2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 215

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Mobility, Agency, and Interconnections in Rural China

Organizer: Tamara Jacka, Australian National University, Australia

Chair: Hy Van Luong, University of Toronto, Canada

Discussant: Hy Van Luong, University of Toronto, Canada

This panel challenges current thinking on the relationship between rural-urban migration, development and social change in China. Most studies have focused on migrants as the agents of development and have neglected the situation of those who stay in the countryside. In the last few years, this has begun to change. However, recent research continues to reproduce a developmentalist discourse in which migrants (mainly men and young, single women) are assumed to be the agents of development, and ‘left behind’ women, the elderly and children are portrayed as passive dependants, ‘abandoned’ in the ‘backward’ countryside. Drawing on fieldwork in several different regions, the four papers emphasize the agency of the ‘left behind’ and challenge the individualism of existing studies and the separation that is assumed to exist between migrants and the ‘left behind,’ highlighting the significance of connections both between migrants and the left behind and among those staying in the village. Drawing on the capability approach to development, Jacka discusses the contribution that agency and cooperation among left-behind women make to rural well-being. Judd draws on syntheses between the political economy of care and the anthropology of nurturing to examine caregiving in the context of rural/urban translocality. Liu draws on post-gerontological literature to argue that instead of being ‘dependent,’ older rural people are unrecognized providers of support in their families. Finally, Oreglia engages with debates about new technologies and ‘networks of intimacy’ to examine the roles that such networks between rural residents and migrants play in distributing modernity.

‘Left Behind’ and ‘Vulnerable’? Agency, Cooperative Conflicts, and Well-Being Among Women in Rural China
Tamara Jacka, Australian National University, Australia

In China, as indeed across Asia, concern has been growing in recent years about the well-being of children, middle-aged women and the elderly, ‘left behind’ on the farm as their parents, husbands and adult children leave the countryside in search of waged work in urban centres and industrial zones. Increasingly, left-behind women and the elderly, as well as children, are portrayed in academic and policy discourse as a ‘vulnerable group’ (ruoshi qunti) of passive dependants, sidelined by modernization, abandoned by their families, and in need of state aid and support. This paper challenges this discourse, arguing that while attention to the well-being of the left-behind is vital, there is an urgent need for a shift in focus from their vulnerability and supposed passive dependency to their agency. The paper focuses on the agency of left-behind women and, drawing on fieldwork conducted in rural Ningxia, discusses the ways in which left-behind women, including elderly women, actively seek to maintain and enhance the well-being of themselves and family members through their own work and through processes of cooperation and contention with family members, especially other women. Inspired by Amartya Sen’s capability approach, the paper argues that, for political, ethical and practical reasons, these forms of agency among the left-behind need to be recognized and supported in China’s efforts to promote human development and construct a new socialist countryside.

Where are the Caregivers?: Gender, Mobility and Translocal Elder Care in Rural and Urban China
Ellen R. Judd, University of Manitoba, Canada

Much of adult life in rural China has become shaped by the work and essential social roles of caring for children, the elderly, and the ill and disabled as healthy and educated youth migrate for work and expanded opportunity in cities and coastal areas. Earlier research has shown that middle-aged and older women are key rural caregivers, commonly combining this role with income-generating work in agriculture and small-scale commerce. But in recent years very many women in their thirties, and also in their forties and fifties have been undertaking labour migration themselves, sometimes spearheading familial migration. This is part of their role as economic caretakers of their families and also very commonly takes the form of providing paid caregiving work in urban centres, as public service workers, as domestic workers, and as caregivers for the urban young and elderly. This paper will examine how women (and men) manage multiple roles of economic and familial caregivers through the challenges of translocality. The analysis will draw upon and explore syntheses at the intersection of the political economy of care and the anthropology of nurturing. Specific attention will be given to interview and ethnographic findings on translocal elder care provided by 70+ households of long-term rural migrants from Sichuan and Chongqing in one coastal and one interior urban centre in fieldwork conducted from 2009 to 2011. These findings will be contextualized and contrasted with field research on elder care in three sites in rural Sichuan and Chongqing.

“It’s Just Like Being There!”: Mobile Modernity and Rural China in the Age of the Internet
Elisa Oreglia, Nanyang Technological University, USA

A mobile phone gifted by a sister in Beijing to her younger brother in rural Shandong brings the latest music from the city to the countryside; a desktop computer brought home to a village in Hebei by a university student is now used by her mother to look for dance videos; computers are beginning to be purchased by families in rural areas in order to stay in touch with children and grandchildren who migrated to the city, but also to discover practical information (“Is this a good price? Is that a good brand?”). New technologies and family networks bring slices of urban life and modernity to the countryside. These ‘networks of intimacy,’ as Francesca Bray calls them, act to support, and sometimes reinvent, ties between those who left and those who stayed. They also bring news, opportunities, information, and fashions which find a fertile ground in villages often depicted as backward, but also characterized by strong social bonds that allow rapid circulation and sharing of new information. This paper, based on field work carried out in rural Hebei and Shandong, and in Beijing, argues that the combination of new technologies and personal networks are a powerful but often overlooked way to share aspects of urban growth with the countryside, and describes the role that such networks play in bringing modernity to rural China as well as the role that rural communities play in ‘distributing’ it across the village, keeping people in the loop who might be otherwise left out.