In Search of Individual Aspiration in Post-socialist China: Employment Narratives of Young NGO Workers in Guangzhou


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date14 Jul 2017


This thesis investigates the individualization process in contemporary China through an in-depth examination of employment narratives solicited from dozens of young Chinese people working in NGOs located in Guangzhou, a southern city of China. Over the past three decades, Chinese have experienced radical changes of post-socialist transition, which have affected not only the life practices but also self-identity in the search of individual aspirations. One of the important manifestations of the post-socialist transition was the emergence of the NGO sector since 2000s and recent years witnessed many young people who seemingly abandon the collective ideology of pursuing economic gains in the commercial sector and come to seek after career aspirations and fulfill self-actualization in the newly-arising NGO sector. The career aspirations expressed by young NGO workers does offer a vantage point to explore how the profound process of individualization has been played out in the specific context of post-socialist China. By analyzing their narratives, this thesis examines how the informants individualize their experiences through making sense of their development in career and negotiating with the conflicting demands and regulatory scheme imposed by the state, market and family.
The qualitative research method was adopted to collect the data from December, 2015 to June, 2016. In-depth interviews were conducted with fifty young people working in different NGOs. The empirical findings suggest that post-socialist actors have gradually disenchanted from the ideals of the collective “masses” and emerged as the proactive agents by constructing the new subject, which involves the de-statization of individuals, the support of the post-materialist ideals, and the disobedience of the traditional family values.
More specifically, it is found that the rising position of the individual is accompanied with the incompatibility between the official lexicon of the volunteer in Lei Feng style and the newly-established identity characterized by the professional ethics; between the prevailing materialist orientation and the emergence of post-materialist ethos; between parents’ conventional perceptions and the increasing aspirations for self-actualization. Looking into the complex negotiations, this study demonstrates the emergence of an alternative pattern of individualization process that features young individuals’ proactive practices. Meanwhile, it also needs to note that the alternative pattern may still entwine with haunting state practices, resembling the process of “creeping individualization”, and its sustainability may also be in question.