Strangers in the City: Migrant Workers in Indian and Chinese Cities

While political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers

P.K.Anand, Research Associate, ICS

The ‘visibility’ of the migrant workers is the biggest urban predicament that is being witnessed during the nation-wide lockdown, which has now crossed 50 days. The images of their ‘reverse migration’ — whether entirely by foot, or through modes of transportation that are heart-wrenching — lay bare the desperations and anxieties emerging from the loss of livelihood and security.

Not that many of these journeys have happy endings — deaths due to exhaustion, or accidents leave behind more than just a trail of dead bodies. It is equally significant that since the lockdown started on March 25, there also exists a long list of casualties that cannot be pinned on the virus per say — including those related to mental health, often left at the periphery.

The brutal social experiment that is the pandemic has only reinforced and exacerbated the systemic exclusion and dispossession of circular/seasonal migrant workers/footloose workers, who inhabit Indian cities. A report titled Unlocking the Urban, released by Aajeevika Bureau —a non-profit organisation working among seasonal migrants in western India — released on May 1, highlighted the longstanding vulnerabilities of rural-urban migrants in cities. They often receive less than minimum wages, are engaged in manual work which last for long hours, which, are often even dangerous.

They remain unaccounted for by national statistics and are invisible to city-level administrations; precarity undergirds their working and living spaces, rendering them ineligible for social schemes and welfare programmes. These further lead to them being denied access to urban residence and governance; their survival in the cities is dependent on daily negotiations with informal actors, ranging from petty contractors to security guards, and even landlords.

The socio-spatial exclusion of migrants from Indian cities, and their statelessness in some ways, mirrors the nongmin gong (peasant workers) in China’s urban spaces, pejoratively called ‘floating population’; though the Chinese state has changed the terminology to xin shimin (new city residents) in order to fully ‘integrate’ them into urban centres, the desired results have not followed.

China’s Rural-Urban Dichotomy

The demarcation of citizenship in China into rural and urban is a legacy of socialist planning. In 1958, the hukou(registered residence permits), was introduced to regulate the flow of resources, especially labour, and sustain an agrarian countryside, while the State subsidised urban living. The economic reforms of the 1980s led to easing of rural-to-urban mobility, which, in turn, kick-started the long journey of labourers from the rural areas to the industries and companies in coastal provinces. The migrant workers have been crucial in the growth of many megacities in China today.

However, this infrastructural and economic growth of Chinese cities happened even as the migrant workers remained peripheral in China’s urbanity. The urban hukou — the foundation for a well-entrenched city life with access to public services, healthcare and education — is highly stratified and segregated, with eligibility based on the level of education, skills and status. The hukoucreates a division between privileged and entitled urban residents and the migrant workers. Though the migrant workers are tagged as ‘essential’, in reality they are ‘placeless’ and unable to make claims for a ‘right to the city’. The constant fear of eviction from their informal neighbourhoods and being at the receiving end of law enforcement’s brutal high-handedness, mirror the story of their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, the marginalisation of migrants in city spaces has also impacted the lives of their children in claiming access to healthcare and education.

Urban Citizenship

While the high level of decentralisation in China’s political-administrative system give the local governments significant decision-making powers, city governments — especially those in the megacities — remain intransigent in reforming the hukousystem. Beijing has repeatedly mentioned the need to reform the system but it more or less remains on paper. While small and medium sized cities have experimented with various models and pilot programmes, there remains reluctance from the big cities. It highlights the skewed nature of China’s tax and revenue systems favouring the central government, while the local governments bear the fiscal responsibilities. Thus, the big cities are resistant to reforms that add to their burden.

By the same count, with laws and regulations largely divided between the Union government and the state governments in India, local bodies (such as municipalities) are rendered powerless, without significant responsibilities. Such disempowerment of cities create constraints in developing specific and contextual regulations (for instance, in many cities migrant workers are not even enumerated).

Clearly, while political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers.

Originally Published as Strangers in the City: Migrant Workers in Indian and Chinese Citiesin Moneycontrol.com, 21 May 2020

Book Review: Gurudas Das and C. Joshua Thomas (ed.), Voices from the Border: Responses to Chinese Claims over Arunachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2015), 159 pp.

Reena Bhatiya, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

The debates on Sino-India border dispute largely fall within the strategic affairs and geopolitical framework of international relations. This book approaches the subject of border dispute by looking at the debates on linear borders, local perspectives on the border conflict as an alternative to a state-centric view. The authors examine the historical evidence of China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh while investigating the dynamics of territorial politics. The book is structured into three broad themes: the geopolitical aspects of the conflict, the local community’s spatial history before linear borders, their infrastructure development needs and perspectives on the dispute.

Discussing the boundary question, C.V. Ranganathan looks at the rivalry through the prism of changing geopolitical situations while suggesting India for a multilateral architecture in the South Asian region. Srikanth Kondapalli’s chapter yields a persuasive insight into India’s engagement with China on multiple fronts to prevent any change in the configuration of power in the region. This implies that India should not let China become an extra-regional power in South Asia. In the fifth chapter, Jabin Jacob advances the argument that a mixed strategy of combining the local aspirations of Arunachal Pradesh for peaceful and sustainable development with the national security considerations can best fulfill the demand for ‘first line of defense’ to deter China’s ‘new forward policy’. However, he has not dealt in sufficient depth the ways of deepening the democratic spirit and how communities could be engaged in the decision-making processes. These scholars primarily focus on different ways of India’s engagement with China. But the limitation lies in the fact that they reify the state-centric view of the dispute thus drifting away from the main aim of the book.

The strength of the book lies in unpacking local histories of borderland spaces in this region and local community perception of the conflict thereby giving a more nuanced understanding of the territoriality of these regions. For instance, Namrata Goswami looks at the border dispute through the local community’s point of view. She argues that the Lamas vindicated Tawang Monastery’s historical ties with the Lhasa monastery. And, the Adi, Nishi, Apataani communities do not approve of China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. She emphasizes the need to meet the demands of the development of these communities to improve the democratic structure and infrastructure conditions in the region.
On the other hand, J.R. Mukherjee briefly surveys the Tibetan folklores to question China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh to highlight that the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh were never the subjects of Tibet and only had cultural and commercial links. He notes that the ancient pilgrimage route of Takpasiri Mountain in the Subansiri Valley holy to the Tibetans, Monpas, and Tagians of Arunachal Pradesh, is claimed by China.

Further expanding the discussion on local communities, Gomar Basar attempts to understand the Chinese claim in Arunachal Pradesh through a historical analysis of the local dynamics. He traces the historical trajectory of the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh from the colonial period and notes that the British ambition to exercise an indirect control over the tribal areas through drawing inner and outer lines led to Chinese intrusions within the outer line area. These intrusions were contested at the time by the Mishmi community inhabiting the outer line as they already considered themselves British subjects.

Adding to the discussion on linear borders, H. Srikant cautions against “nationalist myopia” on the border dispute and considers linear borders as a colonial baggage. Although he argues that the linear borders overlooked the traditional boundaries of the native communities and kingdoms, but he fails to provide a detailed account of the local traditional boundaries. In addition, he suggests that history, geographical realities, administrative, economic activities, customs, language, etc. that generates deep-rooted sentiments and emotions in the region should be taken into consideration while negotiating border issues.

Through his detailed discussion of the pre-modern kingdoms in eastern sector, Mathew Alkester argues that Moyul (present-day Bhutan) belonged to the Tibetan world not Loyul (present-day Arunachal Pradesh). He, thereby, debunks the Chinese claim that Arunachal Pradesh was under Tibet’s control. The main contention of the essay is that cultural and commercial links of these kingdoms with the Tibetan world do not confirm Tibetan political control over them.

Overall, the unbundling of the complex local histories of the frontier region in these chapters could have been coupled with a discussion on the present concerns of the local communities regarding infrastructure demands and preparedness to be able to participate in the gains from any large development projects in their region. An overview of the traditional knowledge systems and community institutions of the Mishmi could prescribe ways to democratically engage them in decision-making processes.

The last section of the book leaves the reader with C Joshua Thomas’s questions on China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh. a). Did Tibet ever claim Arunachal Pradesh as her part? b). Tibet had ceded the Tawang tract to British India by signing the Shimla accord in 1914 d). Why would the world accept Chinese historiography and refute the Tibetan historiography? The author observes that systemic misunderstanding is a major issue in Sino-Indian relations therefore to prevent India’s hedging; China must come to terms with India.

Largely, this book provides a good overview of the historical and political aspects of the border dispute in the eastern sector and gives the much-needed perspective of the local communities on the dispute and the territorial dynamics of the region. All the chapters display a firm grip over understanding the specifics of the dispute with the larger logics of international politics, but a notable kind of perplexity surfaces over an analytical framework to the issue of border disputes. Although informative, its limitation lies in the lack of a theoretical base while looking into the concept of ‘territoriality’ in international politics. An absence of the theoretical discussion on the notion of territoriality puts this discussion in a vacuum. However, the book paves the way for researchers to develop upon the information provided here and engage with it theoretically, and thus becomes an important contribution to the studies on border issues with China.

Superpowers and spirit of International Cooperation in a Pandemic

Anu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

The grip of COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has showed albeit in a brutal way the extent of global connectivity. However, the responsive measures taken by major powers to deal with the contagion have exposed the hollowness of their commitments for global cooperation, especially at a time when it is most needed. In hindsight, this has been most visible in the actions of the USA and China. These have belied all the commitments made under phase one deal in January 2020, which had been agreed by both after more than two years of tariff or ‘trade-war’. Effects of the levying tariffs and counter tariffs had not only affected the economy of USA and China but also rendered the global economy and market in a doldrums. Hence this deal came into picture reflecting the need of a fair and mutually beneficial global trade practices. Their unilateral actions and their foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis each other during this pandemic – when international cooperation is most required – have questioned their willingness of a truly globalized world with peaceful cooperation.

Talking about China where the outbreak started, it has widely been accused of containing the information. Criticisms have come in despite the containment measures being seen as effective. At this time not only did the US President failed to recognize COVID-19 as a threat by ruling out any possibility of it becoming pandemic; but also resorted to stigmatise the disease despite warning from World Health Organisation (WHO) to not do so.

The US has labeled the disease as “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus”, etc. and blamed China for the repressive measures against its own population. In March, with China recovering from the first wave, the tables were turned as China blamed the US Army for bringing COVID-19 to its territory, as a ‘bio-weapon’. Therefore, betraying its own vaunted principles of peaceful cooperation and mutual benefit, China did not extend any help to the USA. These counter accusations were given weight – and paralleled – by China’s own diplomatic overtures of ensuring medical supplies and knowledge to other parts of the world. However, President Xi Jinping’s “idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind” also proved to be rhetorical as it “sells” medical equipment rather than donating them.

This blame-game has spiralled into further accusations and counter-accusations, extending to actions against media – the US tightened rules on Chinese state media organizations including Xinhua news agency inside its territory to tackle the aggressively growing Chinese State-controlled propaganda, and by the same count, China expelling journalists working for New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

While China claimed of successfully containing the virus, the USA was in the midst of rise in positive cases. In such a situation, instead of assisting US from its experiences of fighting the disease, the Chinese Party-state only sought to criticize the USA for its lack of preparedness. Despite overtures through telephone calls between Xi and Trump, where they decided to take joint actions that has not necessarily translated into meaningful action. Further, neither did USA approach China for any joint research on the virus or on measures to counter its spread, nor did China extend any helping hand to the hard hit public health system in the USA.

Both the USA and China have made significant advances in technological innovations in natural sciences; however, neither of them are acting responsibly in such a time of global crisis. Instead of practicing and emphasizing on cooperating in fighting the disease, both are engulfed into diplomatic and rhetorical battles. Rather, both are more focussed on the stability of internal ‘political regime’ and the blame game adds grist to the mill. Their actions and behaviour only cripples the global efforts to harness resources and strengthen the flailing health infrastructure in many countries. Even while multilateral organizations and regional groupings are making efforts to pool resources – example being the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund – and coordinate,  the actions of the two major powers goes against the grain of a globalized world, that requires everyone to pull together.

Fang Fang: Literary Voice of Dissent Amid China’s Coronavirus Disaster

The party’s ill-governance of the deadly virus has given birth to a new critical voice: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary.

Hemant Adlakha, Ph.D., Honorary Fellow, ICS and Professor of Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Fang Fang 方方 picture

Fang Fang is definitely not the most famous living writer in China, but she is revered by hundreds and thousands of Chinese as the literary voice of COVID19-stricken China. Even before the outbreak, Fang had published widely in different genres and won several literary awards, including China’s most prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010. Until recently, she served as vice president of the Hubei Writer’s Association. Having spent her early and late childhood during the tumultuous Great Leap Forward years and adolescent years in the cataclysmic decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), she worked as a porter for four years to support her family before entering Wuhan University to study literature in her early 20s in the 1970s. Fang Fang’s early works, mostly short stories, concentrated mainly on poor Wuhanese – from urban factory workers to the city’s middle-class intellectuals – part of China’s “new realism” literature. Born into a literati family in 1955, she inherited the legacy of the May Fourth socialist realism and her own experiences of a struggling life made her remain committed to social consciousness. According to well-known Chinese literary critic Han Shaogong, “the secret of Fang Fang’s success is that she can capture the complexities of an ever-changing life without losing its thread.”  

Now, she is famous for another reason: her Wuhan Diary posted on social media. Also called the Quarantine Diary, the daily account of the locked down city’s millions of inhabitants’ untold sufferings during the ongoing health crisis has recast Fang Fang from a well-known literary figure into China’s most revered living literary voice of dissent. Her fans in China are already proclaiming her to be the conscience of Wuhan.   

On the night of February 7, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus on social media, lay dead in the quarantine ward of the Wuhan Central Hospital. The same day, the first page of the Wuhan Diary was put up on Fang Fang’s WeChat account, and disappeared within hours. But before being taken down by China’s cyber censors, her Wuhan Diary had gone viral with thousands of re-posts. Fang Fang already enjoyed 3.5 million followers on social media even before she began chronicling her life during Wuhan’s quarantine. Wuhan Diary first appeared on day 14 of Wuhan’s lockdown. The latest page of the diary (as of this writing), entitled “Let’s see if you scare me!” was put up on March 20, on Day 57. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,” Fang wrote recently, as quoted by Kiki Zhao in the New York Times.“If you don’t allow us to express our anguish or complaints or reflections, do you want us to go really mad?”

Interestingly, throughout nearly two months of lockdown and three months since the central authorities confirmed and publicly announced the coronavirus outbreak, each entry in Fang’s Wuhan Diary has been consistently deleted by Beijing’s censors within an hour or so of it being posted on Fang’s social media page. Yet each post has gone viral before being struck down, being shared by millions of WeChatters within China and abroad. More committed fans of Fang Fang are happily and with great enthusiasm sharing the entire series. Some of Fang Fang’s censored posts are being archived by China Digital Times (CDT) in Chinese, and Fang Fang’s Caixin blog is one of the multitudes of sources being preserved on the nCoVMemory Github, a repository of personal narratives from the outbreak in China.          

CDT has also translated her censored WeChat post entitled “As long as we survive” in which, as CDT puts it,“Fang Fang expresses the frustrations of lockdown, laments the many displaced and affected by the virus, lauds the brave journalists attempting to uncover truth amid propaganda, and demands accountability from those who allowed the situation to develop.” The post begins:

“It is cloudy again and a bit chilly, but not too cold. I walked out to look at the sky. A sky without sunshine is somewhat gloomy and dismal, I thought. The article I posted on WeChat yesterday was deleted again, and my Weibo account has also once again been blocked. I thought I couldn’t post on Weibo anymore, and then found out that they only censored yesterday’s post and that new posts can still be published. It made me instantly happy. Alas, I am like a frightened bird. I no longer know what I can say and what I can’t. When it comes to something as important as this fight against the epidemic, I’m cooperating fully with the government and obeying all their commands. I’m now just short of taking an oath with a fist over my heart – is this still not enough?”

It is no exaggeration to say the ongoing swelling debate over Wuhan Diary on both WeChat and Weibo – China’s main social media platforms – has led to a near vertical split among the country’s educated millions. Viewed in the context of how Charter 08, a manifesto for constitutional reforms issued by Liu Xiaobo and others, jangled the nerves of the Communist Party of China more than a decade ago, Wuhan Diary and the emerging discourse it has triggered have to be understood in the context of political criticism at home during the current health crisis, the critics in China are telling us. Of course, both supporters and opponents of Fang Fang can be found in large numbers.For example, one online group of Fang’s detractors spelled out 20 reasons why Wuhan Diary deserves to be rejected and condemned. Reason 20 for “Why we are opposed to Fang Fang” — as the group is called in English – reads: “Some people are really weird and crazy. The more they have to appear in front of the public, the more they show off. These people easily get excited and go berserk. They fiercely start attacking all those who disagree with them. When provoked, these people will not only bully others. They will even pull out a gun if necessary!” But each Wuhan Diary post has also inspired hundreds of her supporters and eliciting comments from them. One comment reads: “Dr. Li Wenliang and Wuhan Quarantine Diary are ‘flowers of thought’ and ‘flowers of Wuhan’ that bloomed in the blood and tears of Wuhanese people during the epidemic period. Blooming in spring in early February, she is destined to be ‘cold and crystal clear’ and eye-catching. I hope she is always blooming.”     

The controversial and at times acrimonious debate over Wuhan Diary touches on a wide range of issues – political, social, cultural. But a fundamentally disturbing aspect of the debate invokes the specter of the Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, an “open letter” written by a 16-year-old boy challenging Fang Fang, not only sent shockwaves through China’s netizens but it shook everyone who had experienced the 10 chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution – including Fang Fang. The reason for the shock, according to Li Yongzhong, China’s leading anti-corruption scholar-expert, is that “our generation, including Fang Fang, always thinks that the Cultural Revolution has gone, at least our generation will never see the Cultural Revolution again.” But the open-letter by the high school student rekindled the memories of the nightmare that teenager Red Guards unleashed to commit violence, especially targeting intellectuals.        

Thus readers of Fang Fang, and perhaps even some of her detractors who were wounded during the Cultural Revolution, profusely thanked her for her befitting reply to her teenage provocateur in March 18’s Wuhan Diary entry: “Son, all your doubts will be answered sooner or later. But remember, those will be your answers to yourself.” And hundreds and thousands of Wuhanese and people all over China continue to impatiently wait for her next Wuhan Diary page.

This article was earlier published in The Diplomat under the title ‘Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine’ on 23 March 2020.