Beginning in 2003, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), now part of the United Nations, noticed an uptick in the number of migrants entering Europe from Northeast China.
In the Mao era, the Northeast had been China’s industrial powerhouse, and jobs in the region’s state-owned enterprises and factories were highly sought-after. Known as “iron rice bowls,” these positions were lifetime appointments, and came with generous cradle-to-the-grave social benefits provided by the employer.
The iron rice bowl shattered in the 1990s when the country tried to reform SOEs along market lines to increase efficiency. Northeast China was plunged into a profound social and economic malaise — the effects of which are still being felt today. Even now, two decades later, many young workers in Northeast China are still struggling to land jobs near their hometowns.
Many ultimately find work elsewhere, particularly in China’s booming coastal regions, but some look farther afield. The 1990s also saw a relaxation of exit controls for Chinese citizens, and in 2002 the Chinese government allowed private companies to recruit laborers for positions overseas for the first time. Between 2000 and 2013, the annual outflow of migrant workers rose from 253,000 to 527,000.
Xiang Biao, now an award-winning professor of anthropology at the University of Oxford, was a research officer with IOM in 2003. He remembers the fascination and anxiety of European policymakers regarding the new phenomenon of migrants from Northeast China — previously, migrants from China mostly hailed from Fujian and Zhejiang province, on the country’s coast.
Beginning the next year, Xiang initiated a decade-and-a-half-long survey of cross-border labor migration from Northeast China. He found the majority of the migrants were going, not to Europe, but to other Asian countries: Japan, Korea, and Singapore. To the surprise of some, he also found that the majority of migrants from the region typically went through legal channels, taking advantage of apparently looser and freer labor controls both at home and in their destination countries. Yet he also discovered that the legalization and regularization of migration went hand in hand with increasing costs and the extension of state power over migrants’ lives.
Xiang Biao during a lecture at Hong Kong University, 2016. Courtesy of Xiang Biao
Xiang, who won the 2008 Anthony Leeds Prize in Urban Anthropology for his work on skilled migrants from India, spoke with Sixth Tone about the intricate networks that both facilitate the mobility of migrants and discipline them; how unskilled international labor migration is often driven by middlemen, not job seekers; and what the future holds for China’s working class. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: In your research, you mention that undocumented migration from China is on the decline as more migrants shift toward legal channels. What are the differences between your research on Northeast Chinese migrants and migration networks, and your previous findings on undocumented immigration?
Xiang Biao: The movement of undocumented immigrants had a distinctly regional character. For example, migrants from Wenzhou City in China’s eastern Zhejiang province mainly went to Europe. In neighboring Fujian province, people from Changle tended to go to the United States, while those from Fuqing City more often went to Japan. Their choices were related to their methods of migration, which were heavily reliant on hometown networks.
Globally, the number of undocumented immigrants hailing from China peaked in the late 1980s and started to decline after the 1990s. Since then, China’s early underground networks have gradually been replaced by a legalized and professionalized international labor intermediary network. From a global standpoint, there are now more opportunities for legal migration than ever before.
This may sound like a good thing, but it’s not that simple. In order to become a legal migrant, you need things like a passport, visa, work permit, proof of education, and skill certificates. Legality must be constructed through a series of procedures and documents, and getting these documents requires a range of intermediaries and institutions. This has resulted in the rapid proliferation of immigration middlemen, who simultaneously make money off migrants while also establishing the legality of their movement — subjecting that movement to state control.
Sixth Tone: Your research raises some seemingly contradictory points: For example, you’ve argued that migration from Northeast China is not driven by people looking to work abroad. Rather, it’s intermediaries that create the demand.
Xiang: Lots of people think that Chinese are crazy about going abroad. But from what I’ve seen, many who end up working abroad didn’t come up with the idea themselves. Instead, they were often persuaded to do so by intermediaries.
There are several levels of intermediaries in China, which together mobilize international labor migration. At the bottom of the ladder are individuals who work independently in the countryside. Called “legs,” they find prospective candidates in or near their villages and take them to an agency in a nearby town or county seat.
These local agencies do not have licenses for international labor recruitment. Instead, they act as recruitment feeders to the small number of government-approved “window companies” in hub cities like Beijing. It is the window companies who contact the destination countries and make arrangements for the migrants.
I often heard prospective migrants in county-level agencies say things like, “I need to think it over” or “I haven’t made up my mind,” even as they’re handing over their fees. These individuals don’t personally have a strong desire to go abroad. Rather they were recruited by these legs, who are usually based in or near villages. This makes it possible for legs to identify who might be persuaded to migrate. It is their business to pick out candidates who can be convinced to go abroad. Recently divorced women, for example, are a common target. They are sometimes more willing to pay to go abroad because of the stigma they face in small towns.
In recent years, as the cost of going abroad has risen and wages have stagnated, fewer people say they are willing to work overseas. Intermediaries have had to move into poorer, more remote villages to mobilize potential workers. Some agencies even package working overseas as a “poverty alleviation project,” which enables them to use local government funds to help workers pay agency fees.
A recruitment agency-organized training session for newly arrived Chinese workers in Kobe, Japan, May 2007. Courtesy of Xiang Biao
Sixth Tone: How do authorities manage and control these international labor migrants?
Xiang: Controls are implemented throughout the chain of intermediaries, on both the sending and receiving ends. In receiving countries — Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — the management of migrant workers used to be centralized, but now it’s done through small enterprises in a scattered manner. For example, in Japan, it used to be mostly large companies, such as Toyota, that recruited Chinese workers. They typically wanted groups of 20 and a leader to manage them. But increasingly, companies in need of foreign workers are small firms located in remote villages or family businesses. They face competition from Chinese manufacturers and need to cut costs by using cheap labor.
As migrant workers have spread to different places, each migrant worker needs to be tracked. In Japan, the government regulates migrants through local business cooperative organizations. If the cooperative organization fails to properly manage the foreign workers under its purview, the government will ban its member enterprises from receiving foreign workers the following year. Cooperative organizations inspect their member enterprises regularly to make sure that they properly control their foreign staff and to pressure them to avoid things like strikes or injuries.
In China, in order to control workers, legs screen people when they select potential applicants and exclude those who might cause trouble. If there is conflict between the employer and the migrant overseas, the employer won’t talk to the worker in question. They’ll go through the intermediary network to contact the window companies in China — and through them, the village-based legs — to settle the dispute.
So when intermediaries hire legs, they seek individuals with credibility in that area. If something happens to the workers abroad, the legs need to be able to pressure the workers’ families into making the migrants obey their overseas employers.
Some agencies send a small group of workers from the same town to the same factory, and tell them if one runs away, they will all be sent back. In this way, not only do the workers keep an eye on each other, but also if one does run away, other workers’ parents will blame his or her family.
In this way, labor relations at a factory are controlled through an intricate cross-border network involving family connections, commercial relationships, and state power. Although migration seems to be easier and more legal compared with the past, labor has also become more isolated, and thus easier to control.
Sixth Tone: Are these labor migration patterns and controls unique to Asia?
Xiang: Yes, they’re unique to Asia, because Asian countries have strong governments as well as very active commercial sectors. The result is a pattern of high-frequency, short-term migrations.
Why high-frequency, short-term migrations? This is related to government controls in the receiving countries. At present, work visas to Japan, South Korea, and Singapore generally max out at three years, which prevents people from putting down roots and forces them to move back. Factories are not necessarily happy about this, since they want experienced workers, but governments want to prevent workers from staying. Of course, this is beneficial for intermediaries, who earn money off of fees. This also explains why they are willing to cooperate with governments to control these people.
A recruitment event for jobs in Singapore organized by an agency in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Oct. 13, 2007. Courtesy of Xiang Biao
Sixth Tone: Many Northeast Chinese labor migrants are what you called “society people,” or shehui ren. They have no permanent jobs and are similar to the Western concept of the “precariat.” What is their role in Chinese society? And how does it compare with precariat communities in the West?
Xiang: This group is quite large in China. In terms of objective characteristics, such as not having a permanent job or adequate security, society people are very similar to the precariat. But one very important background note about the precariat in the West is that they are the product of a large-scale reduction of the welfare state, as well as excessive marketization and liberalization. The loss of workers’ benefits has left these people feeling like they are in a precarious spot. So the Western precariat has developed movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and they have become an active political force.
For China’s society people, their material life is better than before, and many are quite grateful to their country. From this point of view, they’re not like the precariat. That’s why when you talk to them about movements like Occupy, they don’t understand where all this anger is coming from.
Sixth Tone: What do you think the future holds for them?
Xiang: China used to be the world’s factory, and it needed a large number of workers — many of them society people — to sustain its position. But nowadays, the demand for labor is gradually shrinking as the country starts to rely increasingly on machines and artificial intelligence. As such, their contributions to China will increasingly be reflected in their role as consumers. In the future, the way in which they relate to society will not be mainly as laborers, but as consumers.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Workers read job postings at an overseas job fair in Nantong, Jiangsu province, Feb. 18, 2013. IC)