2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 187

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]


The Urban Imaginary: A Space for Struggle, Status, and the Transformation of Chinese Migrant Workers

Organizer: Mei-Ling A. Ellerman, Australian National University, USA

Chair: Bettina Gransow, Free University, Germany

Discussant: Bettina Gransow, Free University, Germany

The Chinese city constitutes a space of possibility for financial independence, social mobility and self-development for millions of rural migrants. However, rural-urban migrants have also been increasingly marginalized and excluded from urban citizenship, a fact which invites a closer focus on the discourses of self-reliance and agency. The four papers in this panel investigate the experiences of diverse migrant groups, and the intersections of their work, strategies of coping and negotiation, and identities. The first two papers focus on the space for action and agency of vulnerable, low-status, poor migrant workers. Ellerman’s paper analyzes the dynamics of female domestic workers’ encounters with inequality and mistreatment, highlighting the contrast between those who submit and the few who openly advocate for themselves. Wallis’s paper discusses how migrant workers acquire new media technologies in their process of urban self-development, but then struggle to employ them in renegotiating their lives in the countryside. The final two papers offer a comparison of different migrant groups pursing urban status and belonging. Wang’s paper focuses on the state-owned enterprise workers of the 1960s who drew upon marriage and the State’s “iron rice bowl” to gain benefits and social status. In contrast, Suda’s paper addresses the educated yet marginalized “floating graduate” workers who can only rely on themselves, rather than State institutional support, to find meaning and belonging in the city. In the context of China’s contemporary socio-political and economic realities, we interrogate notions of possible agency, shifting identities and social change.

Countering Subordination: The Contours of Chinese Migrant Domestic Workers’ Action and Resistance
Mei-Ling A. Ellerman, Australian National University, USA

This paper explores Chinese female domestic workers’ actions, particularly in the context of inequality and subordination in the urban workplace. Poor migrant women with few formal skills and low education frequently choose this low-status feminized profession, but struggle to cope with significant inequality, job insecurity, discrimination, and exploitation. Within such an environment it is important to study the ways in which the women choose to act and to sometimes resist. To unpack the meaning of their actions which range from deliberate silence and compliance to self-advocacy, this paper will consider the workers’ motivations and intent, risk assessments, and the influence of dominant social norms and their belief in their own ability to act and advocate. Both hidden actions and open challenges will be considered as resistance, similar to James Scott’s concept, but also as fundamentally political and motivated by workers’ sense of justice and rights. Based upon data from over 40 qualitative interviews and several focus groups with migrant domestic workers in Beijing, this essay will analyze the reasons for and implications of strategic silence and compliance, contrasted with cases of workers who consistently choose to advocate for themselves. Examples ranging from rural marriage to work in the city will illustrate the complex nature of interactions between the self, society and authoritative power, and the women’s decision-making and actions. The analysis will shed light on why these vulnerable workers act as they do, including the few who critique those in power and openly resist despite the possible consequences.

Migration Experience, New Media Technologies, Gender, and Agency
Cara Wallis, Texas A & M University, USA

This paper looks at the use of new media technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phones, among returned migrants in the Chinese countryside, and how such usage intersects with gender and generation, and in turn modes of agency. It is well documented that migrant workers in China’s urban areas are extremely marginalized, yet many still feel their time in the city offers opportunities for self-development unavailable back home. However, there are different findings regarding whether returned migrants, particularly women, are able to translate skills gained through labor migration into opportunities in the countryside for various forms of agency. Through interviews with 30 informants aged 20 to 50 in three villages in Shandong province, this research reveals clear differences in Internet and mobile phone use among distinct groups. For example, middle-aged women with migration experience often have a more impoverished communication technology environment than their husbands. However, second-generation migrants, both male and female, often gain fluency in using new media technologies while in the city. Moreover, although both first- and second-generation returned migrants reported that they haven’t been able to transfer skills learned through labor migration to the countryside; in fact, younger women actively use the Internet and mobile phones to increase their economic opportunities and maintain ties with those they met while out laboring. They also rely on such technologies to facilitate cyclical migration. Though this is a preliminary study, the findings shed light on the constitutive nature of gender, generation, technology, and agency among those with migration experience.

Individuality vs. Institutional Support: A Reflection of the Historical Experience of China’s Rural Migrants
Danning Wang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

This paper takes an institutional and gendered perspective in understanding female rural migrants’ experiences in 1960s urban China. With Andrew Walder’s “organized dependency” in mind, the paper focuses on how rural migrants relied on the danwei system in achieving their advanced urban and avant-garde working class status. Meanwhile, by actively utilizing the opportunities created by marriage, a conventional mechanism for women to move up the social ladder, female workers were able to transcend the institutional boundary between two ranks: cadres and workers, and finally accomplished their high urban status in a reconfigured Maoist society. Based on thirty life histories that Wang collected in Tianjin in 1997 and 2008, the paper refers to the totalitarian system from the 1960s to first discuss what happened to these migrants who joined state-owned enterprises during the Great Leap Forward; secondly to see what institutional elements disappeared during the economic transition in the 1990s; and finally to show the migrants’ active agency in dealing with the institutional changes. It is important to realize when the SOE system collapsed in the 1990s, female workers never lost their urban status. Additionally, the housing and material benefits they received in the Maoist era enabled them to assist their adult children and school-aged grandchildren in sustaining their urban lives and continuing the process of social mobility. These women’s historical experiences echo the scholars’ emphasis of the “complex and unavoidable dependence of…individuals on social institutions” in the contemporary individualization and second modernity thesis.

Mapping “Floating Graduates” in Guangzhou: Class Identities, and Social Mobility of Highly Educated Migrants in Urban Space
Kimiko Suda, Freie Universitat, Germany

Against the background of current critical debates about the social stratification of the emerging Chinese middle class, this paper will look at the discourse about highly educated internal migrants situated in precarious working and living conditions in urban space. Young members of the academia, public media and the migrants themselves are the most important actors shaping the lively debate about social mobility. The debate had started in 2008 after Lian Si coined the rather derogatory term “ants” (yizu) for this social group. Choosing Guangzhou as the main research location, this paper will concentrate on the migrants’ positioning regarding urban citizenship and economic, social and cultural participation, whilst facing strong marginalization. It will further explore their individual strategies for maintaining mental and physical health, improvement of their working career and social status, and whether they share an identification as one social group. Additionally, how are they affected by the process of transition from relying on the socialist government (kao guojia) to a neoliberal system of relying on oneself (kao ziji)? In addition to analysis of scientific literature, newspapers and websites, interviews were conducted with 30 graduates in Guangzhou in the context of the research project, “Patterns of migrant community formation in China’s mega-urban Pearl River Delta (PRD) – linking informal dynamics, governability and global change” (German Research Foundation). Taking this group of migrant urbanites aged 22-29, also labeled the “generation of Post1980s” (baling hou) as an example, this paper will discuss equal participation and social stability in urban China.