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Book Review: Beneath the China Boom

Book review of Julia Chuang's (2020) Beneath the China Boom: Labor, Citizenship, and the Making of a Rural Land Market.

Published onAug 04, 2022
Book Review: Beneath the China Boom
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Beneath the China Boom: Labor, Citizenship, and the Making of a Rural Land Market by Julia Chuang (2020). Oakland, CA: University of California Press

During my first trip to China nearly 45 years ago, I remember standing on The Bund in Shanghai and looking across the Huangpu River at the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a Soviet-style spire that, at the time, stood alone in a sea of paddy. Today, the Pudong district is a sea of skyscrapers. Shanghai’s urban landscape has changed dramatically over time, along with that of China’s other urban regions, where even third- and fourth-tier cities have sprouted skyscrapers and high rises. Much has changed in the world over the last fifty years, but in China even more so. The scale of China’s recent transformation evokes Napoleon’s famous quotation: “let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Today, China has 105 cities with a population over one million; the United States, just nine. China’s explosive growth is attributed to a volatile mix of cheap land and labor, and the huge export earnings from Chinese manufactures. 

The actual details of this development story are told by Julia Chuang in her book Beneath the China Boom: Labor, Citizenship, and the Making of a Rural Land Market. She asks the basic question, “how was China able to sustain its low-cost production for so long?” (p. 5). Based primarily on fieldwork in two rural villages in the Province of Sichuan, Chuang’s study examines China’s cheap land and labor markets and identifies a combination of contributing factors, including the household registry (hukou) system, state ownership of land, the entrepreneurialism of labor brokers, agriculturally subsidized wage labor, and a highly speculative real estate market. She argues that China’s urban dynamism is directly related to its rural stagnation. Additionally, she discusses the subsequent shift in economic policy to try to correct the wealth disparities between the coast and hinterland, one that apparently falls short. 

Chuang chronicles two stages of the China boom. The first stage begins with China’s decollectivization and opening to the West in the 1980s, and the second stage follows the State Council’s implementation of its new urbanization plan in 2006, with the loosening up of the hukou system. The hukou system had been key to the success of the first stage of development as it prevented any official change of residence. People remained tied to their natal village throughout their lives. If they did migrate, they would be unable to register in a new location and thereby were denied any social, medical, and educational benefits. What was permissible was the temporary migration of mostly men who went off to work in the cities as construction or factory workers, while their wives remained home to farm and provide for basic subsistence needs. This subsistence helped keep wages low. 

Another important part of Chuang’s story is the labor brokers who made the migration possible. Brokers recruited kin and neighbors from their home villages and arranged for them to work in major urban areas across the country. Remarkably, because of the highly speculative nature of urban real-estate markets, construction workers were paid in one lump sum at the end of their one-year contract. According to Chuang, it was common, unfortunately, for workers not to be paid at all – especially if labor brokers and workers were not from the same region and had no previous relationship. Brokers advanced money for workers’ room and board at urban construction sites and loaned money to their families back home in the rural districts.   

While this first stage of China’s economic development has been well documented in the literature, Chuang’s contribution is documenting the second stage. The second stage saw the loosening of the hukou system, allowing residents to move from the countryside to nearby district capitals once they signed on the dotted line and relinquished their property rights for nominal compensation. Chuang calls this swap the “land-for-welfare trade” (p. 124). Unfortunately, the welfare piece was never fully guaranteed. In order to make the exchange, families needed to show some form of property ownership, employment, or business in the city where they wished to relocate. In most cases, families did not have sufficient savings to buy an apartment or start a new business in the city. Furthermore, jobs were not available because local economies were underdeveloped, as most able-bodied workers were helping to build wealth elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, because land is ultimately owned by the state, county governments could after three years expropriate land and evict families, forcing them to move and make ad hoc arrangements with city kin (if possible). Under this new urbanization plan, local government officials got the green light to urbanize. They earned fees transferring expropriated land to developers who then used the land as collateral for development loans from the banks. Money was to be made but, alas, not for those families at the bottom of the social ladder. Chuang relates a couple sad stories of suicide, which she blames on the structural loss of land security. In contrast, those higher up the ladder – brokers, developers, and party officials – would come to form a new urban upper class.      

Chuang’s book is a tour de force in revealing the complexities and interconnections of China’s economic boom, especially the more recent developments occurring in the country’s interior provinces. She does this in true ethnographic fashion by focusing on the real lives caught in global and regional economic machinations. She makes the case that compared to the history of Western proletarianization, Chinese labor was never completely alienated from the land and, therefore, not able to operate as free labor. These workers, thus, struggled to develop their own class-consciousness and organize for better working conditions. 

However, this dynamic appears to be changing under the government’s current urbanization plan. As a student of Taiwan’s economic history and rural industrialization in the second half of the 20th century, I do see a similar pattern of subcontracting and risk distribution, in which those with less power are willing to assume more risk in exchange for access to work and markets. Also, as an anthropologist of Chinese culture, I wonder to what extent this pattern is made possible by China’s cultural system of hierarchical reciprocity, commonly known as guanxi. Did it not lower significantly transaction costs and, as a result, help to make the boom possible? More importantly, does the guanxi system ultimately depress workers’ wages? Perhaps a subject of future research. Of course, what everyone wants to know is when the China boom will collapse, if at all. 

Whether or not there is a collapse, the people at the bottom and on the margins will bear the brunt of any economic downturn. These are the people Chuang has showcased and who all along have worked hard, in spite of everything. They remain resilient and, until recently, silent. Chuang concludes her book with a story of a farmer whose wife abandoned him for life in a coastal city. He remarries, but this time to an older widow who is not averse to hard agricultural work. It is myriad calculations like this one, Chuang is saying, that underlie the larger economic story that we fixate on. 

Author Bio

Ian Skoggard has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the City University of New York and a M.Div. from Yale University. He has worked as a research anthropologist at the Human Relations Area Files since 1996 and has published on Taiwan’s economic development and new religions, violent conflict in East Africa, agent-based modeling, anthropology of affect, resource stress and cooperation, American medical missionaries in China, and religious beliefs and coping mechanisms related to natural hazards.

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