Governmentality and the Chinese Workers in China’s Contemporary Thought Management System

  • Elly LeungEmail author
Living reference work entry


The aim of this chapter is to understand how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) creates an abundantly cheap and docile worker to meet the labor market needs required for economic development in present-day China. Drawing on the genealogical analysis of the Chinese historical events from the previous chapter, this chapter engages with Michel Foucault’s (1982) work of governmentality (government of mentalities) to argue that workers’ docility is maintained by the CCP’s ability to retain, update, and incorporate Confucian values into its thought management system to regulate the ways of thinking and acting among workers in a social hierarchy as in the time of Imperial and Mao’s China.


Governmentality Power-knowledge Quality Docility Discourses Confucian hierarchy Thought management 


The success of economic reform in transforming China from a rural, revolutionary-based economy into a modern, industrialized socialist market economy (Leung and Caspersz 2016) following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) has repositioned the country as the world’s factory and export leader (Leung and Pun 2009) with the largest and cheapest workforce of a minimum of 769 million workers (The World Bank 2019). Much has noted that this abundantly cheap labor force is developed by converting millions of peasants into urban industrial and service workers and by dismantling the lifetime employment (or iron rice bowl) that was developed in the Maoist State (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) for millions of laid-off workers across Chinese State-owned enterprises (SOEs) (Chan 2001; Fan 2003, 2004; Hurst and O’Brien 2002; Leung and Pun 2009; Li and O’Brien 1996; O’Brien 1996; Pun 2007; Pun et al. 2009; Pun and Lu 2010a, b). It is suggested that workers’ past experience of Mao’s socialism (Lee 2000; Walder 1991; Walder and Gong 1993) or their brutal work-based experiences (Chan and Pun 2009; Chan 2010; Chan and Hui 2012, 2016; Leung and Pun 2009; Pringle 2011; Pun and Lu 2010a, b; Pun et al. 2009, 2016; Smith and Pun 2006) have progressively stimulated their class consciousness to spark a rising number of “mass incidents,” including environmental and work protests and other strikes, from 74,000 in 2004 and to 87,000 in 2005 (Leung and Pun 2009) in advancing their collective work rights and benefits to improve their overall conditions. Despite the view that this increased volume of protest activities in China depicts a “rising class consciousness” (Chan 2010; Chan and Hui 2016; Chan and Selden 2016; Chan and Pun 2009), alternative studies (Blecher 2002; Chan 2011; Chan and Siu 2012; Chen 2000, 2006; 2016a; Cooke et al. 2016; Franceschini et al. 2016; Lee 1999, 2007) spotlight the quiescence of labor as a factor constraining workers to against their exploitative conditions. For example, Lee (1999) claims that disorganized despotism has produced labor subordination through the flexible recruitment and dismissal of workers from a disposable labor market. Chan and Siu (2012) find that the absence of collective rights to organize independent unions and the lack of knowledge about trade unionism led to workers’ disunity that consequently destabilized their protest actions. It is further argued that the outbreaks of worker protests are mainly triggered by workers’ desperation to defend their “rights to subsistence” (Chen 2006). For instance, the wages that workers demand in their protests were “lower than the amount they are legally entitled to” (Franceschini et al. 2016: 440), and therefore, their actions “can be easily defused by a government promise of a couple of yuan as compensation” to secure their subsistence level (Chen 2016b: 4). These phenomena are arguably directed by workers’ self-values that they believe their given conditions are inevitable (Blecher 2002), hence dissuading them from speaking up for themselves and others (Cooke et al. 2016) or from engaging in sustained labor movements that focus on issues beyond their individual needs (Chan 2011; Chan and Siu 2012; Franceschini et al. 2016).

Aligned with this body of literature, the aim of this chapter is to understand how the post-Mao CCP continues to monopolize its political power while at the same time creating an abundance of cheap and docile workers to meet the labor market needs required for China’s economic development. The chapter argues that workers’ docility is indelibly influenced by the “old” forms of consciousness and interactions that existed in Imperial and Mao’s periods (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”). Drawing on the genealogical analysis of the Chinese historical events from the previous chapter, the chapter further engages with Michel Foucault’s (1982) work of governmentality (government of mentalities or conduct of conduct) to argue that workers’ docility is maintained by the CCP’s ability to retain, update, and incorporate Confucian values of filial piety (xiao孝); “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming天命); and destiny (or ming命) (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) into its thought management system to regulate the ways of thinking and acting among workers in a social hierarchy as in the time of Imperial and Mao’s China.

The chapter begins with an overview of Foucault’s concept of governmentality before discussing the techniques used by the CCP in pursuing a contemporary thought management system to consolidate their “mandate” to rule. The chapter concludes that the CCP’s thought management as a means for the continuation of the (re-) production of docile minds and bodies in serving its interests has been the key strategy that strengthens its political power with little violence in China.

Foucault’s Concept of Governmentality

Under the rubric of genealogy (or History of the Present) (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”), Michel Foucault (1980a, b) proposes the concept of governmentality to investigate the technologies (techniques or strategies) that govern individuals. Defined as the “conduct of conduct,” Foucault’s genealogical work of governmentality describes how certain knowledge emerged as a social “truth” (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) to shape thought and behavior (conducts or practices) according to a given “truth” in particular society (1980b; 1982). Foucault’s genealogical analysis of madness (1961/2006), medical knowledge (1963/2003, 1969/2002), imprisonment (1977), and sexuality (1976/1978) demonstrates that social practices at a specific historical moment resulted from the construction of knowledge (truth or reality) that informed their experiences of their existence according to the particular cultural values and criteria. On this basis, Foucault (1980a) notes that all histories contain thoughts from particular cultures that are inseparable from individuals’ actions (practices or behaviors) and from their experiences of existence.

In The History of Sexuality (1976/1978, 1978/1990, 1984/1986), for example, Foucault analyzes how individuals’ experiences of “homosexuality” were objectified and influenced by the medical knowledge (discourse or truth) that had emerged since the nineteenth century. Hence those categorized as “homosexuals” were viewed according to that knowledge which became the dominant thought in Western societies. Foucault contends that these forms of knowledge created culturally specific views and practices that eventually came to constitute (or affirm certain practices as inimitable) the conditions that lead to the categorization of people as – for instance – “homosexuals.” Foucault argues that our “knowing” of how these conditions became linked to this categorization cannot be solely revealed by studying the experience of a person or historical moment but by analyzing the knowledge that is embedded in the relevant society (Foucault 1976/1978, 1978/1990, 1984/1986).

Foucault crafts the concept of power-knowledge to describe how we come to know the “rules of right” or the pouvoir-savoir (discourse) that shape, form, and hence constitute our social identities (statuses or positions) (Foucault 1991). That is, an individuals’ understanding of identity, such as in the case of homosexuality, emerges because of the relations of power that confirm this as “knowledge” (or objectify) in webs of beliefs (Foucault 1954/2001, 1984/1991). In this context, Foucault conceptualizes knowledge as a specific technique of power which is exercised to internalize disciplinary power (or “microphysics of power” or “biopower”) by the individuals so that they discipline their own bodies, minds, and souls in their social relationships (or power-knowledge relations) (1977: 26). Thus, unlike the juridical view that power is exercised by the State and its apparatuses (see Crowther and Green 2004; Giddens and Dallmayr 1982; Musto 2012; Noon et al. 2013), Foucault focuses on the capillary nature and the dispersed character of micro-power that is exercised through the networks of productive, individual relations which produces reality by co-constructing the discourses (“truth” or knowledge) of rituals and identities, such as “criminals” and “madmen,” in guiding individuals to shape and correct their minds as well as their behaviors in society (1984/1991). Foucault’s view of power draws upon Jeremy Bentham’s (1843: 39) nineteenth century drawings of the interior design of the Panopticon (or prison) that consists of a circular structure with an inspection house at the center of the tower. The concept of this design is to guide the prisoners to believe the watchmen in the tower are observing them as they cannot see into the tower, and hence they self-regulate their behaviors as if they are being watched. This form of self-government (or self-regulation) creates a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind [governmentality or ‘conduct of conduct’ in Foucault’s terminology], in a quantity…” (Bentham 1843: 39) to effectively control and reform the criminals (Magill 1997; Oksala 2007: 57). This is because the truth of being watched under constant surveillance in the panoptic system facilitates the automatic functioning of a disciplinary power within the minds and bodies of the criminals without external authority being imposed (Ransom 1997).

Using the metaphor of the Panopticon, Foucault (1977) notes that a disciplinary power is embedded in all levels of social relations in smaller elements like the hospitals, the schools, the factories, the prisons, and even in individuals’ families. Together these social relations exercise a regime of a disciplinary power among the masses of people to produce a norm (truth or rule) of behaviors, all the while ensuring that deviant behaviors from this norm are identified as needing to be corrected according to their identities such as “homosexuals” or even “criminals.” For example, schools and families constitute minute social “observatories” and surveillance systems to train and correct children’s behavior – their piety and morals – toward their teachers and parents (Foucault 1977). Foucault (1977) suggests that these domains subsequently resemble a carceral (or prison) system that creates a dominant class of managed, controlled, and useful bodies who serve as the judges of normality in society – the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, and the social worker-judge – and ensure that everyone acts to the discourses of truth that are embedded in a particular society (Foucault 1980a, b, 1991).

The extensions of the panoptic system to various unofficial settings in exercising forms of indirect supervision have thus made individuals subject to their bodies, soul, gestures, behaviors, and practices to the given discourses of truth within their relations of power-knowledge (Foucault 1977). It is in this context that Foucault (1980a, b) argues that a disciplinary society emerges, not by the making of laws but by the internalization of norms that have conjoined the mind, body, and movement of individuals. This effect is referred to as governmentality (or conduct of conduct) that guides the individuals to self-regulate their own (and others’) behavior, to achieve the status of truths (or norms) of their society within their power-knowledge network of their culture without engaging in critical thinking (Foucault 1980b). Foucault thus describes the outcome of this government of mentalities as the effective operations of both direct (the State or institutions per se) and indirect (the social network) forms of disciplinary power in guiding people’s behaviors to the desired end of others (1978/2008).

Reinterpretation of a Chinese History of the Present

Drawing on the genealogical analysis from the Previous Chapter, this chapter argues that China’s thought management epitomizes the trend of blending the centuries-long Confucian methods of persuasion (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) with new governmental discourses (truths or technologies) (Foucault 1979/2014) and rationalities to maintain workers’ docility for ongoing economic development. Beginning with dismantling and privatizing both the State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the people’s communes (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”), peasants along with SOE workers are pushed to participate in low-rate wages and a high-rate of capitalist exploitation in the coastal areas (Gabriel 2006). Despite poor working conditions that led to their first major protest involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen movement (Howell 1993; Warner 1991; Walder and Gong 1993), workers remain working in appalling conditions enduring 12 hours a day or longer for 7 days a week, in the labor-intensive export-led manufacturing sector (Mah 2011). Although the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) – the only legal, State-owned trade unions – has a “mandate” to defend workers’ rights and interests under the Labour Law (1995) and the subsequent Labour Contract Law (2008), the capacity of the ACFTU to provide workers with assistance is constrained by a set of other laws, including the Trade Union Laws (1992 & 2001), Assembly Law (1989), and the Criminal Law (1987) (Pringle 2011). The failure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to eliminate the abuse of its labor force has thus progressively incited workers to turn to nonlegal methods, such as collective protests, to voice their dissatisfaction with their employment conditions (Chan 2010).

The dual concern of the CCP with the increased protest activities and the need to secure a cheap and docile labor force for economic growth are highlighted in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–2010) with the governmental discourse of maintenance of social stability (weiwen 維穩) (China Daily 2006). Weiwen, therefore, indicates not only the shift in emphasis away from coercive administrative measures and control of workers but also a new strategy of the CCP to “connect to the global track” (Xu 2009: 38). Xu (2009) uses the phrase “connecting to the global track” to describe China’s role in participating in the global supply chain production and ensuring administrative practices comply with international norms, including business and labor regulations. Given the rights of workers are fundamentally grounded in their labor contracts, the CCP, for instance, promulgated the 2008 Labour Contract Law to emphasize workers’ responsibility of ensuring their employers sign a labor contract with them in order to protect their legal rights (Pringle 2011). While the CCP appears to be concerned with the labor rights, it is argued that the CCP seeks to guide the willingness of workers to subject themselves to the exploitative conditions to reinforce the weiwen project under the governmental discourses of the development of a well-off (xiaokang 小康) and harmonious society (hexie shehui 和諧社會) (Brady 2012a; Benney 2016; Xu 2009).

A key component of building a xiaokang and harmonious society under weiwen discourse is linked with the CCP’s “zero target” (Benney and Marolt 2015) project, aiming to eliminate visible forms of protest actions, through the horizontal coordination with government agencies and private entrepreneurs (Benney 2016; Chen 2015). Since the last decade, private entrepreneurs are encouraged to become members of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (PPCC) to participate in the governing activities at the national and local levels (Chen 2015). Together with the PPCC, the CCP, the Chinese People’s Government, and the People’s Congress are referred to as the four sets of leadership (si tao banzi 四套班子), which constitute a “multi-party co-operation and political consultation” system (Chen 2015: 616–617). The PPCC in this system serves as a channel for entrepreneurs to express opinions and thus influence State policies and regulations to protect their particular interests as a group (Chen 2015). For example, the concern with the protection of private property rights raised by the members at the PPCC annual meeting in 2001 was passed into the Property Law in 2007 (Chen 2015: 627). The privilege status of the PPCC membership further prevents the entrepreneurs from legal responsibilities even when enterprises had violated the provincial laws and regulations (Chen 2015). By turning private entrepreneurs into the State’s “allies” by raising protection for the PPCC members beyond laws and regulations, it is suggested that the CCP leaders seek to “buy stability” by marginalizing the notions of laws and rights (Benney and Marolt 2015).

“Buying stability” in the context of the “retreat from law” is thus extended to China’s social system to facilitate the work of weiwen (Benney and Marolt 2015). The establishment of local stability maintenance offices (weiwenban 維穩辦) which draws officials from the legal profession, the police, quasi-government organizations, and local government has been the mechanism to prevent protest and acts of resistance from formalizing (Benney 2013; Benney and Marolt 2015). Despite exercising physical force occasionally, weiwenban tends to use informal negotiation and renegotiation associated with financial compensation or small “coordination fees” to “encourage” workers to discontinue their disputes (Benney 2013). Subsequently, worker protests are reportedly easily defused by a couple of yuan as compensation (Chen 2016a: 4). While shifting away from using military forces for social control, the ability of the CCP to exercise weiwen strategies to continue to manage and dominate workers through the ongoing historical cycles of “coercive authoritarianism” (Benney 2013) is because workers’ psyche has been embedded with a truth about their inferior status (or position) and those considered superior through these cycles.

It is argued that China’s weiwen project is grounded on the expansion and development of productive forces by guiding “the Chinese,” particularly the “dissident groups,” to engage in a market economy (Xu 2009). Drawing on Mao’s thought control methods, the post-Mao leaders from Deng to current President Xi Jinping seek to revitalize the Confucian ideologies of filial piety and obey the superiors to continue their “mandate” to rule under the control of the CCP (Dillon 2015). Already in 1982, the Confucian values of filial piety and obey the superiors have been indicated in the Four Cardinal Principles, that is, Marxist-Leninism, Socialism, Party Leadership, and People’s Democratic Dictatorship, to demonstrate the CCP’s commitment to Mao’s idea of embracing absolute political control of the masses (Zhang and Li 2011). This insistence is further announced in the Five Nos (wugebugao 五個不搞) policy for the modernization process:

We have made a solemn declaration that we will not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation; diversify our guiding thought; separate executive, legislative and judicial powers; use a bicameral or federal system, or carry out privatization (Wu 2011b, p. 9). (The word “privatization” in China was replaced by numerous terms, such as reorganization, cooperatives, incorporation, leasing contract, and shareholding cooperatives. See Guo 2013)

Combining with the Four Cardinal Principles, the Five Nos policy which emphasizes Deng’s message on economic reform with limited political change is circulated to legitimize his absolute power through the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department (Weatherley 2006).

Governmental Technologies and Thought Management in Post-Mao China

As in the Maoist period (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”), the manipulation and utilization of the Propaganda Department have been an important tool to initiate thought management for complementing and supporting the CCP policies (Brady 2012a; Benney 2013). Using the logic of laws and legal system that is developed since the 1980s, the CCP develops the “law popularization campaign” (pufa yundong普法運動) or “disseminating legal knowledge” (pufa changshi普法常識) to herald new policies in activating the masses to engage in the State’s defined “good socialist behaviors” (Gallagher 2005, 2006):

In the interest of developing socialist democracy and improving the socialist legal system, it is necessary to place the law in the hands of the masses of people so that they will know what the law is, abide by the law, acquire a sense of legality and learn to use the law as a weapon against all acts committed in violation of the Constitution and the law […]. (Thirteen Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Sixth National People’s Congress, November 22, 1985)

Rather than focusing on legal resolution of grievances, the dissemination or pufa movement enacted in 1991 aiming at acquainting the masses with basic knowledge of the laws by inculcating them with a wide variety of State’s propaganda or ideologies to shape their legal consciousness (Benney 2013). These legal educational campaigns are implemented by the CCP cadres through workplaces, mass media, and educational systems (Gallagher 2005). For example, the “thought emancipation movement” (1979–1981) is regularly used to transmit the truth about Deng Xiaoping Theory of economic reform and modernization to cultivate them with correct thoughts and practices – filial piety and hard work – through the Chinese media (Jeffreys and Su 2016). Other ideological campaigns “anti-spiritual pollution” (1983–1984) and the “socialist spiritual civilization campaign” (1987–1998) are launched against the influx of Western democratic values and habits (Leung 2017). These campaigns are eventually a call for CCP members to promote Deng Xiaoping Theory of economic reform and modernization in order to command support from the workers over whom they were to rule (Grasso et al. 2009).

As the pufa campaign progressed, a wide range of compulsory reeducation programs of the “party rectification campaigns” and “theoretical study movements” (1989–2000) of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory are implemented to penetrate the socialist ideologies and moralities (Li 2015) into the minds of workers. For instance, at the national conference on the “party rectification campaigns” and “theoretical study movements” in 1998, the philosophical absolutism of the CCP in command of the absolute “truth” and correctness in building a “socialist market economy” is emphasized:

Taking the socialist road is the inevitable outcome of Chinese history and the correct choice of the Chinese people […] Any attempt to abandon socialism or take the capitalist road is completely wrong and fundamentally infeasible […] Our reform is absolutely not to engage in capitalism, but is the self-perfection of the socialist system and the need of consolidating and developing socialism. Anything that might jeopardise socialism and the fundamental interest of our people must not be tolerated and must not be allowed to spread unchecked at any time and under any circumstances. (Jiang Zemin cited in Guo 2013: 118)

The above message is further transmitted via the implementation of “scientific development” and “harmonious society campaigns” (2010) through the national education system, mass media, residential areas, and workplaces to stress the important role of “patriotism as a unifying force” by emphasizing “[…] China’s [workers] is a matter of concern for China’s destiny” (Brady 2008: 51) in order to mobilize “the whole party and the whole people of the nation” to work for economic modernization (Guo 2013:119). All of these political campaigns for economic modernization have indicated that many of the Maoist mobilization mechanisms and practices are retained by the post-Mao leaders to indoctrinate the general population daily with the “correct” CCP “truth” and the Four Cardinal Principles to construct a “socialist market economy” under the legal discourses (Guo 2013).

Chinese Habits of Making Docile Bodies and Minds within Social Hierarchy

Henceforth, while dissociating from Mao’s revolutionary orthodoxy, the Maoist past “habits” of ideological indoctrination and techniques of propaganda have been repeatedly employed by different generations of post-Mao leaders to shape workers’ consciousness align with the vague ideas of the laws (pufa) to constitute them as docile bodies and minds for sustainable socioeconomic development (kechixuxing de shehui jingjin fazhan可持續性的社會經濟發展) (Jeffreys and Su 2016). With rapid economic development associated with the growth of poverty, the third and the fourth generations of the CCP leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao seek to minimize social discontent and instability by upgrading the control methods (Xu 2009). From 2001 onward, the Hu administration incorporated new governmental discourses into the Confucian values to promote awareness of “proper behavior,” such as respect for authorities, between the positions (or status) of workers and work superiors, to meet the needs of economic modernization in a well-off (xiaokang) and harmonious society (hexie shehui) (Brady 2012b). The new sets of values that are guiding the behavior of workers begin with the creation of numerous identities through the mass media through which the CCP aims to change social images of both peasant migrant and SOE workers by referring to the latter as gongren工人 (SOE workers or government slaves 宮人in Imperial China) (Wagner 1998) and the former as nonmingong 農民工 (peasant workers), as well as mangliu 盲流 (blind floats), wailaigong 外來工 (outside workers), and dagong 打工 (working for bosses). Unlike their former status as “masters of the State” (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) under Mao’s period, workers’ new identities are now accorded a subservient status, which is programmed to be at a lower social position. This status degradation, according to Xu (2009), is linked to the new discourse of “low personal quality” (suzhi 素質or human capital) aiming at creating a self-value to serve as a rational justification among workers for accepting social inequalities in the market economy. This effort is an attempt to mold workers into “low personal quality” subjects to become active participants in capitalist exploitation in the updated hierarchy of social relationships.

In making China’s economy globally competitive, the value of education has become a priority to constitute “low personal quality” workers to ensure the supply of a mass of cheap labor for production (Wang 2008). This objective is achieved through the rapid expansion of educational opportunities by popularizing secondary and tertiary vocational-technical education that teaches employment skills to enable graduates to work in the cities (Postiglione 2011). The admission criterion is subject completion of the 9-year education program under the Compulsory Education Law (Wang 2008). While the national population is “guaranteed” 9 years of compulsory schooling by law, access to education is determined by the hukou (or household) status (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) the person held (Rong and Shi 2001). The difference in the educational arrangements between rural and urban populations is that the latter is entitled to a set of social rights associated with the provision of medical care, housing, childcare, and access to local schools with very low fees (Wang 2008). These basic entitlements are denied to the rural peasants – which accounted for more than half of the national population – both in their village hometowns and the cities (Wu 2011a).

Children of migrant peasants are thus either left behind (liushou ertong留守兒童) with relatives in the villages or brought into the cities for education (Zhang et al. 2015). In the former case, rural children began a 2- to 3-year education in the villages when they turned 8 years old, because rural schools are far from home and the roads were generally unsafe for small children (Postiglione 2011). In the latter case, migrant children, formally referred to as jiedu 借讀 students (students from outside the community that borrowed a place to study), have to pay jiedu fee ranging from 4,000 yuan to 15,000 yuan (Jia et al. 2019) to the public schools in the cities. Given the monthly household income of most migrant parents is between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan which is around the local poverty line in most localities (Leung and Caspersz 2016), a large proportion of the children of migrants are either educated in migrant schools (minban xuexiao民辦學校) in the cities or in rural schools in the villages. Due to financial issues, these schools have low-quality teaching staff and poor facilities (Postiglione 2011; Wang 2008).

By creating this rural-urban divide – that is historically defined by birth – the structure of the Chinese educational system provides a specific means of producing and reproducing “low personal quality” workers for the CCP’s market socialism. Thus, rather than focusing on ideas of “Marxism” in the education provision, the making of a socialist market in the CCP’s economic modernization concerns with the ability of the population to pay for a quality education that might gain them employment (Postiglione 2011). Compared to their urban counterparts, the majority of poor rural households are excluded from the mainstream norm of access to public schools that offer quality education, both in the cities and in their villages (Wang 2008). This deliberate exclusion of the rural groups from access to educational resources and opportunities beyond a limited circle of eligibilities thus led to high dropout rates from the low-quality, rural, and migrant primary schools:

[…] dropout rates […] were between 3.66% and 54.05% […] beyond food and clothing, dropping out is caused by a lack of confidence and interest in continuing their education, difficult textbooks, a monotonous school life, tense relationships between students and teachers, poor food and lodging, inconvenient transportation and rising costs of school lodgings. (Postiglione 2011: 90)

By confining rural and migrant populations to the category of low-quality education, the CCP leaders thus implicitly encouraged children to discontinue education, through which a minimum of 300 million illiterate and semi-illiterate people are created in China (Mao 2004). The intentional education inequality thus ensured that a large proportion of people could not get a higher education in order to produce and reproduce “low personal quality” workers for the marketplace.

Images of “low personal quality” workers are further portrayed as a specific segment of the population that prevent China’s progress toward civilization (wenming文明) (Gabriel 2006; Xu 2009). In an editorial comment in a prestigious State-owned newspaper, “low-quality” population is described as lacking discipline and modern civility because “they behav[e] like barbarians […] forgetting […] civility demands […]” (China Daily 2014). As a result of widespread indoctrination, this official “truth” becomes an everyday discourse that appeared in various cultural mechanisms, such as television and magazines. For example, in a national newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo 南方週末 (Southern Weekend), a reader complained to the editor that “the low-quality people are the reason for many things not getting done or not getting done well” (Xiaoyong 1999: 11). In his book, China’s Two Pillars in the Twenty-First Century, Yi (2001: 748) suggests a more pessimistic view of the large numbers of so-called “low-quality” citizens by making the point that it is these people that “made it so difficult to advance our country […] we must get rid of the illiterate people […] particularly those illiterate young people.”

Social recognition of the “low-quality” population is applied predominantly to workers and is central to the production of “new city people” (xin shimin新市民) as the subjects of Chinese “development” (Yan 2003; Xu 2009). This “development” centers on the “rectification” of population quality, in terms of which workers are identified by the CCP from the 1980s, as the major focus for “improvement”: “The national strength and the stamina of economic development is highly dependent on the quality of the labourers” (Zeng 1989: 165). Embedded in this invocation of “quality improvement” (or development) is the CCP’s interest to continue poverty by recoding such “problem” as “quality poverty relief” (suzhi fupin素質扶貧) and “cultural poverty relief” (wenhua fupin文化扶貧) in the labor market (Yan 2003). In this context, “poverty-relief” discourses are functioned as a “motivating force” to cultivate a desire within the “low personal quality” workers’ to escape from poverty (tuopin脫貧) (Yan 2008). Thus, the introduction of this new discourse by the State marks a shift from projecting workers as being an object to becoming a subject for “poverty-relief” actions (Yan 2003). The project of producing these desiring subjects is appositely a subtle task of producing “new city people” for Chinese “development” (or improvement).

It is argued that the production of the desiring subjects is conditioned by the production of a market consciousness among workers for “development” through cultural processes (Yan 2008). In these processes, images of the outcomes of “poverty relief” that resulted from “improvement,” for example, with the increased affordability of mobile phones and cars, are promoted in the Chinese media (Gabriel 2006). These commercial activities are used to promote the idea that “the future belongs to those who succeed in the capitalist labor power markets” to turn workers into customers (Gabriel 2006: 58). By inculcating consumerism into the popular consciousness, instruments of mass media are again mobilized as a form of “social education” (shehui jiaoyu社會教育) to publicize the benefits of “improvement” to inspire the subjects’ “intentionality” toward the “development” of the labor market (Yan 2003). This vision produces a positive demonstration of “poverty relief” being gifted through the opportunities afforded by “development,” because “low-quality” workers could “improve themselves by learning from their “high-quality” superiors at work in the cities” (Yan 2008).

By introducing a self-perception of workers as the subjects of “development,” the discourse of “quality improvement” further constituted a “status consciousness” (Koo 2001) or “older rules consciousness” (Perry 2009) that is connected to an updated Confucian status ideology framework of a “quality hierarchy” within social relationships (Chen and Goodman 2012; Yan 2003). This “hierarchal relationship” is defined in terms of the deterministic identities with which the “lower-quality” workers are shaped and “programmed” to see themselves as inferior to their “higher-quality” superiors in the labor market (Gabriel 2006). The perception of a fundamental difference of “quality” that comprised distinct “races” of human beings is thereby notionally created:

[…] “white” workers gaining status as a consequence of racism. To the extent that certain workers gain status within the workplace as a consequence of racism, these workers may be willing to work for less material compensation. This is one way in which racism may reduce the value of labour power. It may also do so by creating self-doubt, self-hatred and low self-esteem in those excluded from the transcendental race. The “black” […] worker […] for instance, believe[s] herself lucky to have any job and to be worthless […]. (Gabriel and Todorova 2003: 34–35)

By substituting “high quality” for white and “low quality” for black, the racialized interactions of the perceived inferiority (the low) and the perceived superiority (the high) in China served to lower the value of workers in a quality hierarchy (Gabriel 2006; Yan 2008). Rather than a “quality improvement,” the discourse of “development” hence imposed the notion of destiny (ming命) on inferiority (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) so that it would then function as a “truth” of the “low personal quality” workers to think of themselves as low within their subjectivities concerning their given positions in the current labor market system (Yan 2003). The CCP’s strategies of keeping the “low personal quality” workers to think and act within their prescribed ming by restricting their educational opportunities are the foundation of thought management established since the Zhou dynasty (13th B.C.E.) via li rules (later Confucian rules) (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”) to maintain social status for producing and reproducing docile bodies and minds to meet the political, ideological, and economic needs in different historical periods.

The Destiny (ming 命) of Low-Quality (or Low-Educated) Workers in the Chinese Occupational Hierarchy

The intention of indoctrinating workers to accept their positions as their ming and the discourse of “quality development” is to subject the perceived “inferiors” to continual readjustment and retraining (zhongsheng xuexi終生學習) in order to integrate them into the market economy (Yan 2008). To achieve this goal, the workers are taught to “love labor” and “respect regulations” to behave “properly” according to the everyday behavioral norms (richang xingweu judong日常行為舉動) of the workplaces (Efthymiou-Egleton 2016). For example, they are taught to respect authority to ensure the maintenance of social order (Xu 2009). In this context, compliance with the social order is highlighted by the Chinese media as a way for workers to protect their rights. For example, even today the Chinese popular press publishes cautionary tales about workers trying to find work in their own way outside the norms. These narratives typically end with the victims either being cheated by “black” labor market brokers (hei zhongjie黑中介) (Zhengzhou Wǎnbào 2016) or sold into prostitution (Ma 2013). To reduce social disruptions, services are provided to workers by the “carceral network” (Foucault 1980a) of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, such as job seeking and educational training regarding laws and regulations to highlight the importance of signing labor contracts (Xu 2009). By exposing themselves to these forms of knowledge, the inferior subjects are supposedly guided to “improve” their understanding of labor rights and conditions throughout the process of “development.” While the “low-quality” workers are offered new training opportunities for continuous “self-improvement,” these “opportunities” are arguably designed to engage them as potential agents in their own governance (Jeffreys and Sigley 2009).

This social management goal is embodied in the knowledge in which an array of CCP’s conceived standards of modernized behavior is promoted through service activities (or programs) (Cartier 2016). Cooperating with the CCP’s interest in developing “population quality” (renkou suzhi人口素質) in the discourse of modernization, social programs run by the everyday “carceral network” (Foucault 1980a) focus on the Chinese cultural economy and industry and standards for social conduct (National Civilised City Evaluation System 2011). These cultural standards are evident in large-format advertising slogans, including Be a Civilized Person, Build a Civilized City (Zheng zuo wenming ren, gong chuang wenming cheng爭做文明人共創文明城) and Speak Civilly, Act Civilly (Shuo wenming hua, ban wenming shi…說文明話辦文明事) (Cartier 2016). These civilizing perspectives are extensively reinforced by “quality training” (suzhi peixun) and “quality programs” (suzhi jiemu素質節目) throughout cultural institutions such as the mass media, within schools, and on the streets (Cartier 2016) and are printed in the form of “self-help” manuals to encourage workers to act according to sanctioned behavioral standards. In one “self-help” manual (MDGIF 2011), for example, “low-quality” workers are encouraged to be satisfied with low-wage employment, relinquish excessive consumption behavior, obey traffic lights, adopt good hygiene habits, and exhibit “proper” manners. Constructing these official and standardized “civilized behaviors” (or cultural norms) highlights the CCP’s desire to “improve” self-constraint and self-control (or “self-governance”) of workers to ensure that they constitute appropriate subjects in the context of “development” programs.

In this manner, the discourse of “development” confines the “low-quality” population to a specific status. The discourse of “development” is aimed at conditioning the self-attitude and conduct of the workers so that they will behave (Davidson 2003) in accordance with cultural norms and the “quality-based” occupational hierarchy in China. The governmental knowledge that has been facilitated by the everyday “carceral network” to continuously inculcate forms of discourses of truth in the minds of workers is inherent to this normative Chinese cultural behavior (Clifford 2001). This then enables the ongoing production and reproduction of docile minds and bodies by co-opting workers’ thoughts, bodies, and movements to serve the will of the CCP within the power-knowledge networks in China.


This chapter has engaged with Foucault’s (1980a, b) genealogical work of governmentality to explore the governmental technologies that are exercised by the post-Mao CCP leaders both to maintain their monopoly on political power and secure an abundantly cheap and docile labor force for ongoing economic development. Drawing on historical cycles since the Zhou dynasty (13th B.C.E.) (see “The Making of a Docile Working Class in Pre-reform China”), the chapter has argued that the CCP continues to consolidate their “mandate” to rule by continuing the (re-) production of docile bodies and minds among Chinese workers through the internalization of the Confucian concepts of filial piety and social status. These concepts are updated and embedded in the new governmental discourses of “quality” (suzhi素質), stability maintenance (weiwen 維穩), well-off (xiaokang 小康), and harmonious society (hexie shehui 和諧社會) through their power-knowledge networks to guide the “low personal quality” workers to think of themselves as destined for marginal positions (or governmentality) in their everyday lives in China’s thought management programs. Because of this, it is debatable whether Chinese workers can overcome the centuries-old cultivation of docile bodies and minds among themselves to engage in activism that will lead to the formation of an active working class to improve their living and working conditions for themselves and others in China.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Business SchoolUniversity of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

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