Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks Within China's Floating Population (review)
- Anthropological Quarterly
- George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
- Volume 76, Number 2, Spring 2003
- pp. 359-360
- Additional Information
Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 359-360
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In Strangers in the City, Li Zhang provides a rich ethnographic account of the politics of the making, unmaking, and remaking of a migrant community often referred to in China's mass media as Zhejiangcun (literally "Zhejiang Village"). In contrast to the numerous writings about the impact of internal migration on the changing state-society relationships in late socialist China, Strangers in the City stands out as one of the best analyses of the ongoing production of space and the microprocesses of the formation of power relations in different localities. Based on intensive field investigation within in a vibrant migrant community, Li Zhang effectively situates her work in time and space while actively engaging in an interdisciplinary dialogue on the tensions and contradictions inherent in urban processes in societies undergoing rapid social and economic transformations.
The book begins with a succinct overview of the "floating population," a rather derogatory term used by the Chinese authorities to classify the migrant population and appropriated by urbanites (especially the legal residents under the socialist huku or household registration policy) as they describe the uncontrollable rural migrants flooding to the city in the post-reform era. As the author rightly points out, the category of floating population indicates the process [End Page 359] of subject-making as the officials at various levels actively employed spatializing strategies to control and manage the "strangers in the city." However, the author argues that subject-making was a "dialectical process of being-made and self-making" (p.46). In the chapters that follow, she presents a detailed examination of the everyday social life of Wenzhou migrants who formed the core of "Zhejiang Village," which became a paradigm for how pre-existing kinship and native-place ties could be used to build new social networks through privatizing spaces in different local settings. By tracing the historical roots of the "Wenzhou entrepreneurial spirit" and situating the "Wenzhou model" of local development in the context of political economy of post-Mao China the author shows how ideas about the traditions of business activities and commercial cultures associated with one particular region (Wenzhou) led to the representation of the "Wenzhou" people as a homogenous community. The stereotypical images of Wenzhou migrants actually enabled the actors themselves to develop a strong sense of self-determination and autonomy (p.53).
In Chapters 3 through 6, the author explores the production of space and power within and outside "Zhejiang Village," a process contributing to the emergence of a community that survived and thrived in the vicinity of the "Forbidden City." While the careful cultivation of clientist ties with local forces and residents made it possible for the Wenzhou people to privatize space and power within the confines of Zhejiang Village, they were perceived as a threat to the social and economic order of the nation's capital city. It was hardly surprising that the existence of a well-integrated and rather cohesive community outside the official command under socialism would inevitably lead to its demolition. Instead of treating the official campaign to destroy Zhejiang Village as a simple example of state-society conflict, as many fieldworkers might, the author uses this diagnostic event to unpack the late socialist state (p. 169-172) and demonstrate that local officials were themselves reluctant participants in the civilizing process aimed at eliminating migrant enclaves. In the concluding chapter, the author recounts her follow-up visits after the Wenzhou community was revitalized and envisions the "ethnographic future" of Zhejiang Village.
Strangers in the City is one of the best textbooks for a deep understanding of everyday social life in China, the changing modes of governmentality, and the space-making and place-making processes in a society experiencing rapid social and economic transitions. For fieldworkers, it is an excellent example of anthropological practices in and of the city.