Migrant Workers, Collaborative Research and Spatial Pressures: An Interview with Meng Yue

By Ned Rossiter and Meng Yue

In July last year I had the opportunity to interview Meng Yue, literary scholar and author of Shanghai and the Edges of Empire (2006). Meng Yue has been collaborating with Toronto-based architect and artist Adrian Blackwell for a number of years, with their students from literature and architecture undertaking highly interesting research on the peripheral zones of Beijing. Questions of peri-urban food production, land use, resource distribution and the multiplication of labour skills have framed these investigations. The interview below is extracted from a considerably longer discussion we had in Beijing during the late summer of 2007, half of which was lost to the faulty battery of an ipod (the rest remains to be transcribed from video…).

Ned Rossiter: Meng Yue, you are a professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University and hold a similar position at the University of Toronto, yet, very unusually, you have been involved in recent years in an urban research project with Toronto based artists, architects and students that investigates migrant workers in Beijing. In a strict disciplinary sense this type of research is usually the domain of anthropology. I’m interested in how this project came about: why have literature students doing anthropological fieldwork?

Meng Yue: There is a course called comparative literature that is a combined course with cultural studies and regularly offered to students. Our teaching used to start with Barthes and Derrida but I felt that many of us, including the students, found it too abstract. It was really difficult to connect those abstract and complex ideas of French post-structuralism with the big changes happening in our lives, language, and in our urban landscape. I felt that a good cultural studies course needed to find a more clear connection with what is going on around us, and particularly at this moment of China’s history. To find a theory that explains all of this takes too many years and doesn't help students make sense of the intense changes that define their lives, and I think the most important thing is to open student’s minds to the possibilities of connecting with their material and cultural surroundings. I talked with my department’s chair to see if we could shift the program to accommodate case studies of urban life, and he thought it was a good idea.

When we first started this new program two years ago, there were only eight female students at the time, so we didn't get very far. But they were able to write pretty good papers and were interested in combining spatial analysis with historical work and anthropological typologies. Although I wouldn't say anthropological in a strict sense – we didn't interview too many people, but being there on the site and talking with local people in a casual way was a very enriching and interesting experience. I was thinking of doing it again and then I met the artist and architect Adrian Blackwell in Toronto and we were talking about the idea and then it turned out he was running urban research courses over summer here in Beijing. His approach was to start out by saying architectural students are not to come here and see Beijing as an empty space upon which they can start their landscaping, but rather to begin with field observations in order to enter the urban space.

Very quickly we found this sort of approach expanded the range of ways of understanding a city. And as you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of tension of course for somebody with a traditional literature background, and used to a little bit of distance from the world. We are so used to dealing with the text and studying what has been written, so it will often be very difficult to switch from this mode of engagement. I basically tell students to just try to read materials and spaces and the traces that people left in those spaces as a kind of language and text, and then do whatever you feel is right. Read something because it is part of built history, built space, and if you want to read more there is information out there, so they went and did more than they expected, basically fieldwork on the margins of the city. At first, it was all pretty experimental.

I know the urbanization has had a big impact on more than 13 million people, and at least 4 million people are surplus, they cannot be absorbed by the agricultural economy. That was ten years ago, and now when the city absorbs this surplus there’s no clear idea about how this might best be done. Of course when China entered the WTO there were negotiations about what too export and what to import, and agriculture wasn’t seen to be worth much because of the cheap cost of labour and land. But this doesn't quite match up with certain realities – for instance, it’s more expensive importing agricultural goods and grains. That was a failure in the making, and the land becomes worthless for some, but that didn’t make it cheaper! There’s a broad perception that land becomes very cheap for peasants; at the same time the peasants think their land is worthless because it doesn't make money, so they are trying to exchange land for money. The developers exploit this opportunity and buy or rent land from the peasants at a ridiculously cheap rate and then turn it into a big money pot. We know that kind of process of expropriation is a key ideological component of globalization and international politics.

Like every country, China has its own distinct set of problems and organizational challenges. In the case of urbanization, Beijing is of course not the only city having to extend its borders in order to absorb population flows associated with labour desires and demands. But quite specifically, the value system of land and labour has already established the peasantry as worthless, both in terms of their knowledge and labour. This is despite the fact that of all worker-subjects in China, the peasantry is the most unique in terms of its incredible capacity to adapt to a range of circumstances and skill requirements. Arguably, the flexibility of the peasants makes them the exemplary post-Fordist subject, and not the so-called creative producer!

As I’ve said, from the top officials down to the peasantry, rural land is not viewed as worth keeping any more. Yet on the margins of Beijing there is very good land. Even the villagers and the heads of these districts seek to change this land into urban settings. There are a lot of relocation problems associated with the social work they are doing in the process of urbanization. And that is where you find the concentrations of surplus labour as well. Of course in downtown Beijing you find surplus labour; migrant workers come from the country-side to do mainly work in the service sector for females and construction for males. This is typical of the construction worker in Beijing in particular, and perhaps in Shanghai as well. At the city’s margin you find the agricultural workers. They live in pretty bad situations because they do not have a house, and they do not want to rent a house because they rent land to work, not to build a house on. They want something they can make money out of. And this results in an intensification of agricultural production, which in turn means using a lot of fertilizers and chemicals to produce vegetables out of season that can be sold easily on the market. With such activity, the peasant is able to earn more than before. It’s well known that this increase in income is saved and returned back home to support family members. This type of peasantry kind of disconnects at an existential and social level from wherever they might have migrated from. This new use of land doesn't connect in any clear way to the environment of Beijing, or their home. They are isolated working in the fields.

NR: Do you think your students get a sense of the strong social or ontological crisis experienced by the peasantry workers?

MY: The peasantry is called peasant and agricultural in one word (agricultural-peasantry) and countryside in another. Together, these are called the three nong questions. There are many discussions about these relations, particularly around big social issues. I think my students are aware of these issues, but until they visited the sites of investigation, these issues were understandably pretty remote for them. What they really revealed in their studies was how this kind of three nong peasant question exists at the margins of the city and is not exclusive to what we associate with the countryside. But the city’s margins are not only a site of rural migration. The students were able to differentiate between the local peasant and the migrant peasant. Of course, many migrant peasants willingly left their land, which they think is worthless now. But some of them are not so willing. Because they were isolated from their community – who thought they were odd precisely for not leaving like the others – they moved to a new place, even though they receive better or the same type of education in their home town. So there is a lot of internal anxiety in the peasantry. At the same time the local peasants on Beijing’s margins wanted to make money from the migrant peasants, so they rented houses to them as well as the land. This lead to a sort of crisis in the situation of land use. My students and I could see the local peasantry thinking along these lines. We could see the migrant peasantry becoming really fragmented around the competition over land, and they were angry a lot of the time. Yet they do not have a channel to express their anger. Even the local peasants were angry because they are in an interesting situation and they know that sometimes they are making the wrong decision about how the land is used, but they will not talk about that. So these kind of complicated situations got my students thinking.

NR: It seems, then, that the object of the peasant corresponds with the experience and condition of the massive changes in China. With this decoupling of the peasantry from the countryside, the name of the peasant in turn becomes abstract – it no longer refers to the material condition. Are there new names or new concepts starting to emerge out of that rupture, that fragmentation?

MY: Yes, there is actually. My students observed some of the recycling workers. Some who have be doing that sort of work for more than a decade have become very successful in the profession. They have ceased being a peasant for a long time and now they understand everything about the life of the city – they were trying to find new identities for themselves, like those collecting recycling metals, for example. The new recycling workers by no means hold the political status of the working class in the socialist era. Their image is deprived of social values. Yet they draw on the image of the ‘steel worker’ and apply it to the labour of recycling metals, so as to ironically reveal the historical change in terms of the meaning of labour. It is in this way that they reject the devaluation of their labor. Indeed, they are ironically positive about their own identity and subjectivity.

NR: How does this process of self-naming operate? Do people working in the ministry of labour, or those looking after the workers in government, do they know these new names?

MY: I do not know. My students had good experiences doing research in the field. The migrant workers were happy to chat and be interviewed and were easy to talk to. They would say things like ‘we deserve a raise in our salary’, things like that. But I think the communication has not been really connected with the government apparatus. Instead, there is still a lot mutual suspicion going on. Local administration advised my students not to talk to migrant workers in the recycling villages, supposedly they were not good people. But of course my students still went. None of these workers really planned to do recycling as life-long work even though they take it up as a profession, or turn it into one. ‘I am the best in the profession’, they’ll happily declare, yet they still do not think it is a profession for their whole life. They want to use the money and find other means of expression for themselves, although they are using the recycling materials to beautify their environment and they collect colourful papers or posters to decorate their room. I think it is quite difficult to come up with a new term for this sort of inventive practice. You really need another language of expression, something that matures from the material expression they have already started to express. For example, they do not call this place home or think of their future as belonging in this place; they still want to go back home to the villages. And then my students found they manage to bring their families here, even though they do not think of their job as a profession or necessarily a place for better education. I don’t know why. But I think they try to express their life through the material traces in their environment. Perhaps this is not a statement as such, but they leave traces on the recycled waste, they make use of the waste and that is the way they leave traces for others to read and understand.

NR: We have an instance here where naming or expression becomes a device, the media, the mechanism of self-organization within the movement of migrants. But at the same time, because there is limited trans-institutional communication of these forms of expression – or ‘traces’, as you put it – it seems to me that this a significant political problem. If government is about the art or techniques of managing populations, there is a need to identify the subject in order to regulate its movements. But as you indicated, there is a high ambivalence held by these workers in terms of their subjectivity. In a sense, there is no migrant subject available for control. Does this open the door of autonomy?

MY: So far the management, as far as I can see, of the government is restricted to enterprise management, though I do not like the word management. I believe there are government sections in the local village, for example, that are still trying to work out what people do not belong to the original community. The places we went to had strong interests in property values, but this land was still classified by government to remain as agricultural land despite the pressures it was facing for reclassification due to changed land use. The local governments or work units do not have the governmental responsibility for these migrant workers and there was a loose kind of regulation of those who either come from the same village or province. I’m not sure how it works now, but before, for example, there were strong connections between those who came from the same province. You tend to know and help each other, in such instances. But I do not know if these people can introduce family and relatives to come to the same site. But the amount of people we’re talking about here is still not that big. For example, in Beijing you can still find buildings with native populations, though it is increasingly rare. People used turn a place into their own hotel and if people are coming from their village or province, they come first to that place to stay and then they help each other out. This doesn't seem to be the case so much any more.

You are right about the emergence of self-organization in the case of these community-style sites of collective gathering. I do not know if I would call these autonomous, though it might turn into something that is relatively more self-conscious about their rights, because they do have comments about their lives and conditions and they have knowledge about a lot of things. Some of them were not even peasants when they first came here. But when they do this sort of work they might get 50,000RMB left over, for example, instead of working in the company and losing their independence. They do not have to spend so much money on living and so they choose this profession sometimes, I believe, for a reason and then they figure out even though the living condition is as worse as a migrant peasant living in the field – there is electricity but I am sure there is no refrigerator – you can decide your own life-style, you do not have to work for someone else, or worry that might you loose your job in the middle of the year. You do not have a boss, you are the boss of your own life. That can be attractive. And hey, not so different from how the young creative entrepreneur views their life.

NR: The migrant entrepreneur, then! Here, you have a new idiom of individualisation that is not so obviously connected with the type often associated with neo-liberalism. Here we have an unique kind of individualization at work, one that is not accounted for within literature on the western experience of neo-liberalism.

MY: It is unique in the sense that they are not forced into it. I am still hesitant to use the word individualization, but I like to use the word free life-style. There is choice, they make their own choice to save money, build their own businesses, and so forth. Without using the word individualization, it is hard to say, because sometimes what they are doing is similar to what the family unit does. They are both doing the same labour, but in the family the kid can get an education in an experimental school, which is the school for primary school. Eighty percent of these schools are for the children of the migrant workers and that is where the word experimental is used in a very interesting way. Though it’s also a pretty informal schooling, since many will not finish their education and leave for the world of work.

(Interview transcript by Bert de Muynck. Edited by Ned Rossiter)

Meng Yue is a Professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Toronto and Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Tsinghua University. She is the author of Shanghai and the Edges of Empire (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).