a total number of 470 million digital readers according to the 2019 White Paper on Digital Reading in China. So Chinese publishers have no other choices but to digitalize, and the Covid-19 seems to make them more determined than ever.

Jun Li, “Liuxue in the Context of the Health Crisis: A Revised Social Norm?”

Studying abroad can be a strategy for class reproduction. Fifteen years ago, the Chinese elites, top Party bureaucrats and successful business owners, were sending the grown-up kids abroad to study and sometimes settle; wealthy Chinese elites were striving to become members of the global elites. In the 2010s, liuxue 留学 became a more and more common pattern among members of the middle classes. It can be even considered as a social norm that middle class teenagers depart to study abroad. They don’t necessarily look for a diploma from a top global university, or up-dated skills not yet available in Chinese academic institutions but may go abroad just to be exposed to an unfamiliar environment. If some have indeed acquired scientific knowledge, others have learned soft skills. It can be assumed that in both cases, class reproduction is at stake. Families are concerned about upgrading, or at least, maintaining their social status. This communication will look at how the health crisis may have altered this normative model. According to a survey carried by Zhilian zhaopai, a job advertisement website, in 2020, the number of liuxuesheng applying for a job within China has increased by 67,3 per cent. 50 % of the surveyed declared they are willing to come back to China because of the pandemic. Liuxuesheng may be eager to change their plans and return because they feel safer in their native country, or because of the declining prospects of finding a job abroad. In a context of tense international relations, many Chinese families may give up plans to send their kids abroad. Based on available surveys, and on a collection of individual testimonials collected in the media and on social networks, we will try to assess if the health crisis is indeed a turning point.

Practices and Imaginaries of ‘Ecological Civilisation’ in Contemporary China

9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room 5

  • Organised by Yulia Mylnikova and Jessica Imbach
  • Chaired by Yulia Mylnikova
  • Jessica Imbach, “Eco-Futurism in Chinese Science Fiction”
  • Lena Kaufmann, “Linking Farm Chemicals and Migration: A Socio-Technical Perspective on the Practical Hurdles to an ‘Ecological Civilisation’ in China”
  • Yulia Mylnikova, “The Prospects of ‘Eco-Youths’ in China”
  • Polina Rysakova, “China’s Eco-Tourism in Post Covid Times”
  • Edward Vickers, Discussant

This panel brings together five scholars of China from fields including anthropology, environmental humanities, history, and social studies to discuss China’s contradictory pursuit of global leadership towards a low-carbon, resilient ecological future. Four of the panelists will present their research on a wide range of issues, including sustainability-oriented practices, techniques and policy applications, and representations and imaginaries of a green future in relation to the question of “ecological civilisation.” What are the approaches to the concept and practice of ecological civilisation in contemporary China? What are the perspectives and policy applications for resilient green futures in China in the century of climate change? Such questions are especially relevant these days, as the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated questions of planetary livelihood. What seemed to be a secure vision of the future ~ urban, smart, green, connected, equitable ~ has been called into question. Have cities become more risky? Have rural spaces become more valuable? Focusing on the entanglements of ecology, economic development and cultural practices, this panel interrogates, the most pressing issues, practices, and imaginaries at hand in engagements with the environment and ecological change in China.

Jessica Imbach, “Eco-Futurism in Chinese Science Fiction

A green future has become a central promise of the Chinese state and the environment is playing an increasingly important role in China’s bid to promote itself as a political alternative to the West. While state environmentalism and its promotion of “ecological civilisation” (shengtai wenming ⽣态⽂明) have so far proven more aligned with economic and political interests rather than environmental goals, negotiations of Chinese eco-futurism are also taking place in contemporary culture production, notably science fiction. Taking science fiction by Liu Cixin, Han Song, and Hao Jingfang, among others, as its point of departure, this paper interrogates the historical, aesthetic, and political underpinnings of Chinese futurology from both local and global perspectives. As a state promoted sector of the Chinese creative industries, science fiction reflects the symbolic and economic importance of science and technology to China’s growth and self-image. But as a dynamically developing protocol of literary production and cultural expression, science fiction also foregrounds the social agency of technology within the Chinese cultural sphere. This paper probes into recent articulations of eco-futurism in science fiction to analyse the situated entanglements of the technological and the ecological in Chinese discourses of the Anthropocene.

Lena Kaufmann, “Linking Farm Chemicals and Migration: A Socio-Technical Perspective on the Practical Hurdles to an ‘Ecological Civilisation’ in China”

During the recent Anti- This paper investigates the social and environmental implications of (post-)Green Revolution technologies, in particular farm chemicals. Due to government promotion, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has risen from almost zero before the 1950s to environmentally alarming amounts today. In Hunan province alone, this has contributed to the contamination of three quarters of the rice fields. As a response, in 2015 the central government announced the Zero-Growth Action Plan for Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides, a target which was reportedly reached ahead of time in 2017. Nevertheless, China still uses more farm chemicals than any other country in the world. Based on written and ethnographic data from Hunan and taking into account the farmers’ perspectives, this paper explores some of the socio-technical rationales behind farmers’ use of farm chemicals. It shows that, while many interviewed farmers also used organic farming methods for the food grown for personal consumption, when it came to marketing, they generally seemed not to be concerned much with concepts such as “ecological civilisation.” Instead, they had much more practical concerns. The paper argues that farm chemicals play an important role in farmers’ household strategies in the context of rural-urban migration. In view of environmental protection, this implies that if related policies are to be successful, policy makers need to take a much broader perspective on the issue and include areas such as migration, rather than merely focusing on the reduction of farm chemicals alone.

Yulia Mylnikova, “The Prospects of ‘Eco-Youths’ in China

This paper will explore the prospects for a sustainable future for Chinese villages from an environmental point of view and the role of young people in this process. Over recent years, young Chinese women and men have become increasingly disillusioned with the gruelling work conditions, society’s expectations and never-ending competition that constitutes living in the country’s major cities, leading many to adopt a range of alternative lifestyles—from extreme saving, to “going back to nature” and alternative food networks. Environmental concerns in general have received an extra impetus from the COVID-19 crisis, which has caused many in China to review their priorities and question society’s overwhelming focus on economic growth. Despite reports of food safety and quality scandals, China has a rapidly expanding green agriculture and food sector. It’s a new movement focused on ecological agriculture and quality food. Eco-farms enthusiasts, NGOs, farmers’ markets, alternative food networks are initiated by diversely motivated groups of primarily young, university-educated people, who returned from the city with knowledge and ideas they gained from their urban experience. These «new farmers» born after 1980, and therefore raised after the «reform and opening» to the West, never experienced famines, collectivized farms, food rationing, or rural hardship of the Mao era, as their parents did. Will these new trends in society become the prelude to an alternative rural modernity that leads to a more fundamental rural development paradigm shift in China? How will the youth of China approach the many challenges and possibilities of an ecological civilisation?

Polina Rysakova, “China’s Eco-Tourism in Post Covid Times

Last several decades China’s government at different levels put much emphasis at developing so-called eco-tourism. Since 1990s China was striving to launch various programs to implement eco-tourism plans. Recently political agenda concerning “construction of ecological civilisation,” “beautiful China” provided a new impetus for these plans. Today the development of eco-tourism in China is guided by newly derived plan for 2016–2025 years, which gives priority to the following areas—Mangang Eco-tourism Area in the Northeast Plain, Eco-tourism area in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, Northern Desert and Grassland Eco-tourism Area, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Eco-tourism Area, Eco-tourism area in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, Eastern Plain Hilly Eco-tourism Area, Eco-tourism area of the Pearl River Basin. However, for many years China’s eco-tourism development was criticized for undistinguished resemblance with mass tourism, while the main purpose of tourism activities were related to economic gains rather that principles of ecological protection in the highly developed Eastern part of the country with high population density. But we can suppose that this situation can change in the nearest future in post-Covid reality. First of all today’s ecotourism is intertwined with economic programs for poverty reduction and overall development of remote countryside regions. It goes hand by hand with rural tourism to small places. Besides the main attitudes of Chinese customers have also change, as many tourists strive to visit new authentic little known places. Finally, virtual online “cloud tourism” to small remote places also serves as an attractor for real visiting.

The Xi Administration and Governance Reforms

Changes and Challenges
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room A

  • Organised by Congrui Qiao
  • Congrui Qiao, Chair
  • Congrui Qiao, “Regulating Government Sanctions on the ‘Untrustworthy’: An Inquiry into Internal and External Controls”
  • Straton Papagianneas, “Automated Justice and the Idea of Fairness in the PRC”
  • Adam Knight, “Going Viral: COVID-19 and the Road to China’s Social Credit Law”

The Chinese State Governance has featured several far-reaching changes since the inception of Xi Jinping administration in 2013. Whereas an increasing application of data technologies has improved efficiency and efficacy of China’s State governance, critics submit that an unprecedented scale-up of ‘smart’ governance by State organs is more menacing than auspicious.

In respect of the government functioning, the ‘Pilot Zones for Big Data Integration’ have been set up in both developed regions (e.g. Beijing and Tianjin) and under-developed ones (such as Guizhou) that is experimenting the ‘smart government’ that will be able to utilise economic and social data in optimising government decisions. As regards the judiciary functioning, the Supreme Court in Beijing has announced the national plan to ‘smartise’ judicial processes where court decisions will be ultimately automated and human interference will be minimal.

In light of these recent and rapid developments, we shall focus on two of the most important areas of State governance: the judiciary and the government. More specifically, we will make sense of major normative and instrumental changes to the judicial system and the government over the past decade, and examine whether and to which extent they have ensured both effectiveness and fairness in adopting these changes.

Congrui Qiao, “What Constitutes A Riddle? On the Notions of Chinese ‘Riddles’ in Imperial Chinese Sources and their Understanding by ‘Modern’ Western Scholars”

Digitalisation offers opportunities for the State governance to function ‘smart’, and at the same time, poses challenges to the protection of personal rights. It is particularly topical in the context of the implementation of the Social Credit System (“SCS”) in China. While the European Union has adopted a prudent approach to the processing of personal information as exemplified in the enforcement of the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, China’s approach seems different.

Several implementations of the SCS are currently high-profile in the news and academic debates, a most controversial one being the sanction on the ‘untrustworthy’ (shi xin ren/失信人). This widely applied mechanism of publicising personal information and restricting economic and social activities of the ‘untrustworthy’ alleges to punish and deter credit breaches.

It, however, remains unclear whether the government decision to sanction the ‘untrustworthy’ is lawful and subject to internal and external regulations? To answer that question, two points will be examined in my paper: first, legal bases for the government to impose sanctional decisions on the ‘untrustworthy’ (i.e., lawful grounds and scopes); and, second, regulatory mechanisms for reviewing the government’s sanctional decisions on the ‘untrustworthy’ and addressing complaints thereof (i.e., the review and appeal procedures). For each point, I shall study relevant law and regulation adopted by the State, as well as major cases rising from the implementation phase. I will conclude with some remarks on the consistency of internal and external control norms and their implementations.

Straton Papagianneas, “Automated Justice and the Idea of Fairness in the PRC”

The digitalisation and automation of the judiciary, also known as judicial informatisation, (司法信息化) has been ongoing for two decades in the PRC. The latest development is the emergence of “smart courts” (智慧法院), which are part of the Chinese party-state’s efforts to reform and modernise its judiciary. These are legal courts where the judicial process is conducted digitally, and judicial officers use technological applications sustained by algorithms and big-data analytics. The end-goal is to create a judicial decision-making process that is fully conducted in an online judicial ecosystem where the majority of tasks are automated and opportunities for human discretion or interference are minimal. This article asks how automation and digitalisation might influence judicial fairness in the PRC?

First, it discusses the Chinese conception of judicial fairness through a literature review. It finds that the utilitarian conception of fairness is a reflection of the inherently legalist and instrumentalist vision of law. This is turn, also influences the way innovations, such as judicial automation are assessed. Then, it contextualises the policy of ‘building smart courts,’ launched in 2017, which aimed to automate and digitalise the judicial process. The policy is part of a larger reform drive that aims to recentralise judicial power and standardise judicial decision-making.

Next, it analyses how automation and digitalisation have changed the judicial process, based on court and media reports of smart court applications. The final section discusses the implications of automation and digitalisation for judicial fairness in the PRC. The article argues that, within the utilitarian conceptualisation of justice and law, automated justice can indeed be considered fair because it improves the quality of procedures to the extent that they facilitate the achievement of the political goals of judicial reform and the judiciary in general.

This article is preliminary in the sense that it is based on government documentation acquired through the Internet. Therefore, the conclusions of this article should not be understood as final. They are arguments on the development of algorithmic governance and judicial automation that will have to be tested in further fieldwork-based research in the PRC itself.

Adam Knight, “Going Viral: COVID-19 and the Road to China’s Social Credit Law”

As the scale of the governance challenge brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, the Chinese state mobilised a wide variety of governing tools at its disposal, including the Social Credit System (SCS). The system was adapted both to assist in pandemic-fighting efforts as well as to mitigate harm arising from its continued operation in unforeseen circumstances. Updates to social credit blacklisting systems were issued, points scoring mechanisms were adapted and a raft of local legislation pushed the SCS further into citizens’ lives than ever before.

Yet just as in government at large, the pandemic also provided a stress test for the SCS. The crisis further highlighted and even exacerbated many of the issues that have plagued the SCS since its launch. Its fragmentation on the one hand ensures flexibility and adaptability, but also makes national or even regional interoperability awkward and even impossible. New debates around the applicability and even legality of the SCS surfaced. Many of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 response are evident in the subsequent development of China’s Social Credit Law (at the time of writing, this law was under review and due to be announced imminently). Drawing on central and local government documents as well as media reporting, this article reviews both the short-term and long-term development prospects of the SCS with particular emphasis on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on governance in China.