Exploring China’s “talent markets”

Temple University Press author Lisa M. Hoffman explains what prompted her to write about the Chinese “talent markets” in her new book Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China

My first trip to China was in 1988, when I went to Beijing to teach English for a year. That landed me in the city for the student movement in 1989 and the subsequent crackdown on June 4th. In some ways that was the beginning of my interest in young urban college students and their aspirations, although my studies began in earnest when I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate school.

When I learned of Dalian’s strategy to become the Hong Kong of the North, I was fascinated. It wasn’t until the very end of my first visit to the city that I heard of a place called the “talent market.” I still remember going there for the first time and the sense I had that this was something very new in China. Certainly college graduates had been allowed to look for work on their own by 1993, but the creation of a specific place in the city for independent “talented” workers to find employers in a “marketplace” was noteworthy. I really wanted to understand what was happening in these exchanges, how people understood themselves in these new roles, and what this meant for the relationship between labor and the state.

I will admit that I was not expecting to hear so much about the country (China) and patriotic ideals as these young graduates and working professionals planned their own futures. It seemed very reasonable to expect explicit narratives of self-development (which I did hear), and not to hear much about collective responsibilities.

Yet it was a persistent message in interviews and more ad hoc conversations, suggesting it was not simply propaganda or some kind of rehearsed speech that is expressed to foreigners. Also, as I became friends with people I interviewed, we would meet for meals, coffee, or leisure outings around the city. These events pushed my research into the city itself, helping me to understand that the young professionals’ sense of self was tied quite closely to the remaking of the city.

As I paid more attention to descriptions of the city Dalian wanted to become, I realized that they often paralleled the way the young people described themselves and their futures. Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China, in other words, grew out of a variety of experiences, some planned, and others that were accidents of history.

Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China by Lisa M. Hoffman is now available from Temple University Press

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