Book Review

Strangers in the City


Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks Within China's Floating Population by Li Zhan. Stanford University Press, 2001, 229 pp. ISBN: 0804742065, paperback. Cost: $22.95 at Barnes and Noble.

Reviewed by Scott Faris

In April 2003, Beijing was gripped by fear as the full scope of China's SARS outbreak became known. Its migrant communities were alarmed as well with fear of infection, possible quarantine and economic hardship driving countless numbers to evacuate on packed trains and buses. As they left town, they packed the sidewalks, wearing crude gauze masks for protection and hauling their belongings in cheap rice sacks. For a short time, ironically, migrant workers ruled the streets that the majority of Beijing residents had left deserted. A far cry from being mere victims of circumstance, these Beijing migrant workers—part of China's aptly named "floating population"—would return quickly in the following months to pick up the work they had left behind in the city that owes most of its growing cosmopolitan profile, and a significant part of its commercial vitality, to their labors.

Professor Li Zhang's Strangers in the City is a well-researched ethnology focusing on this resilient, embattled, fast-growing and increasingly influential segment of "late-socialist" (Li's favored terminology) China's urban migrant population, which Li conservatively estimates at roughly 100,000,000 people. Published as a revision of her doctoral dissertation while at Cornell, Li's work successfully captures and analyzes the experiences of migrant workers concentrated in Zhejiangcuna migrant community in Beijing's Nanyuan township located to the south of Tiananmen Square and just outside Beijing city limits. Li, herself a native of Yunnan province in China's southwest, did her research during visits to the area between 1994 and 1999. Its pages include charts, diagrams, photos and footnotes, as well as extensive transcriptions of interviews with the subjects of her study.

According to Li, Zhejiangcun took shape in the early 1980s as an influx of entrepreneurial migrants arrived from Wenzhou, a large industrial city in China's southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang. Wenzhou's entrepreneurs had embraced market-driven economic reforms in that prefecture (a phenomenon Li references as "the Wenzhou Model") and began clothing production inside migrant worker's homes that supplied goods to rented stalls in Beijing's wholesale markets. Throughout the book, Li refers to those following in the footsteps of these initial free-market pioneers as "Wenzhou migrants," though by the time she arrived to do research in the early 1990s, Zhejiangcun was becoming home to migrants from other parts of China as well.

Although Li's work is intended as a broad portrait of one particular migrant community, several universal theses emerge as she applies interpretive tools from a variety of academic disciplines to the task. She borrows from theoretical frameworks as exotic as semiotic analysis to sub-disciplines within the fields of psychology, history, sociology and anthropology.

One general but important thesis woven throughout the book, is Li's point that China's floating populations relate to both local residents and city leaders in very dynamic ways. They create what she terms "clientelist networks" and complex webs of relationship that are both strategic and highly collaborative. These realities are successfully contrasted against what Li identifies as the prevailing and incorrect assumptionespecially common in Western mediathat depicts migrant workers and their communities as passive victims, preyed on by all-powerful Communist Party structures that neither change nor adapt.

However, what Li observes is quite different. The economic and social realities of migrant communities, such as Zhejiangcun, are powerful enough to force the hand of leaders in cities and provincial governments (at one point even apparently requiring the attention and directives of then-Premiere Li Peng). They compel the leadership to adopt policies that help to manage the reality of migrant workers' presence, rather than merely suppressing or removing them from a given context. Li sets forth an example of this tendency in her translation of a fairly recent (1996) training document written for officials in Beijing's western district. It says, "The fundamental goal of making regulatory rules is not to clean up, drive away or disperse migrants as before, but to guide, control and regulate them under the new condition of socialist market economy." (p. 28)

Another trend Li highlights throughout her book is the tendency of those in the migrant communities to redefine their identity as city-dwellers through the ability to earn money and become consumers. This contrasts with the difficult (and, as Li demonstrates convincingly by anecdote, unimaginably corrupt) official channels of acquiring a city's hukouthe document that entitles a person to legal residence in a city and access to social services and public education. "I do not need a Beijing hukou to stay in Beijing as long as I have money," says one of Li's subjects, a migrant worker who has managed to do well financially and does not intend to ever become an official participant in the hukou system.

As a work of scholarship, Strangers in the City has many strengths which far outbalance its weaknesses. Its footnotes contain extremely useful clarifications and amplifications of points the author makes, and the book's eleven-page pinyin-English-Chinese glossary at the end adequately captures the colorful, colloquial speech of Li's interview subjects as well as unpacking the use of political language and its meanings. Along with Li's liberal use of pinyin translations embedded in the text, this glossary is in itself a useful reference for vocabulary related to migrant issues, and these two features alone make the book worth its price. (An example from the glossary: yimin "migrants; immigrants" and zirancun "naturally formed village")

Li also demonstrates her ability to form deep trust relationships among Wenzhou migrant workers and their bosses as well as to access and assimilate information from local media and government documents. This lends her work a refreshing sense of breadth as well as depth.

An example of Li's attention to detail is found in her description of a meeting held by the city government of a Beijing suburb. They were courting the attention of Wenzhou migrant business owners who had been run out of Zhejiangcun when it was demolished by the Beijing government. She mentions the legitimizing significance of the word choice used in the hotel's welcome sign: "Reception Station to Welcome Zhejiang Industrialists and Merchants." Besides showing her sensitivity to subtle details, it also reaffirms Li's assertion that for migrants and those in power over them, the struggle to control language and discourse about the other is paramount.

The book's weaknesses are modest, but include a lack of adequate handling of the religious dimension of her subjects' lives. In only one place does Li mention that the majority of Wenzhou migrants practices some form of folk Buddhism and that the minority is Christian, and she fails to elaborate upon this. Doing so in a religious context as rich as China's belies naturalistic assumptions about how research is done and the very nature of knowing. Also, while Li's interdisciplinary approach facilitates a welcome breadth in handling her theses, she depends heavily on modernist assumptions about human nature and the motivations of those holding power. On several occasions, Li exhibits an almost unquestioning faith in the validity of cultural analyses drawn from Michel Foucault's Power/Knowledge and "Space, Knowledge and Power." There is little use for the supernatural in Li's worldview.

While having written a generally very readable piece of research, Li sometimes exhibits a penchant for using highly specialized technical language and jargon (related to the wide range of various interpretive theories she intentionally embraces) that can make reading her analyses towards the beginning of the book unnecessarily difficult.

However, despite these shortcomings, Strangers in the City still represents a good investment for those serving in China, useful, if for no other reason than for its value in posing questions that must be answered:

  • To what extent have Christian ministry practices in mainland China in past decades shaped government policy in either positive or negative ways?
  • How can those serving in China seek to understand the role of physical location and the dynamics at work in the creation of living and working spaces in China's cities?
  • What is a biblical, gospel response to the urban poor in the context of Chinese cities?
  • How will urban churches respond as some of their members grow in wealth and social influence?

There are certainly many more questions to ask, but answering them is the order of the day for Christians working in China's urban context, and the insights of Li's book will prove helpful in this task.

Image credit: 03681 by Jim Gourley via Flickr

Scott Faris

Scott Faris coordinates China-related research for Geneva Global Inc. View Full Bio