Candidate Number: 82976
2017 MT SO231 Summative Essay
Queer and Rich
Understanding Chinese Queer Movement’s Middle-class Characteristics
The past five decades since after the Stonewall riots have witnessed varying degrees of progress with LGBTQ movements around the globe. Some states have come to decriminalize homosexuality. Others have moved to recognize a third gender, and quite a few have even legalized gay marriage. Despite all these positive developments and the queer community’s continuously improved visibility, the queer movement is not without its problematic aspects. At the core of the discussions on queer movements is the collective identity that people have come to identify with – “queer” or “LGBTQ.” For any social movement to not head down the path of decline, the individuals within it would have to make sure their collective identities are actively managed. While the identities’ emergence might be a byproduct of the movement, once developed, their constant evolvement and reconstruction are absolutely necessary (Polletta & Jasper 2001, 292). In China, as can be observed in its popular culture and ground-level movements, middle-class or even elite features attached to the queer identity have come to be increasingly evident. Aside from the politics in the package, in many cases, being queer or supporting LGBTQ causes has come to be bundled with implications of class status. In this essay, I will argue that the phenomenon is the result of exchanges of various forms of capitals between the queer movement group and the middle class that ultimately allow benefits for both sides. I will begin by explaining how the rise of LGBTQ activism relates to the rise of the middle class in China, followed by an analysis of how capitals are exchanged between the two social categorizations of people. At the end of the essay, I will discuss some limitations of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on symbolic exchange in understanding the phenomenon.
While working for the largest LGBTQ NGOs in China, ShanghaiPRIDE, I have witnessed the organization being criticized by grassroot activists for being out of touch with the vast majority of the queer community in China. Indeed, the activities it organizes have significant entry barriers not only because of their high ticket prices but also because they only cater to the taste of a class group with a certain amount of economic and cultural capitals. For example, the registration fee for pride marathon can be as high as 150 RMB (17 GBP), and for the annual LGBTQ conferences, topics tend to range from the pink economy to legal issues with surrogate babies but rarely touch on the daily difficulties of the queer grassroots. These, however, might not appear surprising at all if one takes a close look at the team behind the organization. Most have an upper-middle-class background with education experiences from abroad. While they might have had struggled to come to terms with their sexuality, they certainly did not struggle financially.
It is important to realize that, although criticized for its middle-class features, ShanghaiPRIDE is still by far undeniably the largest by scale and the longest-running of its kind in China, where the concept of “NGO,” the word “activism,” and homosexuality itself can all be politically sensitive. In fact, its close relation to the wealthier crop of the society turns out to be an important condition for its creation in the first place. In the context of America, historian John D’Emilio argued that industrial capitalism played a part in creating the gay identity (D’Emilio 1983, 101). Specifically, it is capitalism that created class-based inequalities and further allowed them to intersect with other forms of inequalities, thus producing different configurations of marginalized identities with varied capacities to express their grievances (Valocchi 2017, 316). The middle class gained greater access to the public sphere and encouraged a gay identity bearing their own interests and aspirations. A similar story can be found in China as well, only much delayed. Since China’s market reform in 1970s, the country has seen dramatic changes in its class structure. According to the China General Society Survey of 2006 conducted by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of middle class people has more than quadrupled by 2006 (China General Society Survey 2006), just three years before ShanghaiPRIDE’s conception. Shanghai, spearheading the country’s economy, amassed a dense middle class population and saw an annual growth of around 10% in its number of civil societies, according to the Bureau of Civil Affairs of Shanghai (Liu 2010). The original founding members of ShanghaiPRIDE were exactly among the new rich of the city. Contrary to what data might have suggested, China is, in fact, a particularly infertile soil for civil societies, owing to the tension between government’s tight grip on power and many NGOs’ critical attitudes and progressive agenda (Spires 2011, 7-10). Scholars tend to divide the Chinese middle class into three groups: the new, the old, and the marginal middle classes (Yang 2006, 51), and not all of them were equally vital to the rise of civil societies such as ShanghaiPRIDE. Using various mechanisms of reward and by active recruitment of local leaders, the party-state has managed to closely align the majority of the society with its own interests (Wright 2010, 84). Fearing a chaotic political environment might be of harm to their own interests, most of the old and the marginal middle class have demonstrated a rather moderate attitude towards political issues and are only progressive when it comes to ones that directly concern their own economic well-being (Cai 2005, 779). As with the post-war new middle class in the US becoming leaders in the gay rights movement, it is the new middle class of post-reform era of China, composed of enterprise managers, private entrepreneurs, professionals and senior clerical workers, that is at the forefront of developing a political awareness and a level of political participation previously unseen (Yang 2006, 51). Younger in age, better educated and more exposed, they demonstrated a much greater extent of political consciousness, a larger risk appetite, and a stronger drive for changes. Established upon a bed of resources, progressive visions, and safety nets of a well-off class, ShanghaiPRIDE surely carries over its lifestyles and characteristics.
While the founding members of the organization might define some of its characteristics, the movement is certainly not stopped from evolving to a more inclusive direction. This is, however, not what we have witnessed with ShanghaiPRIDE. The queer movement, in fact, has invested interests in keeping close ties with the middle class. In doing so, it is able to leverage capitals of a privileged group while advancing its own political agenda. To be clear, the LGBTQ community is in every sense at a dominated position given the heteronormativity prevalent in the post-socialist Chinese society. Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in Language and Symbolic Power that “dominated individuals are less likely to bring about a symbolic revolution.” Neither do they have the knowledge to effect any action nor do they have the economic and cultural conditions to develop an awareness of that lack of knowledge in the first place (Bourdieu 1991, 172). The friendly engagement with a dominant class group precisely allows for the queer movement group to break the spell. When the middle class first propelled queer movement to greater visibility since after the market reform, they also brought about enlightenment for the queer community, introducing to them both the knowledge and the expertise necessary for political organizing. The queer movement thus produced from this enlightenment boils down to a struggle for the transformation of the social world through the transformation of the divisions and hierarchies established among various sexualities and gender expressions by the existing systems of classification – systems of classification that separates the normal from the abnormal, and the ordinary from the queer. It seeks to produce a different set of ideas as to how people might perceive the queer community and treat queer individuals. Bourdieu believes that “the production of ideas about the social world is always in fact subordinated to the logic of the conquest of power, which is the logic of the mobilization of the greatest number.” (Bourdieu, 1991, 181) Given that the queer is definitively the few, in order to mobilize the mass, a lever is needed. This lever, I argue, is precisely the symbolic power of the middle class that the queer movement group has been exposed to. To put plainly, the queer movement group is enabled to effect a change of the community’s symbolic position within the realm of gender politics as it borrows the symbolic power the middle class possesses in the realm of class politics. While it is convenient that the queer middle class could naturally serve as a bridge between the two social categorizations of people and the two realms of politics, the dependence on the middle class is somewhat inevitable and necessary for the queer movement group as well. Bourdieu is right to have identified “leisure time” and “cultural capital” as the key material and cultural instruments that enable one to participate in politics actively (Bourdieu 1991, 172). This stays true in China, where the majority of people are busy putting food on the table and discussing politics can be a privilege. Political participation surely falls into the monopoly of professionals, of the middle class. In the context of post-reform China, meaningful and action-based political participation is further complicated by the unspoken fact that one first has to have the “membership” to “work within the structures (Wright 2010, 84),” by closely aligning oneself with the CCP. The CCP has long been observed to have recruited heavily among the new rich to enhance its political establishment (- again favoring the middle class) (Wright 2010, 58). Alternatively, one can participate political activities under the protection of foreign institutions, such as foreign consulates. While one rarely finds a CCP member in ShanghaiPRIDE (with myself being the obvious exception), there are plenty of high profile volunteers who have strong relationships with foreign consulates and consulate-managed institutions that often generously provide venues and sponsorships for ShanghaiPRIDE’s events. These relationships make up half of ShanghaiPRIDE’s lifeline, and they are also relationships one cannot possibly forge without being one of the very privileged in the society.
Surely, the queer movement can take advantage of the various resources of the middle class. This is, however, hardly a one-way partnership. In the specific context of China, what the queer movement offers certain members of the middle class in return, are cultural capitals for them to achieve an even more distinguished position in society. In Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu speaks of how the dominant culture of a society performs both the function of unification and that of separation at the same time. The dominant class itself is factually unified, and the society as a whole only appears to be integrated while in fact separated by instruments of distinction (Bourdieu 1991, 167). Although Bourdieu’s theory is largely applicable, what one further observes within the Chinese middle class, supposedly unified according to Bourdieu, is a tendency for some to further distinguish themselves from others. In addition to taking great care to maintain their economic well-being, they are increasingly conscious about their social and cultural image. The perceived image of nouveau riche – only acquired wealth overnight but still lacking in taste – is often frowned upon. To the middle class, “being cultured” often means developing a taste for western products (Wang 2013, 36). Here, we observe a first distinction between the cultured and the uncultured within the middle class. If we dive deeper into the “cultured” group, the consumption of western products is then further divided into the mere consumption of consumerist goods, the consumption and appreciation of western cultural products (such as arts, sports, and films), and a higher understanding and knowledge of western ideals. Here, we observe three more levels of stratification within the “cultured.” The issue of LGBTQ rights is discussed within the last sort. As it is a subject on which the viewpoint of the conservative Chinese and that of the progressive and developed west greatly differ, it creates an opportunity for the cultured to align themselves with the progressive camp, thus associating themselves with ideas such as “inclusivity,” “acceptance,” “diversity,” and “openness.” Although queer identities themselves are hardly foreign, the supportive attitudes towards them and especially the particular set of reasoning (based on western individualistic ideals) behind the support are certainly western. To adopt such a political stance is risky. However, even in the act of risk-taking and going political, there is a sense of individualistic spirit that is considered distinctly western, modern and only possible with considerable deliberation (evidence of education) and exposure to the west. The fact that LGBTQ movement is not a movement for the majority and that only a selected handful is in support (in the context of China’s massive population base) creates a strange exclusiveness that makes it attractive. If what it takes to comes to supportive terms is an understanding of western progressive ideals, the cause would certainly draw supports from the middle class as it, in turn, provides them with a cultural token and a sense of validation and that they are not only rich in wealth but also rich in the mind.
Pierre Bourdieu imagines the social world as a multidimensional space where different agents each occupy a position that is defined by different kinds of power or capitals. The types of capitals principally involved include economic capital, cultural capital, social capital, and symbolic capital. How much of each capital one possesses defines one’s specific capacity for the fulfillment of the related objectives (Bourdieu 1991, 230). However, as can be observed in the examination of queer movement’s interaction with the middle class in China, there are certain limitations to Bourdieu’s conception of the economy of symbolic exchanges. Firstly, Bourdieu’s theory on the conversion of one form of capital into others largely focuses on the individual agents or the larger social groups they represent. In reality, there is a possibility that, as seen in the case of the queer movement group and the middle class, through collaborations and trading of capitals, two social groups can help each other achieve conversions that are otherwise not possible. Secondly, in the specific case of the cultured Chinese middle class obtaining cultural capitals from their support for the queer movement, Bourdieu’s theory on the dominant class group being “unified” is challenged. The new middle class has resorted to new forms of cultural capitals, displaying a generational divide between the taste of those who are “cultured” and those who are not (Friedman, Hanquine & Miles 2015, 4-5). The strict reproduction of taste does not seem to catch up with the desire for distinction in China’s emerging new rich, allowing the queer movement to benefit in between.
In this essay, I have argued that the middle-class features of China’s modern LGBTQ movement are the result of the new middle class’s role in China’s post-reform social movement as well as a reciprocal relationship between the middle class and the queer movement group in the space of symbolic exchange. The investigation of the relationship between the Chinese new middle class and the queer movement as well as the application of Bourdieu’s many theories to the case have allowed one to discover new insights into the inter-agent relationships in the marketplace of symbolic exchanges. They have also raised new questions for Bourdieu’s system of classification and suggested that the reproduction of taste might have adopted new modes in modern society, thus begging us to reconsider our application of the classical system of classification.
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