Theses Doctoral

Resigned Urbanization: Migration, Dwelling, and Freedom in Contemporary China

Ou, Tzu-Chi

In the media, rural migrants are often seen as a homogeneous social group, displaced from hometowns, economically marginalized, and deprived of urban citizenship. Anything but freedom characterizes their subjectivities. In recent years, however, migrant workers have played a leading role in urbanizing small towns and cities. My two-year ethnographic research closely documents the phenomenon of “double dwelling,” in which rural migrants settle into the rental housing of Beijing’s urban villages, on the one hand, but own empty houses in rural villages and counties, on the other. I employ the idea of dwelling to conceptualize the interrelationship between identity and place as well as existence and space. Rather than being static, floating, or unfinished, double dwelling is dynamic, restricted by the household registration (hukou) division but also continually remaking the rural-urban divide. It is rooted in various sites, neither here nor there but always here and there. Migrant workers create and search for the nature of dwelling. To doubly dwell is to build and rebuild identities and existence.
The dissertation engages with the study of class politics by reconsidering the role of housing in class formation. On the one hand, home-making practices bring new opportunities to migrant workers. While in Beijing, the housing conditions of migrant workers suggest a common ground on which a new social class of migrant tenants may form. Also, “self-help urbanization” from below is marked by significant migrant homeownership. Thus, holding an urban hukou is not the only criterion for becoming urban. On the other hand, the dynamics of bottom-up urbanization and state-led urban policies reconstruct double dwelling. The government-directed urbanization programs imply a specific imaginary of urban lives that conflicts with migrants’ claim to the city. Urban policies may hold the process of proletarianization back.
Lastly, I examine how the divergent even seemingly contradictory developments of class politics and urbanization are embodied in the freedom and resignation of migrant workers. A dialectical relationship between freedom and resignation, I argue, mirrors the tension between strong economic growth and tightening political control in China. I explore this relationship in migrants’ extended identities in the space of suspension, in their endeavor to build a community on bandit land, in the furnished but empty houses, in the reconciliation between migrant desire and the institutional barriers, and, lastly, in migrant aspirations for living at the center of the country yet in conflict with the state’s population control. Becoming urban is a process in which migrant workers come to terms with the bitter reality of society through strength and freedom.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Cohen, Myron
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 1, 2018