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Chloé Froissart Escaping from under the Party’s Thumb: A Few Examples of Migrant Workers’ Strivings for Autonomy REFO RM S BR O U G H T W IT H T H E M TH E C H IN E S E C O M M U N IS T PARTY’ S retreat from certain social and economic spheres and smashed whatwas once claimed to be identical interests between the party-state, the work­ ing people, and the enterprise administrators. As Dorothy J. Solinger puts it in a recent paper, the three parties, “once supposed allies, have become mutually antagonistic” (Solinger, 2004: 61). Economic reforms enabled the emergence of a new space where social, economic, and political actors confront their interests thanks to new bargaining condi­ tions and alliances. As Charles Tilly writes: “social movements contrib­ ute to the creation of a public space—social settings, separate both from governing institutions and from organizations devoted to produc­ tion or reproduction, in which consequential deliberation over public affairs takes place—as well as sometimes contributing to transfers of power over states” (Tilly, 1993-94:1). Peasants were the first among the Chinese population placed on the move by economic reforms: tran­ sients, who no longer belong to rural society and who lack residency status in urban areas, are more immune to social control but are also denied full citizenship rights. This situation changed circa 2002-2003 when the central government, both aware of the necessity to acknowl­ social research Vol 73 : No 1: Spring 2006 197 edge migrant workers’ economic contribution and afraid of growing social instability, started to call for the protection of their “legal rights.” However, with the state trying to regain migrant workers’ confidence in an attempt to reassert its legitimacy, some migrants are now striv­ ing for autonomy. They are also supported by social organizations will­ ing to fill in the gap created by an unsupportive party or to provide some redress against an oppressive system. This situation recalls the definition of social movements as “a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations” (Tilly, 1993-94: 5). As Tilly reminds us, a social movement is not a group of a particular sort, “nor do social movements undergo natural histories” (6) with a starting point, a climax, and an ending. They are rather defined as historically specific clusters of political performances. Inthis essay Iwill first tiy to grasp the reasons whythe social move­ ments that have recently appeared among migrant workers emerged at these specific moments and how the historical moment in which each arose contributed to its uniqueness. I will then further explore differ­ ent clusters of performances that shape the migrant workers’ social movements in an attempt to weigh their impact on state-society rela­ tions. Do they challenge established social and political values? Migrant workers are now increasingly resorting to new forms of action and representation, but does it mean that they are emerging as an autono­ mous self-conscious group? Do social movements contribute to shifting the balance of power in favor of society? In answering these questions, I will first argue that the central state’s changing discourse toward migrant workers abetted political expression of their grievances and informed the emergence of social movements. I. HOW THE CHINESE STATE’S EMERGING LEGAL DISCOURSE INFORMS SOCIAL MOVEMENTS The Central State’s Changing Policy toward Migrant Workers and Its Implementation at the Local Level The years 2002-2003 symbolize a turning point in the attitude of the Chinese government toward migrant workers. Until then, the central 198 social research government had mainly turned a blind eye to the way urban authorities had taken advantage of the Chinese residency system to refuse rights to migrant workers and had increased the economic and administrative hurdles to prevent a “blind flood ofmigrants” into urban areas. In 2003, however, a number of important policies were issued by the central government that called for the protection of migrant workers’ “legal rights.” Three main reasons explain this sudden change. The first is the changing ideological representation of political power and the defini­ tion of new priorities for national development. Since the sixteenth congress of the...


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