Ghost Workers

The neoliberal process with Chinese characteristics 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. 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.” The 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 workers 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 some two decades since the massive 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” that historian Pierre Nora underscored 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.

This is a visual story dedicated to specters like my parents, with the hope of keeping a piece of tangible reminders of the Chinese laid-off workers’ collective memory and individual humanity.

 

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