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3 Questions: Migration and Public Theology in China

Wipf and Stock Publishers has just released Li Ma’s The Chinese Exodus: Migration, Urbanism and Alienation in Contemporary China. The product of a decade of research on China’s internal migration, Ma’s book combines sociological inquiry with penetrating theological reflection. Here she offers some background about her project, the plight of migrants today, and the church’s response.

1. How did you choose to focus on this topic, and what did you expect to find as you researched China’s urban migrants?

My interest in China’s internal migration and urban poverty was closely related to my family history. Rural-urban inequality is a part of the reality that I grew up with. When I studied abroad, I began to realize that the Chinese hukou system was a rarity in the world’s existing social systems, although relevant to the life of every Chinese citizen, whether rural or urban. Around 2003, there was a wide call for reform of this Soviet system of institutionalized discrimination, after the tragic Sun Zhigang incident.[1] So in 2006, I decided on it as the topic of my doctoral dissertation on institutional improvement.

In my research, I had expected to find growing awareness of this institutional discrimination among rural migrants, especially the younger generation who are no longer “peasants” but rather a key workforce behind the powerhouse of China’s manufacturing industry. China was heading towards gradual reform out of a central planning system, and I had expected that such gradual improvements were happening due to the few decades of work by conscientious lawyers and advocates. What turned out most surprising to me was the inertia of “old institutions,” in forms of demolished migrant schools, exam barriers towards migrant children, and the self-enforced effects of social discrimination.

Many years later, in a conversation with contemporary theologian Cornelius Plantinga, I was struck by his remark that “when sin finds a home in institutions, it becomes very hard to push for change.” I had believed in the self-improving effects of freer market institutions, but as the social reality in China demonstrated, the effects of institutionalized social evil have been underestimated.

2. In your book you mention the “double yoke” on the shoulders of migrants. What is this referring to?

The title of the book The Chinese Exodus alludes to how ancient Israelites broke free from Pharaoh’s old regime, only to find themselves in new forms of spiritual slavery. Rural migrants in China now have residential mobility to freely move around and live in the cities, but in their freer life pursuing economic independence, urbanism in China’s cities creates new forms of exclusion and discrimination against them and their future generations. So in the book I refer to “a double yoke” of the “old shackles of socialist peasantry identity and a rapacious profit-driven capitalist economy.”

Economists have discussed the damaging social impact of a dual labor market for migrant workers. The primary labor market represents jobs offering relatively high wages, good working conditions, potential for advancement, and protective work rules; the latter comprises work situations with few of these advantages. Discrimination persists and is reinforced within this system, and if education for the second generation also presents unequal opportunities, poverty and inequality will become a downward spiral for migrant laborers.

3. Much of your research took place 2007 in Beijing and Shanghai. How has the situation for migrants changed since then?

The participant observation and interviews in migrant communities were conducted from 2006 to 2008. Since then, I have maintained continued contact with some NGO workers in order to keep informed about the situation. A decade later, the plight of rural migrants has continued to the third-generation.

Changes today include decreasing employment in some regions’ manufacturing sectors, widespread work-related health issues among rural migrants, the helpless state of elderly migrant returnees in rural villages, negligence and widespread sexual assault of migrant children in rural areas, and the effects of environmental pollution on rural environment and population, just like the documentary Plastic China demonstrates.

Unfortunately, not much is happening on the positive side; suppression of self-organized help (either unions or NGOs) has removed a whole layer of healing for these social ills. Intellectual discussions on this social issue have stagnated too. I know many economists and sociologists in China’s universities who obtained government funding to conduct surveys and research, but few of them bothered to step into a real urban slum.

What impelled me to write the book is the realization that this problem worsened during a period of time when the Christian faith has been growing the fastest in history, and that has troubled my heart. Why have China’s Christians failed to care for their neighbors who suffer poverty and injustice? I decided to extend the sociological discussion to a theological level, for the fundamental questions involve human dignity, social justice, and the problem of social or institutional evil.

This further research phase made me realize how fragmented our modern life and the life of the church has become—we have not been able to address these social issues related to the brokenness of God’s created social order. It is also our Christian responsibility to challenge the prevailing economic idolatry brought by urbanism and global consumerism. I hope this book can be a social scientist’s contribution to Chinese public theology. 

Editor’s note: For those who read Chinese, there is a review of Li Ma’s book at: 著述者专访:移民和人的异化与尊严.


  1. ^ Sun was a migrant worker in Guangzhou who was beaten to death in 2003 shortly after being detained for not carrying an ID.
Image credit: A migrant worker by Tsemdo Thar via Flickr. 
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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