Accepted Paper:

Becoming urbanites? Imagination, mobility and self-transformation of migrant workers in contemporary China  
Jialing Luo (Sichuan University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the imagination, aspirations and self-transformation of the rural-urban migrant workers in contemporary China. It examines the socio-political milieu in which peasants' (im)mobility is constructed and experienced, and the dilemma of becoming urbanites.

Paper long abstract:

In the pre-socialist 1940s, Fei, famous anthropologist of China and former student of Malinowski, noted that, the degree of "immobility" and "enduring attachment to the soil" of Chinese peasants made it "abnormal for them to migrate" (1992[1947]). During socialist period that followed, free rural-to-urban movement was prohibited by the hukou (household registration) system. Comparable to the caste system, the hukou endows urban residents with privileges, which are denied to rural people. For those with a rural background, becoming urbanites has been perceived as something highly desirable.

The reform era since late 1970s has witnessed rural-urban mobility and the emergence of a social group termed nongmingong (literally 'peasant-workers' but usually translated as 'migrant workers'). Their total number reached 281 million in 2016. However, while working and living in the city and contributing hugely to China' economic growth, they are habitually seen as an "outer group" (Li 2003). Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Chengdu, the biggest city in southwest China, where a large number of nongmingong concentrate, this paper is concerned with the imagination, aspirations and self-transformation of nongmingong during their migrating process. It examines the socio-political milieu in which peasants' (im)mobility is constructed and experienced, and the dilemma of becoming urbanites.

Migration in China can be compared to migration in the EU in the context of neoliberal globalisation, as well as to rural-urban migration during the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England. Migration in China is better understood when viewed as part of a changing, globalising world.

Panel Time01
Imagination, migration & (im)mobility