Yan, H. (2013). “What If Your Client/Employer Treats Her Dog Better Than She Treats You? Market Militarism and Market Humanism in Postsocialist Beijing.” pp. 150-173, in Ann Anagnost et al (eds) (2013) Global Futures in East Asia: Youth, Nations, and the New Economy in Uncertain Times. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ Press
In her essay, “What If Your Client/Employer Treats Her Dog Better Than She Treats You? Market Militarism and Market Humanism in Postsocialist Beijing” Hairong Yan uses the Beijing Fuping Professional Training School run by economist Mao Yushi as a case study for analyzing the transformative effects neoliberal market principles have had on labor discourse in post-socialist China (p. 153). Neoliberal economic philosophy plays significantly into the objectives of the schooling program for migrant women in preparing them for domestic work in Beijing. Students are taught to see their labor as a commodity to be exchanged in the open market which acts as the final arbiter in determining their labor quality—and therefore their success or failure (p. 158). The neoliberal transformation of “weak-powered” rural migrants requires adoption of a militaristic approach to entrepreneurship (e.g. self-discipline and competitiveness) and cultivation of a positive attitude no matter how demeaning the work might be (p. 160).
The Fuping school, argues Yan, promotes the values of “market humanism,” which creates a binary identity composed of the commodified “thinglike you” with the self-determining “bosslike you” (p. 167). While their neoliberal education is meant to empower the migrant women through enhancing their competitiveness in the open market, it invariably subjects them “to the power and agency of elites to govern, discipline, and shape” their personhood (p. 171). Yet, neoliberal principles run counter to the tendency of rural migrants to see themselves as revolutionaries opposed to the class-based oppression embodied in market humanism. The Beijing Fuping Professional Training School embodies the contradictions of the reform era in its relationship to labor, capital, and humanism.
Hairong Yan’s analysis of the Beijing Fuping Professional Training School presents a creative, intriguing interpretation of the intersecting worlds representing distinct phases of China’s development. Her article highlights the difficulty in maintaining a space for genuine humanistic development in view of the utilitarian market humanism of the neoliberal order. Yan’s narrative is compelling, even though the narrative comes out a bit convoluted as it breaks in and out of discussion of disjointed topics (such as militaristic entrepreneurship, market humanism, and voluntarism) at points without obvious transitions. Beyond the slightly disjointed structure, two main frailties of her argument stand out: the limited scope of Yan’s case study, and her subjective interpretation of what is happening at the Fuping school.
It could be argued that Yan’s discursive rendering of the political economic and philosophical elements at play in the Fuping school is overly deductive. While insightful, her analysis remains a stand-alone case based not on broad empirical evidence from a network of similar educational enterprises but rather on one case study in one region of China. This leaves her argument vulnerable to questions over its applicability to the overall Chinese situation as well as of her argument’s defensibility. Yan could have based her analysis on a broader set of case studies evaluated on a common set of criteria, such as identifying the neoliberal principles at work in each school, surveying student attitudes directly, identifying why migrants come for training, and tracking trends in student growth before and after training. A broader empirical basis for Yan’s work would lend greater credibility to her philosophical analysis.
The interpretation Yan offers regarding the role of neoliberalism in the Fuping school is subjective. While neoliberal principles may factor into the global context in which the training program is situated, the school itself may lie far enough isolated from neoliberal market forces as to negate the applicability of the neoliberal principles around which the program is designed. The founder, Mao Yushi, advocates for neoliberalism and incorporates neoliberal principles into the school’s curriculum—but that does not necessarily mean the students either internalize neoliberal formation or that their future employment and success results from neoliberal training. It remains a possibility for students graduating from the school to be completely impervious to its ideological principles and yet still attain success. The inherent contradictions embodied in the school’s design combined with migrant rurality, provide an interesting case study; however, a more relevant discussion Yan could have offered might be based around how the Fuping school demonstrates the irrelevance of neoliberal training for migrant women in achieving their objectives.
It could also be argued that the underlying economic principles undergirding the Fuping school are not necessarily neoliberal at all, despite its design. Instead, the school may simply represent a pragmatic effort to fulfill the demands for job training needed in view of employment opportunities previously unavailable to migrant workers. The economic framework which the school fits into may be better described as solidly neoclassical. Perhaps the underlying contradiction lies not between market humanism and rural labor, but rather between neoliberal ideology and neoclassical practice. Yan’s work could have focused on a broader set of case studies to support her argument. And she could have outlined competing interpretations of the Fuping school’s existence in order to set her analysis apart.
My research suggestions follow the above outline of the weaknesses in Yan’s overall argument. I would explore other, similar cases of schooling offered to migrant women that prepare them for transition into the urban economy. Important questions would be: what factors do such training centers have in common? What industries do they prepare migrants to work in and how do their curriculums represent departures from the socialist past? What can we conclude about the existence of such training centers as responses to the demands of the transitioning economy of the reform period? Answers to such questions would help exhibit the Fuping school within the broader trends showcased in China’s political economic affairs.
I would also explore other possible interpretations of the philosophical and political-economic matrices which characterize the Fuping school. Despite Mao Yushi’s favorability toward neoliberalism, does the school truly showcase a neoliberal model? Does the focus on neoliberalism mask the true nature of the institution as one governed by neoclassical economic principles or perhaps by something else? What are the other economic or philosophical arguments that might offer viable alternative interpretations to the situation unfolding at Fuping? These questions remain unanswered.