The Struggle for Social Mobility Among China’s Young Migrant Women

Discover how mobile phones offer Chinese migrant women a real chance at social mobility.

| October 2013

  • In China, social mobility is so difficult for young female migrant workers because of views towards those rural upbringings. The opportunities for communication offered by mobile phones give these women a chance to express themselves, and find a sense of belonging and self.
    Photo By Fotolia/DragonImages
  • For those whose lives are explored in "Technomobility in China," by Cara Wallis, young rural women are shown to be at a disadvantage when trying to achieve some degree of social mobility. Mobile phones grant them opportunities at communication and discovery of their own self.
    Cover Courtesy University of New York Press

Technomobility in China (New York University Press, 2013) explores the plight of young women who, as migrant workers, struggle to achieve any sort of social mobility. Labeled as outsiders by the urban population they serve, these rural women—many of them teenagers—have grasped the freedom offered by mobile phones in order to communicate with others in their situation, and to finally create a sense of self. In this excerpt from the Introduction "Mobile Bodies, Mobile Technologies, and Immobile Mobility," author Cara Wallis takes a look at two such migrant workers, rural women who use their mobile phones to create identities from within a rigid social structure.

The Harmony Market sits at a busy intersection near one of Beijing’s embassy districts, and like many indoor marketplaces erected in the city in the new millennium, it consists of several floors packed with vendors—mostly rural-to-urban migrants—selling everything from souvenirs and crafts to knock-off designer clothing, footwear, and handbags. In the spring of 2007 I met Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan, two young rural women who worked in the basement of Harmony Market selling sports shoes. Li Xiulan was sixteen and from Henan province, and she had been in Beijing for six months working for her uncle. Wu Huiying was seventeen and from Anhui province, and when she had left home at fifteen she had originally joined her older sister, who was selling jeans at another large marketplace in Beijing. She and her sister had lived and worked together for nearly three years, but her sister was expecting a baby and had recently gone home. Wu Huiying had considered returning as well—she didn’t particularly care for Beijing or its residents (“They are too proud and look down on outsiders,” she said)—but felt like there was nothing for her back home. Now on her own in Beijing, Wu Huiying had sought a job at Harmony Market because she felt she could learn English there due to the large number of foreign visitors. Both Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan worked every day from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with one day off each month, and they ate most meals at the cafeteria on the top floor of the market. Wu Huiying earned a monthly salary of 1,000 yuan (about US $129), and Li Xiulan, because she was still “in training,” made 300 yuan (about US $39).

When I first met Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan they were busy writing some Chinese-English translations in a small notebook, and upon discovering I could speak Chinese Li Xiulan asked me how to pronounce some basic English expressions. Once they learned that I was studying mobile phone use, Wu Huiying proudly showed me a bronze-colored Nokia candy-bar phone, upon which she had glued a few rhinestones. It was a basic phone with only voice and texting capabilities, and since it didn’t have a model name or number, it was quite possibly a fake. Her older sister had bought it in 2002 for 2,000 yuan (around US $240 at the time, and quite a lot of money for a migrant worker), and she had given Wu Huiying the phone in 2006. The fact that the phone was relatively old, had limited functions, and was a hand-me-down didn’t lessen its value in Wu Huiying’s eyes. On the contrary, this particular phone was extremely important to her and carried multiple meanings. Without doubt the phone was a significant communication medium. Midway during our conversation Wu Huiying showed me an extra SIM card and said, “This one is for my friends. When I’m working I don’t keep it in the phone because I don’t want to bother my friends while they are working or to be bothered.” The other SIM card, which was placed in the phone during work, was for her family so that they could call her (and vice versa) if something was urgent. Aside from communication, however, this particular phone held other significance. It was Wu Huiying’s first phone, and it had become a part of her. She didn’t want to upgrade to a new phone because she felt she had no use for other features. With the phone cradled between her two hands, she smiled and told me, “You can’t get one like this anymore. It’s so precious.”

As Wu Huiying and I discussed her phone, Li Xiulan lifted her head up from her notebook and stated that as soon as she could, she was going to buy a brand-name phone with a camera and Internet capability. Although she’d had a used phone passed down from a relative, her aunt had taken it away because she felt Li Xiulan was staying up too late texting with friends and as a result didn’t have any energy to work. “She thinks the phone has a bad effect on a young girl like me,” she said. We chatted a bit longer, but customers were arriving and browsing the rows of shoes, so I told the two women I should get going. As I was leaving, Wu Huiying asked for my mobile number so she could send me some jokes. Then she said she had to get back to work or her boss (who wasn’t present) would get angry, particularly if he saw her using her phone.

My initial exchange with Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan, though in many ways quite ordinary, gives concrete form to numerous abstract forces—globalization, migration, marketization, and “informatization”—that have been constitutive of China’s path of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang) over the last three decades. As China has become integrated into the world economy, it has opened itself to global cultural flows, and new identities, life opportunities, modes of consumption, and forms of communication have arisen, yet so, too, have new types of inclusion and exclusion. Though cities like Beijing have reaped the benefits of China’s modernization efforts, many rural areas have not. For this reason, like nearly all young rural women in China today, Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan had migrated not only to work, but also to “see the world,” learn some skills, and gain some autonomy vis-à-vis parents and other authority figures back home. However, in the city labor migrants face severe constraints due to institutional forces, such as the household registration system, or hukou, which confers different and unequal forms of citizenship according to whether one’s hukou is designated urban or rural (or non-agricultural/agricultural). Even though less stringent than in the past, the discriminatory nature of the hukou policy positions rural migrants as second-class citizens in China’s towns and cities, where they also must deal with labor exploitation, deep-seated urban prejudices against migrants, and powerful regulatory discourses regarding their inferior “quality” (suzhi).

Although Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan were mobile in the sense of migrating from their home villages, like many rural-to-urban migrants in China, their long work hours, rare time off, and confined social world caused them to be relatively immobile in the city. At the same time, this immobility was overcome in certain ways by their use of mobile phones—even basic ones like Wu Huiying’s—for navigating various social networks, enjoying forms of entertainment, participating in China’s burgeoning consumer culture, and constructing a “modern” self. For them and others like them, however, the phone could also become the locus of various struggles related to gender-, class-, age-, and place-based identities, which are rooted in structures that constrain migrants’ social mobility and individual and collective empowerment once they have journeyed to the city.

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