Mobilities, Communication, and Asia| Tracing the Discourse of Migrant Labor in China: Mobility, Fixity, and Displacement in the Workshop of the World

Zhuo Ban



Since the 1980s, elite and public discourses emphasizing the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the mass movement of labor have been cast and recast in China. Mobility is constructed as a central feature of the marginalized migrant worker population in China. Focused on the relationship between social structures and discursive construction, this article is a critical analysis of the discourse of mobility in the context of migrant labor in China. Mobility has been (a) understood as a necessity to relocate and use surplus agrarian labor, (b) interpreted as a personal opportunity for escaping the rigid urban–rural dichotomy, and (c) mystified as a threat to the privileged, highly subsidized urban form of living. In outlining these themes, I juxtapose the discourse of mobility with discussions of specific social issues such as deindustrialization and left-behind children/elderly, and broader issues of structural exploitation and disenfranchisement. In the discussion section, I propose that the interaction of mobility, fixity, emplacement, and displacement can serve as an entry point for understanding workers’ disenfranchisement and marginalization.


mobility, critical discourse analysis, migrant labor, China

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