The beginnings of workers’ culture on Weibo

Sun Heng, a migrant worker turned singer, prefers to call himself a “new worker” rather than a migrant worker. Together with his troupe, the New Worker Arts Group, Sun has been performing for more than ten years, staging over 500 free shows at construction sites and factories across the country. Now, with the rapid development of easily accessible and versatile microblogs in China, Sun has found an even larger audience.

Rather than singing traditional protest songs about poor working conditions and exploitative bosses, Sun focuses on creating an independent, life-affirming, dignified, friendly, self-confident and freedom-yearning workers’ culture. And so far, thanks to the text, photos and videos he uploaded on his Weibo, he already has more than 159,121 followers.

One of the biggest challenges for migrant workers is the issue of integration, or how to feel at ease in big cities where mainstream culture is dominated by fast consumption of fashion and entertainment. A recent migrant workers survey by Renmin University shows 30 percent of migrant workers still regard themselves as being alienated in cities.

It is difficult to estimate how many workers have been influenced by Sun’s performances, and have elevated their own self-confidence and hopes as a result, or whether “new workers’ culture” really does give young migrant workers a sense of identity in the city of their dreams. Yet, empirical evidence shows that workers who regularly use Weibo are in general more aware of their rights, more socially active and upwardly mobile, exemplified by several migrant workers who have become influential opinion leaders on Weibo.

But can that be defined as culture? As Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based labour scholar, suggested on his column in the magazine Chinese Workers, workers today haven’t developed a clear understanding of their social position, strength and weaknesses. They remain fragmented and have yet to distil a recognizable culture from their own experiences. In addition, workers’ use of Weibo is not yet so widespread as to be defined as a cultural phenomenon. At present, the number of workers who tweet makes up less than one percent of total workforce.

However, if there is an easily recognizable workers’ culture on Weibo, it is perhaps using that medium to seek or provide support for workers’ individual and collective demands for justice. Sun Heng and other migrant worker singers and authors want society to see workers as independent and dignified individuals rather than the oppressed victims of capitalism. But such a positive and healthy cultural environment will probably only appear after workers can first earn a decent wage and respect from their employer.

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