Rapid economic, social, and cultural changes have been taking place in China for about twenty years, a result of China's economic reforms, integration into the world market, and the globalization and distribution of technological innovations have had a great accelerating effect on the change of life spheres in Chinese cities. The omnipresence of commercials for foreign lifestyle products and the guiding role taken by TV soaps from Taiwan or pop music from Hong Kong in urban day-to-day life are a few signs of a deep-rooted structural change that creates the basis for the phenomena described here. As China's markets became liberalized and a profit-orientated entrepreneurship took hold, economic units and social institutions such as the danwei (work unit) faced pressure to minimize their formerly extensive social tasks (You, 1998). By the end of the twentieth century there was not much left of the danwei (Hebel, 1997) that once regulated all parts of life for its members and which for generations had integrated individuals into society (Shaw, 1996).
The erosion of such urban and national enterprises has implications for the members of Chinese society, as individuals have had to adjust from being an object of planning and patronization in an alimentary and welfare system with the danwei as the normative social institution (see Shaw, 1996) into autonomous subjects of a pluralized life sphere, organized by means of the market. In the process, the individual obtains greater autonomy in decision-making and planning in a number of spheres. Whereas the danwei hadprovided the employee with a safe and irrevocable work contract, social security, and leisure activities, individuals in today's China have to compete with others by offering their skills and know-how. The individual now also has to choose the social groups he wants to belong to and can act in. By undermining structures of affiliation and paternalism, a loss of social and psychic security and stability comes within formerly unified communities which were tied to certain locations, and from which individuals drew their values and identity. In its place, individual free space for development and fields for experiment and social or economic action is created, with space for different ideals, allowing plural identities to be constructed.