From Mill Town to iPhone City:

Gender, Labor, and the Politics of Care in an Industrializing China (1949-2017)

Care work—labor to maintain daily subsistence and attend to the young, the sick, and the elderly—has become a newly invigorated field in gender and labor studies. The politics of care—how care work is defined, where it should occur, by whom it should be carried out, and whether or not it gets remunerated—has been a highly contested terrain in Chinese workplaces. This has been true in both the old state enterprises of the socialist era, which organized public childcare facilities, and in the private factories of today, the employment practices of which have generated millions of left-behind children in the countryside.

My book project examines transformations of care work in urban China from 1949 to the present. It draws on oral history, archival research, and ethnographic work accumulated during 16 months of fieldwork in Zhengzhou, a large industrial city in inland China. Having transitioned from a socialist textile mill town to the home of the world’s largest iPhone manufacturing center, Zhengzhou offers an important site to help us understand fundamental changes in the realm of care work that have accompanied China’s changing political economy.

I have identified three distinct care regimes in China’s urban industrial sector over the last seven decades: the socialist-redistributive care regime, the socialist-accumulative care regime, and the capitalist-accumulative care regime. By comparing these regimes, I show how the landscape of care work has been shaped by changing relationships between industrial accumulation, social reproduction, and the dominant gender order.

Placing the question of social reproduction at the center of labor politics, this project offers a feminist critique of the conventional production-centered sociology of labor. Through capturing the historical trajectory of care politics during an extended period that spans the transitions to socialist and capitalist industrial orders in China, it demonstrates the extent to which the organization and meaning of care work is historically and socially constructed. It also complicates the notion of “public care,” showing that prioritization of capital accumulation at the expense of social reproduction can lead to care crises not only in private but also in public systems of care.

Zhengzhou Textile Mill Zone, 1964


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