As a researcher of culture, I was recently perturbed by a viral online article entitled “The Brutal Language of Those at the Bottom: The Chinese Countryside in an App.” The piece was about Kuaishou, a type of video-streaming service that is currently China’s fourth-largest mobile app after WeChat, QQ, and Sina Weibo. I had never heard of it before, let alone subscribed to it.
The majority of the content on Kuaishou is made up of self-harm videos with “comic” twists, rather like the American TV show “Jackass.” Viewers can watch daredevils do everything from swallowing lightbulbs to lighting firecrackers under their own backsides. Those taking part are almost all from smaller, third-tier cities or rural-urban fringe zones. They seek internet stardom by harming their bodies in unconventional ways.
A screenshot from Kuaishou shows a man setting off firecrackers on his head.
The emergence of this phenomenon lies in the fact that for those outside China’s wealthier and more cosmopolitan cities, there is a perception that internet celebrities are able to rake in tens of thousands of yuan every month just by live-streaming themselves eating or sleeping.
However, away from these glittering metropolises, those dreaming of online fandom often see self-harm videos as their route to success. In addition, although their fans number in the millions, they are often only able to bring in advertising revenue for cheap quality or counterfeit goods aimed at the lower social classes. The reality is a far cry from the great Internet sensations whose wealth and brand ambassadorship they are trying to emulate.
Kuaishou culture captures, in a particularly eye-watering way, the “cultural” difficulties of the poor in contemporary China, an issue that I have recently been studying.
Since photos and videos of the supremely self-confident Shi Hengxia, now an actor and singer by the name of “Lotus Girl,” first hit the forums at Peking and Tsinghua universities back in 2004, more and more people have begun to see the “ugly” antics of so-called losers (feichai) as sources of entertainment. By satirizing the fame, lifestyles, and amusements of an insular, urban middle class, celebrities such as Pang Mailang and Ye Liangchen have all become mainstays for young internet users looking to kill some time. Alongside them has emerged the famous practice of “dressing ugly,” perhaps best exemplified by Evonne and Zhang Quandan, who satisfy the popular demand for satirized consumption.
In a consumer society that seemingly lives by the adage “I buy, therefore I am,” being poor no longer means you don’t have property or a job; it simply means you are not consuming. If someone is unable to fulfill their most important responsibility to a consumer society — that is, consuming things — they fall into the category of the “new poor,” or someone whose existence is not defined as meaningful by the society around them.
Consumer societies have a zero-tolerance attitude toward the poor. They not only scrub them out via all kinds of material means; they also, by sustained negative depictions and nomenclature, use cultural means to portray them as an ignorant, vulgar, backward, and even evil social group. In this way, such societies impose a form of psychological segregation on them. The stigma ensures that the new poor in a consumerist society are seen as morally corrupt and therefore not worth the sympathy of the majority. Against this backdrop, modern Chinese society is given license to vilify the poor and lionize the rich.
At the same time, as “defective” consumers, the new poor have no recourse to successfully establish self-identity and satisfy their own desires. Regardless of whether they are aware that personal identity and desire is in constant dialogue with the dominant consumerist ideology, the new poor may still suffer from self-loathing, feelings of failure, and diminished self-respect. The greatest aspiration of the new poor is the continual accrual of consumer power — having the money to buy things, and then actually buying them — as this offers a route back into mainstream society. The new poor dream of getting rich quick, a dream they see emblazoned on everyone around them. This is typified by a popular internet expression: “Today you might walk right past me, but tomorrow you’ll be in my dust.”
For now at least, the new poor of global consumer societies have not yet come together in search of an overall solution to the problem. For this reason, in his book “Work, Consumerism and the New Poor,” British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman concluded that the new poor are unable to form a social class through which meaningful change can be achieved. However, the Chinese scholar Wang Hui holds a different opinion. In his important paper on the subject, “The Two Kinds of New Poor and Their Future: The Decline of Class Politics, Reformulation, and the New Poor’s Politics of Dignity,” Wang asserts that the new poor cannot be viewed merely through the prism of consumption, as Bauman suggests, because that paints an overly pessimistic picture of their political capacity. In fact, the last five years have shown that the social media-savvy new poor are more than capable of mobilizing people behind their political imagination. This was best demonstrated by the protests that sprung up in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Wang believes that two groups, new workers and new poor, “collectively constitute the two sides of the concept of ‘poor people’ in contemporary China.” He hopes for a time when the new poor and new workers unite and even interact with each other, thereby transcending their typical divisions and reforming themselves as a politicized new social class, before launching a newer, more universal form of social mobilization.
It seems, however, that the people live-streaming self-harm videos on Kuaishou do not fit neatly into the category of new poor. After all, they are still able to earn a certain amount of money through advertising revenue. Hooked on the internet all day and without stable work, they are equally as difficult to pigeonhole as new workers. Yet in cultural terms, their poverty is plain for all to see.
Even more tragically, having never known a time when society was not built around consumerism, they are ill-equipped with the tools to resist it. For that reason, many scholars on the left do not carry the high hopes for them that they have for the new workers and new poor. Yet these young people, marooned in the twilight zone between city and countryside, devoid of a true sense of belonging outside of a virtual space, have not only numbers on their side, but also an affinity with other social groups, like first-generation left-behind children and the new generation of migrant workers. In the last few years, the problems faced by these last two groups have been prominently made public through the use of extreme behavior, such as the Gansu mother who poisoned her four children before committing suicide earlier this month.
My concern is that if they do not win recognition as part of the social class of new workers, and so are unable to help recover the dignity of the new poor that comes with a campaign of repoliticization, how can they assert themselves in China’s future politics? If we take, say, Negri and Hardt’s concept of the “multitude” as an example of a collective social entity capable of interacting with the political world, we can perhaps incorporate them alongside other marginal groups, such as shamate and guaiyi (a subculture which celebrates an eccentric, almost freakish aesthetic). This would serve to place certain social expectations on them.
In my opinion, however, if we get everyone to rally behind the flag of the multitude, it could eventually replace the concept of “class,” which would imply that the social definitions brought about by the unique experiences of the 20th-century Chinese revolution have to some extent been abandoned. In China, home to the largest industrial working class on the planet, how far can we truly take an alliance of the multitude which shirks the question of class?
(Header image: Two men wearing boxes on their heads have a barbecue in a Shanghai park as another man live-streams them, Jan. 15, 2016. Yang Shenlai/Sixth Tone.)