Worker KOLs, short-video platforms, and the cultural politics of working-class formation in China

Zhou Yang
The past decade has witnessed a historic shift of Chinese capitalism from competitive to monopolistic infrastructural capitalism, centring around a digital and high technologies-enabled strategy for the structural upgrading of the economy, a shift of the growth model and global expansion, accompanied by a shift in the dominant ideology, notably the revival of nationalism and patriotism. Situated in this historical conjuncture, focusing particularly on worker KOLs on short-video platforms, this project explores the implications of the emerging digital content industry on migrant workers’ class identity formation to understand the impact of the recent shift in capitalism on the multi-layered and uneven processes of working-class formation in China. It will do so first by critically examining how class and class relations, as it pertains to migrant workers, are represented by the DCI, and how these representations are shaped by state, corporate and audience power, as well as producers themselves, discursively and materially. This will be complemented by a micro-sociology of workers’ daily consumption and interpretation of these contents, with a focus on how they negotiate various aspects of their class identity in this process. By juxtaposing the two, this study presents a cultural politics of class formation as Chinese capitalism takes a monopolist turn. Considering the current salience of nationalism, this study will pay particular attention to the impact of nationalism/patriotism on migrant workers’ class identity formation.