Review of Small Town China: Rural Labor and Social Inclusion by Beatriz Carrillo Routledge

Small Town China: Rural Labor and Social Inclusion. Beatriz Carrillo. New York: Routledge, 2011. 212 pp. ISBN: 9780415600231

China is a society in the midst of transformation. One of the most visible and studied aspects of this transformation is the large scale migration of workers from the rural sections of China into the major urban centers of the east. On any given day, a visitor to the Shanghai Railway Station will see dozens, if not hundreds, of migrant workers in search of opportunity and mobility coming into the city clutching overstuffed, brightly colored plasticized bags filled with their possessions. The social and economic implications of this long-distance migration have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Yet it is by no means simply an academic matter, as the role of the newcomers and the stresses they place on the cities they enter are debated at all levels of Chinese society.

The staggering pace of China’s economic development and rise on the world stage has placed a spotlight on all aspects of Chinese society, with particular scrutiny falling on the first-tier cities of the eastern seaboard, in particular the cultural and political center of Beijing and the economic powerhouse of Shanghai. This intellectual predisposition towards the center has led to the literature on internal Chinese migration being dominated by accounts of long-distance movement of migrants into the major cities. In Small Town China: Rural Labor and Social Inclusion, Beatriz Carrillo argues that the amount of attention given to the experience of migrant workers in the big cities has unduly monopolized the discussion on population transfer within China. This has marginalized the substantially different experiences of migrant workers in small towns and cities, pushing to the margins an alternative account that has not been sufficiently heard or examined. (xi) As a result, the problems and potential long-term effects of migrant population transfer into first-tier cities have been taken as the norm throughout China. Carrillo counters with the assertion that the short-distance movement of migrant workers from villages into nearby urban centers such as small towns and second- or third-tier cities has had more favorable and positive results. Reforms and factors existing within these smaller urban centers have allowed for the greater social inclusion of migrants into the communities they enter.

The idea that a vastly different narrative of internal migration exists that merits more intellectual attention is at the core of Small Town China. As prominently stated in the title, the key to this assertion is the success of inclusion in the small towns and the mechanisms through which it is accomplished. The exclusion of migrant workers from the society and life of the host population is an issue that weighs heavily on larger urban centers and has been a strong component of the existing literature. (153) Migrant workers are often separated from the populations of the regions they enter by dialect, traditions and long-standing urban assumptions about rural people from particular regions of China. (143) Competition takes place between the immigrants and the urban host society to reach an unequal stage of accommodation. (9). In contrast, Carrillo posits that “short distance migration implies closer social, cultural and linguistic proximity between the migrant and the receiving society.” (41). This proximity mitigates the “otherness” of the immigrant worker and smoothes the transition into urban life. Small cities and towns have also embarked on an alternate development platform than the major urban centers, which has allowed for “the construction of a more inclusive social environment, one that provided all inhabitants, including rural workers, with a platform for advancing their economic and social well-being.” (140).

To support this thesis, Carrillo presents a case study of Shanxi Province in northern China. While the study is limited in scope, Carrillo uses it as a framework to examine and dissect the distinct major factors essential to the alternative mode of development in smaller cities which have contributed to the success of inclusion. Social inclusion is used as a means to understand social development within certain parameters. (142)

The book begins with a brief but informative introduction to the subject of internal migration within China, outlining its modern political, social and economic origins. The introduction concludes with a discussion of the methodology and approach used in the book, including the decision to use only Shanxi Province as a case study. (12) The subsequent five chapters each center on the particular elements of social change and governmental policy within smaller cities and towns that have produced a different result than in big cities, such as education, housing, transportation and health care. Carrillo breaks down the issues in social policy that ultimately have worked towards the model of inclusion, creating a social balance between migrants and the existing population. Charts sprinkled throughout the book help put the large amount of data being discussed into perspective while a helpful glossary of Mandarin terms used and a substantial bibliography conclude the book.

While the number of factors surveyed in Small Town China is impressive, a few merit mention for being particularly intriguing and indicative of the primary differences between the large city/small city models of development Carrillo champions. The role and nature of government in small cities and its relationship to society is one of these key areas. According to Carrillo, the dichotomy between large cities and small towns in China evolved from the fundamentally different foundations of these two distinct types of urban centers. In small towns and cities, the relationship between state and society is immediate. (141) Officials live and work in the very areas they manage, daily interacting directly with the population, whereas officials in larger cities are removed from their home districts. Despite appearing more progressive, the larger cities were more constrained by outside considerations and political pressures, such as Shanghai’s claim to being China’s most cosmopolitan city. Due to factors such as hukuo reform and education, integration and social inclusion is more open and prevalent in small towns.

The role of the government in influencing social inclusion and stability is best represented in the survey by the examination of the hukou system, a system of household registration that identifies an individual as a resident of a particular area. The hukou has in some cases been used as a tool of differentiation to regulate mobility between rural and urban areas and bind a person to their home province, as well as being an administrative hurdle for Chinese citizens to establish permanent residency elsewhere. (155). For example, to obtain a passport a Chinese citizen must return to the province in which they are registered. During the Mao era, the hukou was used to construct a distinction between rural and urban, creating a “spatial hierarchy” that has contributed to the current problems with integration in the large urban centers. (3)  Debates over the hukou system are front page news in Shanghai as migrant workers seek education for their children, fighting against the system’s restrictions. The hukou system reinforced an unequal social structure in the cities as it served to further differentiate migrants from the host population. (9)

A second point regarding the connection between government and the population is bound up in the idea of guanxi, or interpersonal relationships, a considerable force in Chinese society. In a survey conducted by Carrillo, rural migrants surveyed ranked guanxi as more important than hukou. (62) In smaller urban centers, guanxi is easier to establish due to the closer relationship between officials and the people. The inability to form and capitalize on connections as a consequence of exclusion and its possibility as a benefit of inclusion drives a good deal of the difference between the large city and small town models.

Small Town China adroitly identifies an alternative to mainstream thought on migration in China, and Carrillo plumbs astonishing depths in a relatively short volume. While laying out a framework and methodology for the investigation of the migrant experience in Shanxi and offering compelling evidence for the thesis of the book to be further explored, Carrillo touches on a wide variety of factors, exposing the complexities of social development away from the major urban centers. Although it is not meant as an introduction to the subject, Carrillo is able to integrate into the book the greater history and concepts influencing internal migration in China. For the graduate or undergraduate student considering lengthy research projects, Carrillo’s detailed explanation of the thought processes that led to the study, the methodology involved and the research practices used along with the admissions of the utility and limitations of the case study are an extremely useful model. Each section is also useful as a short reading on its own, especially the first chapter. Although extrinsic to Carrillo’s intentions for the work, additional detail on the day-to-day work of research and surveying, including copies of the surveys and the full range of questions utilized would be enlightening for students.

The very nature of Small Town China’s approach means many intriguing ideas are presented that could inspire further research. The very short mention of the one-kuai ride system, a scheme set up to provide low-cost transportation to lower-income migrants and residents, is one example. The system is brought up briefly to illustrate the impact of government and the enormous ability it has to change day-to-day life in small towns, but is not examined deeply otherwise. While not the primary focus of the work, the brief stories of the participants of Carrillo’s survey serve to remind the reader that there is a very human element at the core of the academic discourse on Chinese migration. While delving too deeply into the personal stories of the migrant workers would deflect attention from the core argument of the work, some of the accounts are stirring even in their brevity. Incorporating these personal accounts more closely into the narrative could benefit future studies or inspire a new approach towards migration studies.

Small Town China provides the Mandarin Chinese pinyin for the major agencies and terms in the book, including in a glossary at the end of book. However, the Chinese characters are not given and the pinyin is presented without tone marks, an essential component to the Chinese language. Anyone who has tried to look up a Chinese character based on a pinyin spelling without diacriticals or to speak Chinese without using tones can attest to the problems encountered. This issue is not unique to Carrillo’s book—this review does not use tone marks, and even pinyin street signs in China lack the marks. However, as more and more students and scholars turn to China’s rich history for research and inspiration, including in a text the tone marks or even full Chinese characters for key terms would be useful to the researcher in the field, the student of Mandarin or the early-career scholar still working on the complexities of the language. While formatting issues might play a role in the slow adoption of Chinese characters and pinyin online, hopefully publishers such as Routledge will move in the direction of adding tone marks and Chinese characters.

Carrillo readily admits the limited nature of her work, noting the benefits and pitfalls of confining the study to migrant workers in Shanxi province. (16) However, the topic Carrillo tackles is vast, and it would be optimistic to believe that Small Town China could even begin to cover short-distance migration within all of China, nor does Carrillo attempt to compete instantly with the well-established and vast amount of research on big-city migrant life. Instead, Carrillo’s case study adds to the developing body of research on rural workers in the smaller urban centers and opens a new route of investigation when considering internal migration in China. Aside from contributing to the overall discourse on migration, Small Town China is just as much an academic investigation as it is a call to action and a springboard from which other scholars can continue to examine the situation in different areas of China.

As befits an entry in the series Studies on China in Transition, Small Town China’s framework for investigating the shape and consequence of short-distance migration takes into account a variety of factors that have relevance beyond migration studies, making the book useful for students and scholars interested in the social engines at work within China, the transformation of Chinese society, and the economic and political development of the smaller cities. As noted in the conclusion, as China continues to urbanize rapidly, the smaller centers will become the cities containing the majority of the Chinese population. The model of inclusion they follow merits study, and the field is at the moment a developing one. With Small Town China, Beatriz Carrillo challenges both the reader and the established literature to consider a new course. Taken as a whole or for each extremely well-documented chapter, Carrillo’s book serves as both a noteworthy companion to the prevailing literature and an alternative voice to the dominant discourse on internal migration in China.

Reviewed by Daniel Fandino, Shanghai High School
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]