Pál Nyíri on Chinese migration

“Our” Pál Nyíri recently published a book called Mobility and cultural authority in contemporary China. Daan Beekers asked him a few questions about this new book.

DB: When it comes to the topic of China and migration, we tend to think of the many Chinese who have migrated to places all over the world. But your book is about the policy on migration in China itself. What makes this an important issue?

PN: Actually, my book talks about all sorts of mobility, including internal and international migration and tourism. Of these, internal migration understandably has by far the largest scale: an estimated 150 million people within China are migrants. What makes this an important issue is that China maintains a household registration system that separates rural and urban dwellers and endows the two groups with different rights, so that rural migrants in the cities can be “illegal”.

DB: In your book you show that China has been loosening its migration policy and appropriated migration as a symbol of a new and modern China. Yet you argue that this somewhat progressive policy is ‘compensated’ by the imposition of cultural control over migration and by restriction of movement. What do you mean by that?

PN: An example of a differentiated control of movement is that cities in China increasingly compete for skilled workers but try to limit the influx of the rural so-called “peasant workers”. An example of cultural control is how, simultaneously with the rapid development of tourism, tourist sites in China are semiotically overdetermined by the narratives that place them within a particular national discourse, narratives that every tourists encounters an endless number of times in shows, guides’ talks, in media, and on signs.

DB: Migration has become a major policy issue in the Netherlands as well. How do these developments in China compare to the Dutch situation?

PN: The easiest comparison is probably between China’s internal migration policies and those of the Netherlands and other European countries towards international migration. Meanwhile, China is also experiencing increasing immigration, and the way it will shape its immigration policy in the years to come will be interesting to watch. There are indications that it may go down a more pragmatic and permissive path than Europe (or such Asian countries as Japan or Singapore), but also one that grants no welfare rights to migrants.

DB: Finally, what does your anthropological perspective bring to the study of these issues?

PN: Migration is most often discussed as a policy issue, and it is seen quite separately from tourism. My focus in the book is not on policies but on how mobility of all sorts has come to stand for modernity, has come to symbolize a particular kind of personhood, which many mobile citizens gladly identify with.

Pal Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at the VU University. Some of his earlier posts on this blog relate to Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer’s lecture at the VU, to two more books of his hand, on Cultural Mobility and Seeing Culture Everywhere, to his inaugural lecture on China’s foreign concessions, to the AAA, and to the uses of cultural defense in court.

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