Developmental Politics and Everyday Life
: Working and Aspiring on Taohua Street

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Studies of class in China have proliferated in the social sciences since economic reform began in the late 1970s. These studies tend to describe labour trends quantitatively or from governance and policy angles. A smaller critical qualitative literature focuses primarily on exploitation and labour organising in industrial settings. It has made important contributions to understanding class in contemporary China, but its roots in Marxist class analysis have resulted in neglect of workers outside traditional working-class settings like factories or construction sites.
This thesis takes this omission as its starting point to explore other kinds of class experience and politics. Instead of an agonistic industrial politics forged from conscious class solidarity, I argue for attention to the slow, ordinary and non-teleological politics through which differentiated classed experiences emerge. These class experiences are an agglomeration of affordances, feelings and senses of possibility and probability. The conception of class that results contrasts with the predetermined classed subjectivities of Marxist analysis based on relations to the means of production.
The setting for this thesis is a market street in a declining section of a small Chinese city. The traders of ‘Taohua Street’ are internally heterogeneous, but they share commonalities, which I conceptualise in terms of aspiration and precarity, the expansion of labour and practices of self-formation. These traders’ aspirations, nurtured by living in an environment that makes a bright future feel inevitable, are limited by the disappointments they face on the way. The resulting precarity tempers aspiration within a sense of what is realistic to want. At the same time, the pressure of aspiration and a tumultuous economy lead to the infiltration of labour into more and more of these traders’ lives, and the infiltration of capital into their relationships. But as self-employed entrepreneurs, there is no boss to blame for their overwork, and no agonistic politics can ensue. I argue instead for another view of class politics based on practices of self-formation. The traders of Taohua Street make their difficult presents liveable by working on behalf of objects of their love: their children, their neighbours, their communities and the nation as a whole. In doing so, they reform subjectivities around striving not for their own individual futures, but for a collective future instead.
Date of Award21 Jan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorMaria Fannin (Supervisor) & Mark Jackson (Supervisor)

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