- Da gongdi: jianzhuye nongmingong de shengcun tujing (Big Construction Site: Rural Migrant Workers’ Life in the Building and Construction Industry) by Ngai Pun, Huilin Lu, and Huipeng Zhang
This book by Pun, Lu, and Zhang is about how capital and the state constrain, coerce, and exploit rural migrant workers (RMWs) in the building and construction industry. Through a social anthropologic study in the field of Beijing, the authors also describe these RMWs’ underclass experience, emotions, and resistance. For over three decades, reform in China has been creating an increasing number of RMWs, with a population over 200 million. There is a large amount of literature about RMWs, but this book is unique in studying the topic through a Marxist class analysis. In the book, Pun, Lu, and Zhang argue that RMWs become a special class, a semiproletarian excluded from both the urban and rural sectors; they are under the coercion and exploitation of a hierarchical outsourcing system (HOS); and in resistance, they have strong emotions such as hate and collective actions taking back their wages withdrawn by foremen.
In the first and second chapters, this book criticizes neoliberalism, city-centered development, and consumptionism. The authors argue that neoliberal policies such as the rural household register system loosen the control of the rural sector in the early reform. However, reform has concentrated development in the city and ignores the rural sector. This pushes a large number of farmers outside the countryside. In this reform, urbanization and consumptionism in the city are regarded as the panacea for development problems in China. What’s more, the authors criticize the theory of comparative advantage for fostering the idea of taking advantage of RMWs due to a large amount of labor surplus. I applaud the authors’ criticism of the background of globalization of the free market, which promotes worldwide neoliberalism.
In the third chapter, this book studies the dual constraints shaping RMWs’ identity: the state’s institution, for example, the hukou (戶口) system, and the capitalistic exploitation. These constraints create their class identity, a process of being semiproletarian that entails their exclusion from both the urban and rural sectors of development. RMWs are neither a proletarian fully deprived of the production materials such as land, nor are they farmers any longer. The authors argue that this identity [End Page 162] is an institutional harm to RMWs by the denied social status of urban workers, the lack of legal contracts, and the like and is utilized as capital for the purpose of exploitation. In the fourth chapter, the book uncovers how the HOS in the industry facilitates the workers’ exploitation through arrears of wages. In this system, the developer is on the top. Beneath are the construction company, the outsourcing company, and the foreman in a top-down order. RMWs are on the bottom. This system absorbs capital at these different levels in the hierarchical order and achieves risk relocation from companies to individual RMWs via withholding wages from one level to another in order. In addition, the rural norms such as regionalism bond RMWs to the foreman’s will in a culture relation. This partially covers the crude relation between capital and labor. To me, the fourth chapter is the most interesting and inspiring because of the discovery of the mysterious and complicated capital–labor relation in the industry.
In the fifth chapter, this book declares that the HOS presses down RMWs’ social status and creates their underclass experience in contrast to their divine status in Mao’s period. The authors argue that, before the reform, construction work and the like were respectable careers, because “labor work was the most honorable (勞動最光榮 laodong zui guangrong)”. In the reform, dropping down to the bottom, this high social status and glorious social image are replaced by private entrepreneurs’ exploitative work, which is regarded as a valuable resource. The last chapter studies RMWs’ individual and collective resistance of the coercion. This resistance expresses their anger toward...