Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion: Migrant Labor, Education, Life and Death in China

by Ralph Litzinger

Image for Berlin Summer CampThis paper addresses the lives and struggles of rural migrants in urban fringe spaces in the People’s Republic of China. This is part of a larger book project that tracks a seemingly disparate range of discourses, policing techniques, policies and practices aimed to care for and discipline rural migrants in China. For the past seven years I have been working in and visiting middle schools for migrants kids, talking to people about factory life, industrial accidents, toxic lives and deaths, visiting health clinics and wandering neighborhood streets. For this project I am also analyzing documentary film and photography about migrant lives, labor and workplace activism, TED talks (from Shanghai, Beijing to Aspen), theatrical productions (in China and beyond). Much of these cultural productions constitute what I view as a kind of generalized liberal outrage at the immense injustice, cruelty, and discrimination of China’s “household registration” system, that lingering trace in the present of an earlier socialist-era technique to control the flow of rural peoples into China’s industrial cities.

In this lecture, I take us into the very recent (8.2) Kunshan factory explosion, the history of aluminum dust explosion, and the circulation of images of burnt and dead migrant worker bodies, but also of blood donation drives for the injured and the occupation of public spaces to remember the dead and pray for the barely living. I then move into spaces of evident hope, of migrant kid’s narratives of mobility and futures in a Beijing middle school where I have organized a “student engagement” project. Here we encounter newly emergent liberal education fantasies and a project complicit, despite one’s intentions, with transnational corporate governmentality. Finally, I turn to Ji Dan’s brutally realist documentary, When the Bough Breaks, which explores the financial, medical, and educational struggles of a migrant family, a tortured and abusive family, living in the midst of trash and recycling zones on the periphery of Beijing.   Through a reading of these seemingly disparate materials and events, I have three main aims. First, I hope to contribute to emergent debates on the method of studying the border and its zones of exclusion and inclusion. Second, I want to argue for the importance of linking the disciplining spaces of education to precarious migrant futures on the factory floor. And third, I want to argue as forcefully as I possibly can that the “rise of China” on the global stage of capitalist production and consumption is as much about the “liberation” of China’s rural masses from the prison house of poverty (as the state, investment bankers, and consulting firms have championed it) as it as about the everyday normalization of the necropolitical.

Ralph Litzinger (Duke University)