Hairong Yan’s Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism

Hairong, Yan. “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow Through Labor Recruitment Networks.” Cultural Anthropology : Journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. 18. 4 (2003): 493.


Sharma, Aradhana. “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women’s Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India.” Cultural Anthropology : Journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. 21. 1 (2006): 60.


Aradhana Sharma begins her article “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle” with a presentation from the non-governmental organization Mahila Samakhya (MS) in Nizabad, a city in the region of North India in Uttar Pradesh. Rani first introduces the NGO as a program “that attempts to empower women, raise their awareness, and make them self-reliant” (61). As if on cue, one of the audience members interjects, “What do you mean by sashaktikaran [empowerment]? It sounds suspicious.” Meena’s answer to this audience member’s suspicion is to define empowerment as “giving women information, helping them to move forward, and raising their awareness” (61). This definition, unprepared as it may be, seems to only repeat other terms that seem just as warranting of suspicion: “awareness”, awareness of what? And what of {moving forward}? Ultimately, to Sharma, the term “empowerment” acts as a less threatening way of insisting upon self-reliance, the responsibility of women for their own development. Indeed, Meena later makes it clear that the women who must be “empowered” “should not expect any material benefits other than information, knowledge and support” (61).

{Empowerment} presents a catch 22, for while it cannot come materially from the NGO, because MS is not a government program, the NGO is still responsible for delivering “empowerment” to the woman of Nizabad. Except that MS is indeed a government program, one that wears “two hats” as both an NGO and a Governmental Organization (GO) depending on the circumstance. To Sharma, this insidious capability of the NGO as “trickster” allows the state “to rethink and downsize its welfare functions…alongside its implementation of a GONGO that empowers subaltern women for self-development” (62). The word “empowerment” then, garners suspicion for good reason, since it produces, through its very slippery definitions, a concept that promisesto improve the lives of women without offering specific goals or material aid. To expect substantial change from “empowerment” would be a misunderstanding of the term. Indeed, through the language of empowerment, a term that has “become a buzzword in transnational development discourse,” states such as India are able to mitigate their social welfare responsibilities “by capacitating individuals and communities to be responsible for their own development” (64).

Through Sharma’s analysis, it is clear that “empowerment” is utilized for multiple purposes, the first above all to bypass the social responsibility for real substantial change within subaltern groups that would necessitate uncertain costs and man-power by the state. While this interpretation may work for the state, the members of MS, as well as the women who it seeks to empower, must see empowerment as a desirable object, whatever that object may be. To Sharma, “MS envisions empowerment as a collective process whereby women reflect on their situations, take collective action to address their problems, and reposition themselves as agents of development and change…but it does not distribute material resources” (65). “Empowerment” is not substantiated within the material realm, but within the realm of subjectivity, through collectivization, self-reflection, recognition and the production of new subjectivities (repositioning). “Empowerment” then is more affectual than effectual, more in the realm of belonging, intimacy and self-discovery than in the improvement of infrastructure, in the output of agriculture, or in the hiring of teachers for child education. Indeed, due to its complete lack of material expectations, “empowerment” produces communities of affect, with the shared quality of belonging through “empowerment.”

Yan Hairong discovers a term similar to empowerment in the context of development, in her essay “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism:” Suzhi. In the city of Tianjin in Eastern China, suzhi is a feature of a developed woman, and is a potential property for migrant women who find themselves employment in the eastern Chinese states. Suzhi, according to Hairong, refers to “the somewhat ephemeral qualities of civility, self-discipline, and modernity” (494). Yet Suzhi also has connotations of greater infrastructure, of the good, comfortable life, but not necessarily the alleviation from poverty. Suzhi, like empowerment, does not suggest substantial change in one’s material conditions, rather it is understood as a type of social value, as Hairong calls it, “a value articulation of human subjectivity” (494). This focus on the subjectivity of the subject as an indicator of value, rather than the “humanness” of the subject, allows suzhi to substitute for the economic production of surplus value extraction by the Maoist state onto rural migrant workers.

Suzhi shares similarities with “empowerment” in its very undefinability, and, in its undefinability, is able only to be spoken of in terms of its implied opposite, the non-modern, undeveloped life. As Hairong says, “the meaning of suzhi remains undefinable,” though it is quite certain that “populations in the developed First World have higher suzhi than those in the Third World” (496). Indeed, any positive definition of suzhi results in “a rhyming couple popular among Chinese educators: ’suzhi education is a basked into which anything can be put [suzhi jiaoyu shi ge kuang, shenmo dou keyi wang li zhuang]’” (497). Suzhi, as a catch-all term that is thought of only in the erasure of its implied opposite, appropriates itself into an affective narrative by accumulating multiple predications, and can be defined as anything so long as that definition not be absolute. To be absolute, would create expectations for specific material manifestations brought by the promise of development, which would be expecting too much.

The overbearing power of these terms, Suzhi and empowerment, speak to the third world worker as part of the narrative of development, as a means of creating new developmental subjects, docile and capable subjects who are needed to produce a state that effectively “belongs to” the world of global “developed.” Indeed, as Hairong says, “Suzhi is, therefore, nothing more (nor less) than Development’s phantom child” (496).

The ruse of suzhi and empowerment is that the community-building and belonging it produces are ends in themselves, are phantoms of developmental discourse that prescribe little material change yet are able to yield the mass exploitation of rural laborers. These terms then can not be torn from their association with development, since their implied opposite, underdevelopment or non-development, must always be radically excluded from the communities built by suzhi and empowerment.

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