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The Meaning of Being Independent: Precarities of Work and Lifestyles and Alternative-Seeking among Chinese Self-Employed Cultural Workers



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Liu, Ruoxi 


Notwithstanding the many emerging terms relevant to self-employed/independent workers, such as freelancers and flexible workers, and the growing discussion regarding new types of work and entrepreneurship, self-employed workers are still a minority in the Chinese labour market. Without an official definition and uniform categorisation, self-employed workers in Chinese society face an ambivalent situation in economic, social, and cultural terms. This thesis investigates the independent cultural workers, who constitute a significant population to study among the self-employed workers. They represent an important niche social group whose work ideally requires a high level of autonomy and creativity but who constantly face constraints from content regulation and censorship. Compared to other self-employed workers (such as gig workers and non-cultural digital workers) or those in other social contexts, independent cultural workers in China face challenges connected with being ‘independent’ in various aspects of sociality, culture, and gender.

Contextualised in contemporary mainland China, a post-socialist society characterised by its own features of collectivism, individualisation, and neoliberal tendencies, this thesis studies the ‘independents’ who do cultural work to understand three sets of research themes from a sociological perspective: First, precarity and hope in independent cultural workers’ work and lifestyles; second, the politics of cultural production; and third, the individual-society-state relationship. The thesis adopts a mixture of qualitative methodologies (participant observation, in-depth interview, and solicited diary-keeping) throughout an 11-month period (from May 2020 to April 2021) of ethnographic fieldwork across a number of Chinese cities.

Drawing on the testimonies of 111 interviewees, 16 diaries, and my own fieldnotes as a participant observer and engaging with the literature on precarity and hope in creative labour studies, the politics of cultural production, and individualism and individualisation, I first summarise their work and lifestyle practices, characterised by various precarities, not only in the normal sense as an aspect of work, but also from social, cultural, and gendered standpoints. I then investigate how they strive for self-realisation in part via negotiation at both individual and community levels, in response to the growing interest from the market and the state in self-employment. Last, I highlight their search for alternatives to various kinds of precarity and the increasing uncertainties created by the multiple players within China’s cultural politics. In particular, I identify their alternative practices in developing new modes of doing cultural work via self-organisation, cultivating alternative spaces, communities, and cultures, and pursuing a new, often non-confrontational cultural politics through everydayness and mobility-seeking.

By pursuing three lines of enquiry, this research contributes to an understanding of the meaning of ‘being independent’ in an authoritarian society with residual collectivist, as well as neoliberal tendencies. I argue that ‘being independent’ in China starts with aspects of work but goes beyond it to also encompass cultural, social, and political aspects of life. I conclude by establishing workers’ reasons for being independent, which lie in achieving self-realisation, social withdrawal, and individualism, and the approaches to being independent, including disengagement from society and alternative-seeking. I finally position independent cultural workers as a drifting social group and reflect on the features of heterogeneity, in-betweenness, and temporality, shown in their work and lifestyle practices and status of being independent.

Overall, this thesis furthers a more nuanced understanding of cultural/creative work, cultural/creative workers, and their communities; develops new insights into the individual-society-state relationship and contest individual agency at the grassroots levels in China; and provides a ‘cultural independents’-focused version of China’s individualisation process.





Lane, Christel


Alternative-seeking, China, Communities, Cultural Workers, Independent Work, Precarity, Self-Employment


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
CSC-Trust Scholarship, Sociology Department Fieldwork Fund, Magdalene College Fieldwork Funds, Magdalene College Graduate Tutors’ Funds, The Annette Lawson Charitable Trust, Great Britain China Educational Trust - Chinese Students Awards, and Sociology Department Writing Up Bursary