Cruel Activism: Precarity, Labor, and Affect of Chinese Feminist and LGBT Rights NGOs

Wang, Stephanie Yingyi (2022). Cruel Activism: Precarity, Labor, and Affect of Chinese Feminist and LGBT Rights NGOs (Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database. (UMI No. 1367358302)

Abstract: This dissertation explores a central tension and contradiction between the social reproduction of NGOs and the social reproduction of activist workers in the People's Republic of China since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. It investigates how feminist and LGBT rights NGOs are a specifically Chinese formation that is entangled with state regulation and the transnational non-profit funding complex. I theorize the triple mechanisms of moralization, illegalization, and professionalization in which the party-state absorbs the social reproduction function of NGOs while containing their political influence. At the same time, the transnational non-profit funding complex utilizes NGOs for political intervention in China. The party-state's dynamic relations with the transnational non-profit funding complex foster a shifting enabling or disabling environment for these NGOs to socially reproduce themselves. These processes result in the devaluation and erasure of feminist and LGBT rights NGOs, as well as the labor value of activist workers. In particular, I theorize mental, emotional, communicative, and caring labor as the kinds of social reproductive labor activist workers perform. Though invisiblized and devalued as gendered and racialized labor, I suggest that they are of value because they require labor time socially necessary towards the execution and completion of NGO projects. However, the mechanisms of triple erasure transfer the cost of the social reproduction of NGOs unto the bodies of activist workers. I foreground the affective dimension of precarity which is manifested in the burnout, depression, and trauma of activist workers. The cruel activism lies in that the ways in which the feelings that fuel the activism can also serve to invisiblize and erase the workers' affective labor, and legitimize power inequalities and disputes in activism. The contradictory affect of hope is precisely how activist workers are exploited at the intersection of state violence and the professionalizing NGO sector. I suggest that the affective struggles of activist workers are the embodied effects of the very contradictions of state-NGO relations in China.

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