Peripheral Citizens – Discussions of Domestic Migration in China and the US.

WILLIAM THOMSON — Lieberthal and Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan


China’s domestic migrants number in the hundreds of millions. With even more rural people estimated to move from villages to cities in the coming decades, this represents the largest mass movement of people in human history. Despite being a case of “internal” migration, in which the migrants themselves are themselves Chinese citizens, most rural people who come to cities to work lack access to the full civic rights and benefits that native urban residents receive. The divisions are kept in place by a state documentation system known as the “hukou,” which draws important distinctions among the Chinese population by tying citizens’ identity to their place of origin. Urban economies benefit from the large influx of labor power, but city leaders have few responsibilities to these workers. What results is a two-tiered system of belonging, a dynamic that has made for stark socio- economic disparities between urban and rural lives in China. In this talk, I will begin by describing the experiences of workers I met and travelled with during my research. I will then apply their lessons about navigating differentiated zones of national space and belonging to speculate on other global examples of labor migration, including of Puerto Ricans who come to live and work in mainland US.


William Thomson is a socio-cultural anthropologist visiting UM this year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. His research investigates relations of design and labor through China’s contemporary building sites where projects of global capital, labor migration, and architecture converge. His current book project expands on two years of intensive fieldwork with rural construction workers on sites in the city of Xi’an, in local design studios, and through extended visits to workers’ home villages in the Qinling mountains of Shaanxi Province. Before turning to anthropology, Thomson worked for seven years in journalism and media, including five years at WBUR Public Radio in Boston.


Slideshow — Thomson 2017 (PDF)

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