Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Mass Communication and Media Arts
Documentary filmmakers have been considered artists, authors, or intellectuals, but rarely as labor. This study investigates how the nature of work as well as life is changing for those who work in the expanding area of TV documentary in China, in the midst of China’s shift towards a market-based economy. How do documentary makers reconcile their passion for documentary making with the increasingly precarious conditions of work? And, how do they cope with and resist the pressures of neoliberalism to survive in increasingly competitive local and global markets? Based on data gathered through the interviews with 40 practitioners from January 2014 to August 2017 and my own experience as a director and worker in the Chinese documentary for a decade, I outline the particularity and complexity of the creative work in China. My research indicates that short-time contracts, moonlighting, low payments and long working hours, freelancing, internship, and obligatory networking have become normal working conditions for cultural workers. Without copyright over their intellectual creations, cultural workers are constrained to make a living as waged labor, compelled to sell their physical and mental labor in hours or in pieces. Self-responsibility and entrepreneurism have become the symbols of the neoliberal individual. Following the career trajectories of my interviewees, I elaborate on the mechanisms by which cultural workers are selected, socialized and eliminated. When they decide to escape from the production line, they use four types of strategies: going international, surviving in the market, switching to new media career, and sticking to journalistic ideals. This dissertation also reveals that global production has intensified exploitation by increasing working hours through a 24/7 production line that works across national borders and time zones, amplifies competition by introducing global talent, and alienates local workers by imposing the so-called “universal” aesthetics of global production. The crisis of cultural work is the outcome of the incapacity of the neoliberal imagination to imagine plausible and feasible futures for sustained creative work. It is through my research into the history of documentary production in China and conversations with cultural workers that I found explanations for the increasing precarity of work and possible forms of resistance to it in post-socialist China.
This dissertation is Open Access and may be downloaded by anyone.