Include Differences Between Men and Women.
The rural-urban dichotomy in China (formerly so rigidly imposed in the State and popular imaginaries), has been increasingly destabilised in recent years by the migration of rural people to the cities in the post-Mao era (Harrell 2001: 145). Rural to urban migration has continually escalated following the relaxation of previously strict limits generated by the hukou (household/residence registration) system in the 1980s (Chan and Zhang 1999: 818, Harrell 2001: 145). In addition, increasing agricultural productivity created surplus rural labourers whilst free market reforms were catalytic in transforming the urban industrial structure, offering increased employment opportunities in many sectors of the economy (Laing 2001: 501, Solinger 1999: 5). The burgeoning of privately owned businesses and joint-venture enterprises, generated a new and huge demand for migrant labour in urban areas (Solinger 1999: 7, Laing 2001: 7, Jacka 2000). Laing has consequently argued that China is in the “Age of Migration” witnessing a rural-urban flow of people unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic (1999: 518). Many theorists have noted the significance of this in demographic, politico-economic and cultural terms. They recognise the opportunities (and restrictions) that migration offers for social mobility and its challenge to the traditional hierarchy of socio-economic stratification, derivative of the rural/urban household registration status (Laing 1999: 518, Murphy 2002 and 2003, Jacka and Gaetano, Jacka 2003, Hairong 2003). Analysts have now begun to discuss the dynamic role of migrants as “agents of information transfer, entrepreneurship and change” (Murphy 2000: 231), examining their lives in depth through their narrative vocalisation of experiences (Jacka 2000, Murphy 2002: 22), and probing the capacity of the urban experience to serve as a foundation on which villagers’ attempts to construct a meaningful identity and an altered sense of personhood (who they are, and what they can be) are based (Hairong 2003: 578).
Authors such as Murphy (2002, 2003), Jacka (2000, 2005), (Davin 2005) and Hairong (2003) have explored the discursive and epistemological context of China’s postsocialist development, gauging the impact of migration and returnee migrants on the rural economy and on the politics of identity, explicating the influence of migration on villagers’ ideas of who they are and what they can be (Jacka 2000, Hairong 2003: 579). Due the State restriction of permanent settlement in cities, rural-urban migratory flows are largely characterised by circulation (Davin 2005: 29, Murphy 2002: 19) which means that “return” or “push” (Murphy 2002: 18) flows of social actors bring new resources back to the village with them. As Murphy elaborates (2002: 10), “migration and return migration are strategies pursued by social actors for attaining goals; they involve the use and reproduction of particular values and mechanisms of resource distribution.” The goals, values and resources that Murphy delineates (2002: 11) are deeply implicated in the fabrication of subjectivity. Thus the dynamics of migration have deeply affected the construction, negotiation and reproduction of individual and group identity in rural communities where the agency and subjectivity of social actors is informed by a wider socio-political, cultural and economic context (2002: 20).
In examining the role of migration in transforming villagers’ identity, it is necessary to engage with ways in which newly acquired resources interact with values, social procedures and customs internal to rural society (Murphy 2002: 27) along gendered lines. Male returnees’ values and resources inject a capitalist dynamic into their natal communities, altering the nature of the local state power (Murphy 2000: 231). Given frequent evidence of “narratives of return” (Murphy 2002: 26), and widespread return-channels of migration to interior provinces, the State and local political agents allocate motivational roles and benefits within the development of rural enterprises for male returnees (Murphy 2003: 232). Thus, migration has an impact not only on returnees perspectives and resources (influencing who they are), but on how they participate in rural society and economy (impacting on what they can be). Murphy relates how “migration and return often widen the range of values from which individuals are able to choose, giving perspective and thus enhancing the scope for agency” (2002: 21). This allows returnees to undertake a renewed evaluation of everyday experiences and goals for the future with a novel consciousness “garnered from links and conception of self” stemming from urban received flows of meanings, images and practices which effect locally conditioned identity (Vertovec 2001: 580). Rural villagers assert their agency in “both shaping and being shaped by socioeconomic transition,” simultaneously resisting modernisation and structuralist categorisation of them as “backwards,” traditional, and ignorant (Murphy 2002: 27).
Successful male returnee migrants mould new dimensions to their kin/individual identity and social standing by integrating themselves into a “local state corporatism” (Murphy 2000: 232). This translates into their inclusion into projects of the local state and deployment of their urban-acquired resources and “entrepreneurial acumen” into state-sanctioned development policies, and improvement of the “suzhi” of human capital at grassroots levels (Murphy 2000: 233). Visible political endorsement is accredited to those who exemplify ideals of social mobility and possibilities of constructive economic progress on their own soil. Successful male returnees are able to participate in capital accumulation in their natal villages because they have obtained esteemed resources in urban labour markets. Therefore, their values and goals regarding material and social prosperity overlap with state objectives of increasing rural industrialisation and town construction. They are thus courted by local cadres who encourage participation in local government enterprises and the emerging capitalist dynamic in the villages. Successful returnee migrants are then able to pursue their own goals in terms of what they want to be, (often accumulating capital by independent means), and realise who they are in terms of their new returnee subjectivity which grants them some degree of influence and power within the political linkages of the village.
Yet, as Murphy stresses, experiences of returnee male migrants are not always positive. Innovation in many regions is tied up with bureaucracy and exactions that make the realisation of private enterprise difficult for many returnees (2000: 244). Political interference and weak village infrastructure may combine to inhibit villagers’ realisation of what they can be (Murphy 2000: 247). In addition, gender differentials, grounded in the patriarchal structures and State discourses in China underlie migrant women’s exploitation and introduce a specifically gendered dimension to migrant experience.
The Chinese family system and inherent gender inequality affect women’s propensity to migrate and the likelihood of their being permitted to do so. Once married, female mobility is constrained by the fact that women are required to live within the remit of their spouse’s family. Hairong argues that, the motivation for female rural-urban migration is derivative of young women’s pursuit of a modern identity (2003a: 578) and a new subjectivity that involves raising their “quality” (suzhi) by transferring value from the economic domain into the domain that embodies cultural capital (2003b: 494). She writes how “rather than framing migration as individuals responding to ‘push-pull’ forces” she interprets it as responding to “a troubled process of subject formation for… rural young women, in the reconfigured, rural-urban relationship of post-Maoist discourse” (2003a : 584). State modernisation efforts manipulate the national imaginary, reconfiguring the rural-urban relationship whilst administrative restructuring privileges the city as a renewed space of modern civilisation, “gesturing towards elusive capital and development” (2003a: 585). The rural here is spectralised, appropriating economic, cultural and ideological values from the countryside so that the post-Mao era produces the countryside materially and ideologically as a “wasteland” stripped of previous levels of state investment and saturated with ignorant, feudal traditions (2003a: 586). Hairong sees the migrancy of young rural women as an escape from (or resistance to), the trappings of domesticity which permeate village life, inspiring embarkation into the space of modernity with the aim of fashioning new identities and modern subjectivities (2003a: 588).
However, once within the city, female migrants echo the feeling that they have “stepped from one kind of lowland into another…from one kind of despair to another despair” (2003a: 590). The very condition enabling entry and existence within urban margins essentially nullifies the possibility of attaining the striven-for modern personhood and becoming a subject of development. Instead, migrant women become disposable objects of a commodity economy in which they become themselves commodities of a migrant labour power in the city (2003a: 590). Yet, migration is frequently perceived by rural women as a “rite of passage” in which individuals undergo a journey of struggle and deprivation from which they emerge wiser and mature, having achieved personal pride or stability through determination and endurance (Jacka 2000). Often, as Jacka explains (2000), rural-urban migration is literally a “rite of passage,” a voyage of the self in which migrants leave the village in their teens or early twenties to experience for the first time, life outside the village. In these first tentative steps towards adulthood, migration embodies and coincides with personal struggle for respect and identity as individuals, (regardless of the depravity the city), gain autonomy through the influence of urban culture.
In conclusion, as a 2005 UNESCO policy paper reiterates (Shaohua 2005: 9), “rural labourer migration to urban industrialising areas has become one of the most significant socio-economic phenomena in China, the most populous country in the world,” affecting all cultural domains. Some migrants are lucky enough to gain valuable skills, resources and business connections in urban areas, transforming them into a valued resource in local government initiatives for village entrepreneurship and economic development. Many use newly obtained wealth to gain political influence, making the socio-political village landscape a highly variegated mileu. The very experience of migration shapes the values, goals and resources of villagers, and newfound money and skills rest alongside novel ideas about self and identity as they resettle in the rural community, or urban arena. But migration may also intensify conflict between households and the influence of local cadres within the village. Furthermore, the effect of migration on villagers’ sense of “who they are and what they can be”, i.e. their identity, agency and subjectivity, is highly varied and reflective of local power relations and gender inequality in the social structure. Many migrants gain enhanced autonomy, self-esteem and economic benefits from migration (which often extend to the kin group and household) through the acquisition of new resources. Yet equally, many unfruitful migration efforts invalidate positive changes in goals, aspirations and identity for migrants – who return home with “heavy hearts and empty pockets” (Murphy 2002: 196).