Dagongzai, a generic term for “workers laboring for the bosses,” had become the new collective identity claimed by millions of workers in south China since the mid-1980s. In everyday language, this term designated a newly formed social group whose presence could hardly be missed by observers of any city or town in south China. “Worker” was, of course, no new social category in a socialist society whose official ideology extolled workers as “masters” of the country. However, whereas “workers” referred largely to the masses laboring in state or collective enterprises, depending on these danwei (state units) for standardized wages and welfare, dagongzai worked in “bosses' factories.” This latter type of enterprise was brought about by economic reforms and the term conjured up a contradictory image: it had an aura of modernity and prosperity on the one hand, and the reality of unrestrained and ruthless exploitation on the other.
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