A 17-year-old girl named Zhizhi quickly accumulated more than 10,000 fans on the Xiaohongshu platform after she posted a dozen videos of her life in the factory. At an age when many of her peers are in school, she has already joined the workforce.
The content of her daily videos is always the same: waking up in an eight-person dormitory, brushing her teeth and washing her face. She shows the empty factory workshop when she arrives in the morning, and the repetitive work of assembling products. Each day, she takes a ten-minute break to go to the toilet and drink water.
Zhizhi takes a break on the assembly line to drink water. The text overlay on the video says, “Now is the 3:00 pm break. They give us ten minutes to go to the bathroom. Source: Xiaohongshu
There are many voices of encouragement in the comments section of her videos, as well as questions and criticisms, such as "Why don't you study?" or "Little sister, don't go directly to the factory to do jobs that don't require skills," or "Go and learn a craft as an apprentice."
In response to these interactions, Zhizhi replied:
Many comments say that I need to have a skill, but I don't know what to study, what to do, what to like. My parents will not agree to me going back to school, but I have no education, and I can't get many other jobs.
With the rise of these video platforms, worker-vloggers like Zhizhi have emerged, taking their grassroots identity and their ordinary but difficult work as the core of their video content. In addition to challenging the public’s stereotypes, such content also exposes the barriers between social classes in China.
These vloggers are factory workers who go from worker dormitories to the factory floor to the canteen and back again every day; food delivery riders accepting orders on their phones, picking up meals, and delivering them on their bikes back and forth on the city streets; truck drivers journeying day and night on the highways and living out of the cabs of their trucks; and coal miners who are transported deep underground, and their families only know they are safe when they emerge at the end of the day.
So long as they have a phone, workers can tell their own stories and make their voices heard online. Short video platforms like Douyin, Kuaishou, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili have created a space for workers to take control of the narratives about their lives in the public sphere.
The attention of online viewers has been captured by these vloggers who offer a chance for all to see their world through their eyes.
Factory work: “Endless assembly lines, endless screws, and endless nights”
If you search video platforms for "Foxconn," you will see countless videos of workers recording their lives on the assembly line. However, there are only a few that are carefully edited and subtitled like those from a creator who posts videos on Bilibili under the username "Tang Ren Discovers the Ordinary." His creative effort has gained him a lot of attention.
On a summer night in Shenzhen, standing in front of a basketball court, Tang Ren faces the camera and tells viewers about his experience working at a Foxconn factory for a year, expressing the essence of assembly line work with just these few simple sentences:
Before I came to work at Foxconn, I wanted to run a marathon. I had a dream. But the assembly line has wiped all this away. When I go home every night, I just want to lie down and scroll on my phone... If you work on the assembly line for a long time, the only thing that increases is time. In the end, people will just be eliminated by the electronics factory.
In the past three years, he has uploaded more than 900 videos documenting his daily life and work, with over 100,000 online fans across different platforms.
Tang Ren eats lunch. Source: Bilibili
A migrant worker from Hunan, Tang Ren has worked in factories in China since the age of 16, most recently at the Guanlan Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. He is self-proclaimed as “the number one person on the internet who stands up to factories and then runs away.” When he worked at a BYD factory, management threatened to fire him because of his videos.
Tang Ren frequently reports his daily stats on the assembly line. He describes his life as, “Endless assembly lines, endless screws, and endless nights.” In a video entitled, “Worked at Foxconn for 18 days and earned 2,900 yuan,” Tang Ren says:
Worked for ten and half hours, drove nearly 900 screws, and earned 315 yuan.
Simply calculating the pay structure is a popular video topic:
In November 2021, the working hours are 195 hours, the unit price is 22 yuan per hour, minus the physical examination fee, food expenses, and accommodation expenses of 99 yuan, and the basic salary of 2,300 yuan plus overtime pay, the labour dispatch agency gave us another amount, and the final salary we received was 4,051.65 yuan.
Factory workers in China often live in dormitories, reflected in the accommodation expenses deducted from Tang Ren’s pay. In one video, Tang Ren introduces his viewers to the Foxconn dorms. There are eight people living in one room.
In one of his most-viewed videos, Tang Ren filmed himself packing up the bedding left by his roommate who suddenly quit the job and returned to his hometown.
Tang Ren gives a tour of his dormitory. Viewers post comments on top of the video, saying it's not too bad and is pretty clean. Source: Bilibili
Another time, two of Tang Ren's roommates suddenly left right after payday. Unable to stand the boring life of the assembly line, they earned some money and went back home. However, in the end they needed more funds and couldn't find a better place to go, so they entered the factory again.
This cycling in and out of factories is a normal pattern for many workers.
In August of this year, Tang Ren decided to return to Foxconn to "regenerate" after “rotting,” but he was turned away. For some reason, he couldn't pass the facial verification during the online interview.
Now, he is delivering takeout orders in Shenzhen. Whether he is working in the factory or as a food delivery rider, Tang Ren discovers that it is ordinary to be exploited. In his latest video, he asks about the unfair algorithm, "Is it normal to receive only one order with a rainy day subsidy, after delivering 22 orders in the rain today?"
Truck drivers: Women in a traditionally male industry
Women have always been in the minority among truck drivers and have less opportunity for upward mobility in the profession. According to the 2022 Truck Driver Employment Status Survey Report, female truck drivers account for only two percent of all drivers.
But on short video platforms, 15 out of 20 truck driver vloggers with over a million followers are female. Some of these vloggers work with their partners, some with their fathers or brothers, and some of them drive alone on the road. But they all show their heroic driving moments in short videos of just a dozen seconds or so, and they meticulously record the details of travelling thousands of kilometres across China.
One of the most popular women truck driver vloggers goes by the account name “Dongguan Drifter Tough Girl.” She was born in 1988 and migrated to Dongguan to work in a factory after graduating from high school. Later, she decided to drive a truck with her father to make more money.
On her Douyin account, Tough Girl has accumulated more than 1.5 million followers. She documents her life as a long-haul truck driver, constantly moving between cities. In her videos, Tough Girl demonstrates her knowledge of the trucking and freight industry, as well as her dedication and seriousness:
On the first day of long-haul driving, you must set a small goal for yourself. You will not sleep until you finish driving. Today's small goal is 800 kilometres, which is easy to achieve.
It is Tough Girl's professionalism and her willingness to not accept defeat that have won praise and admiration from fans. In fact, Tough Girl’s example shows that truck driving has never been a job that only brute strength can handle. Skill in driving, negotiating prices, and interpersonal skills are all indispensable in this job. Her username hints at the question, "Who said women are inferior to men?"
Tough Girl posts a video from the cab of her truck. The video overlay text says, "Every time I fill up the truck, it costs a lot." Source: Douyin
Tough Girl also records the various problems that truck drivers may encounter. Overloaded trucks and an imbalance between supply and demand are two recent problems caused by the rapid development of China’s logistics industry. Low freight rates have caused drivers’ incomes to decline recently. Tough Girl described the financial situation for many drivers:
Of those driving our vehicles for a platform company, out of ten drivers, even five can’t pay their vehicle leasing fees.
To make enough money, truck drivers have to work longer hours. They often have to stay up all night on the road, and lack of sleep is a normal part of their work. Once, Tough Girl was woken up by a security guard after sleeping for just two hours in a parking lot. There was nowhere else she could go to sleep, so she had to move on and ended up driving to the next service area. She slept for another two hours there and continued on her way.
Another constant challenge of truck drivers is food. Because the quality of food in service stations is poor, many truck drivers either prepare simple meals or eat dry food and snacks. The problem of meals is another reason why many drivers go on the road together with family members. In this way, one person can drive and the other can cook.
Tough Girl shared about her meals with viewers, putting some curry and a big handful of rice into the rice cooker, making a delicious meal.
When alone on the road, Tough Girl talks about the boredom of driving. “Sometimes it’s so hard,” she said. Being in front of the camera and connecting to millions of followers is one way to relieve loneliness.
Coal miners: To the vlogging miner, “Thank you for letting me understand my father’s working conditions”
I am a miner and I use dishwashing liquid to bathe.
The worker behind the account "Little Coal Ball Loves Life" posted about this topic, explaining how regular soap or shower gel cannot wash away the coal ash that accumulates on the body. Only a powerful, oil-based cleanser is strong enough to do the job.
Little Coal Ball was born in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province. Shanxi is one of China’s main coal production provinces. After graduating from university with a major in mining engineering, he became a miner and has been working underground for eleven years.
Compared with truck drivers and assembly line workers, there are not many front-line miners who make video content. Little Coal Ball’s detailed videos allow the public to understand the real working conditions of coal miners today.
Workers have to go down in the mines 24 or 25 times per month - almost every day - and they stay underground for about ten hours at a time.
Little Coal Ball’s videos show how deep the coal is underground, hundreds or even thousands of metres below the surface, and accessible only by riding a cart down into the mine. Once deep down in the mine, the coal is all around the workers, in large, flat sheaths that are sliced by equipment and transported up out of the mine, like a river of shattered rock.
Followers pepper the video with comments saying, “Please be safe!”
Little Coal Ball interacts with a rat in the mine. The text overlay says, "I'll feed it a little bit of meat." Source: Bilibili
Underground, Little Coal Ball has become friends with rats, calling them “underground safety guards.” Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, the lively activities of the rats let the miners know that the environment is safe.
Little Coal Ball has also shared how mining safety has improved over the years, but every time he comes out of the mines, he still lets his viewers know he is okay.
In another video, Little Coal Ball records the scene of fellow miners coming up out of the mine and reuniting with their families. This emotional content resonates with viewers, who watch family members hold their beloved miner tightly and wipe the coal dust from his face, over and over.
The real-life scenes from inside these mines - and how coal miners eat and bathe - have attracted the curiosity of many people. One viewer whose father was a coal miner commented, "Thank you, Little Coal Ball, for letting me understand my father's working environment."
Not so black and white: China’s workers’ diverse experiences defy stereotypes and labels
From the perspective of China’s state media, blue-collar and migrant workers are dedicated and hardworking for the greater cause of advancement of the nation. In other narratives, they are a poor and exploited underclass with little agency. The difficult drudgery of their work only intersects with the lives of the white-collar public behind the scenes.
Those who don’t perform this type of labour often lack information on the plight of blue-collar workers and migrant workers, in which their economic situation leaves them with fewer choices about the present and future. But on short video platforms, workers narrate the details of their own lives to a captive audience and show that they have autonomy, and hopes and dreams.
These workers’ videos are interesting in their own right, and they help bridge social barriers. They also can provide data and information useful for broader study, as shown by China Labour Bulletin’s map database of strikes, protests, workplace accidents, and other labour incidents. For example, much of CLB’s recent research on strikes in China’s manufacturing sector comes from workers’ videos on Douyin. Sometimes these online sources are subject to censorship, or workers face pressure to take them down, but snapshots are still preserved in our database.
Further, some workers have used online video platforms to organize workers to combat unfavourable working conditions, like in the case of food delivery rider Chen Guojiang (Mengzhu). Other workers have taken to these platforms to gain support for larger-scale strikes, like Huolala drivers in November 2022 and May 2023, or food delivery riders in Shanwei in April 2023.
But for popular vloggers like Zhizhi, Tang Ren, Tough Girl, and Little Coal Ball, sharing their lives and interacting with their audience is their main purpose. Although some worker-vloggers can make a small income from their creative videos and their online popularity, the sincerity and purity of sharing their lives is enough.
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