In her 2019 book “Work, Without Working,” the writer Lin An shares interviews with 20 members of China’s alternative, self-employed workforce. Lin breaks their experiences down into four categories: freelancers with specialized skills; entrepreneurs; business owners; and young people with “slash” careers, such as photographers/Airbnb owners. “Despite their diversity and heterogeneity, their common ground is that they all work for themselves, not for others,” she writes.
It’s a portrayal that stands in stark contrast to the long-standing, mostly negative connotations attached to freelancers and the self-employed in China. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China’s craftspeople, poets, novelists, painters, and opera singers were folded into the government, state-owned enterprises, or other work units. For instance, dozens of ceramic craftspeople and workshop owners in the historic porcelain production center of Jingdezhen were incorporated into 10 government-owned porcelain factories in the 1950s and 1960s.
It would not be until the economic reforms of the late 1970s — when the private economy was officially reinstated and state-organized work units were gradually disbanded or reorganized — that these workers were again entitled to decide the way they worked and created. But even then, they preferred to think of themselves as “artisans” rather than freelancers or the self-employed.
Donglai, the professional name of a freelancer in the literary and cultural industries I interviewed, has struggled to make her parents understand her work arrangements, despite her considerable income. Part of the issue is generational. Her parents grew up during the socialist era when jobs were allocated by the state, employment was guaranteed, and benefits were assured; for them, it can be hard to imagine a lifestyle involving an independent, stay-at-home job outside of the danwei, or work unit, system.
Their criticisms, like much of the public discourse around freelancing in China, are based on stereotypes depicting the career path as generally unstable and insecure. But China’s younger generation no longer sees it that way. While large companies can still use stability and benefits to lure talent, extreme working hours, glass ceilings, and office politics often diminish their appeal to young Chinese.
By comparison, freelancing or self-employment seemingly represents a more evolved way of working: flexible, independent, and potentially even higher-paying. Freelancing can also be a way to express one’s individuality. For instance, a photographer based in the central city of Wuhan emphasized to me that she takes pride in her status as an independent photographer, in part because it “signifies to other people that I’m different from those working for a photography company.”
Yet, while freelancing may be gaining legitimacy, freelancers still face questions about their professional paths, especially from those in economically sluggish regions or relatively conservative families. And many young people’s overly romantic notions of the self-employed life only reinforce its marginalization. After all, being self-employed doesn’t free a person from having to handle things like taxes and insurance; it just means they have to take care of them on their own, all while facing a labor market that often ignores their very existence.
In response, China has in recent years seen the emergence of organizations aimed at serving and supporting freelancers. Self-Employment for Self-Sufficiency, based in the southern city of Guangzhou, was founded in 2016, and since 2018 has organized annual events like Freelancers’ Day. Major cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing all have similar groups, with mottoes like “Work without working,” “Exploring the other possibilities in life,” and “Self-employed for self-sufficiency.”
These events and the conversations and narratives they engender have helped shift public and official perceptions of the self-employed and freelancers as either slackers or those who are “liberated.” In particular, freelancer groups note that becoming a freelancer doesn’t necessarily set one free. In place of set working hours, many freelancers have to be on call all day, which means they need to get used to a schedule potentially more demanding than one at a traditional job. This requires a high degree of self-discipline at odds with public notions of “undisciplined” and “idle” freelancers.
Meanwhile, the government is still figuring out what to do with its rising population of self-employed individuals, who in the eyes of officials represent a new social stratum that has yet to be fully integrated into China’s system of social governance. Currently, the Chinese mainland lacks even a clear and standardized classification for the self-employed, instead adopting a hodgepodge of labels such as “freelancers,” “flexible workers,” or even “unemployed.”
None of these terms manages to fully capture the professional characteristics of this emerging class. They also make a poor comparison to the situation in some more mature and developed labor markets, which have already set up dedicated paths for the self-employed to file taxes, participate in state-backed social security schemes, and even benefit from preferential business policies — just like their “employed” peers.
With the rise of the platform economy and companies’ push worldwide to experiment with flexible and home-based work environments in the shadow of COVID-19, it’s increasingly possible that many of us will become self-employed or have to work with the self-employed at some point in our careers. Continuing to romanticize or marginalize this group, whether socially or administratively, serves no one.
Rather than treat freelancers as somehow lower than other professionals, or write them off them as free-thinking, unconventional thrill-seekers, policy makers should view them neutrally and analytically. Neither “losers” nor “free souls,” Lin An was right when she characterized them as simply workers who work for themselves, and they deserve the same chances and opportunities as everyone else.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: E+/People Visual)