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

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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.
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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.

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.

This book is about such processes of and possibilities for social mobility—one physical and one virtual—in the lives of young rural-to-urban migrant women in China like Wu Huiying and Li Xiulan. More specifically, it is an ethnographic exploration of the cultural, social, aesthetic, and economic dimensions of mobile phone use by young female migrants working in the low-level service sector in Beijing. From a nation that, with few exceptions, had severely restricted population mobility prior to the early 1980s, China now has the greatest peacetime internal migration on the planet, with estimates of the number of “peasant workers” (nongmingong) or “floating population” (liudong renkou) at around 200 million. And though China’s teledensity (ratio of telephones to people) was a mere 4 percent in 1980, it now has the largest number of mobile phone subscribers and Internet users worldwide. What are the multiple meanings, habits, investments, and implications of mobile telephony in young migrant women’s everyday lives? As a study of the intersections of migration and myriad communication practices and processes, and as an examination of multiple axes of identity and modes of power, this book is about mobility as well as immobility, and it is about mobile technologies as well as “technologies of the self,” Foucault’s term for the methods of self-fashioning through which subjects are constituted. Drawing on critical/cultural and feminist theories of subjectivity, power, and technology, I theorize mobile communication and migrant women’s becoming in the city, or how social constructions of gender-, class-, age-, and place-based identities produce particular engagements with mobile technologies, which in turn reproduce and restructure these identities. Though prior research on mobile phones has looked at individual aspects of identity, such as gender, in relation to the mobile phone, none of the researchers have adapted an intersectional framework and very few have examined the co-construction of technology and subjectivity.

This book takes as its starting point the constitutive nature of communication, culture, and technology, or what James Carey has called communication as transmission and ritual. The transmission model—the more common approach—conceives of communication as a process in which messages are sent and delivered across space for purposes of information or control.

Communication as ritual, however, is connected to notions of community, belonging, and shared beliefs. To Carey, communication is “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.”

Mobile phones are obviously quite convenient for message transmission—Wu Huiying did in fact send me some jokes within thirty minutes of my departure from the market. Yet equally significant is the way cell phones, as “symbols of” reality, have become key in the constitution of selfhood, friendship, and group solidarity, especially among youth populations. In this sense, the jokes and subsequent messages that Wu Huiying transmitted to me wirelessly had a much deeper meaning than providing some momentary amusement. However, as much as mobile phones can help to maintain community and a sense of belonging, they can also give rise to new disciplines and exclusions, as when Li Xiulan’s phone was confiscated. As I will show in this book, mobile phones can thus be implicated in the further marginalization of groups such as migrant workers. Carey’s definition of communication provides a basis for my examination of the breadth of practices and depth of feelings articulated to mobile phones. It also offers a way to think more deeply about how communication technology is constitutive of culture and is neither value-neutral nor an autonomous determining force.

Book-length works on the use of mobile telephony by a specific population are rare, and ethnographic inquiries that offer a holistic account of the use of mobile communication by a particular group in a particular place and time are even rarer.10 China’s female migrant population has been the focus of numerous studies by both Chinese and western scholars, and the use of mobile phones by southern factory workers in China has also been studied.

However, in both the broader research on migrant workers and the smaller body of literature exploring their use of mobile phones, service workers in the public arena have been underexamined. Yet the contradictory nature of many migrants’ service work, where they are paradoxically isolated from others yet integrated within public spaces, has implications for the way they experience the city and use mobile communication. Amid the disjunctures, dislocations, and contradictions that characterize contemporary China, understanding how young rural-to-urban migrant women engage with mobile phones to create meaning and negotiate their lives in the city contextualizes how everyday life is increasingly constituted by and within myriad networks of communication. It also challenges deterministic theories of technology and social change as well as those that posit universal modes of technological appropriation in an apparently flat world. Based on immersive fieldwork over a five-year period, my goal is to offer a broad, though still partial, portrait of the mutually constitutive nature of technology, subjectivity, and power. I also hope to illuminate migrant women’s socio-techno practices, or the manner in which technology, in this case a mobile phone, is integrated into prior social and cultural practices and at the same time creates new spaces or possibilities for their enactment within the specific social world and material conditions of users. Socio-techno practices are not only about what users do, but also the discourses, mental energy, and emotional desires that make up a dynamic mobile phone assemblage.

One could say that mobility—both real and imagined, in the physical and virtual realms—figures as perhaps the defining representation of our globalized world. Inside and outside China, flows of finance, people, media, and ideas (Appadurai’s “scapes”), facilitated by communication and transportation technologies, are often impervious to borders and inseparable from the transformation of individual and communal identities. However, cultural values, institutional structures, and material circumstances render experiences of mobility differently. Within the constraints characteristic of migrant workers’ lives, I argue that the mobile phone enables “immobile mobility,” which I define as a socio-techno means of surpassing spatial, temporal, physical, and structural boundaries. Immobile mobility should not be equated with virtual reality or with those spaces entered into through a computer-simulated environment. Instead, it is grounded in the concrete practices and constraints of the everyday experiences of migrant women, and perhaps other populations that must deal with similar limitations on their control of time, space, and mobility. In using the term “immobile mobility,” I also am not emphasizing how low-income households have used cell phones as surrogate landlines that remain in the home. While immobile mobility captures the way that the mobile phone is frequently used from a fixed location (thus negating its mobile element), this is only part of its significance, albeit a very important part given migrants’ long work hours. However, as much as immobile mobility is a material socio-techno practice, it is a subjective one as well in that it enables migrant women to enter a new social space that is at once mediated and grounded in the circumstances of their daily lives. Certain socio-techno practices that enable immobile mobility can be understood as enacting resistance, insofar as through such practices migrant women refuse the material conditions that work to limit their sense of themselves and the goals they can achieve. However, other practices may possibly reify migrant women’s marginalization. In other words, immobile mobility has a dual logic—it can be liberating and constraining, creating new opportunities for empowerment and disempowerment.

As the term “immobile mobility” implies, the circumstances under which mobile phones are used by young migrant women differ from the “digital natives,” or those youth and young adults who have always been surrounded by digital technologies, such as computers and video-game consoles, dial-up and then broadband Internet access, cell phones, digital music players, and, more recently, e-readers, tablet computers, and the like. These young people’s various engagements with new media are constitutive of what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture,” or the numerous social, cultural, economic, and technological transformations that have given rise to the intersection of old and new media, the circulation of content through many media platforms, and a participatory culture that often blurs the boundaries between media producers and consumers.

What socio-techno practices associated with convergence arise among those much less privileged than the “born digital”? In other words, what happens when users aren’t surrounded by a plethora of digital devices; that is, when a cell phone is not supplementing a landline (at least during its initial diffusion), when a camera phone is the first camera one has ever owned, when one does not have a personal computer or Internet connection at home, and when the “mobile Internet” is, if not one’s first exposure to the Internet, nonetheless the primary means of access? For those who study convergence among more privileged users, there is a tendency to downplay its technological aspect, or the way one device can increasingly handle numerous media functions. However, millions of people in the world must make do with a single delivery technology for most of their digital media use, and almost always it is a mobile phone. Thus, in contrast to what I will term “selective convergence”—such as when a person intentionally chooses to use convergent functions on one device, as in the case of transferring songs from a desktop computer to a phone, or when, for the sake of convenience, a smartphone is used to check email while out of the office or to take a picture because a digital camera was left at home—young migrant women’s technology use is often characterized by necessary convergence, or the converging of multiple usages on a single device out of necessity because no other device is owned or because the device in one’s possession has limited functionality. A young migrant woman taking a picture of a movie star on a television screen, because she either does not have Internet capability on her phone or cannot afford mobile Internet service, is an example of such necessary convergence.

A notion of necessary convergence is not meant to highlight technological convergence while denying culture; rather, it is quite the opposite. Though for more privileged users “the hardware [is] diverging while the content converges,” for marginalized groups like young migrant women both hardware and content must converge on the same device. As this book goes to press, those “born digital” are increasingly utilizing converging functions on one device, yet for the opposite reasons that young migrant women engage in necessary convergence. For the former, such a choice is the result of being able to afford superior technology that has recently been developed. For migrant women, necessary convergence is often characterized by both economic constraints and subpar technology. Necessary convergence thus reveals how people evince creativity to fulfill their needs and desires within limited material circumstances.

Reprinted with permission from Technomobility In China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones by Cara Wallis and published by New York University Press,, 2013.

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