One morning, about four years ago, an argument erupted in the street outside my rental apartment in the eastern e-commerce hub of Yiwu. My neighbor, Wu — to protect the identity of my research participants, I’ve given them all pseudonyms — was in the process of shifting just-delivered inventory into storage when a local in a BMW impatiently began honking at him to clear his goods off the street.
The two quickly got into an argument, and when the driver heard Wu’s accent and realized he wasn’t an Yiwu local, he snarled that migrants had no suzhi, a loaded term that literally means “quality,” but could also be understood as “class.” Wu furiously retorted that the driver was the one with no class, given his rudeness and arrogance, and if my landlord hadn’t chosen that moment to intervene, a fistfight might have broken out.
“Just because you drive a BMW doesn’t mean you have suzhi,” Wu growled.
Over the past four decades, hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants have experienced similar treatment in cities across China. As Wu’s response indicates, migrant-local dynamics in China are highly contentious — even if the country’s prevailing social conditions and discourse almost always favor locals. Yet the stories of Wu and other migrant entrepreneurs based in Yiwu elucidate how subsets of migrants are pushing back against deeply ingrained stigmas like suzhi. In this case, by continuously leveraging their economic and cultural capital, migrant small-business owners have been able to challenge and even redefine their position in the city’s social hierarchy.
Australian scholar Tamara Jacka once described suzhi as “the innate and nurtured physical, psychological, intellectual, moral, and ideological qualities of human bodies and their conduct.” In the 1980s, the term emerged to feature prominently in family-planning slogans, which called on citizens to “control population quantity and raise population quality.” More recently, the Chinese government has pursued its goal of raising its citizenry’s suzhi through so-called quality education, which targets supposedly uncivilized behaviors while inculcating desired values such as politeness, morality, and even more abstract characteristics like an interest in art.
At the same time, the notion of suzhi has filtered out of government and academic contexts and entered into everyday usage as a way to either compliment or disparage others. Because the factors that determine suzhi usually include birthplace, family, class background, and education, the group most often labeled as “low-quality” are rural Chinese, including rural-to-urban migrants. In response to the stigmatization and marginalization by supposedly “high-quality” urbanites, rural migrants sometimes imitate the lifestyles of their comparatively wealthy peers in an attempt to improve their perceived suzhi.
Yiwu’s migrant entrepreneurs take a slightly different approach. Utilizing a discourse of “entrepreneurial suzhi,” migrant business owners recast their position in the city’s social hierarchy by arguing that they actually contribute far more to the city’s economy than locals.
In nearby Qingyanliu, once called “China’s top e-commerce village” by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, there is a stark and representative distribution of labor — the majority of e-commerce businesspeople are migrants who pay rent to local landlords. To many migrants, this split reflects their inherent entrepreneurial suzhi: They are more willing to endure difficulties and work hard, have a greater “fighting spirit,” and are more forward-thinking than their rent-seeking landlords.
Ye, who moved to Yiwu from a village in China’s central Henan province in 2006, recalled how local employers and landlords used to criticize him for being crass and having low suzhi. Their comments nettled him. “The locals actually curse a lot, too,” he said. “They act like they have high suzhi just because they’re rich.”
Once his business began to prosper, Ye started biting back. “I used to always hear that people from Yiwu were business-savvy and hard-working, but I realized after coming here that many of them are lazy,” he said. “They don’t have an ounce of entrepreneurial quality.”
Ye’s then-landlord, for instance, was an inveterate gambler who earned his income — which, like many locals, still far outstripped Ye’s own — primarily from renting homes. Ye disdained the man’s lifestyle. People of that age should “do some business,” he said, instead of lounging about.
To refute local prejudices, which dismiss migrants as uneducated, the migrants I spoke with also stressed the importance of keeping up with the latest technological and digital trends. In my conversations with online vendors, they often dropped terms and English abbreviations that were incomprehensible to me, leading a couple interviewees to jokingly question the value of my doctorate.
Education — and especially higher education and advanced degrees — are common markers of high suzhi. Migrant e-commerce vendors, however, clearly felt they had the cultural capital to challenge researchers’ authority. In other words, mastering and using digital technologies and jargon served them well in business, while allowing them to redefine their place in the social hierarchy by giving them knowledge few locals possessed.
How they present themselves is also crucial. Ye coached me on some of the self-marketing tactics used by his fellow entrepreneurs. “You have to be able to name-drop Jack Ma or Wang Jianlin, or talk about the gambles that (Xiaomi founder) Lei Jun and (Gree Electric chairwoman) Dong Mingzhu took,” Ye said. “If you don’t know, then you at least have to pretend that you do.”
Migrant entrepreneurs in Yiwu, even successful ones, still commonly encounter discrimination from locals, as Wu’s experience illustrates. But they have also made real gains. Village cadres want to lure them into their districts to reap the wealth, reputation, and employment opportunities they bring; newcomers want to learn from them; and factory owners and distributors want to work with them. Even local landlords hope to rent to them.
For decades, rural migrants have been marginalized in the very cities they’ve helped build. But as migrants’ economic and social status has risen, they’ve been growing increasingly sensitive to disrespect and discrimination — and more eager to retaliate. The confrontation between Wu and the BMW driver may have ended peacefully, if not amicably, but unless the discourse surrounding China’s migrant population changes, the underlying frustrations it spoke to will not stay submerged for long.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Tuchong)