Dreadful Desires: A Conversation with Charlie Yi Zhang

In his new book, Dreadful Desires: The Uses of Love in Neoliberal China (Duke University Press, 2022), Charlie Yi Zhang explores how the Chinese State mobilises love to regulate the affective economy and life choices of its population. Affective notions of love, Zhang demonstrates, are constructed in a way that bolsters nationalism, heteronormativity, and neoliberalism—forces that render upward mobility unattainable for many. Through ethnographic research and critical analysis of Chinese popular culture, Zhang argues that working-class Chinese people are motivated to work towards a good life that they can never quite achieve. As Ari Larissa Heinrich remarks in his endorsement of the book, Dreadful Desires ‘offers to do for love in China what Lauren Berlant, in Cruel Optimism, does for hope’. It prompts readers to consider how love can be weaponised to support oppressive systems of gender, class, and sexuality.


Shui-yin Sharon Yam: Why did you choose to focus on affect and emotion—specifically, love—to examine the neoliberal Chinese State?

Charlie Yi Zhang: I first came to the United States for graduate school in the fall of 2008. Right after I started my graduate studies at Arizona State University, a financial meltdown took place in the United States and soon raged across the world. Its disastrous consequences spawned heated debates over the neoliberal model of market fundamentalism, which was considered to have paved the ground for the crisis. While the United States and Europe were mired in the financial trouble and ensuing recession for years, China pulled itself swiftly out of the turmoil through a $586 billion stimulus package. Acting as a benevolent lender, it also morphed into a saviour of the Western world. With the support of larger policy toolkits, long-term state planning, and higher allegiances of enterprises to the government, the China model was embraced by critics of the Western neoliberal paradigm as the alternative to solve the worsening economic problems at the time. But as someone who grew up during China’s transformation since the Reform and Opening Up in 1978, I see its social upheavals as part of, rather than external to, the global neoliberal restructuring. I decided to pursue this topic in my dissertation and explore how China has become an integral part of the global neoliberal system while simultaneously emerging as an ‘Other’ to it.

Undoubtedly, the so-called China model has kindled enduring interest and curiosity among academics. Many scholars propose new frameworks—such as ‘State Capitalism’, ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’, ‘Contagious Capitalism’, or ‘Market Leninism’—to capture and explain China’s dazzling development as a top-down process of structural changes. Informed by anthropologists such as Aihwa Ong, Lisa Rofel, and Stephen Collier, I take a different approach, hoping to develop a grounded and holistic view showing how market subjects—or ‘Homo economicus’—are created within a tightly controlled society to liberalise the economic system and fulfil the marketising transition. I find Michel Foucault’s framework of biopower and biopolitics useful for my project, which provides me with a tool to engage with how identity-induced categorisation shapes individualities and realigns Chinese people’s self-regimentation with a mode of social life that is mainly driven by the market rather than by the state. Like some critical scholars, such as Pun Ngai, Yan Hairong, and Everett Yuehong Zhang, I use Foucauldian analytics to trace how categories of gender, sexuality, and class are manipulated and deployed as governing techniques to create different subjects for exploitative use by capital and the state—a shift of self-governance that lays the ground for structural changes.

I also find the Foucauldian framework inadequate to develop a full picture of the dynamic process through which the gendered, sexualised, and classed biopolitical instruments are translated into individual subjectivities in line with the neoliberalising agenda. As Foucault suggests, the raison d’être of neoliberal governance is to create rational subjects who are motivated to maximise their personal interests to sustain market competition as the central mechanism to organise and administer the whole society. But as my fieldwork shows, the sacrificial love for their family, instead of calculative rationality to optimise personal interests, is the major driving force that motivates many rural workers to take on detrimental and even life-threatening jobs. This form of love generates thick affective attachments, moving them out of themselves, often against their rational calculation, towards the good-life dream that this love is expected to help them realise. In other words, they are reproduced as ‘irrational’ dream-pursuers willing to work for all but their own wellbeing, contributing to a seemingly inexhaustible source of labour for the collective interests of the state and capital.

Scholarship of affect studies is vital for me to reframe my conception of neoliberalism. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) offers a formidable example elucidating how neoliberalism works not only through calculative rationality, but also through affect to modulate and orient our sensibilities and sense-abilities. Neoliberalism, she suggests, is not just ‘a world-homogenizing sovereign with coherent intentions that produces subjects who serve its interests, such that their singular actions only seem personal, effective, and freely intentional’; but also, more importantly, takes shape through ‘the messy dynamics of attachment, self-continuity, and the reproduction of life that are the material scenes of living on in the present’ (Berlant 2011: 15). As our shared historical present, neoliberalism is ‘a thing that is sensed and under constant revision’ through what Berlant calls ‘a fantasy of the good life’ (2011: 3). With the promise of ‘upward mobility, job security, political and social equality … durable intimacy … [and] meritocracy’ (Berlant 2011: 3–4), this fantasy energises and forages in the postwar restructuring in Europe and the United States by plunging people into the endless search for a good life that often ends up being disappointing rather than fulfilling.

My book can thus be seen as an intervention to the claim of universal rationality as the epistemic foundation of neoliberalism and ideological leverage of its global domination. It interrogates the ways in which the Chinese State appeals to and re-creates emotive attachments surrounding the family-centred form of love, and integrates rationalised biopolitical control with pre-emptive conditioning of affective tendencies to energise and stabilise China’s transition from socialism to neoliberalism. Showing how affect, particularly that of love, and rationality are implicated with each other through manipulative production and reproduction of gendered, sexualised, and classed disparities, I discern and dissect the central mechanism as what I call the ‘difference-making machinery’ that plays a key role in enabling and sustaining the unfolding of neoliberal relationships in the Chinese and transnational contexts. Like the workers interviewed for this project, I came from a lower-class background and left my home at an early age, then moved out of China and across the Pacific Ocean in my late twenties to pursue my good-life dream. I share their conflicted feelings about the love-ignited aspiration and fully identify with them. I feel obligated to unpack this love-informed mirage that is essential to China’s neoliberal transition.

SSY: In your book, you examine a wide range of cultural artefacts and ethnographic data. Can you tell us more about your methodology? How did you decide what data to collect and analyse, and how did you deploy an intersectional feminist approach?

CYZ: I was trained in gender and sexuality studies—an interdisciplinary field that is driven by issues of social inequality and foregrounds the promotion of social justice as its goal. Instead of being trained in established epistemological paradigms and methodological trajectories, we approach social problems from multiple perspectives that require methodological flexibilities to develop a holistic view for solution. As mentioned above, my book project aims to identify and unpack the mechanism that both integrates China into and separates it from the global neoliberal system, which calls for multidisciplinary resources and mixed analytical tools to engage the dynamics between structural changes and people’s mundane lives for a holistic understanding of China’s social upheavals. In this light, the book is divided into two parts. The first part probes the temporal and sociospatial registers of the affective structure of love to demonstrate how desires for a good family life are orchestrated in ways to serve the interests of the state and capital. It focuses on public culture as the major object of analysis, attending to the intertextual and extratextual modalities of transnational discursive exchanges as they circulate between China and other parts of the world to plot the genealogies and topologies of love as meted out of the phantasmagorical vectors of gender, class, sexuality, and race/ethnicity. The second part examines how affectively registered love and rationalised biopolitical regulation are coordinated by the bifurcated engineering of differences of gender, sexuality, ethno-race, and class to complement each other in sponsoring China’s neoliberalisation and neocolonial expansion, while spawning unending contradictions that create room for subsistence and survival for subaltern groups, such as migrant workers and well-educated urban women, who are considered to be ‘unlovable’ and ‘unable to love’. This part draws on formal interviews, informal conversations, focus groups, and participant observation, and supplements and cross-references the empirical data with the findings of the discursive analysis shown in the first part. Drawing on a variety of materials, it keeps track of people’s quotidian lives as the grounded effects of the difference-making machinery to illustrate how it subtends and upholds the transnational neoliberal system and spawns fissures and ruptures for substantive social change.

As noted by many feminist scholars of colour and transnational backgrounds, another limitation of Foucault’s analytics of biopower and biopolitics is its one-layered, sexuality-focused, and flattened scope. For example, Patricia Hill Collins (2008) proffers a lucid revelation showing how other biopolitical parameters, such as gender and race, interconnect and interact with sexuality to build a multidimensional and multidirectional controlling and regulative system that she calls the ‘matrix of domination’. This apparatus has expanded its vectors wildly and relentlessly across nation-state boundaries in the age of globalisation and taken a far more complicated shape to set up, distribute, and administer variously organised disciplinary and regulatory regimes to substantiate and invigorate neoliberalism’s global reign. Taking cues from women of colour and transnational feminisms, I posit that the difference-making machinery has knitted a multidirectional and multidimensional network to shore up the daily operation of global neoliberalism. Via the intertwined parameters of gender, sexuality, class, and race/ethnicity, new patterns of disparities are generated in transnational settings to pit the working majority against one another for manipulative uses by capital to squeeze the most out of their labour value. In the meantime, social hierarchies are reproduced through this power-web at local levels to alienate the marginalised majority from each other, thwart their collective energies that can shake the institutionalised systems and established apparatuses skewed towards capital and the elite minority, reinforce the market-centred paradigm of governing, and perpetuate the uneven distribution of benefits and opportunities across the globe. To capture and unmask this machinery’s cross-border operation, I take an intersectional approach to build a nodal point—‘a gathering place for open-ended investigations of the overlapping and conflicting dynamics of race, gender, class, sexuality, nation, and other inequalities’ (Cho et al. 2013: 788).

Its analytical sharpness for structural and systemic inequalities notwithstanding, the intersectional approach, as Jasbir Puar (2007: 212) points out, also suffers a lacuna in that it

demands the knowing, naming, and thus stabilizing of identity across space and time, relying on the logic of equivalence and analogy between various axes of identity and generating narratives of progress that deny the fictive and performative aspects of identification.

To redress this problem, queer or colour analysis proffers a methodology of ‘working on and against categories’ that José Esteban Muñoz (1999: 11–12) calls ‘disidentification’, and strives to ‘enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance’ to transform ‘a cultural logic from within’. Echoing the call for the integration of intersectionality and the queering methodology, I remain attentive to the messiness, interstices, and built-in connections of different and differentiating biopolitical parameters that are seen as self-evident, pre-established, and beyond meaningful scrutiny. Moreover, showing that emerging patterns of difference in gender, sexuality, class, and race/ethnicity are relational rather than oppositional, my goal is not to re-create normative biopolitical parameters to perpetuate neoliberal dominance, but to call for concerted endeavours to move beyond the status quo for concrete social change.

SSY: Part of your book is based on ethnographic research and interviews with rural migrants, local farmers, and workers. What aspects of their experiences do you think need to be further amplified to develop a more robust understanding of neoliberal China?

CYZ: Most of the fieldwork about the migrant worker communities was completed in the spring and summer of 2012 when China’s neoliberal economy reached its apex in the so-called Golden Age—that is, the first post–WTO-entry decade under the leadership of President Hu Jintao (2003–13). Building on this empirical work, I provide some relatively positive accounts of the lives of workers in my book. For instance, the divergent modus operandi of the biopolitical system and affective structure of love have spawned the relative labour crisis that severely impacted the export-processing and construction industries in China. This labour shortage contributed to some concrete changes for those at the lower end of the labour division, such as improved working conditions and increased incomes. However, the enlarging rift between China and the Western world and, in particular, the intensifying geopolitical rivalry with the United States and the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated the economic decoupling process. As a result, many manufacturing jobs have been relocated to countries in South and Southeast Asia, and the real estate bubble in China appears to be bursting. Undoubtedly, migrant workers and rural residents bear the brunt of the recession, and many of them are struggling with the economic hardships, which are further compounded by the Chinese Government’s stern zero-Covid policies. New empirical work is much needed to reflect the new trend. Moreover, my analysis predominantly focuses on the life stories of the migrant workers who are impelled by their love for the family to work away from home while the lived experience of those left behind at home by them—namely, their children and ageing parents—is barely discussed in the book. I hope to address this lacuna in my future work to develop a more robust understanding of contemporary China.

More importantly, as President Xi Jinping secured his third term at the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, there are more signs that the Party-State is ready to retreat from the market-driven neoliberal model and revert to the autarkic socialist planned economy as China is mired in aggravated socioeconomic and geopolitical predicaments. Building on the sophisticated surveillance system powered by digital technologies, the Chinese State is now equipped to achieve real-time control across Chinese society in ways that the Maoist regime was never able to and to re-establish the self-reliant economic system if pressure keeps mounting and explodes into irrevocable consequences. Scholars should continue to engage with the changes that derive from the restructuring process and keep a critical eye on emerging patterns of disparities spawned by China’s transition from neoliberalism to what Xi calls ‘socialist modernisation’.

SSY: Your book attends to the ways in which gender normativity, patriarchy, and heteronormative intimacy bolster Chinese neoliberalism and nationalism at the expense of marginalised workers and working-class people. Why is an attuning to gender, sexuality, and affect important in understanding political economy and nation-building?

CYZ: As Aihwa Ong (1999) and Nancy Fraser (2009) both point out, the dominant framework in the studies of neoliberal globalisation treats it as either homogenising economic rationalities or cultural dynamics that shape human identities of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity, and subjectivities. Indeed, as a set of contingent practices to solidify self-serving market fundamentalism as the first and foremost principle to reconstitute social life and human subjects and identities, neoliberalism, according to Foucault, steers and stewards global restructuring through the interpenetrating deployment of two forms of power: on the one hand, disciplinary power that centres on singular bodies to individualise human beings as self-interest–driven subjects to live the marketising telos; and on the other, sovereign power that targets the collective body of the ‘population’ to subtend, permeate, and perpetuate social institutions and infrastructures to create conditions and delimitations for the living of the marketising telos by the individualised subjects. The differing and often contradictory modus operandi of disciplinary and sovereign power for managing human populations and individual lives, as my book shows, are among the roots of unresolvable tensions between the national and the global as instantiated by the recent rising nationalist backlash against globalisation surging around the world.

My book traces the daily workings of the identity-grounded machinery of difference-making, the dynamics and processes of organising and configuring these differences to actualise neoliberal materialities and discursivities into subjectivities and lived experiences, while simultaneously mapping the contingent ruptures, cracks, and crevices within the machinery for transforming that actuality into otherwise. As the central argument of the book proposes, it is through the intersection of gender, class, sexuality, and race/ethnicity that a transnational network of power has been woven to drive and uphold global neoliberal restructuring. The disciplinary power wrought through gender, sexuality, class, and race/ethnicity produces differences across nation-state borders for capital to capture and turn into new opportunities for profit. Building on these identity categories, the network also generates new differences to redraw and patrol boundaries to perpetuate the unequal distribution of interests produced along and within nation-state borders. The intersectional system of difference-making lays a network that grounds the transversal flow of disciplinary and sovereign power to serve global neoliberalism: the former generates and reinforces differences to ground the latter for preserving and protecting vested interests, and the latter reconfigures and consolidates conditions, infrastructures, and institutions for the cross-border operation of the former to create new differences for more benefits. In brief, serving as the nexus, the network incessantly morphs and mutates to tackle the contradiction and tension emanating from the tug of war between the border-crossing disciplinary power to claim more interests that abounds in the global and the border-affirming sovereign power to restructure vested interests grounded in the national.

 SSY: While the book focuses on China, you have taken a decidedly transnational approach to your analysis, placing the Chinese State in conjunction with transnational neoliberal forces and right-wing nationalist politics. In my reading, doing so helps mitigate two damaging tendencies: romanticising China, and constructing a rigid binary between China and the West. Can you speak more about the importance of situating China’s political economy in a transnational context?

CYZ: In recent years, we have seen that nationalism, particularly extremist forms of nationalism, is on the rise across the world, prompting waves of backlash against economic globalisation. In his incendiary and vituperative inauguration speech in January 2017, Donald J. Trump portrayed a bleak picture of the United States and depicted millions of Americans as victims of globalisation. Promising that ‘the American people’ under his aegis would ‘be forgotten no longer’, he brought into light an inward-looking, nationalist–populist vision for remaking the country (Trump 2017). Just three days prior to Trump’s inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his plenary speech at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, made a different comment on globalisation and fervently defended its benefits. A major beneficiary of the globalised economy and victimiser of the working poor that Western politicians lambast frequently, China, in Xi’s words, is poised to take the mantle of leadership abandoned by Trump’s United States to push forth the globalising process, marking a sharp departure from the nationalist tidal wave in the developed world. Four months later, Xi opened China’s own globalisation forum with a $78 billion pledge that well befits its self-projected new role as the advocate and founder of a ‘Community of Common Destiny with Mankind’ (人类命运共同体) (Mardell 2017).

However, despite their contrasting world views and tones, Trump and Xi converged towards an identity-paved road that they lay out to lead their nationalist/globalist envisioning into fruition. Trump—stunning both the left and the right—rode a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and ableist campaign into the White House, vowing to upend identity-based ‘political correctness’, raze the established bureaucracies, and bring jobs back to salvage struggling US workers to ‘make America great again’. Comparably, Xi’s plan to ‘comprehensively deepen China’s reform’ and build a new growth model is undergirded and bolstered by gendered and classed biopolitics. In the policy package that he proposed in 2013 to initiate the most far-reaching economic reform since 1978, the plan to relax the population control of the One-Child Policy and the household registration system (hukou), among others, attracted the most attention. As I show in the book, building on the intersectional biopolitics of gender and class, the Chinese State developed an array of policies for the calculated management of the population and created an enormous pool of hyper-exploitable migrant workers to transform China from an economic backwater into one of the world’s most vibrant workshops.

These issues provide a starting point for my book: what is the mechanism that has integrated China into, but meanwhile set it apart from, the global network of capital dominated by the West until recently? Using a developmental powerhouse with continental proportions like China as a lens, what larger picture can we capture to apprehend the mechanism that has informed and enabled globalisation and, more recently, surging nationalist/antiglobalist uproar? Given the disturbing arrangements built on this mechanism, what are the conditions in which new forms of livelihood and sociality can emerge, survive, and thrive? And, if we believe all social life is material, grounded, and embodied on a daily basis, how can critical scholars committed to social change uncover and access these potentialities for a love-enabled future?

Centring on China’s social transformation, my book aims to cast new light on the underengaged interrelationship between neoliberal economics and the cultural politics of identities and subjectivities. The lack of analytical and methodological frameworks to fully account for and scrutinise, much less disrupt, this relationship creates the conditions for our current vexing conundrum. It leaves ample room for right-wing politicians like Trump to turn the presumably pluralist ‘identity politics’ on its head into a hateful, masculinist, and white-supremacist nationalist discourse and package it into a ‘pro-labour’ populist narrative—a strategy that secured his electoral victory—and to deepen and harden the privatising, deregulating, and welfare-slashing neoliberal agenda. It also enables autocratic rulers like Xi to manipulate identity-induced differences to reshape the Chinese population and individual lives to charge the economic enterprise and push forward its imperialist expansion, which, in turn, is justified by a self-righteous narrative of globalism/cosmopolitanism. The critical understanding of this relationship, as I see it, is the first step to build an alternative path that will lead us beyond the status quo to a better future.

SSY: Over the past few years, we have witnessed the proliferation of digital state surveillance in China and elsewhere. How has that influenced the affective attachments of Chinese people and those in the Sinophone world? What affective trends do you expect to see in the future?

CYZ: In the conclusion of the book, I briefly discuss the new paradigm of governance that is emerging in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As shown in the book, the Chinese State constantly resorted to the established disparities of gender, class, sexuality, and ethno-race to structure and regulate individual subjects and populations to fuel and sustain China’s neoliberal transition. In the face of the unrelenting challenges to and resistance from marginalised groups, it now strives to utilise state-of-the-art digital technologies and build an omnipresent surveillance system to fortify its manipulative management of the Chinese people by subjecting the gamut of emerging potentialities and affective tendencies associated with living to maximum control and real-time processing. With bio-molecular and organic qualities and textures opened for unencumbered access and ceaseless processing by the state, the body ‘no longer inhabits disciplinary spaces, but is inhabited by them’ (Puar 2017: 57), and the bodily habitation of the backwardly identified gendered, classed, sexualised, and ethno-racialised differences gives way to full-scale inhabitation of the body to mine granular variation and infinite mutation for future utilitarian differences. The goal is to trace all trails of human lives and living to forestall their actualisation into real crises and better garner their potentialities for the benefit of the Chinese State.

I elaborate on this new mode of pre-emptive governance in a new article that is forthcoming in The Journal of Asian Studies (Zhang and Zhang 2023). Using as an example Health Code, a smartphone-based application for contact tracing and risk assessment that has served as the Covid-19 health passport in China, we discuss how the pre-emptive social regulation that targets data rather than human subjects (through identity categories) has become a dominant mode of governance as China faced boiling crises spawned by its decades-long neoliberal practices—even before the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. Via a brief review of China’s transition from socialism to neoliberalism, we demonstrate how the tenet of citizenship shifts from ‘biological/biopolitical’ to ‘biometric’ as the state’s political and economic agenda shifts along the process. Using media coverage and comments from social media as primary sources of analysis, we also explicate how the use of Health Code helps the state consolidate the new mode of pre-emptive governance, turning the relatively stabilised temporal basis of biological/biopolitical citizenship into fragmented temporalities to tighten social control. It improves the state’s capacities of self-revamping and self-preservation and provides more options to harness people’s biopolitical values but disrupts the habituated way of living and further marginalises the groups with diminishing re/productive values. As a result, tangpingism (躺平主义, tangpingzhuyi, which means lying flat or doing nothing and promotes a minimalist lifestyle that rejects any consumption beyond the basic needs of subsistence) has become popular among many Chinese people. By reducing life to a minimum level with barely any contributions to the biopolitical agenda, this way of living is seen as ‘subversive’ by the state and poses a damning threat to the technologically engineered system of biometric citizenship aiming to fully register and harvest people’s life values. It can thus be viewed as a creative form of nonviolent resistance against the state apparatus empowered to prime the scope of life potentials for its own benefits and has piqued dramatic responses from the state. It has also been adopted by many people across Sinophone societies, including pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, as a nonconfrontational strategy to push back against the increasingly intrusive Chinese state power.



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Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is Associate Professor in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is a diasporic Hong Konger and the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship (2019). Her research focuses on transnational rhetoric, political emotions, gender, and race.

Charlie Yi Zhang

Charlie Yi Zhang is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. His research addresses the cultural, material, and affective ramifications of neoliberal restructuring in the Asia-Pacific through the lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class, and explores transnational networks of resistance to imperialist and neocolonial exploitation. Trained as an interdisciplinary scholar, Zhang has published research articles in top-ranking journals in several fields, including the Journal of Asian Studies, American Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, and Feminist Formations.

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