Ghost workers: How do people cope with the scar of job loss? A Chinese photographic research project

By Yufan Lu


The neoliberal process with Chinese characteristics (Harvey, 2006: 34) has spanned the last four decades, bringing tremendous changes to society — including the massive employment layoff (xiagang) that involved 70 million state-owned enterprise (SOE) workers (Naughton: 2008, 121). As the Chinese rock band Omnipotent Youth Society sang in “Kill That Man from Shijiazhuang”, which tells the story of an ordinary Chinese worker: “Been living like this for thirty years, until the edifice collapsed.” This lyric encapsulated the experience of the workers who lost everything the government had tacitly promised them under the all-encompassing work unit (danwei) system: lifetime employment and the attendant social, economic and political life.

My parents were laid-off in Tianjin, an industrial city in northern China. I could feel the impact of the job losses on ordinary workers despite being only a child. However, compared with the omnipresent suffering, it is now perhaps the oblivion that is most poignant. It has only been one to two decades since the mass layoffs, but the world seems to have happily forgotten them. The collective muteness of the laid-off workers, as Charlesworth wrote, “falling like snow, erasing the pathways through which we might return, once again, to the village of our being” (2000: 5), appears to me to have fallen into a causal loop of modern society’s amnesia and the effacement of the material grounds that memory depends on. The “acceleration of history” (Nora, 1996: 1) overwrites the old layers with new in the urban space, but in contrast to the temporality of the space are the laid-off workers trapped by their past like specters.

Pierre Nora wrote that modern memory needs tangible reminders, and relies entirely on “the specificity of the trace, the materiality of the vestige, the concreteness of the recording, the visibility of the image” (Ibid. 1996:8). Thus, the “Ghost Workers” project can hopefully become one piece of the archives that help to preserve the memory of laid-off workers like my parents, about a group of people who are economically powerless and politically dispossessed in modern Chinese society. It would be my honor to practice what Frank has suggested: “Only an ethics or a social science which witnesses suffering is worthy of our energies or our attention.” (Frank, 1991: 64).

The key literature will be focused on the scarring effect of unemployment on individuals’ wellbeing, as well as interrelated discussions on neoliberalism, urban palimpsest and collective memory to draw a picture of the layoff’s impact on laid-off workers as a group. The analysis will be conducted respectively via photographs and conversations. While the visual part mainly responds to the urban palimpsest theory, demonstrating that there might exist obscure corners in the modern society for the laid-off workers’ collective memory to survive, despite the devastating cleansing force of laissez-faire, the transmissions of my participants will complement the images to show their scars, or their concealment of scars, towards layoff after ten to twenty years.


Key Thematics

The Scar of Unemployment

There is a repository of literature on the adverse impact of job loss on a person’s subjective wellbeing (SWB). It demonstrates that unemployment has negative effects on motivation, confidence, self-control and life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2001; Oswald, 1997; Winkelmann & Winkelmann, 1998). The psychological impact may carry on even after re-employment and dissipation of pecuniary pressure, which is identified as the “scarring effect” of unemployment (Clark et al., 2001).

The massive layoff of at least 70 million (Naughton, 2008: 121) urban workers from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) during the neoliberal process in China reached its peak in 1998-2003, after the government issued the layoff scheme “downsizing for efficiency (jianyuan zengxiao)” in 1997. With the unemployment rate surging, China’s SWB value[1] calculated by World Values Survey (WVS) fell to a 2000-2005 trough. Although the value experienced recovery subsequently, it could never reach its past glory (6.85 in 2012 compared with 7.29 in 1990). The two salient determinants of the reduction in SWB value are unemployment and the breakdown of a social safety net (Easterlin et al., 2017). For the laid-off workers, the loss of their “iron rice bowl” jobs also took away the lifetime employment and economic, social and political benefits attached to their all-encompassing work unit (danwei). The government’s departure from its past “mini-welfare state” trajectory (Knight & Song, 2005) meant that those workers would be partially or even fully responsible for their social benefits in the future. The difficulty of finding competitive, or any, re-employment under the structural changes of the labor market associated with de-industrialization (Ostry et al., 2001), in contrast with a concurrent rise in material aspirations (Easterlin et al., 2017), imposed a formidable impediment to their recovery of satisfactory lives.

The plight of the laid-off workers in my project was especially critical. With all of them belonging to the cohort of 1955-1965, by the time of layoff they were around 40 years old. Guo and Chang (2010) pinpointed the “off-time” (Hagestad & Neugarten, 1985) nature of the layoff’s role on this group, who, according to the regular life course trajectory, should be leading a stable and meaningful life at the age of 40. In fact, their normal life course was repeatedly interrupted. Growing up in a time of material shortage, they didn’t have the competitive physical qualities required in the job market; nor were they competitive in education background for their schooling was scattered by the Cultural Revolution (Guo & Chang, 2010: 116-117). All factors considered, they were seriously disadvantaged, if not doomed, in the ruthless re-employment competition, which further deepened the scar of unemployment.

Palimpsest, Urban Specters and Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction

And so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are already blossoming though it is hard to discern them the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1978

Palimpsest, by its definition in the Oxford Dictionary, means “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.” Some studies found a shared nature between cities and palimpsest, believing that the urban space is composed of a layer written on past layers which may still be visible, and will be erased and overwritten by future layers (Huyssen, 2003; Nagel, 2002; Page, 2001). The trope of palimpsest does not mean to deny the materiality of a city. On the contrary, it is the materiality that emphasizes the potential of “an urban imaginary in its temporal reach” to merge “memories of what there was before, imagined alternatives to what there is” in the present space (Huyssen, 2003: 7).

Emerging from the reiteration of the palimpsestic processes in cities are the discourses of the dialectic tensions between memory and history, the “milieux de mémoire” and “lieux de mémoire” (Nora, 1996). As French historian Pierre Nora asserted in his influential work Between Memory and History, when milieux de mémoire — “settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience” — no longer exists, is when the lieux de mémoire — “in which a residual sense of continuity remains” — takes over. Whereas modern memory is in essence archival, dependent primarily on “vague, telescoping reminiscences” and the materiality of the vulnerable vestige, history on the contrary stands for a critical reconstruction of the past that serves certain objectives, conscious or unconscious. Without a tangible reminder preserved by the lieux de mémoire, memory does not exist. As the conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo depicted in Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “Kublai: ‘To Tell the truth, I never think of them.’ Polo: ‘Then they do not exist.’” Thus Nora saw history as a conquering force that “confiscates memory” (Ibid., 1996).

Nora attributes the increasingly enormous distance between memory and history to the “acceleration of history”, which is represented by globalization and the advent of mass culture. Wang (2004: 5) too connected problematic memories with an implication of a society under drastic changes. The modern societies, in this sense,  are subject to amnesia because they need to give way to change.

But whose objectives are to be served by the lieux de mémoire? Who determines what to be included in collective memory and what to be left out? Eric Hobsbawn (1984) designated the invention of the past as a hallmark of modern historiography that serves as a tool of legitimating the elitist nation-state. In his article Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction (2007: 41), David Harvey delineated neoliberalism as an approach to restore and legitimize class power from the standpoint of the ruling elites, or in the case of China and Russia, to construct class dominance at the price of the masses’ wellbeing, albeit disguised in “theoretical utopianism” of individual liberty. The neoliberal process, as Harvey rendered, is hypocritical and profoundly anti-democratic. While some researchers refuse to recognize China as a neoliberal country given its rigid state control over market mechanisms seems to deviate from neoliberalism’s widely acknowledged principle of free trade and prime role of private property (Liew, 2010; Ong, 2007), Harvey’s article reinforced his notion that China is neoliberal by deconstructing neoliberalism itself. This article is complementary to another point made by Harvey a year earlier, in which he termed China’s neoliberal process as “neoliberalization with Chinese characteristics”, mirroring Deng Xiaoping’s rhetorical invention “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Harvey, 2006: 34; Wu, 2010).

The trope of urban palimpsest is echoed by Peck and Tickell’s (2002) suggestion to distinguish the dual phases of neoliberalism, “roll-back” and “roll-out”, with the former standing for destruction of the “Keynesian-welfarist and social-collective institutions” and the latter the construction of neoliberalized orders (Ibid., 2002: 384). Throughout the process it is another round of the urban space being effaced and rewritten. What can be deduced from the above literature is that the new layer would benefit more to the ruling elites’ legitimacy than the old layer. This is especially true in China’s case, as the Chinese government is the performer of both the “roll-back” and “roll-out” (Wu, 2010).

In modern societies subject to amnesia, where memory cannot live without materiality, those who are in the lower strata are left out of not only the current of times but also the possibility of future. After all, how will they be remembered if there is nothing to remember them with? And the crisis is faced by these people both as the content and the actor of remembrance. Maurice Halbwachs wrote in his milestone work On Collective Memory (1992: 40): “The individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group.” Nora (1996) held a similar view: “For the individual, the discovery of roots, of ‘belonging’ to some group, becomes the source of identity, its true and hidden meaning…When memory ceases to be omnipresent, it ceases to be present at all unless some isolated individuals decides to assume responsibility for it.” The uprooting of the disadvantaged collective memory by the overwhelming force of history thus could deprive the individuals of their sense of belonging, lead to a crisis of identity, and turn them into specters floating in the cities.

Memory is such an elusive being that no study can say it has grasped the truth of it. Benjamin’s desperate Angel of History, with his face turning towards the past, “wide-opened” eyes staring at the catastrophe of unceasing piles of rubble, was irresistibly blown into the future by the storm called progress despite his will to pause and piece together the debris (Benjamin, 2005). However, there were also scholars who, like Ban Wang, believed that nostalgia has the power to critique the reigning historical narrative in the present (Wang, 2004). My project on laid-off workers intends not to be put under the premise of either of the theoretical predispositions, but only to preserve even just one fragment of a community that was once prosperous but is now obscure.

Fig.1: Benjamin’s “Angel of History”, in which he found identification from Paul Klee’s drawing “Angelus Novus.”


Research Methods

My project is focused on the laid-off workers in Tianjin, one of the prominent industrial cities in northern China. During the planned economy period, Tianjin was a major force in the country’s manufacturing industry, and was the birthplace of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first telephone, first wristwatch, first camera and first automobile engine in the 1950s (Tianjin Daily, 2016). The coastal city was the second most developed Chinese city after Shanghai during the Republican era (1912-1949). However, despite its favorable geographical conditions, Tianjin’s economic development was severely hampered after 1949 largely due to its proximity to the capital city Beijing. The Blue Book of China’s Regional Economy published in 2006 indicated the “air pressure phenomenon” posed by Beijing on its neighboring Tianjin Municipality and Hebei Province – rather than leading its neighbors to develop jointly, the rapid economic growth in Beijing was sucking resources away from nearby regions. “No grass can grow under a big tree,” as goes an old saying in Chinese (Legal Evening News, 2006). It was not until 2005 when Tianjin Binhai New Area was initiated in China’s economic plan that the city’s economy embarked on a leap, rising as a giant in the high-end manufacturing industry.

Tianjin was among the most severely hit cities when the Chinese government operated the redundancy policy during the SOE reforms. Although the registered job data released by the government (which is widely found of little value by scholars) showed that Tianjin’s unemployment rate never exceeded 4% (, the actual unemployment rate of Tianjin was estimated to be 10.5% in 1999 (Hu, 2002). Regardless of the controversies on the official number of laid-off workers, growing up in Tianjin, I remember how viral the word “layoff (xiagang)” was among my parents and their peers. The high frequency of the word being mentioned was imprinted on my childhood memory, even if I couldn’t then understand what it meant.

Even though it has been over a decade since my parents were laid off, the consequences of those job losses continue to reverberate — from the most practical things like social welfare, to the more spiritual level of life attitude. I am prompted to conduct this project because of them, as well as their friends and colleagues who I have known since I was a child. Rather than some indifferent figures in a report on economic policies, they are flesh and blood who have actually felt the pain of the drastic neoliberalization in China. Thus my photographic project is based on portraits of the individuals, with the written content focused on qualitative conversations with them.

Fourteen people took part in my research as my subjects, with two being my parents and the rest friends of theirs. All of them were between the age of 55 to 60 when I interviewed them. I asked each to take me to the sites of the factories from where they were laid off, no matter if the factory buildings still existed. I then asked them to place themselves at the spots where their posts were, and perform in the way they used to work, without looking into the lens. Then I invited them to a studio set up in my apartment, and took a portrait of them in a frame between facial close-up and upper body shot against a plain black background, this time asking them to gaze into the lens. The color black, as a dominant theme of romanticism, was the color of melancholy; in physics, it is the absorption of all colors; in my project, it stands for the ineludible force of amnesia in the modern society (Nora, 1996). There is little literature on portraits that doesn’t talk about the eyes of the subject. Hailed as “windows of the soul” (Woodall, 1997: 122), eyes are the portals through which the subject’s emotions and personalities are disclosed in front of the viewer (Clarke, 1992). The gaze of a direct address is a message to the viewers of the “visual ‘you’”, demanding the viewers to enter into an imaginary relation with the represented subjects, with the type of the relation signified by other means like their facial expressions (Kress & Leeuwen, 1996: 122). I paraphrase this viewer-subject relation as rediscovery of identity, the identity of laid-off workers that is in peril in the rapidly changing Chinese society.

I have to admit that I took an easier path by finding the participants through my parents, rather than using the traditional method in layoff research of selecting participants randomly from the name list of laid-off workers provided by the local neighborhood committees, the lowest level of government in charge of civil affairs. However, the relationship of the participants with my parents ensured a higher potential to establish a trust relationship between us. They would thus be more willing to show their faces, and talk more freely, even of the things they believe cannot be said publicly – though at the instant they unbosomed themselves they would give me a kind reminder that what they said was off the record, along with a “you know why” look. The inclination to be sensitive about “making mistakes in speeches” was also the crucial reason why I adopted the informal unstructured interview method, keeping records only in the written form instead of tape-recording, to reassure my participants and encourage them to speak more freely and profoundly (in fact, I did start my interviews by tape-recording, but the reaction of one participant prompted me to change my mind, which I will explain in detail in the following text). All of the interviews were conducted face-to-face. However, in terms of the number of interviewees, except for the interviews with my parents which were one-on-one, the others were all conducted in focus groups, from three to six individuals involved each time, including me as the researcher and either my mother or father as the moderator. This instrument was adopted also in consideration of my participants’ sense of security. In the meanwhile, mutual stimulation among participants could also be achieved through the focus group interview method (, 2017).

The natural bond established between me and my participants did have a distinct advantage for me to acquire information that researchers as strangers may not easily access. Nevertheless, it may incur a risk of me lacking objectivity in the analysis, despite my will to transcend my ideological limit as a proletariat. Before entering into the analysis section, which is divided into two parts – Photographs and Conversations – I want to apologize in advance for any display of sentiments that I struggled but failed to bottle up.



In the visual part of the “Ghost Workers” project, the participants were first incarnated as the specters at the graveyards of factories in Tianjin, before their faces were crystalized under the studio lighting against the black void.

Four of the fourteen participants were laid off during the 1990s, the rest from 2000 to 2006. According to the government’s policy, laid-off workers had a buffer period of two years during which they could maintain their employment relationship with their SOEs, enjoy monthly unemployment benefits (it was 228 yuan in Tianjin in 1998, 78.6%-81.4% of the minimum wage standard) (Lee, 2006) before finding a new job and officially cutting ties with their former employers. Nonetheless, for a large proportion of the laid-off workers in the new millennium, they were discharged along with their SOEs’ bankruptcy. In the name of “buyout of length of service (maiduan gongling)”, they were given by the SOEs a once-and-for-all compensation package of between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan (the average monthly salary in Tianjin was 838 yuan in 2000 and 1,683 in 2006) (Tianjin Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, 2015) in exchange for a complete closure of their employment relationship, as well as the lifetime social benefits the enterprises once promised. Either way, the workers would be on their own. They would no longer walk the narrow roads that ran to their work units as they had every weekday for one to two decades. The SOEs they used to believe in as a lifetime settling place collapsed, “all that is solid melts into air”, as Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto.

Except for one person who was employed as a saleswoman at her old workplace after the building was sold by its former SOE runner to “some private owners from the south (southern China)”, all my participants had rarely revisited their factories after being laid off (Fig.2). The buildings, along with the landscape nearby, have greatly changed. Take my mother’s factory, Tianjin Electric Equipment Factory, as an example. The compound located in No.3 Zhushan Road became a technical school after the factory went bankrupt; when we went back this February for field research, students had been replaced by construction teams busy tearing down the buildings. We were told new residential blocks were to be erected there; the official shooting in summer was then set on piles of rubble covered by a giant black fabric. My mother and her four former colleagues, respectively an engineer, a salesperson, a blueprint machine operator (the post doesn’t exist now due to the digitization of blueprints), two mechanics, stood on the ruins of the buildings they had once worked inside, and performed their former duties with the tools and working environment in their imaginations.

Fig.2: Ms. Z in front of the site of Tianjin Photo Sensitive Film Factory, where she used to work twenty years ago. It’s been years since she visited here, although she lives only a few blocks away. While we visited the site for photo, we discovered that the site was inaccessible due to the construction work.

The way the laid-off workers navigated themselves to the factories, and then to the almost exact position of their buildings, at ease, despite the tremendous changes to the neighborhood (Fig.3), seemed to be the very demonstration of the urban palimpsest. In another shooting, Mr. S, who was laid off from the Iron Drum Division of the Hongqiao District’s Recycling Company in 1992, was awed by the transformation of the area: “Without the fly-over, I couldn’t even find the place.” It seems that the stormy “roll-backs” and “roll-outs” of neoliberalism (Peck & Tickell, 2002) after all left some obscure corners in modern society where the milieu of memory could survive. The photos of the laid-off workers standing on the tenuous rupture between the past and the present displayed what Huyssen wrote was “an urban imaginary in its temporal reach may well put different things in one place” (Huyssen, 2003: 7).

Fig.3: Printed on the first page of the Tianjin Electric Equipment Factory’s last bilingual catalog was the factory’s map and factory director’s image. I circled where the five participants stood on the map – the rest of the vast compound was no longer accessible. The work unit used to have its own residential buildings, playground, open-air pool and kindergarten.

With the urban palimpsest theory being emphasized, though, one participant was completely bewildered the moment she stepped out the subway station near her former factory. Ms. W, who was laid off from the Huanqiu Leather Shoes Factory in 1998, claimed that her factory was on the 2.3-kilometer-long Qixiangtai Road, but said she couldn’t remember exactly where because “the place has changed so much.” Eventually we chose a spot where the area’s landmark, the Tianjin TV Tower, could be included in the photo, so as to identify the approximate position of her dismantled factory (Fig.4). In this light, the “Ghost Workers” project may be seen as documenting “tangible reminders of that which no longer exists except qua memory” (Nora, 1996: 8, emphasis in original), a component of “the specificity of the trace, the materiality of the vestige, the concreteness of the recording, the visibility of the image” that memory relies entirely on (Ibid., 1996: 8).


Aesthetically, I tried to draw inspiration from Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch’s iconic composition of incorporating a view into the distance (Fig.5). De Hooch’s doorsiens were to tie together the public and private (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2007: 127); mine are to connect the lieux de mémoire and milieux de mémoire, the present and past, the amnesia and nostalgia.

Fig.5: My father, Mr. L, once a maintenance worker at Kuangshan Electric Appliance Factory, acted out that job in front of his former workshop, now reconstructed into a bicycle garage inside a housing estate. Ironically, the Chinese characters printed on the blue road sign mean “exit.”

If the photos above display the waning identity of laid-off workers whose collective memory has been written over by what the Chinese government believes to be more advantageous in the legitimization of their power, then the studio headshots were meant to retain the unique individual humanity of these people. Albeit all being laid-off workers, the paths they took after layoff varied, which directly or indirectly influenced their life attitudes and personalities.

I waited to press the shutter, and strategically did the interview and shooting alternately, to capture the moments when the participants let down their guards. Nevertheless, despite Kress and Leeuwen’s argument that the gaze of direct address can disclose the visual identity of the sitter through the so-called “windows of the soul”, it remained questionable whether their conscious or unconscious masks, that “living things in contact with the air must acquire” (Santayana, 1922: 131-132), would veil their true identities to the viewers. Similarly, Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida about the paradoxical look in “the piece of black plastic” that expresses and retains the same aura simultaneously: “It is because the look, eliding the vision, seems held back by something interior” (1982: 111-113). I am not a psychologist or mind reader who can tell if the participants were “held back by something interior”, but I believe even the masks are a proof of “that-has-been” (Ibid., 1982).




When my father heard of my plan to do a project about laid-off workers, the ineloquent goody-goody gave me a reaction that surprised me until today: “What a nuisance to bring up this topic.” It was the first time throughout the research that I realized how deep a scar layoff can leave on a man.

My father’s avoidance was merely one of many reactions. In the subsequent interviews, other participants used phrases such as “indescribable pain” (Mr.Y) and “we are the ‘burdens (baofu)’ the state threw away” (Mr.X, Mr.C) to articulate their wounded feelings. There was fear and embarrassment, too. Ms. W, a former assembly line worker laid off from a collective-owned enterprise (COE) specializing in medical instruments in 2006, displayed reluctance in expressing her feelings in the focus group interview with me and my mother, which was tape-recorded. She later told her close friend, who passed on her message to my mother who happens to be a mutual friend, that she was “afraid of being accused of subverting the Communist Party”, which on the contrary reflected her dissatisfaction towards layoff. The reasoning behind W’s reluctance, other than the political taboo, was also her attempt to maintain her dignity, or “mianzi (face)” in Chinese, in front of her childhood acquaintance and her daughter. This was embodied in her inconsistent account of the layoff’s influence on her, swaying between her wish for a world where “layoff” never existed and the insistence of leading a perfect life despite acknowledging the decline in her income and social status since the layoff. This may reflect the socialized feature which Goffman described as “the tendency for performers to offer their observers an impression that is idealized” (1956: 23).

The decline in social status, along with the deprivation of the lifetime employment and social benefits tacitly promised by the government, was the major suffering the participants revealed in the interviews. Most of them became workers in late 1970s and 1980s by default, because “working class was the most prestigious class at that time” (Mr.S), especially in the Mao era, when “policemen and intellectuals were the most inferior” (Mr.Y). As born-in-1962 Mr.S also said in the interview, they are a cohort that has “experienced it all”: the Great Famine in their infancy; the Cultural Revolution in their adolescence, during when they could “easily graduate by fooling around” (Ms. F); the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside (shangshan xiaxiang)” movement in the 1960s and 1970s that some older participants were involved in while the younger participants were “lucky enough to escape” (Mr.S); and the last straw: layoff. Having drifted with the stream, they were a generation caught unawares when China went neoliberal. As Guo and Chang (2010: 116-117) wrote, they were disadvantaged in age, physical quality, educational background and up-to-date skills, all important elements for maintaining social status in modern society.

Moreover, the impact of layoff on Chinese workers was not limited to their jobs and social benefits. Wu Qingjun (2010b: 89) associated an increasing divorce rate with the crumbling of work units in his study of a tractor factory in a northeastern Chinese city. My parents, too, got divorced when their factories were in a slump. I chose to live with my mother, while my father has lived alone for the last ten years. “I don’t have a home,” my father said poignantly in the interview. For a moment I don’t know how to react to the helplessness of my father, as well as that of other participants in the rest of the interviews, that they feel rather than self-blame about their life.

Here a clarification is needed: despite the explicit upset, avoidance and embarrassment all fitting into the typical post-traumatic symptoms, I would avoid making any clinical statements due to my unprofessionalism in psychology studies and the fragmental character of the unstructured interview methods that I eventually decided to adopt. I feel it is more appropriate to apply Oscar Lewis’s (1963) idea of “culture of poverty” to a vast number of laid-off workers who are characterized by “having a strong feeling of not belonging to a community…of personal unworthiness,” having very little sense of history nor any sense of the future.

In fact, rather than the sorrowful testimonies that some researchers recorded of the laid-off workers immediately after the layoff, my revision of the topic in one to two decades’ time discovered a larger proportion of muteness, an inability of the laid-off workers to articulate their status. This echoed the findings of Charlesworth’s iconic study of the working class of Rotherham, a British town that suffered de-industrialization and attendant poverty. This universal “bleak darkness of the invisibility” (Charlesworth, 2000: 4) of the economically powerless and politically dispossessed people’s lives to themselves is interpreted by Charlesworth as a feeling of absurdity that “cannot know itself” because of the decay of the ontological grounds upon which the context of resources necessary for successful articulation of the nuances of the workers’ conditions, feelings and self-constitution might be realized (Ibid., 2000: 133-134), thanks to the corrosive cleansing force of laissez-faire economic practice (Ibid., 2000: 5).

In addition to muteness, I discovered a type of response from my participants which bears Chinese characteristics: fear or cynicism, or a combination of both, towards the government. For instance, Mr. C, who was laid off from Tianjin Cannery in 1996, and worked overseas illegally in Japan, South Korea and Germany before becoming a security guard in Tianjin five or six years later, urged me to see On the Docks (Haigang), one of the eight Chinese revolutionary operas during the Cultural Revolution that tells a story about peasant workers engaging in militant struggle. C highlighted an act in which retired worker Ma Hongliang denounced the “abyss of misery of the old society”, and sang the praises of the Party and Mao Zedong: “How proud we dock workers are to be masters of the new society; Our life guaranteed from cradle to grave; The kindness of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao is higher than the sky!”. “Guaranteed?” questioned C, “the country’s policies are all contradictory.” C then took a sharp turn of conversation, concluding his talk by giving me a reminder: “You know, such words could devastate people in the past.” The typical mingling of cynical and fearful attitudes of Chinese people towards the Party-state was also distinguished by Feuchtwang in his study on the aftermath of the Great Famine. He attributed the phenomena to the “aggravated indifference” of the Party bureaucracy, which helps the Party to achieve people’s willing sacrifice like the sons and daughters’ reciprocation to their parents (Feuchtwang, 2011: 73-79).

The lieu of memory of the laid-off workers could potentially be erased, but the scar of unemployment left on their subjective wellbeing has persisted, if not deepened. When asked what bothers them most at present, more than half said “social welfare.” Social welfare reform took place in China in the late 1980s as an essential component of the country’s economic reform. However, Wu (2010a: 60) analyzed that the high threshold of China’s social insurance failed to relieve but rather increased social inequality. He wrote about the situation in a northeastern Chinese city, where laid-off workers who couldn’t find an employer had to pay not only their personal share of social insurance – 8% of the base salary required by the government – but also the 10% share that was supposed to be paid by their companies (Ibid., 2010a: 56). But as my participants revealed in the interviews, the burden of social welfare was delayed until after their retirement rather than immediately imposed. Instead of having to pay social insurance of 18% of the base salary, she only needed to pay the individual share of 8%. However, this resulted in an embarrassing condition that her pension and healthcare is “so low” that it “can only meet the minimum demand.” For some other participants, even with the country’s “4050 Policy” that offer discounts in social insurance payments for female laid-off workers above 40 and male above 50, with the tremendous education expenses of their only child (or in very few cases children, due to Tianjin folks’ adherence to the One-child Policy) to prioritize (it was prevalent among laid-off workers to invest in their children’s education in ardent hope of table turning), and various ends to meet, they stalled as much as they could until the final days before retirement to pay their minimum debts to the social security bureau. With that being said, there are also people like Mr. L, who only five years before retirement has a salary less than half of the city’s average (Tianjin Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, 2017) and little savings, still worrying about how they can settle their social insurance with the deadline looming. What’s more, Wu (2010b: 63-67) pointed out the problematic execution of social welfare policies in China, characterized by the obscurity of clauses and the sluggishness of the circulation of up-to-date policies. Some participants have trained themselves to become social butterflies in order to ensure their knowledge of the latest policy updates from their neighborhood committees; some, like Ms. F, were directly excluded from the unemployment benefits she should have enjoyed in the two years following her layoff because of her ignorance of regulations. From all accounts of my participants, it seems that even though it has been over a decade since the peak of the massive layoff, the government should reinforce the preferential social welfare policies targeted at laid-off workers, and take their concrete plights into consideration while designing the policies.



The “Ghost Workers” project was designed to delineate a group of laid-off workers in a northern Chinese industrial city, whose collective identity was in peril under the creative destruction of neoliberalism, a tool the ruling elitists used to legitimize their class dominance at the price of the masses’ wellbeing (Harvey, 2007: 41). Similar to the literature on the working class suffering from deindustrialization and associated poverty, the participants in my project were subject to the amnesia of modern society in two interactive senses: the urban palimpsest that potentially divests the disadvantaged of their grounds for memory, and the inarticulacy of these people due to the decay of the ontological grounds upon which the context of resources necessary for successful articulation of their own status is possible (Charlesworth, 2000: 133-134).

The laid-off workers in my project, despite showing scars left by the life-changing unemployment, conscious or unconscious, were nevertheless unyielding, either from their nostalgia that enabled them to navigate back to the site of their SOEs that have changed tremendously, the “critique of critique of the memory” (Wang, 2004: 5), or the Chinese-characteristic combination of a fearful and cynical attitude the individuals adopted towards the Party-state’s “aggravated indifference” (Feuchtwang, 2011: 76).

Though there exists a multitude of literature on the wellbeing of laid-off workers in China in the immediacy of layoff, few researchers reviewed their subsequent plights as over a decade has already passed, despite the proved scarring effect of unemployment. My photographic research discovered that social welfare, the major determinant of a person’s subjective wellbeing, troubled the laid-off workers even after their retirement. While this stresses an urgency for the government to attach special importance to a community whose life course had been repetitively interrupted by state policies, my findings may hopefully be seen as a beginning to fill in the research gap. As for my project itself, it might be a small project that contains disproportionate substantiality, but I hope it can also be seen as my heartfelt ode to the humanity of ordinary Chinese workers like my parents.





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[1] The SWB value of World Values Survey is measured by the following question regarding life satisfaction: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Please use this card to help with your answer. 1 (dissatisfied) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (satisfied)”.

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