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.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 6
Late-Breaking Session