AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 286

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Session 286: Marginal Incorporation: The Second Generation of Rural Migrants in Urban China

Organizer: Pei-chia Lan, National Taiwan University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Among China’s estimated 230 million rural-to-urban migrants, many of the younger cohorts, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are the second generation of migrants—their parents have come to the city to work, followed by the mobility of children. The migration of Chinese peasants as households and their gradual settlement in the city reflect the policy changes since 2003. By now, rural migrants are entitled to residency and work in the city, although hukou institution remains to govern the drastic urban-rural divide in civil rights and welfare benefits. This panel will focus on the case of Shanghai, which has adopted important new policies to incorporate rural migrant and their children in recent years. Focusing on the second generation of migrants, the four papers in this panel will examine their experience of education, work, and consumption in the city, as well as their encounters with local society including schools and charity organizations. We argue that China’s state regulations of rural-to-urban migrants have entered a new regime of “marginal incorporation.” The city incorporates rural migrants as cheap labor, transient residents and marginal members, while social norms and institutional barriers continue to constrain the life chances of migrant children in education and labor market, truncating their opportunities to social mobility.

Inherited Distinction: Peasant Identity as a Durable Chinese Institution
Li Ma, Tongji University, China

While Chinese rural-to-urban migrants provide the raw labor sustaining the country’s economic dynamo, their children are effectively excluded from formal schooling and equal labor market opportunities in the cities. Based on over 130 interviews in Beijing and Shanghai from 2008 to 2010, this paper analyzes why peasant identity continues to bind these city-born second generation. Social norms and formal constraints make the institutional barriers for migrants’ second generation to gain equal rights in education and labor market systems. Reforms in the education system display strong inertia because it is embedded in the politicized discourses and structural conflicts of interests between the state and local governments with the partially reformed hukou system in place. As part of the central planning formula, hukou in the 1950s ensured control of labor flows and political domination. Its formal institutionalization and the removal of the freedom of movement from the Constitution legitimated such a social order and the inherited status of peasantry. The hukou system imposes a unique type of status by parents’ place of residence to individuals, a structural rarity across cultures. This gave rise to a birthright stratification mentality among all Chinese. This feature of class stratification has had a lasting impact on how the Chinese view each other in terms of relative social standing during the communist era. This contributed to how people received the inherited characteristic hukou status as an “appropriate” social distinction. Over time, hukou has become a deeply ingrained socio-cultural identity people use in constructing stereotypes.

Underclass, School and Class Reproduction: Why did Education Fail to Provide Upward Mobility for Migrant Children in Shanghai
Yihan Xiong, Fudan University, China

Drawing on survey data and interviews, this paper explores the following questions: What does school mean to the rural-to-urban migrant children in contemporary China? Is it a ladder for upward social mobility or a transfer station leading to class reproduction? Can those migrant children who enter public schools improve their opportunities to social mobility? Although migrant children at public schools have greater enthusiasm in learning than their counterparts at private schools for migrant children, they feel discrimination from the mainstream society more strongly. As a result, they develop more pessimistic attitude or lower expectation on their future. I call this phenomenon “the ceiling effect,” that is to say, migrant children tend to give up the efforts to study hard due to the expected shortage of social mobility. Migrant children at private school, on the contrary, develop a counter-school culture. They are proud of their disobedient actions and misbehaviors. By denial of school’s value and authority, they won independence and self-esteem; however, these preadults willingly succumb themselves to the secondary labor market and lose their opportunities to social mobility.

New Citizens In-Between: Second-Generation Migrants and NGOs in Contemporary Urban China
Minhua Ling, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have emerged to provide educational and support programs to the second generation of rural-to-urban migrants living in Chinese cities. While the NGOs seize the opportunity to use migrant youth as a focal point to push for organizational development and social change, they also make up for state unwillingness and insufficiency in social provision. Hence, the Chinese state largely turns a blind eye to their operations so that the NGOs can fill in the shortage of welfare provisions for the disadvantaged youth. Based on year-long ethnographic research in Shanghai and Beijing, this paper probes into the interesting, sometimes uneasy, encounters between second-generation migrants and NGOs. Particularly, the term of citizen(ship) (gongmin) has been constantly invoked, redefined and enacted by the NGOs in their philanthropic practices. Nevertheless, China’s de facto dual citizenship regime that divides urban and rural into two highly unequal worlds via its Maoist household registration (hukou) system, as well as China’s unruly state-led market economy, entails great confusion and contention over the conception of citizen(ship), resulting inevitably in unintended contradictories and effects facing both the NGOs and the migrant youth. I suggest that the often decontextualized humanitarian practices that tend to emphasize the “quality” and “responsibility” of citizenry have roots in both socialist legacy and capitalist logic. While helping the migrant youth, the NGOs, consciously or not, may have been disciplining them into new sovereign subjects and preparing them for the reproduction of labor force to shoulder China’s planned transition from an export-led economy to a consumption-led one.

Unfulfilled Desires and Fractured Identities: The Second Generation of Rural-to-Urban Migrants in China
Pei-chia Lan, National Taiwan University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Based on in-depth interviews conducted with about one hundred rural migrants in Shanghai, I explore generational differences among rural-to-urban migrants in contemporary China. This paper focuses on the second generation of migrants (including “one and half generation”) and their experiences of education, work, and social interaction in the city. I examine how state policies, labor market, and social discourses shape their subject positions and self-imagining, and constraint or enable their desire and agency. I argue that the second generation of rural migrants experience unfulfilled desires and fractured identities in comparison with their parents. China’s state regulation of rural migrants has entered a new regime of “marginal incorporation.” The city incorporates rural migrants as cheap labor, low-end consumers, transient residents and marginal members. However, the younger generations of migrants remain trapped in menial work with few benefits or prospects for promotion. They lack economic and cultural capital to escape the undesired career of dagong. They are interpellated and transformed by urban modernity and consumer culture and yet fail to be recognized as real urban citizens. Their subject position of “in-betweenness” propels them to constantly negotiate between the longing for/exclusion from urban modernity and the nostalgia for/escape from rural home.