Academic journal article China Perspectives

White-Collar Migrants in Coastal Chinese Cities

Academic journal article China Perspectives

White-Collar Migrants in Coastal Chinese Cities

Article excerpt

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The tremendous speed of urbanisation in China over the last 20 years has occurred simultaneously with a structural change in urban labour markets. In most cities, manufacturing has declined while service industries have rapidly developed. In the case of Shanghai, the service industry already accounts for more than half the city's total GDP. Today, the city government aims at building future prosperity on finance, trade, and shipping/0 The service sector will be at the core of Shanghai's industrial structure, making the Chinese metropolis a truly global city.(2) Migrants coming to the metropolis are not only farmers from rural areas but also urban youth coming from secondor thirdtier cities. This study deals with moderately skilled young service workers born and educated in provinces around Shanghai who come to the most cosmopolitan and prosperous Chinese metropolis in search of a better future. Employed in service industries, they are different from the unskilled migrants working on construction sites and in other labour-intensive industries, though they likewise take rather low-paid jobs that locals look down on. They are also different from the highly skilled young Chinese (the haigui) who come back from abroad after graduating from a foreign university and working abroad, especially in the IT sector, even though they share their belief that Shanghai is the best place to be at present, where they can make their dreams come true, and where careers offer the best opportunities for success.

Some authors have argued that these mobile individuals are better prepared to take advantage of the changing structure of the urban economy. It has especially been the case that rural migrants willing to work hard eventually start their own businesses in the informal economy, as opposed to the xiagang whose dependence on their danwei for their wellbeing, accommodation, etc., made them ill-equipped to adapt to the new environment.(3) This perspective is in line with a classical result of the economic sociology of migration: because migrants are willing to adjust to drastic changes in living and working conditions - which implies not only practical changes but also changes in values, cultures, or meanings - they are better equipped to seize opportunities in a rapidly changing urban economy characterised by uncertainty and risks.(4)

This paper intends to contribute to the analysis of the diversity of the changing labour regimes in contemporary urban China. A decade ago, authors studied blue-collar workers and the new factory regimes replacing the declining danwei system/5' More recent works deal with white-collar workers: sales clerks in department stores, hotel employees, professionals such as engineers and lawyers, or semi-independent workers such as insurance sales agents/6' Majors themes of these studies are the decline of state authority in the workplace, the alienation of workers, the gender identities or the flexible meanings and experiences of "localism," "community," and "class."(7) Lisa Hoffman <8) and Xia Zhang,(9) building on the works of Michel Foucault on governmentality, and Aihwa Ong on neo-liberalism, have underlined how urban Chinese labourers have been transformed into self-reliant subjects, vulnerable to a high degree of exploitation, and reveal how job choice is in fact a mechanism of governing and subjectivation.(l0)

Our collection of life stories of young white-collar migrants shows that working in Shanghai induces a radical change from previous domestic and professional environments; once in the metropolis, migrant workers experience a completely new set of situations and values. Since Robert Park, it has been repeatedly underlined by the sociological literature on modernity and urbanisation that settling in a large city leads to individualisation.(ll) To adjust to the requirements of the urban labour market, workers become highly flexible: they work long hours and are willing to frequently change jobs. …

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