The Lie of the Land: June Fourth, Censorship, and “On the Edge”

Thomas Chen reviews Margaret Hillenbrand’s “On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China.”

The Lie of the Land: June Fourth, Censorship, and “On the Edge”

On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China by Margaret Hillenbrand. Columbia University Press. 408 pages.

WHENEVER THE ANNIVERSARY of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the June Fourth Massacre that ended them comes around, you can count on some Western news outlets to mislead audiences about how the Chinese media handles these historical episodes. Reports will appear that say all references to them are still verboten on the mainland, decades after they occurred, and in some cases state or at least imply that this has always been the case. This happened again this spring, with the added twist in recent years of increased sensitivity around these topics in Hong Kong and Macau, the only parts of China where they were previously commemorated openly. Talk of Tiananmen has been and still is restricted on the Chinese mainland, to be sure.

However, the idea that there has been a total silence on the topic has always been a myth. References to the protests and the massacre abound, both aboveground and underground, not least by the government itself, which poured out publications and TV programs in the wake of the massacre (known in China as “June Fourth”) to etch its distorted version of what had happened: troops showing great restraint ended wild riots by young people manipulated by nefarious domestic “black hand” agitators and foreign powers. Though this propaganda peaked in the immediate aftermath of the event, it’s actually making a quiet comeback. In recent years, as the trackers of PRC official discourse at the invaluable China Digital Times have documented, editorials in the state tabloid Global Times have variously reasserted the Party line that the Chinese people have flipped the page on that chapter. These editorials point to a (near) future in which June Fourth may become “unbanned,” when official pronouncements about it resurface in the media. Such a development wouldn’t signal the end of censorship on the subject, of course. Rather, censorship should be viewed not solely as a naysayer that cuts and curtails but also as a yea-sayer that shapes and promotes discourse: the production, dissemination, and suppression—and all over again—of narratives unauthorized as well as approved within Chinese jurisdiction.

How censorship works, and doesn’t, can be further illustrated by turning to a book that, on the surface, would seem to have nothing to do with June Fourth: Margaret Hillenbrand’s On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China (2023). This new work by a literary and visual studies scholar at Oxford is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship. Hillenbrand’s thesis is that precarity and expulsion, rather than inequality, are the master concepts for the Chinese present. The notion of a set of people known as the precariat—members of society in a state of persistent insecurity—is associated in the West with experiences of increasing economic risk in the post-Fordist age of the shrinking welfare state. Hillenbrand, however, argues for the aptness of thinking about precarity in a different way in the Chinese context. The reform era, especially since the 1990s, has raised a “bonfire of certainties” not only for the tens of millions of urban workers jettisoned from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) “when their value to China’s modernity had expired” but also for the hundreds of millions of “peasant workers” in the city “both wanted and unwanted, essential and supernumerary, useful because of their vast numbers yet for that same reason individually nugatory within the grand calculus of worth.” Expulsion, furthermore, is to be understood beyond the territorial sense. Demolition-relocation (chaiqian)—that “state-endorsed process of aggressive gentrification” in which longtime residents are dispatched from prime real estate—forces a segment of the population into internal exile, but banishment also occurs, metaphorically and literally, when wage arrears, workplace injuries that are “accidentally-on-purpose,” and carceral regimes of employment and habitation estrange migrant workers from family, friends, and the belonging of citizenship.

On the surface, expulsion and precarity may have little to do with June Fourth. But as On the Edge demonstrates, precarity, especially in China, is never simply the “natural” outcome of globalization and marketization. It is also a direct result of state policy, from the household registration system (hukou), which denies rural migrant workers and their families access to local schools, public housing, pension, and healthcare in the city, to the chasm between de jure and de facto law that disempowers workers in this nominally worker-led state. What ties June 4, 1989, to today is the authoritarian and neoliberal behemoth that has grown and fostered precarity. This is indeed what the Chinese story has to contribute to the theorization of precarity, for hardly anywhere else is “governmental precarization” as salient.

The Chinese precariat is cast out, geographically and socially, to the fringe. But there it looms, both out of sight and within sight, out of mind and on the mind. Hillenbrand uses the term “zombie citizenship” to capture this duality: dehumanized themselves, these nonpersons symbolize the threat of civic half-life that haunts even those who are seemingly far from the cliff edge. One of the direst examples of this kind of abjection, with which Hillenbrand opens On the Edge, is a November 2017 fire in Daxing district, on the outskirts of Beijing. The fire itself was deadly, killing at least 19 people, among them eight children. Yet in its immediate aftermath, an eviction order citing fire safety kicked 250,000 people of the Xinjian urban village into the wintry streets. While some Chinese internet users condemned the brutal measure, just as many—if not more—cheered the ridding of this “surplus.”

Adopting a cultural studies approach, Hillenbrand’s case studies are not the typical novels or fictional feature films but works of art that are edgy in both content and form. They include performance art, especially delegated performances (chapter one, “The Delegators”); art that involves waste and garbage (chapter two, “The Ragpickers”); migrant worker poetry as well as state-sponsored migrant worker literature (chapter three, “The Vocalists and the Ventriloquists”); suicide shows as protest performance (chapter four, “The Cliffhangers”); and vulgar livestreaming (chapter five, “The Microcelebrities”). These iconoclastic cultural forms are chosen not so much because they represent precarity as because they embody it, staging class conflict in a country where “class,” replaced by “strata” and “levels” in official discourse, has been effectively outlawed. All of Hillenbrand’s examples exhibit dark feelings. In fact, with Raymond Williams as a key reference, Hillenbrand emphasizes “precarity as a structure of fearful feeling.” In addition to fear—the fear of falling into the social abyss—there is a mélange of related feelings that include anxiety (of inching toward the edge), enmity (for others, not least of your own class, who may push you off your tenuous perch), and rage (at the predicament you find yourself in). Again, the works that Hillenbrand analyzes are not merely representative of this “perniciously divisive structure of feeling”; rather, they themselves are sites of combat where social strife is acted out. Hillenbrand connects these various “breakout zones” that are otherwise disaggregated, with trenchant discernment married to hard-hitting, scintillating prose that is arguably the best in the field.

Hillenbrand’s book also shows that daring artworks do emerge into the Chinese public sphere, and that they have a plural relationship to censorship. The documentary Plastic China (2016), one of Hillenbrand’s central examples of garbage art in the second chapter, was filmed in Shandong, the home province of director Wang Jiuliang. It went viral (along with other videos by Wang depicting environmental degradation) before disappearing from the Chinese internet. An autobiographical essay titled “I Am Fan Yusu” (2017) by a migrant worker who worked as a live-in nanny in Beijing, which Hillenbrand discusses in her introduction, was read online by more than a million people before also similarly disappearing. Yet though the essay itself is not readily accessible, reports on it—and interviews of Fan—are plentiful on the Chinese internet. The Chinese speculative fiction getting all the attention these days may be Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2008), the first novel in the author’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, the basis for the hit Netflix show 3 Body Problem (2024). Hillenbrand, however, showcases another jewel in the genre, Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing (2012). First published in a Chinese online forum, the novella imagines the capital in the future as a collapsible city separated into three spaces—first, second, and third—each occupied by a distinct class of people with different and unequal waking and working times. Like The Three-Body Problem, Folding Beijing was not sanctioned, and it, too, won a Hugo Award. These three cases reveal censorship to be variegated, not an all-encircling horizon that divides speech into grounded quiescence or aerial outspokenness, but a landscape with impediments as well as passes.

I would like to add a fourth example, which Hillenbrand does not cite because it appeared only last year. The Long Season, available on Amazon Prime Video, is one of the most popular—and darkest—shows to ever come out of China. A crime drama set in a fictional northeastern steel town, its nonlinear story spans two decades from 1997 to 2017, from the time of the restructuring of SOEs, which ravaged the industrial heartland that is the Chinese Northeast, to the current Xi Jinping era. Treachery and retribution permeate the miniseries. Shen Mo, the show’s central female character, is drugged by a friend and co-worker and then raped by a businessman. Why is the co-worker willing to sell her friend for money? Because her own mom died from the lack of it. Her mom was operating a food cart when a substandard keg of cooking gas exploded. Severely injured but unable to afford hospital care, she died by suicide—like so many of the rural poor—with pesticide. The co-worker’s ruthless greed, therefore, the fact that poison has taken the place of sisterhood between two people of the same sex and class, is an indictment of a society where the law of the jungle has filled the vacuum left by a shredded social safety net and a broken socialist social contract. All that is solidarity melts into the air.

“How does something this good get made in Xi Jinping’s China, where artistic ambition is usually crushed?” asks James Palmer of Foreign Policy, referring to The Long Season. This is my answer: a river blocks your path. It might wash you away if you step into it. But it might be forded some other way. Or you might tap into another undercurrent, a subterranean structure of feeling so forceful that what appeared to be an overpowering river becomes a tributary that can only go along.

LARB Contributor

Thomas Chen is an associate professor of Chinese at Lehigh University. He is the author of Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film (Columbia University Press, 2022).


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