Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nick Admussen reviews On the Edge

Margaret Hillenbrand. On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. 378pp.

Review by Nick Admussen

21 March 2024

On the Edge gets underneath and past notions of contemporary Chinese precarity by illuminating its real stakes: the possibility of political, economic, and social expulsion from the Chinese polity that sends individuals over a cliff edge into what the author calls “zombie citizenship,” a form of bare life named not after action movies but after Haitian conceptualizations of the dehumanized but not-quite-dead persistence of the slave (p. xiii). The prospect of expulsion from personhood that is now being experienced by migrant laborers, in Margaret Hillenbrand’s argument, echoes up and down Chinese society in the form of anxiety (that any subject could be expelled at any time), competitiveness (as subjects vie to stay above the line), and anger (at inequality, or at the harmony-disturbing sight of the abject and destroyed worker).

The book’s secret archive is the extent to which underclass laborers in urban China can be maimed, evicted, targeted for wage theft, sneered at, and abandoned; its concrete archive is a wide variety of contemporary media moments that serve as flashpoints for class-based conflict. Chapter 1 studies avant-garde delegated performance, in which artists hire laborers to perform on their behalf; chapter 2 reads contemporary art made from refuse; chapter 3 is on the migrant worker poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong; chapter 4 is about workers making public threats of suicide, often in order to receive back wages; chapter 5 covers rural microcelebrities on the short video site Kuaishou. In each situation, Hillenbrand finds that class conflict is often sublimated into a struggle over whether conflict itself can be expressed or should be harmonized, mitigated, or censored.

Chapters 1 and 5 are standouts, examining extremely contemporary materials with a judiciousness and critical eye that skewers, for example, avant-garde artists who benefit from cheap labor while pretending to draw attention to its inequities. Chapter 5 describes a highly popular but little-studied social media scene dominated by rural people acting out a disruptive, subversive tuwei (homespun, crude, coarse) identity and the ways that the state, documentarians, and bourgeois commentators attempt to constrain their self-expression. The emphasis on visual culture sometimes flattens worker experience as in chapter 4, where middle-class critiques of the theatricality of so-called tiaolou xiu (suicide shows) of aggrieved workers end up echoed in the critical discussion, seen through a camera from afar. Public suicide is absolutely a spectacle in contemporary China, but it is not exclusively spectacle.

Read as a whole, this book is to be commended for cutting through the pieties that accumulate around stories of precarious labor. In Hillenbrand’s analysis, the fear and loathing generated by social inequality affect all parts of society and are as much a part of the anomie and anxious aggression of the rich as they are the resistance of the poor. Workers will assert rights in China not because they are seen as sympathetic by outside observers but because their lives have reached a boiling point. Their self-expression is driven not by revolutionary insight but a struggle to breathe. Hillenbrand records the thrashing of the Chinese body politic in a way that makes this book necessary reading for anyone interested in the wages of drastic economic disparity, in China or beyond.