The recent COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai has once again highlighted the pandemic’s disparate impact on society’s most vulnerable members. While younger upper- and middle-class Chinese have largely been able to adapt to life under lockdown, the elderly, the disabled, and other marginalized groups have found life unbearable.
And then there is another largely invisible group: working-class and poor women dwelling in the city’s “Workers’ New Villages.” These were a public housing scheme established and operated by the state from the 1950s until the marketization of housing in the mid-1990s. In Shanghai and other Chinese cities, numerous Workers’ New Villages were built to house the influx of workers needed to meet the state’s ambitious industrialization goals.
The same marketization reforms that brought an end to Workers’ New Village development also led to a wave of layoffs at China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In the early 1990s, Workers’ New Villages went from working-class to low-income communities almost overnight, as many residents were laid off and fell into severe poverty. As with other legacies of China’s socialist period, today, many of the country’s Workers’ New Villages face various serious problems, including deterioration of the housing stock, while others are being gentrified.
Tellingly, however, the socialist legacy of China’s Workers’ New Villages is not simply one of decay. For women, the villages allowed them to play a central role in the management of their communities. Beginning in the 1950s, Workers’ New Villages adopted a dual organization and management model centered around work units and neighborhood committees. Although residents’ lives were dominated by the SOEs that employed them, they could still exercise a say over community affairs through participation in the neighborhood committees, which were composed of representatives selected by residents. Most of these representatives were and still are women.
The feminist scholar and historian Wang Zheng has argued persuasively that China’s neighborhood committees helped improve women’s social status within communities. At the same time, the work they perform has always been largely unpaid. As China modernized and urbanized over the past two decades and the country has rolled out new community-based welfare schemes, neighborhood committees have been tasked with even more responsibilities, ranging from allocating social benefits and subsidies to providing reemployment training and even caring for elderly residents who live alone.
Since 2017, my research team and I have sought to document what life is like for women in Shanghai’s remaining Workers’ New Villages. More recently, together with the scholars Zhang Yu, Liu Xi, and Xu Jie, I’ve explored the ramifications of COVID-19 on female residents the city has designated “impoverished and disadvantaged.”
For impoverished women dwelling in Workers’ New Villages, the outlook is rough. Apart from the difficulty of purchasing food and other daily necessities, they also struggle with limited living space. (In one community we studied, the housing units ranged between 17 and 32 square meters). Some women share facilities like washrooms and kitchens with another family, another legacy of the collective lifestyle introduced and promoted in the 1950s.
Interviews and diaries gathered from women residents of Workers’ New Villages also hint at how the pandemic has intensified gender inequality within families. To start, the pandemic has resulted in an uptick in domestic violence worldwide, and our research suggests that the cramped quarters of Workers’ New Villages are no exception. For instance, Aunty W — to protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms — wrote about how she left Shanghai and went back to her rural hometown in Northeast China to escape her husband’s abuse.
At the same time, many women continue to play an essential role in keeping their families afloat by taking care of children and the elderly. In a diary entry from June 2020, Mama C wrote: “At the beginning of the pandemic, the emotions of my child were completely out of control. My husband’s response was to suppress her. But I cannot. I am a mother, and I have to comfort both of them.” She was frustrated, and at times angry, that her husband and daughter never helped to take out the trash, despite her knee injury. “They are used to me working hard all the time and take it for granted,” she wrote.
Yet, while limited living space, retrograde gender norms, and even violence all pose challenges to these women, the Workers’ New Villages’ unique spatial and organizational structures can also be a boon in hard times. This is most vividly seen in their shared washrooms and kitchens, a housing structure designed based on the socialist ideal of collective living. Although sometimes dismissed as a collectivist relic, these spaces allow residents to form stronger relationships than those found in newer commercial residential compounds — relationships that can prove critical when someone is in need of care or financial aid.
Meanwhile, neighborhood committees have mobilized women residents to participate in volunteering activities to help the elderly and children in the community. This work is unpaid; instead, what women receive in return are services. For instance, neighborhood committees and subdistrict government offices — the lowest level of government in China — have organized “charity supermarkets” and “community canteens,” open to residents who could not afford food during the pandemic.
These services are particularly valuable for aging women. In her diary, Mama Y, an 80-year-old widow, wrote that she did not know how to use apps to purchase food online. Then she learned about the Charity Supermarket and Community Canteen. These proved helpful to her and her daughter as food prices soared during the pandemic. Residents in particular need receive gift cards from their neighborhood committees that can be exchanged for reasonably priced rice, cooking oil, and other daily goods in the supermarket.
In a nutshell, what we have observed in Workers’ New Villages is a mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship between residents, the community, and the quasi-official neighborhood committee. The collectivist nature of this network, as well as the socialist legacy still embedded in the Workers’ New Village model of mobilization and organization, are evident in Aunty H’s words: “When the epidemic broke out, I thought that, despite having cancer, ‘I should go out (to do voluntary work) because I am a member of the Communist Party.’ I did not think about much else. I just went out. Now, when I recall the situation at that time, I suppose I was a little scared.”
Yet, for all their resilience and solidarity, we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties that women in Workers’ New Villages have endured. Although there has been an increase in academic and media interest in rural-to-urban migrant women and their challenging affective experiences living and laboring in Shanghai, the city’s lower-class women continue to be overshadowed by grand narratives of China’s rapid urbanization and economic expansion. For decades, impoverished urban women’s voices have not been given equal weight within China. It’s time we start listening again.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Two women chat in front of a newly-renovated building in Caoyang No. 1 New Village, Shanghai, Oct. 20, 2021. VCG)