This article is the second in a two-part series on the difficulty of living an “alternative” lifestyle in contemporary China. The first can be found here.
Back in 2015, while sitting in on a researcher-organized focus group for shoppers involved with China’s Alternative Food Networks (AFN) movement, I found myself listening intently as a young woman named Qi described how connecting with an alternative farm had been a healing process for her. Young and casually dressed, yet visibly serious and committed, Qi talked about how reinventing her consumption habits helped soothe her economic and social anxiety as a migrant living in Beijing, and how she hoped the farm would continue to do the same for others mired in an increasingly consumerist society.
Qi had just begun to suggest reinforcing this sense of community and building environmental awareness by using baskets for deliveries instead of plastic bags when the other members shouted her down. “Your fridge must smell like a farm,” joked one. Another woman simply dismissed her, calling a “sense of community” sentimental nonsense in a tone that would brook no dissent. What mattered was professional and efficient management to ensure the provision of safe and high-quality food. Qi was silenced, and the conversation quickly shifted back to less “sentimental” topics: price, transport, and preservation methods.
Chinese AFNs grew out of a global movement. Like their international counterparts, they are comprised of networked organic farms, farmers markets, and distributors who stand outside market-based — or in some cases, state-run — food provision systems.
To survive, AFNs around the world generally depend on small groups of dedicated members and supporters, bound together by communal values. Their motivations may differ — in the United States, AFNs tend to focus on control over the food supply, whereas in the U.K. there’s a greater emphasis on policy reform — but regardless, they function to enhance community bonds while opening new economic and social spaces up for discussion.
Yet one thing I’ve observed during my research on AFNs in China is that members have a hard time developing these kinds of intimate social bonds. They generally do not share values — only practical, commodity-based interests. This not only frustrates the organizers but also those who, like Qi, are searching for an alternative values system, not just an alternate food supply.
Qi was unique in the focus group not only for her romanticism, but also for her limited financial resources: Unmarried, she had just quit an exhausting job and was adrift in the capital, looking for community. Most of the other members were lawyers; several were full-time housewives who lived in a Beijing neighborhood famous for its wealth.
What brought this group together was their shared interest in — and willingness to pay for — safe, high-quality food products. To them, “alternative” simply meant a different purchasing channel, and they still expected AFNs to operate according to market logic.
This arrangement is common in Chinese AFNs. Scholars have found they are disproportionately consumer-focused, compared with AFNs abroad. Lacking shared values, they are bound together in practice by the principle of exchange: Farms provide quality produce, for which members compensate them handsomely. But this means members can be fickle, as there is little keeping them loyal to any particular grower.
Many organizers of AFNs thus feel pressured to constantly cater to their members’ whims. One cooperative farm I studied even changed its slogan from “cooperative management” to “serving clients” in an attempt to distinguish its professionalized business model from more utopian competitors.
Academics have argued since the 2000s that Chinese society is undergoing a process of individualization, in which values are becoming more diverse. But anthropologist Xiang Biao has pointed out that, instead of diversifying, people at all levels of society and economic status have largely embraced mass consumerism: They watch the same shows, long for the same status markers, and idealize the same lifestyles. At the same time, many find themselves in identical predicaments, facing similar anxieties, and forced to make the same sacrifices as everyone else.
Even those who try to break the cycle, such as urbanites who’ve abandoned the cities in favor of life in the countryside, find only temporary shelter. Constantly unsettled and unable to gain a firm foothold in life, they are stuck in constant lateral motion, but find it impossible to move forward — a state Xiang Biao calls “suspension.”
These problems may seem remote to the wealthy AFN members who did not see Qi as part of their community. Rich and secure, they occupy heights which most of the country’s migrants could only dream of.
Yet both migrant workers and professionals, despite their substantially different economic power and material conditions, are kept in suspension by some of the same worries and expectations that have cropped up as a result of the rapid development of China’s market economy: food safety scandals, a fiercely competitive education system, and a tightening job market. Professionals are simply better positioned try to dispel this unease by spending big on alternative food sources, expensive schools for their children, and luxury handbags.
None of these luxuries offer a real solution to the underlying malaise, however — merely a postponement. They allow for an illusion of choice, but they remain a far cry from providing a genuinely alternative way of life.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
The names of people and places have been changed to protect interview subjects’ privacy.
(Header image: Photographer’s Choice/People Visual))