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Author: Wing-Chung Ho

This book is about the lived experience of occupationally sick workers in China. When China initiated its economic reform in 1978, the Pearl River Delta (PRD) started attracting immense industrial capital from Hong Kong. The aftermath of the Zhili fire marked the invention and consolidation of different strategies on the part of Hong Kong-based NGOs to protect the rights of Chinese workers. The spinning-off of Labor Action China (LAC) from Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) in 2005 was prompted by the surge of pneumoconiosis cases among gemstone/jewelry workers in Guangdong province. In understanding the post-illness experiences of sick Chinese workers, the book subscribes to Michel Foucault's view that they face a hybrid of powers involving sovereignty, discipline, and governmentality. It argues that the social estrangement of Chinese sick workers can be understood as an instantiation of Agamben's notion of homo sacer - the ultimate biopolitical subject whose life is located outside "normal" political, economic, and cultural practices. The narratives of cadmium-poisoned workers suggest that they usually find themselves in situations where their rights are being exploited. Sick workers tend to strategize their pursuit of compensation toward the mode of "rightful resistance". The book sheds light on one response pattern observed at the actor-power interface, the compromising citizenry. It discusses the three major types of preferred ways of seeking compensation solicited from different groups of occupationally sick workers, namely, the craving for sick role status, rightful resistance, and compromising citizenry, can be considered as struggles for obtaining "legality".

Wing-Chung Ho

The post-illness experiences of the sick worker in China constitute a prism through which state power is enmeshed with legality, interpersonal relationships, and cultural schema in society. In understanding the post-illness experiences of sick Chinese workers, the author subscribes to Foucault's view that they face a hybrid of powers involving sovereignty, discipline, and governmentality. Acknowledging a hybrid of powers, the author's own formulation to the experience of social estrangement in the context of China is premised on two pairs of conceptual correlates: homo sacer - sovereignty; and stranger - governmentality. Inspired by the studies into everyday life and governmentality, the fieldwork is concerned with the way different occupationally sick workers strategize their actions for pursuing compensation. It is assumed that their strategization outside the political field reflects the taken-for-granted assumptions in everyday life, which allow us to glimpse into how power is interwoven into everyday life.

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Wing-Chung Ho

This chapter endeavors to establish sick Chinese workers as homines sacri with more fieldwork data. Its major argument is built upon the creation of a "zone of indistinction" which constitutes post-illness experience of occupationally sick workers in China. Not only does it effectively constitute sick workers as homines sacri susceptible to more violent forms of power, but also largely hides the problem of occupational disease from members of the public. Understandably, during the author's fieldwork, all sick workers reported that their illness had adversely affected their normal work lives. The chapter shows how the character of occupational disease patients is elided between the public and the private, and the productive and the unproductive. It also shows how the character of patients is elided between the culturally normative and deviant in situations where the biopower inherent in the specific set of social regulations and power relations has been exercised rather efficaciously.

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Contesting for sick role status
Wing-Chung Ho

The narratives of cadmium-poisoned workers suggest that they usually find themselves in situations where specific rules and regulations are enforced, but their rights are being exploited. For instance, cadmium poisoning is stipulated in the national laws as an occupational disease, but it is not allied or associated with any scheme to ensure proper compensation. The employer indeed would follow the court ruling to provide workers with healthcare subsidies, but would offer health supplements that were of poor quality and milk powder that was toxic. Workers had the constitutional right to protest, but would receive no positive treatment from the local government, police, and hospital when faced with violent suppression. Under these circumstances, the sick workers are turned into homines sacri and their experience of estrangement may be understood in terms of a "state of exception" in which the law is "in force without signifying".

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Toward rightful resistance
Wing-Chung Ho

The author's extended observations in the field across different locations suggest that the vast majority of pneumoconiosis sufferers who had worked in factories in the coastal region are poisers or retreatists (forty out of forty-eight). What he means is that while the proportion of those with critical health conditions is difficult to ascertain, only a small proportion exhibits adaptation and transcendence when facing marginalization. Such a response pattern is undoubtedly determined by various factors at the individual and family levels, such as personality traits, the pathogenicity of the disease, educational level (knowledge of the legal terms), and household finances. However, this response pattern also reflects wider structural forces in society, which shape their attitudes and structure of preference, and subsequently their post-illness life trajectories. The author considers that sick workers tend to strategize their pursuit of compensation toward the mode of "rightful resistance".

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Abstract only
The compromising citizenry
Wing-Chung Ho

This chapter explores dozens of inland provincial peasant coal miners who suffer from coal miners' pneumoconiosis (CWP) and supports this criticism. The sick coal miners express an unwillingness to pursue their rights through the courts or enact rightful resistance if the courts or other formal institutions fall short in delivering the promised rights. The concept of "rightful resistance" has been criticized for portraying peasants as having an overly rationalistic outlook, hence suffering from a lack of "peasantness" which shortchanges the relevant history and culture. The chapter explores the way the sick coal miners strategize their action for pursuing compensation, which is supposedly determined by their attitudes and structure of preference in everyday life. In order to achieve this, it analyzes several casual conversations between the sick coal miners, Pingkwan, and the author's fieldwork assistants Mengguo and Zhouchang.

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Wing-Chung Ho

This chapter argues that the preferred mode of struggle among the three sick worker groups, namely the carving out of a "sick role" status, rightful resistance, and compromising citizenry, could be considered as a struggle of legality. All the accounts provided not only reflect how sick workers make sense of the existing legal system, but also the predispositions of individuals that shape their daily struggles at the actor-power interface. The chapter supplements the discussion of the concept of governmentality by focusing on previous scholarship on Chinese governmentality. Central to the discussion is the notion that former discussions on the "art of government" in China generally omit the relationship between governmentality and other forms of power such as sovereignty and discipline. The chapter also recapitulates the key features of different groups of sick workers, and recasts them as struggles for legality.

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China
Abstract only
The future of Chinese marginality
Wing-Chung Ho

This conclusion presents some concluding thoughts on key concepts covered in this book. The book presents a portrayal of sufferers of occupational disease as bio-political subjects whose lives are located neither inside nor outside "normal" political, economic, and cultural practices. Based on the fieldwork observations from a bottom-up ethnographic perspective, the chapter argues that the law is a governmentality technique which operates to marginalize millions of sick Chinese workers through shaping their desires, aspirations, interests, and beliefs in pursuing legally-stipulated compensation. The author's fieldwork observations reflect the preferred modes of struggle among the three sick worker groups, which are obtaining an official "sick role" status, rightful resistance, and compromising citizenry. Strategized in everyday life, these resistances represent various struggles on the part of sick workers for claiming legality in their pursuit of compensation. These struggles are conceptualized in terms of "conforming resistance".

in Occupational health and social estrangement in China