Peasant Migrant Workers and Social Reproduction

Between Informal Wage Work and Smallholdings in Post-Mao China

Author: Thomas Jakobsen


Working class studies on China commonly use the lens of proletarianization to understand class formation among peasant-workers who move into cities to work in China's manufacturing sector. However, in the decade since the 2008 global financial crisis, proletarianization seems an increasingly fading possibility for the Chinese peasantry, as urban labor markets remain saturated. Instead of peasants being transformed into proletariats, new patterns of class formation have emerged, where the interconnections between agrarian and urban remains central to peasant-workers living without dispossession. The Marxist feminist centering of practices and social arrangements of social reproduction, i.e. workforce maintenance, provides a welcome point of departure for redrawing some of our class maps in the shadow of the 2008 global economic crisis. This contribution draws on multi-sited ethnographic research among migrant workers toiling in the petty-commodity workplaces of Kunming, and in the adjacent countryside of Yunnan Province, to document the fluid class formation among families living on labor’s frontier. Through examining different experiences of workforce reproduction for families and migrant laborers as they move in an out of the workforce and household self-provisioning for subsistence, alternative imaginations for the possibilities of subsistence autonomy emerge.

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