Migrant Factory Women in China’s Hinterland


A review of When Migrant Factory Women Return Home: Their Life Experiences in Fast Growing China’s Hinterland, by Yuchen Han.

Yuchen Han’s timely and insightful dissertation breaks new ground as the first to look specifically at returned migrant (“returnee”) women workers in China’s hinterlands. Fusing Marxist and poststructuralist feminist approaches, Han explores the dynamic intersections between returnee women and the state-led expansion of neoliberal capitalism and concomitant ideologies into China’s interior, emphasizing returnee women’s agency as they negotiate these forms of power and catalyze their hegemonic reach. Han thereby builds upon and extends the theoretical and geographic scope of prior works (see Ngai Pun, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham: Duke University Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2005; and Hairong Yan, New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). In particular, Han provides a glimpse into the nascent industries of the cities, townships and villages of Jiangxi province, exploring their inferior position in the broader political economy as subsidiaries or sub-contractors to coastal export-oriented firms, as well as the unequal labor-capital relationships forged within them. Her work thus complements key studies of Jiangxi’s development (see especially Rachel Murphy, How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China. Cambridge University Press, 2002). Han’s dissertation also contributes to our understanding of women worker’s experiences and shifting subjectivities upon return. In this regard, Han’s thesis helps diversify the literature on migrant women’s agency and identity (see Tamara Jacka, Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration and Social Change. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2006; and Arianne M. Gaetano, Out to Work: Gender, Migration, and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015).

Chapter 1 provides an introduction and an extensive review of both English and Chinese sources, and identifies how Han’s research contributes to gaps in the literature. Han clarifies that her subjects are “second-generation migrant women,” who currently comprise the majority of the workforce of factory women, both in coastal (export-oriented) and inland industries. Existing data indicate that a majority of women workers in urban and coastal industries return home, yet their experiences after return have received scant attention. The few existing studies of returned migration are focused on returnees to rural villages; yet today more migrants are “returning” to the industrializing provincial cities and towns and working in industry, not in agriculture. Han explains that they are “pulled” by traditional patriarchal values of marriage and family as well as by new work opportunities in the expanding interior industrial economy, which includes many factories relocated from the coastal region. Further, many were “pushed” out of factory employment in the coastal industries in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. Her research fills important gaps in the literature by considering the impact of the local political economy on individual choice, and vice-versa, and by paying close attention to gender.

Chapter 2 provides the theoretical and analytic framework for Han’s investigation of the impact of neoliberal discourses on returnee women worker’s worker’s lived experience. Han begins by enumerating the neoliberal economic policies practices adapted and implemented by the Chinese state, predominantly the export-oriented economic development scheme. Han acknowledges the paradoxical situation of the state playing a dominant role in the (free) market economy, but emphasizes, “China’s state-developmentalism nevertheless shares the logic of North-dominated neoliberalization” (p. 30) – put simply, the “worship of GDP” (p. 31) above all else, especially the rights and interests of worker-citizens. As GDP growth becomes inseparable from state legitimacy, Han observes, the necessary collusion of government with neoliberal economic policy and practices creates “winners” (i.e., capitalists and bureaucrats) and “losers” (i.e., migrant workers of export-oriented factories and urban workers of the state enterprises) (pp. 31-32). Next Han turns to a discussion of neoliberal governmentality that in China encompasses “keywords of national advocacy” (p. 33) aimed at “enhancing people’s suzhi (human quality).” These deceptively “neutral terms” (p. 33) are leading to the “materialization, commodification, monetization, alienation, class restoration, and capitalization of labor, public services, social relations, and ultimately human beings” (p. 33). Yet, Han remains open to the possibility of resistance to, or appropriation of, neoliberal discourses that counter these forms of governmentality. The body of Han’s thesis probes this potential in three areas of returnee women’s lives where neoliberal discourses are anticipated to be particularly prominent – production, consumption, and family.

In Chapter 3, Han outlines her research method, which partially adapts the ethnographic extended case method (EMC) attributed to Michael Burawoy (Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). Han finds this method relevant to her goals of linking individuals’ stories to broader neoliberal political-economic and ideological dimensions (p. 49), as well as understanding their dynamic and mutual influence. Following a pilot study, the author conducted sustained ethnographic research for 5 months, from February to June of 2012, during which time she lived in an apartment shared with a returnee migrant woman entrepreneur in the YT Municipal Industrial Zone of Jiangxi province (YTMIZ). Using a personal connection to YT’s former mayor, she was appointed to Assistant to the Director of the Labor and Social Security Bureau of the Managing Committee of YTMIZ, which provided access to both large-scale factories of YTMIZ and several small-scale workshops in townships and villages of YT’s four counties (districts). The author conducted over 100 interviews with workers from these factories, which included student laborers, non-migrant workers, returnee women and men, and some child laborers (including some of the returnees’ own children) and recorded the life stories of 22 returnee women. Han also organized focus groups, outreach events, and entertainment for groups of workers, and participated in daily life activities with the returnee women. Included in the appendices are the demographic particulars of the 22 interviewed returnee women, the transcribed life histories of 3 of them, and various documents on factory work conditions. Han applies the feminist reflexive approach to interrogate her own position of privilege relative to her informants and its impact on her subjects and the research.

Chapter 4 takes the YTMIZ as a case study to present the socio-economic-political context that returnee migrants are situated within. The argument of this chapter begins from the premise that “increasing GDP through the importation of foreign light industry investment only provides the illusion of development” (p. 65). With little dissent, hinterland government and industry leaders adopt the neoliberal policies and practices honed in the coastal development zones, and apply them to the local context. Under this development model, Han argues, the exploitation of the migrant workers continues in the hinterland. Han’s appointed position within the YTMIZ allows her privileged access to factory management and YT government officials, from whom she procures information that enables her detailed analysis of industry profit-making at the expense of worker rights and well-being.

Han sketches precisely how government and industry collude to ensure an ample, low-cost, flexible, and docile labor force in order to attract foreign investment in industry. Returnee migrant women are especially targeted for recruitment, as they are seen to possess the requisite skills and familiarity with capitalist discipline desired of “good workers.” Government also incentivizes the recruitment of student-workers using tactics that are borderline coercive, and in the extreme create an illicit workforce of children, in violation of labor and education rights laws. To her credit, Han reported on her findings to her superiors, who admitted the problem but then did not take further action. Han also demonstrates how her superiors shirk their responsibility to mediate labor disputes, through a detailed description of their ineffective response to a strike led by returnee women workers at one factory. To maintain friendly relations with industry at all costs, the officials merely order workers to return to work and then pass the worker’s grievances up to the district government, which arrests the strike leaders on trumped up charges. The strike leaders suspect that district-level government authorities maintain and share with industry a blacklist of activist workers; Han is later privy to a meeting where its existence is indeed verified (p. 92).

With great detail, Han describes how industry maximizes profits by overworking and underpaying factory workers, using tactics borrowed from the neoliberal coastal model. These include, for example, discouraging workers from joining the social security scheme in order to avoid insurance payments (p. 80); setting outrageously high piece-rate output targets (p. 81); electronic surveillance (p. 83); and forcing pregnant women workers to quit in order to avoid paying maternity benefits (p. 83). The sole advantage of employment in the hinterlands compared to the coast is the newer dormitories (p. 85). Again to her credit, Han alerted her superiors about the subpar quality of food in the worker’s canteen (p. 84), but this fell on deaf ears. Han does find examples of individual government officials asserting their own ethical principles and refusing to collude with industry in some of the illicit activities outlined above, but no one in her study ever questioned the goal of GDP growth that provides the top-down pressure and in the extreme promotes the illicit activity (p. 96).

Chapter 5 explores the identities and subjectivities of returnee migrant women in the factories of YTMIZ, and how they are shaped both by their experiences in the urban environment as well as in the newly industrializing hinterlands. Management regards returnee workers as skilled and disciplined and hence more productive than those without migration experience. Their non-migrant peers likewise consider them more worldly and knowledgeable. They in turn feel superior to non-migrant peers and share a sense of fellowship with one another. Ironically, Han notes, their pride manufactures their consent to capitalist discipline (p. 101). Superiority also raises their expectations of a good life upon return to the hinterlands, and subsequently produces more intense frustration when they realize their lives do not improve. Han delineates a number of ways the returnees’ work conditions remain unchanged and even worsened due to higher costs of living in the hinterlands compared to coastal regions. In addition, they must elect to live in factory adjacent dormitories away from their families or forfeit overtime and night shifts; they are “tricked” (p. 106) into accepting apprenticeships as assistant line leaders on the promise of promotions that rarely occur; and they are kept from higher supervisory positions that tend to be filled by coastal counterparts.

Han then describes coping and resistance strategies of workers. She describes one episode of solidarity between returnee and non-migrant workers when treated insensitively by coastal managers unfamiliar with local cultural norms, and then returns to the story of the strike mentioned in Chapter 4, this time providing the perspective of the workers. She reveals the striking workers to be quite confident and knowledgeable of the broader political economic context as they voiced demand for higher wages to offset employee contributions to insurance. They ingeniously drew upon cultural traditions too, by building collective fund as a reserve in case of emergency. Han, despite her semi-official role, is pulled into the strike as a consultant to her informants about their labor rights, and she apprises them of the illegal maneuverings of factory management. Yet, when management threatens to withhold two months’ wages owed to workers, the strikers retreat. The returnee women leaders of the strike voice retrospective shame at being reprimanded, as it sullies their self-image as good workers, and regret for putting intangible rights above practical needs for income and employment. Han concludes that returnee workers are in a contradictory situation. In contrast to non-migrant workers, they are more aware of their rights and how to secure them, yet as superior workers they are more compliant toward neoliberal management ideology and more likely to “play it safe” (p. 122).

Chapter 6 focuses on small township and village level factories and workshops (STVFW) as an alternative for the returnee women as both entrepreneurs and as workers. Han observes these factories are usually initiated by returnee women or couples, and employ returnee women as well. Despite the place of STVFWs at the very bottom of in the global production ladder, their owners persevere in hopes of one day launching their own brand and production line. Workers in these factories have distinct advantages that seem to result from the close relationship of trust between themselves and the owners, rooted in their shared identity as returned migrants and shared value of “cash and cash-oriented production” (p. 135). The relationships between workers and management are more informal, congenial, and “feminized” in contrast to the typical masculinized management style of larger factories modeled on Taylor-Fordism (p. 140). Although wages are lower than in coastal factories, they are on par with large-scale enterprises in the YTMIZ. Work schedules are by necessity more flexible to meet production needs, such as allowing women to complete work at home (home-working). However, work conditions may be especially dangerous, involving unregulated and subpar chemicals and equipment, for example. Han assesses the impact of these small industries on local community development to be largely favorable.

Chapter 7 shifts focus to returnee women’s lives as consumers.  Han explains, “consumption is not only about motivation to produce, but is also about their dream and efforts in building better selves and subsequently better lives” (p. 147). Han first sketches the consumer landscape of the developing YT area, making the surprising discovery that housing and subsistence costs are higher than in coastal areas, a result of limited market competition. From the interviews, Han concludes that all returnee women have strong consumer desires, with slight differences in patterns according to age and marital status, and their tastes are similar to those of people in more developed coastal areas. Women in her study recognize that appearance indexes class and identity, and so they aspire to white-collar dress and urban fashions. They mostly eschew traditional ideas of beauty that emphasize fertility and maternity in favor of a more modern or worldly looks. A practical and metaphysical need to secure their futures underlies their “body consumption” efforts, which are best viewed as investment strategies. Examples include maintaining a youthful and attractive appearance to retain their spouse’s fidelity, or to attract a husband of greater means. Han astutely observes these consumer practices submit women to the “male gaze” and masculine ideology (p. 166). Housing is also critical to future security as a consumer good or as an investment in capital accumulation (via rental fees).

Chapter 8 explores returnee women’s negotiation of their gender identity and roles in marital partner selection, intimate relationships and sexuality, as well as work-family life arrangements, as a means of understanding their gendered subjectivities, focusing in particular on the life histories of 3 women who represent distinct generations and life stages. Han’s research overall demonstrates that returnee women “sometimes use neoliberal values to fight against the patriarchal oppression; whereas, sometimes they cooperate with patriarchy because they find the two values in accord” (p. 170). Interestingly, in contrast to migrant women workers in Beijing’s service economy (Gaetano 2008 & 2015) the married women in Han’s study accept parental matchmaking. As factory jobs are sex-segregated, there is little opportunity for them to meet members of the opposite sex. Traditional courtship also prioritizes practical qualities over romantic considerations, and thus it dovetails with neoliberal ideology. Indeed, Han’s informants use the language of the market in discussing their “sell” value in terms of “bride price” (p. 177).  Sexuality and reproduction are similarly accepted as commodities; one informant seriously ponders her market value as a potential surrogate mother to her boss’s wife (p. 184). Han concludes the chapter by describing how factory work figures into each woman’s life story not only as a vehicle to earn wages as fuel for consumption but also as a means to carve out personal space away from pressures of patriarchal marriage or family responsibilities and socialize with other returnee women.

Chapter 9 summarizes the research and findings. Han’s comparison of the experiences of returnee women to their non-migrant peers in regard to production, consumption, and familial kinships reveals that a significant impact of migration is their acceptance of various neoliberal discourses, which are further reinforced through their experiences upon return to the hinterlands. As returnees, these women have attained autonomy and self-confidence, and are admired for their superior value or “quality.” Yet they are also susceptible to greater frustrations, as traditional patriarchal values clash with, or neatly dovetail with, ascending neoliberal values, causing disconnect between their expectations of autonomy and their reality of oppression, whether as workers or women. These tensions play out in various arenas and for specific individuals in unpredictable ways, and are exemplified in the strike led by returnee women, into whose drama Han was unwittingly drawn. When these tensions manifest in marital relations and household divisions of labor, many women opt to spend more time at work, where they find personal space and friendship among other returnee women workers, commuting home just once weekly. Ultimately Han concludes, “returnee migrant women are neither liberated subjects nor simply victims of the era” (p. 212).

Also included in the dissertation is an extensive appendix that contains the demographic particulars of the 22 interviewed returnee women, the transcribed life histories of 3 of them, and various documents to verify the factory work conditions.

Han’s articulate and tightly argued thesis, forged in rigorous and fresh research, will appeal to the scholarly audience interested in social change in contemporary China as well as those whose study global gender, migration, and development issues.

Arianne Gaetano
Assistant Professor of Anthropology & Women’s Studies
Auburn University

Primary Sources

Interviews with informants
Focus groups
Participant observations

Dissertation Information

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 2014. 277 pp. Primary Advisors: Anita Koo and James Lee.

Image: Returnee Migrant Woman, Sister Hong, the initiator of a garment workshop in TW Township, YT city. Photograph by Author.

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