Labour, Migration, Creative Industries, Risk

(forthcoming in special issue of Urban China)

By Brett Neilson

While debates on migration often focus on culture and identity, there is a need to supplement these perspectives with an attention to changing labour regimes and the political meaning of controls on labour mobility. Research on the creative industries brings these fields of investigation into contact. The processes of production in this sector undoubtedly involve the deployment of creative and communicative capacities in the service of profit generating activities. They also signal a number of important transitions in the organisation of work: the growth of cognitive or immaterial labour regimes, the growing reliance on service labour, the increasing insecurity of employment, job creation through unpaid work, friendships, social networking, etc. A focus on labour conditions cuts through much of the hype that surrounds creative industries discourse by focusing attention on one of their most crucial conditions of possibility.

In the case of China, the cost of labour is often cited as a key contributing factor to a thriving cultural entrepreneurialism. As regards migratory movements, there are three important developments. First, the renewal of urban districts as creative clusters has led to the displacement of populations and threatened their established cultures. Second, the inflow of internal migrants from rural China has supplied the labour to construct the buildings and infrastructure essential to creative industries and the real estate speculation that accompanies them. Third, the creative workforce has become more cosmopolitan with an influx of young people from Europe and North America seeking economic opportunity, adventure or just the chance to build and partake in a hip scene. What are the connections between these three forms of migration, which are usually considered as separate, and what do they tell us about the political and economic constitution of the creative industries?

The displacement of urban populations due to modernisation, renewal and gentrification has been a key concern for cultural geographers. But it is notoriously difficult to study what becomes of displaced people since they tend to disperse. This means their communities and the cultures they sustain become susceptible to disbandment. In China these dynamics have been accelerated due to the rapid urban development of which creative industries are an important driver. Much of the debate in Beijing has focused on the demolition of the hutongs and the disappearance of the cultures that thrived in their courtyards. The retooling of factories as art galleries is another story that has clear effects upon the texture of the urban landscape and the kinds of work available within it.

The construction of buildings and infrastructure necessary for the expansion of creative industries and the real estate speculation that accompanies them has been enabled by the presence of a cheap labour force comprised of rural migrants to China’s cities. The regulation of these population flows through the hukou system of household registration has been widely studied. There is a sense in which this labour force constitutes a new working class in China just as the language of class is at once subsumed and appropriated in invocations of a ‘harmonious society’ that favour individualism, professionalism, equal opportunities and the open market. Furthermore, the projected drying up of this migrant labour force and expected emergence of a labour shortage in China is a factor contributing to an increased realization that the country will be forced into further economic restructuring. Not surprisingly, creative industries are a key factor and hope in restructuring narratives that promote the notion of a transition from ‘made in China’ to ‘created in China’.

The growing expatriate population of young North Americans, Europeans and Australians who have flocked to Chinese cities is another development that effects the constitution of the creative workforce. These architects, writers, curators and web developers are often cultivating expertise in China but are not yet recognised as experts in their home countries. Indeed, many are fleeing the precarious labour regimes that have invested the creative industries in Western cities. Here there is at once an economy of opportunity (as valuable expertise is garnered in the whirlwind of Chinese capitalism) and exploitation (as ably trained individuals accept lower wages and longer working hours than those available in other world cities). An important aspect of the presence of these creative workers is the production of new forms of subjectivity in the interactions, intimacies and collaborations that unfold between them and Chinese locals. This gives rise to new forms of hipness and cosmopolitanism in Chinese cities.

There is certainly a sense in which these three kinds of migratory movement are linked in a causal and linear manner. The cheap labour of rural-urban migrants enables the real estate speculation that feeds money into creative enterprises. This opens up opportunities for foreign ‘expats’ and Chinese entrepreneurs to build new and profitable scenes in the creative industries. In turn, there is displacement of long-standing urban populations. The circle is closed in an irresistible and doubtless accurate narrative. But it is also necessary to ask what the neatness of this story hides.

One way to introduce new questions about the development of creative industries is to read this narrative across the more general tendencies of financialization and risk management that characterize the forms of neoliberalism that have taken root in China (and link them to a wider global system that is currently suffering a credit crisis). The speculation that has invested the commercial real estate sector in Chinese cities, frequently leading to the construction of office blocks that remain empty for months or years, is one manifestation of this tendency. Likewise, the ‘land-banking’ that sees companies scouring China to buy up leases on outlying districts or interior cities yet to be developed is another aspect of these processes of financialization. The creative industries are also implicated in these ‘futures’, not least because they feed into the remaking of the urban fabric and supply a dominant exit narrative for a China that may be forced to restructure due to financial pressures (e.g., devaluation of the dollar, appreciation of the renminbi) that would make it no longer the factory of the world.

To approach the creative industries through financialization is to begin to read urban change through a seemingly groundless manipulation of risk that creates value through speculation. Perhaps there is something to be said for understanding financial creativity itself as a form of creative industry. But just as all speculative bubbles burst, so the technologies of risk management cannot eliminate the moment of labour. The creative industries cannot do without their workforce. To study the composition of this workforce is to raise important questions about the constitution of subjectivity in a social environment that has been largely depoliticized due precisely to the dominance of economics and finance. If the productive power of subjectivity in the creative industries is reduced to the power to produce wealth, what are the terms of this reduction? Asking such questions opens a new line of research and provides an opportunity to further one of the most important tasks of contemporary political thought: the need to reassess and redefine the concept of exploitation under current global conditions.