Research Report

“Bold Women”

Tom Cliff, Fieldwork Report: 13 – 21 Aug 2016

Tom Cliff went on a lightning photographic tour of China’s far Northeast between August 13 and August 21, 2016.

The aim was to begin photographing for the Bold Women / jiashugong project, outlined below.

This project documents now-retired jiashugong or “dependent workers,” the family members of full state employees attached to one of the large work unit systems that organised society, labour, politics, and personal identity for the majority of Chinese urban employees throughout the socialist era and well into reform. These people, overwhelmingly women and now aged between 65 and 95, made an immense contribution to the state projects of frontier occupation, development, and industrial production, yet the state has only recently partially-recognised this debt. Many of the women who sought a livelihood and a future in the far Northeast between the late 1950s and the early 1970s have already passed away. Only the strong ones have lived this long. These are selected photographs from the Work-in-Progress. Please see also




Hokkaido University and the Australian Research Council provided generous support for this urgent and important project.

Tom Cliff, Singapore, China, January 2016

In January 2016, Tom attended a by-invitation joint publication workshop at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, then went on three weeks fieldwork in China. Over two weeks was spent in “the field”, and one week was spent in Beijing, meeting with China-based colleagues and a Research Assistant. These meetings serve to further advance a couple of joint projects, and clarify some complex structural issues with regard to the pension system in China.

Fieldwork proper consisted of semi-structured interviews with entrepreneurs and non-governmental pension fund managers, and multiple modes of ethnography. Mode one: eating, drinking, and informal discussion with interview subjects and their friends and colleagues. Mode two: extended “transacts” of the Township and rural-industrial surrounds, which means taking long walks with a camera and notebook, and welcoming any opportunistic meeting that arises on the way. Mode three: participant-observation of key institutions – primarily major trading centres for particular commodities and light industrial products (that are produced by the entrepreneurs who run the funds in question), but also recreational venues such as tea shops, restaurants, and karaoke bars. Mode four: attending, observing, and participating in philanthropic fundraisers; these events tend to be held in the run up to Spring Festival.

Overall, fieldwork yielded some essential new data, despite being hindered by the time of year – end of year rush for the entrepreneurs, and a particularly cold winter in China. The paper presented at the publication workshop will be revised slightly to accommodate the new results from this field work trip, then submitted as part of a group submission to a leading journal at the beginning of May.

Industrialising rural Eastern China, Winter 2016.
Industrialising rural Eastern China, Winter 2016.

Tom Cliff, China, August 13 – September 18, 2015

In August-September 2015, Tom Cliff made a five-week trip to China, visiting two key research regions – far northeast Heilongjiang province and Eastern China – to conduct interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. Tom spent two weeks in each research region, and one week in Beijing.

The project Tom is undertaking in northeast China details socio-structural change through the lives of now-retired informal female workers. The focus is on their narratives of work unit structure and remuneration. With this longitudinal data as a base, the project will demonstrate how a significant and heretofore overlooked element of China’s current old age pension scheme evolved. This is the project’s first major contribution.

The project in Shandong concerns entrepreneurs in industrialised villages getting together to create their own village-internal welfare system. The non-state welfare funds that have been and are being set up in these villages are focused primarily (and in some cases exclusively) on aged care. Fieldwork in this case concentrated on mapping the funds’ origins, current size and extent, and structures, with a view to answering the following overarching questions: First, do these funds represent “a developmental trend” in social security provision to rural China? Second, and especially if the answer to the first question is “yes,” where is the government in all this?

Both the project in Shandong and the project based in north-east China are centred on the question of retirement pensions, but they are “most different” in certain other respects. One is rural, at least partly non-state, conducive of social stability, and driven by (predominantly male) elites; the other concerns urban hukou holders, is centred specifically on the state and its responsibilities, involves or has involved massive social upheaval, and the protagonists are not well off and almost exclusively female. The coexistence of thematic overlap with important points of difference make these two cases valuable complementary studies.

While in Shandong, Tom visited the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences and held a formal meeting with the director and all of his staff, which was conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Colleagues at SASS were particularly keen on discussing research techniques and topics of study. The director extended an invitation to Tom to give a seminar at SASS in January 2016, which will focus more specifically on research findings.

While in Beijing, Tom met with Chinese colleagues from the following institutions to discuss research collaboration and/or move forward with pre-existing plans for co-authorship: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; People’s University of China; Peking University, and; China Institute of Industrial Relations.


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