Self as enterprise: digital disability practices of entrepreneurship and employment in the wave of ‘Internet + disability’ in China
Zhongxuan Lina, Zhi’an Zhanga and Liu Yangb*
aSchool of Communication and Design, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China; bSchool of Journalism and Communication, Chongqing University, Chongqing, People’s Republic of China
Situated in China’s neoliberal context and its rapid development of information communication technologies (ICTs), this study aimed to examine how disabled people in China transformed themselves into new self-enterprising subjects in the wave of ‘Internet + Disability.’ In order to answer this question, this study tried to develop an analytical framework to illustrate the disability practices that situated in the ICTs and neoliberal context, underpinned by the discourse of ‘self as enterprise,’ and demonstrated by the practices of entrepreneurship and employment. Based on the research design of case studies and methods that included ethnographic participant observation and in-depth interviews, this study explained how a disabled entrepreneur, Mr. Yuan, took advantage of the wave of ‘Internet+Disability’ to realize his dream of entrepreneurship and face the uncertainties of a precarious entrepreneurship. It also explained how Mr. Yuan’s employees achieved their dreams of employment but suffered the precariousness of enterprising subjects.
KEYWORDS: China; disability; ICTs; neoliberalism; self as enterprise
According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF, 2012), approximately 85,000,000 people in China were estimated to have disabilities in 2010. With such a large population of disabled people – equivalent to the population of Germany – it is of vital importance to promote disabled people’s development, equality, and participation in society. The rapid development of ICTs in China has demonstrated its potential to be used by disabled people to improve quality of life and social inclusion in China.
However, previous studies have generally been too optimistic to overestimate the importance of ICTs, and to simplify the dynamic relationship between ICTs and disability (Adkins, Summerville, Knox, Brown, & Dillon, 2013; Easton, 2013). They also have the problem of failing to situate themselves within the dynamic contextual entanglement of political, economic, cultural, and social factors (Adam & Kreps, 2009; Ellcessor, 2016; Goggin & Newell, 2003; Moser, 2006). This study, therefore, situated itself in China’s neoliberal context and its rapid development of ICTs to investigate both macro-level power structures and micro-level individual struggles to explain how ICTs are appro- priated to govern the disabled population in a Foucauldian concept of ‘self as enterprise.’ In particular, this article focused on one specific website, ‘hubangwang’ (literarily ‘helping each other’), which is the ‘biggest platform of online jobs for disabled people in China’ (Liu & Zhou, 2016), as a case study to examine the following research question: How do dis- abled people in China transform themselves into new self-enterprising subjects in the wave of ‘Internet + Disability?’
ICTs and the promise of technology for disability
Since the disability politics and advocacy movement in the 1960s and 1970s, critical dis- ability studies, mainly based on the social model, have gained wide currency among dis- ability researchers and disability community. However, this new dominant model has increasingly faced criticism since its development, especially in the new and changing social context of the digital age (Feely, 2016; Flynn, 2017; Goggin & Newell, 2003; Levitt, 2017a, 2017b; Oliver, 2013).
One of the key problems of critical disability studies is that they focus primarily on the discourse concerning disability but overlook the material world, especially the new digital world, that disabled people inhabit (Feely, 2016; Flynn, 2017). However, the development of ICTs has become increasingly influential for disabled people to achieve disability equal- ity by themselves in society (Easton, 2013). Therefore, some scholars have begun to explore the impact of ICTs on disabled people, defined as ‘the promise of technology’ (Adkins et al., 2013, p. 503).
From this optimistic perspective, scholars argue that ICTs have become an essential aspect of most people’s lives and should thus be regarded as basic human rights for dis- abled people (Borg, Larsson, & Östergren, 2011). Against this background, optimistic scholars seek to understand the relationship between ICTs and disability and to explore how the digital inclusion of disability may hold great promise for disabled people in their struggle against social exclusion (Goggin & Newell, 2003; Vicente & Lopez, 2010). Such scholars suggest that disabled people can take advantage of ICTs to overcome hurdles to participate more in society, with benefits in a range of ways, including information accessibility (Dobransky & Hargittai, 2006), online anonymity (Thoreau, 2006), and relationship development (Chadwick, Wesson, & Fullwood, 2013).
This optimistic approach is criticized, however, for romanticizing the development of ICTs and its potential promise of digital inclusion while ignoring the digital exclusion of disabled people (Adam & Kreps, 2009; Easton, 2013; Vicente & Lopez, 2010). Referencing primarily the ‘digital divide’ theory, critical scholars argue that disabled people are placed in a more severely unequal position during the digital wave, thereby falling into the most disadvantageous status of the ‘information have-nots’ and becoming one of the most extreme but traditionally ignored populations of the ‘digital divide’ (Chadwick & Wesson, 2016; Dobransky & Hargittai, 2006; Scholz, Yalcin, & Priestley, 2017).
Together, the optimistic and pessimistic approaches investigate the relationship between ICTs and disability, but previous studies from both approaches seem to focus too much on the micro-level relationship between ICTs and disability, especially ICTs as a game-changer for disability, ignoring the macro level, which involves the broader structure of ICTs and disability. In other words, most previous studies, as de-contextualized studies, failed to examine the power structure that ICTs and disability both created and were situ- ated in (Ellcessor, 2016). Without such a contextualized perspective, most previous studies have been argued to be ‘business as usual’ that reproduces and replicates the oppressive discourse of disability (Goggin & Newell, 2006, p. 310). Therefore, the following literature discussion attempts to situate ICTs and disability in China’s specific neoliberal context to explore the more complicated relationship between ICTs and disability in China.
Discourse of ‘self as enterprise’ in China’s neoliberal context
The element and the context of neoliberalism have been somewhat lost in traditional criti- cal disability studies (Flynn, 2017; Goodley, 2011). Therefore, many scholars have argued that we should not ignore the neoliberal doctrine that exerts great impact on disabled people (Harris, Owen, & Gould, 2011; Mladenov, 2015). In this sense, China in the post-Mao era, as one of the most representative neoliberal countries (Harvey, 2007; Rofel, 2007), can serve as a unique setting for studying ICTs and disability in the neoliberal context in the Internet age.
Since the Reform and Opening in 1978, China has employed the Foucauldian discourse of ‘self as enterprise’ as a developmental strategy in its new neoliberal context (Hansen & Svarverud, 2010; Yan, 2009). The distinctive feature of the Foucauldian concept of ‘self as enterprise’ is that the self is to be remade into ‘a sort of permanent and multiple enterprise’ (Foucault, 2008, p. 241). It is based on a principle of active self-regulation that ‘construes the individual as an entrepreneur of his own life, who relates to others as competitors and his own being as a form of human capital’ (McNay, 2009, p. 63). Through the active self- regulation of self as enterprise, the self is co-opted into normalizing social dynamics, and the regulation of conduct ‘becomes a matter of each individual’s desire to govern their own conduct freely in the service of the maximization of a version of their happiness and fulfil- ment that they take to be their own’ (Miller & Rose, 2008, p. 215).
The Chinese Party-state employs this neoliberal technology to encourage individualized citizens ‘to be self-responsible, self-enterprising, and self-governing subjects’ (Zhang & Ong, 2008, p. 3). In this sense, ‘self as enterprise’ has become a new governing apparatus for the Party-state to create ‘a kind of socialism at a distance, in which privatizing norms and practices proliferate in symbiosis with the maintenance of authoritarian rule’ (Zhang & Ong, 2008, p. 4). Therefore, Hoffman (2006) argues that this sort of discourse has been promoted to achieve a new self-enterprising subject, which has an affinity with the Party- state and relies on and contributes to the ‘overall strength of the nation’ (p. 566).
This neoliberal context is also argued to make self-enterprising subjects in the field of disability in China (Dauncey, 2012), encouraging disabled people to be sort of ‘self as enterprise’ as well. As Dauncey (2012) argues, the Chinese government has developed a heroic narrative structure of ‘triumph over tragedy’ to encourage disabled people to rely mainly on themselves to triumph over their individual tragedy, using the discourse of ‘self-strengthening’ (ziqiang) and ‘self-supporting’ (zizu) (p. 312). In this sense, the disabil- ity discourse concerning ‘kao ziji’ (literally, relying on oneself in Chinese) is related to the Foucauldian neoliberal governmentality that reorganizes social relations and behaviors around ‘the grain of enterprises’ (Foucault, 2008, p. 149). It has been argued that this sort of discourse of ‘kao ziji’ has close relations to governmentality (Yapp, 2017, p. 634). There- fore, Yapp (2017) develops the idea of ‘disability as exception and exceptions to disability,’ which was designed ‘to track how this identity category becomes a key neoliberal technol- ogy that produces populations and modes of subjectivation’ (pp. 634–635). This neoliberal discourse concerning the privileges of ‘self-responsibilization’ (Makhulu, 2016, p. 5) has become the ‘representative of a logic of independence from state-sponsored welfare’ (Yapp, 2017, p. 638) across divergent fields related to disability. According to Yapp (2017), the neoliberal discourse of disability as exception has been deployed to support the growing logic around neoliberalism in China.
Entrepreneurship and employment of disability in the neoliberal context
We would therefore like to situate this study in China’s neoliberal context, to explore the complicated relationship between ICTs and disability, especially the exercise of the dis- course of the ‘self as enterprise’ that transforms disabled people as self-enterprising sub- jects in the Internet age. In particular, this study would like to focus on two crucial issues, namely, entrepreneurship and employment, of disability in the neoliberal context.
To some extent, neoliberalism has become an intertwined entrepreneurial project that creates forms of entrepreneurial living, or makes a living appear as entrepreneurship (Stensrud, 2017). Accordingly, the figure of the entrepreneur has become sort of bench- mark of success in the neoliberal culture (Duffy, 2017), inspiring entrepreneurial subjec- tivities that desire for wealth (Bröckling, 2016; Marwick, 2017; Weeks, 2011). These entrepreneurial subjects ‘increasingly define themselves as self-branding entrepreneurs rather than employees’ (Robinson, 2017, p. 2018) on the one hand, and suffer risks, uncer- tainty, and precariousness on the other hand (Dewhurst, 2017; Stensrud, 2017).
Especially, disabled people have long been assumed to lack the necessary capacities to establish or run their own business (Renko, Harris, & Caldwell, 2015). They face various challenges, including economic challenges resulting from a lack of financial support and capital, socio-cultural challenges rooted in norms and views that underestimate and dis- criminate against disabled capabilities, and personal and attitudinal challenges stemming from a lack of business training (Barnes & Sheldon, 2010; Hwang & Brandon, 2015). These challenges are more prominent in China due to the discourse of ‘kao ziji,’ such as ‘self- strengthening’ and ‘self-supporting,’ and the individual-oriented model whereby disabled people must rely primarily on themselves (Dauncey, 2012).
Similarly, employment is critically important for disabled people since it has the poten- tial to deconstruct disability, ‘labouring shows that you are doing something: you are able. Work is enabling’ (Bates, Goodley, & Runswick-Cole, 2017, p. 172). Therefore, access to an employment-based income is a marker of disabled people’ social inclusion and partici- pation (Barnes, 1999; Oliver & Barnes, 2010). Especially in a neoliberal society, ‘disabled people are being produced as idealized “workers with disabilities” and included in neolib- eral workplaces’ (Friedner, 2015, p. 121). Therefore, employment has become a powerful image that ‘symbolizes effective “self-governance” as part of the neoliberal policy of shift- ing social risks from the state onto the individual’ (Darcy, Taylor, & Green, 2016, p. 1246). This employment doctrine has been extended to govern disability in the neoliberal era and has become a key determinant of disabled people’ ability to access opportunity, choice and development (Mladenov, 2015; Wilton & Schuer, 2006). Especially in China’s neoliberal context, the employment indicates a person’s contribution to the socialist construction on the one hand, and responsibility to the family on the other hand (Lin, Yang, & Zhang, 2018).
Research question, framework, aims and methods
Based on the literature discussion, this study attempts to employ the theoretical frame- work of ‘self as enterprise’ to research the question of how disabled people in China have transformed themselves into new self-enterprising subjects in the wave of the ‘Inter- net + Disability.’ In order to answer this question, this study tries to develop an analytical framework to illustrate the disability practices that situated in the ICTs and neoliberal con- text, underpinned by the discourse of ‘self as enterprise,’ and demonstrated by the prac- tices of entrepreneurship and employment. The analytical framework is illustrated in Figure 1.
By answering this research question, this study aims to propose a contextualized under- standing of ICTs and disability which may have broader recognition in other and even a global context. The study also seeks to contribute to the ICTs studies, digital economy studies, neoliberalism studies and other relevant research field.
In order to achieve these research aims, this study used research methods that included ethnographic participant observations and in-depth interviews, with a purposive sampling strategy. Virtual participant observation is suitable for understanding vivid activities and personal experiences through firsthand online involvement (Julian, 2010), and in-depth interviews are argued to be central to virtual ethnography (Miller & Sinanan, 2014). Pur- posive sampling refers to ‘strategies in which the researcher exercises his or her judgment about who will provide the best perspective on the phenomenon of interest, and then intentionally invites those specific perspectives into the study’ (Abrams, 2010, p. 538).
Initially, we purposively identified hubangwang as the targeted field for ethnographic participant observation, and Mr. Yuan, the founder of hubangwang, as the key informant for our further in-depth interviews. From 1 October 2016 to 1 December 2017, we con- ducted 14 months of fieldwork on hubangwang for participant observation, with more
Figure 1. Digital disability practices of entrepreneurship and employment in China.
than 100,000 words of fieldnotes. Then, we conducted an in-depth interview with Mr. Yuan for 100 min, and another 60 in-depth interviews, each lasting an average of 60 min, with disabled job seekers and workers from hubangwang. All interviewees had been kept anonymous.
The limitation of the research design lies in the single case study design. But we believe that we can strategically choose a meaningful case as a unit of analysis from which to elu- cidate a singular practice or phenomenon, since qualitative researches aim at the in-depth understanding rather than the generalization of social issues and practices (Abrams, 2010; Merriam, 1998).
Disability-related service structure in China
Before investigating the micro-level individual practices of disabled people, this section will first examine the macro-level disability-related service structure in China, which underpins our further studies on the individual entrepreneurship and employment later.
First, China’s law on disability could not fully achieved its goals to ensure disabled people’ equal and full participation in society. Until 1990, China promulgated its first basic law, ‘Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled People’ to protect disabled people’s rights. However, there are no sanction mechanisms that can be used to ensure the enforcement of the law, even the government has conceded that ‘it has proven more difficult to put the law into operation than other laws because deep-rooted prejudice against the disabled still exists’ (Pearson, Wong, & Pierini, 2002, p. 367).
Second, the Chinese government does not take its responsibility to guarantee disabled people’s rights and welfare as something actively protected by the law; rather, it leaves such responsibilities solely to disabled people themselves within a family support system (Pier- ini, Pearson, & Wong, 2001). The disability-related issues usually do not become a policy priority for the government (Fisher & Jing, 2008; Huang, Guo, & Bricout, 2009). In this sense, Chinese government’s policies are not made based on a social model but rather on an individual-oriented model, whereby disabled people must rely primarily on them- selves rather than the government (Yang, 2015).
Third, China used to rely mainly on the quasi-official organization, the CDPF, to pro- vide disability-related service and philanthropy for disabled people. However, this state- controlled and government-sponsored system of ‘official philanthropy’ could not meet disabled people’ needs. It mainly requires disabled people to be independent, to rely on themselves, and to live with their families, and ‘only in the absence of family support is the government expected to provide social services’ (Fisher & Jing, 2008, p. 172). There- fore, there was a gap between what the CDPF promised and what disabled people actually received.
Fourth, it is very difficult to register Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), including disability-related NGOs, to provide social philanthropy and service beyond the official structure in China. It is argued that Chinese government remains deeply dis- trustful of foreign influence and organizations outside its control due to its unique political system; therefore, there are very few social organizations focused on disability-related ser- vice in China (Zhang, 2017), with the first such organization established in 2006, almost 20 years after the establishment of the CDPF (Luo & Zhang, 2015; Zhang, 2017).
Against this backdrop, many scholars have argued that China’s special disability-related service structure could not fully guarantee or promote the social inclusion of disability in China; rather, it may lead to a more severe social exclusion of Chinese disabled people than reported for their counterparts in the West (Kohrman, 2005; Miles, 2000; Stone, 1996; Vaughn, 1993; Xun, 2002). The development of ICTs in China has become a new and increasingly important variable with this disability-related service structure. Especially since 2014, China has proposed the programs of ‘mass entrepreneurship and innovation’ that encourage entrepreneurship and innovation via the Internet. In particular, Premier Li Keqiang issued a directive to encourage disabled people to take advantage of the programs to ‘realize the dreams of employment and entrepreneurship and create a happier and bet- ter life through labor’ (Zhang, 2015). Since then, the wave of ‘Internet + Disability’ spread across China, with hundreds of thousands of people realizing their dreams of entrepre- neurship and employment via Internet (Ali Public Welfare, 2017).
Mr. Yuan stood out from the crowd during this wave. As Mr. Yuan explained,
thanks to the development of ICTs, now I can rely on myself to achieve my entrepreneurship. Through the Internet platform of hubangwang, we can provide service and create value for other companies at a relatively low cost. I call this new mode of philanthropy ‘entrepreneurial philanthropy,’ the philanthropy in the new age.
In this sense, hubangwang and other ICTs-based platforms such as this, as a sort of ‘entre- preneurial philanthropy,’ have become a new organic and complementary part of the dis- ability-related service structure in China. Furthermore, Mr. Yuan has taken advantage to this wave to achieve his dream of entrepreneurship, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people has achieved their dreams of employment, proposing a typical case for studies on the digital disability practices of entrepreneurship and employment in China.
Born in and growing up in a poor family in an underdeveloped area, Mr. Yuan said his life was even more difficult than his peers because he was also a disabled person in such situ- ation. Due to a bout of childhood polio, one of Yuan’s legs is 4 cm shorter than the other, which influenced his entire life, especially his education, employment, and entrepreneur- ship. He did not have the opportunity to attend college after his graduation from the high school. Due to his disability, he could not find suitable long-term employment after leav- ing the high school; he thus spent much time hopping from one job to another and strug- gling for a job that provided a livable wage. Before founding hubangwang, Yuan had tried various types of temporary jobs, such as working as a real estate agent, a hair dresser, and an auto supplies salesman. Yuan said he had long lived at the bottom of society, had directly and deeply experienced the difficulties, hardships, sorrows and bitterness of life as a disabled person.
Yet, despite the adverse condition, Yuan always had a dream of entrepreneurship, situ- ated in China’s broader neoliberal context. Since the Reform and Opening, popular slo- gans, such as ‘to get rich is glorious’ (zhifu guangrong), that encourage personal success and achievement have sprung up in China (Bao & Haas, 2009). The neoliberal context led to a transformation of the social discourse toward ‘desire’ – longings, needs, aspirations and dreams – in a post-socialist desiring China (Rofel, 2007). Yuan stated that he intensely
desired success in becoming gloriously rich, just like most other Chinese people. However, he also hoped that realizing his personal dream of entrepreneurship would help other dis- abled people. Therefore, Yuan started the website of hubangwang in 2011 to achieve his dream of entrepreneurship on the one hand, and to assist other disabled people by offering jobs online to achieve their dreams of employment on the other hand. As Yuan stated, ‘I am a self-made person, but I hope my entrepreneurial dream can help as many disabled persons as possible, so that we can together highly contribute to our family, society and country.’ In this sense, this self-made dream of entrepreneurship resonated with the dis- course of self as enterprise, on the one hand, and the notion of the ‘overall strength of the nation,’ on the other hand (Hoffman, 2006, p. 566).
However, there is much hardship in entrepreneurship due to his disability and especially the neoliberal discourse of ‘self as enterprise’ or ‘kao ziji’ in China. Yuan had to face all the challenges and uncertainties on his own, in a new flexible mode of self-realiz- ation and a paradoxical compulsion to responsibility (McNay, 2009). It took almost two years from 2011 to 2013 for Yuan and hubangwang to attract 14,915 registered members and offer 4216 online jobs. But Yuan had not found the ‘revenue model’ of hubangwang yet, rather, he used to self-position hubangwang as sort of Disabled People’s Organization (DPOs), pinning his hope on government welfare and social philanthropy. As Mr. Yuan explained,
I optimistically thought that I may get adequate resources and government support. But, the reality is very cruel. The government may support you on paper, and many people may sup- port in spirit, but they could not really support you substantially. Notwithstanding the fact that the government and society helped me once or twice, they could not always help me. I have to rely on myself to find my own way out of the dilemma.
Mr. Yuan used to be one of the advocates who practiced this kind of DPO as a sort of ‘social philanthropy,’ but he ultimately failed. His enterprise had dramatic ups and downs so that when there was government funding and philanthropic donations the enterprise flourished taking on dozens of employees, while on the brink of bankruptcy without those supports. During the difficult time, Yuan and his enterprise struggled on the edge of survival, and once, he even had to sell his own house to pay off bank loans. His house was also his workplace, and he was the entrepreneur and the only employee at the same time, becoming a sort of ‘entreployee’ (Hartmann & Honneth, 2006). Yuan said he had been used to enduring heartbreak, sleepless nights and disturbing nightmares. However, the difficulties did not defeat him; rather, they helped him to strengthen his entrepreneurship resolve, which had become Yuan’s attitudinal and entrepreneurial com- mitment, and to increase his social competencies, which are of critical importance for dis- abled entrepreneurs (Bagheri & Abbariki, 2017). Yuan even believed that the disability featured in his path toward success. In Yuan’s own words, ‘for disabled persons like me, hardship is the normalcy of daily life. Especially in the way of start-up, hardship is the other side of entrepreneurship.’
Yuan’s persistence finally paid off in 2014, and all his efforts were rewarded in the wave of ‘Internet + Disability.’ Yuan seized this opportunity to find an alternative model of dis- ability-related philanthropy in China, a ‘business-like’ philanthropy of sorts (Dart, 2004, p. 290), with new ‘marketized’ ideologies, doctrines and practices underlying entrepre- neurial philanthropy (Bajde, 2013, p. 3). ‘We no longer seek the philanthropy of the government or society; rather, we seek to “exchange” in the market, a new mode of mar- ket-oriented philanthropy ... I call this new mode of philanthropy “entrepreneurial phi- lanthropy”.’ Since then, Yuan has preferred to label himself as an ‘entrepreneur’ rather than a ‘philanthropist.’ Therefore, although Yuan coincidently used the term ‘entrepre- neurial philanthropy’ from the social entrepreneurship research field (Maclean, Harvey, & Gordon, 2013; Shaw, Gordon, Harvey, & Maclean, 2013), his practices of ‘entrepreneurial philanthropy’ must be understood in the China’s neoliberal context. He had to rely on himself to conduct ‘business-like’ and ‘market-oriented’ philanthropy based on market methods and values – helping disabled people find online jobs, helping employers find flexible workers, and earning a commission of approximately 20% of the transaction.
Yuan strategically took advantage of the Internet to facilitate this business model which made him finally successful. First, he can reach many more companies via the Internet, providing many more jobs on hubangwang. Second, he can find a much greater diversity of jobs online, especially the online customer service on Taobao, which are all things dis- abled people can do well via the Internet. Third, he can recruit significantly more disabled people nationwide once they can get access to the Internet, so that hubangwang can achieve its scale-operation. Last but not least, Yuan can do the staff training and company operation at a relatively low cost, with competitive advantage in the market. Since then, his enterprise ‘hubangwang’ has been developing at a rapid rate. In late 2014, only one year after the proposal of ‘Internet + Disability,’ hubangwang had posted 15,079 jobs again its 28,503 registered members. By December 2017, the numbers had reached 19,537 and 41,338 respectively.
Yuan proudly stated that he believed he had achieved his dream of entrepreneurship in the wave of ‘Internet + Disability.’ However, behind his personal success, there was an exploitative relationship among Yuan, employers and disabled job seekers. Employers hired disabled people through the hubangwang not just because of their corporate social responsibility of disability-related philanthropy, but more importantly due to the ‘rela- tively low cost’ of service Yuan and hubangwang provided. Similarly, Yuan operated hubangwang not purely for ‘social philanthropy’ of DPO, but for the 20% commission he could earn from the transaction. Disabled job seekers, in this sense, were at the bottom of the exploitative job chain. But Yuan tried to deny this kind of exploitation by highlight- ing the contribution he and hubangwang made to disabled people and the society. He reminded us to pay attention to the ‘hubang index’ and the ‘ranking lists’ on hubangwang. The ‘hubang index’ updated the number of jobs hubangwang offered and the money hubangwang paid to disabled people in real time in the most conspicuous location on the website. Two ranking lists – ‘Top 10 Diligent’ and ‘Top 10 Lucrative’ – are updated in real time on the website to show the disabled workers who does the most jobs and who earns the most money on hubangwang. Yuan was very proud of these numbers and valued them the most with his work. To some extent, he self-legitimized the exploita- tion he made by the contribution he claimed. When asked directly during the interview whether there was any exploitation or inequality in hubangwang, Yuan tried to further legitimate himself, pointing out that ‘hubangwang is now a company rather than a philan- thropic organization. Although it originally aimed to help other disabled people, its pri- ority is now to survive and to make profit so that it can help many more disabled people.’
After Yuan’s success, especially his standout in the Wave of ‘Internet + Disability,’ numerous media outlets flocked to provide coverage of Yuan’s story and enterprise.
Based on Yuan’s storytelling, media coverages also focused on Yuan’s contribution rather than exploitation. To score political points, the local government also began to support Yuan to make him a successful national model. Yuan was elected in 2016 as a member of the local Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Wuhan; CPPCC is a key government power in China’s political system. However, Yuan was inclined to interpret this ‘honor’ as a ‘responsibility’ that inspired him to continue his dis- ability work on his own. As he stated,
the government can only add brilliance to one’s present splendor, but cannot always provide timely help. Its working priority changes every year, but we cannot totally follow its lead. We have our own works to do, and we have to rely on ourselves.
Yuan insisted that disabled people must rely on themselves and face new challenges, and difficulties together with other disabled people. Situated in China’s neoliberal context, Yuan also kept working toward his dream of entrepreneurship on the one hand, while facing the risks and uncertainties of a precarious entrepreneurship on the other hand.
Behind Yuan’s precarious entrepreneurship, there lied tens of thousands – to be more accurate, 43,152 by June 2018 – of precarious disabled people. The ‘precarity’ has been argued to be a fundamental condition of dispossessed life shared by all, since neoliberalism has created precarity in multiple forms to compel everyone to live in precarity (Butler, 2009). However, because precarity is distributed differentially, disabled people’ are living disproportionately perilous lives (Bates et al., 2017). Even within the field of disability, there is still a kind of disproportion of precariousness – job seekers and workers in hubangwang are in a much more uncertain situation than Mr. Yuan.
Previous studies have examined various challenges, barriers and constraints that dis- abled people face in their struggle to obtain employment (Hwang & Roulstone, 2015; Jones & Latreille, 2011). Especially in developing countries such as China, where govern- ments fail to establish a strong, active and effective legal and regulatory regime to remove work-related barriers, disabled people are left to encounter more serious employment challenges and difficulties (Namatovu, Dawa, Mulira, & Katongle, 2012). The recent devel- opment of ICTs has been argued to influence disabled people’ employment possibilities, so that they can better integrate into society by themselves (Goggin & Newell, 2003). Yuan’s hubangwang is such a platform to assist disabled people find and perform flexible jobs online, such as video transcription, text sorting, copy writing, network marketing, and online customer service. Different tasks offer different rewards, and those registered on the website must work more to earn more – the most diligent worker has finished 23,071 tasks, and the most lucrative workers earned 90,596 RMB (about 13,982 USD).
These types of online jobs are particularly significant for disabled people in China. Employment for disabled people is not only an individual issue but also a family issue that indicates one’s family responsibility (Pearson et al., 2002). The meaning of having a job is more about self-value, self-confidence, and self-dignity. As Mr. Li stated,
I used to hate myself so much for not being able to work for my family. It left me with a deep sense of shame and guilt. Now I can have a job in hubangwang, although without too much money. I am part of my family again.
Most interviewees from hubangwang told similar stories in which they used to think they were a burden on their families, whereas hubangwang offered them opportunities to show their commitment and responsibility to their families. Some bought gifts for little brothers, some prepared a dowry for daughters, and some saved money for parents, all of which made them believe that they ‘have some value’ (youjiazhi) as a member in the family.
However, as discussed above, there is another side to employment in hubangwang that workers there had become precarious workers and suffered from precariousness in their lives. First, most of the online jobs that disabled people can perform are low-end labor jobs and hard manual labor. Disabled people must push themselves to the limits of their physical endurance but are unable to earn much or significantly upgrade their per- sonal capacity. Second, online jobs on hubangwang are task-based; in other words, mem- bers can perform only specific jobs without any social security and stable income. They are overloaded with work on some days, whereas on other days, they totally have no work to do, resulting in significant insecurity. Third, due to Yuan’s entrepreneurial strategy, there are still strict standards, criteria, requirements and controls – or ‘KPI’ (Key Performance Indicators) in Yuan’s own words – regarding certain jobs. Members must suffer physical pains, on the one hand, and control pressures, affects and emotions and thereby to push the limit of their emotional endurance, on the other hand.
As Ms. Liu, who is paralyzed from the waist down, explained,
although I use a computer for work, it is not high-tech; rather, it is purely manual work. This kind of job could not really improve my knowledge and capacity, so I have no hope for a better job, and one day I may even loss this job. I have to bend over the bed, supporting my body with my hands and typing on the keyboard at the same time. At first, I could main- tain this posture for only one or two minutes, but I have to push my limits little by little. But, when I finish one task (customer service via Internet), I still need to take a break of five to ten minutes. In addition to the break time and sleeping and eating times, I usually work the entire day, so long as there are tasks for me so that I can get approximately 2000 RMB (about 307 USD) every month.
Other interviewees on the two ranking lists shared similar stories, whereas those who were not listed usually earned much less – there is an excessive disparity in income among them. All of the interviewees stated that they treasure the job opportunities so much that they have learned to control themselves and gotten used to the work because they were all afraid of losing the jobs. Therefore, when we asked if they minded Yuan’s 20% commission, most of the interviewees stated that they ‘totally understood and accepted’ Yuan’s business model because without Yuan they could probably not even get the jobs they can do now. As Yuan explained, ‘they have no other choice, so they have the relative advantage of endurance, which is something that nondisabled persons probably do not have and could not imagine.’ The ‘no other choice,’ ‘totally understood and accepted’ and ‘relative advantage of endurance’ indicate not only the inequality and exploitation between Yuan and workers in hubangwang, but also the extremely precarious, unstable, vulnerable and insecure forms of working and living behind disabled workers’ precarious employment.
Therefore, employment for disabled people is enabling and empowering, on the one hand, and debilitating and exploiting, on the other hand (Puar, 2009). Just like Yuan, every worker on hubangwang must face a neoliberal transformation that turns oneself into an entrepreneur version of him/herself. Although connected through the Internet on the same platform of hubangwang, each disabled person has indeed been isolated from the others to face the precariousness of life totally alone.
With the rapid development of ICTs, many scholars have examined whether ICTs can cre- ate opportunities for social inclusion among disabled people. However, this study attempted to go beyond the myth of technology itself to examine the structure context that shapes the relationship between technology and disability. Particularly, this study situated itself in China’s neoliberal context and its rapid ICT development to examine how disabled people in China transformed themselves into new self-enterprising subjects in the wave of ‘Internet + Disability.’ The research findings can be illustrated in Figure 2, referring back to the research question and analytical framework proposed above.
This study hoped to contribute to relevant research fields in many ways. First, it intro- duced two crucial yet understudied factors, namely, neoliberalism and Chinese context, in the research field of critical disability studies. In particular, it examined the exercises of the neoliberal discourse of ‘self as enterprise’ in the digital disability practices in the Chinese context. It also highlighted the crucial role of the state and its disability-related structure, since the absence of the state is evident in traditional critical disability studies, which are dominated by a ‘social model’ that ignores or marginalizes the state (Tregaskis, 2002). Second, it focused on two important and intertwined issues, namely, entrepreneurship and employment, in the research field of the digital economy. Particularly, it explored the traditionally ignored digital disability practices in this field (Adam & Kreps, 2009; Ell- cessor, 2016), contributing to the emerging sub-field of the digital economy of disability. It also went beyond the traditional critical themes of digital gap and digital exclusion in this field to introduce the neoliberal theme of ‘self as enterprise’ through empirical studies. Besides the theoretical implications, this study also indicated its practical implications about how to promote digital inclusion via marketized digital practices of entrepreneur- ship and employment. However, due to the limitations of a single case study, more thorough empirical studies especially comparative studies in different contexts may be particularly welcome in future studies.
Figure 2. Precarious entrepreneurship and employment in the wave of ‘Internet + disability’ in China.
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