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Talking About Gender, Globalization and Labor in a Chinese Context
Huang Ping        2012-11-10

If a trend toward globalization really exists we need to ask whether this process is inclusive or exclusive.  Does it include anyone other than the tiny elite of social, cultural, religious leaders who can afford to enjoy a conference in Tokyo in the morning, banquet in Rome that evening and then a hop on over to Paris for an after-dinner opera?


Were labor to be globalized, too, would "globalization" sound so attractive then? 


Everybody is talking "globalization" these days (forgetting the years before 1980s when only people considered "radical" or hostile to the existing nation-state system mentioned the term).  Does the term refer to the direction initiated centuries back in Europe and North American and later generalized as the "historical processes" of urbanization, industrialization; or later, in reference to other places still, as "Westernization," or Americanization, and following the Cold War as marketization and privatization?  Or is this globalization a whole new event/phenomenon in which capital, technology as well  the culture of consumerism is actually undergoing transnationalization?


I have been doing field work in rural China for the last ten years.  My experience suggests that there are important questions to be asked:  does rising cash income really mean rising benefits or do people just have to work harder and longer, to pay more for their economic and social activities, to sacrifice their environmental well-being, to pay out increased cash for their own medical care (which turns out IN SOME CASES to cost far more than the increase in their income)?  Are these changes setting farmers and herdsmen/women against their neighbors?  Are locals learning to treat strangers and migrants as "potential criminals" given the tens of millions of people floating from region to region seeking remunerative labor? Are families using axes of gender inequality when calculating accumulation strategies?  How is the sex ratio and intra-national RURAL-TO-URBAN population flow affecting marriage choices for ambitious rural young women?  If we limited ourselves to statistics provided by governments, United Nations agencies and other "international" (in many cases transnational) organizations, we might get the impression that increasing GDP or per capita income is giving people today a much better life in many, if not all "globalized" countries.  This impression is a consequence of the belief that credit and loans from "international" organizations have brought people in "developing" countries into contact with benefits in the form of cash income, skill training, capacity building, enhanced political participation and so on.  All this may be correct.  But if we push a little further we have to ask questions like:  is it true that quality of life is improved when "people" earn more cash?


Chinas leadership elite -- academics, entrepreneurs, and some officials --  is entranced with globalization as ideology and reality.  In the main they are most ardent about the economic reality, i.e., transnational flow of capital and technology.   Precious little consideration has been given to the fact that in such a globalizing world system only a tiny gap is left open to labor in general.  Globalization ideology actually gives little consideration to labor from "developing countries" (and from a Chinese perspective) even less attention to labor from the poorer areas within the "developing countries" themselves (unless you count the wretched and unsafe shelters for so-called boat people, undocumented or intra-national laborers and illegal migrants abroad).


In rural China, due partly to the administrative reforms and in part to rapid economic development the amount of rural labor seeking jobs in coastal or urban areas since the mid-nineteen eighties has mushroomed.  In A FIELD study that Elizabeth Croll, some of my Chinese colleagues and I did in the mid-nineties it seems clear that family strategies favor the transmigration of men into cash producing, non-agricultural labor and the retention of middle-aged women, wives with children and the elderly of both sexes in the village based agricultural sector.  But the intersection of "globalization" processes and the de facto government policy of feminizing the agriculture sector leads me to emphasize the generational over the gender difference in thinking about causes of poverty and labor.  The fact that young people of both sexes are termed "surplus labor" yet are prevented from settling in the cities, rural to urban "migration" (i.e., mobile or temporary job-seeking) has turned out to  be perhaps the heart of China's current social transformation.  Much attention has accrued to this issue, though largely from the point of view of urban residing policy makers and researchers who have paid most attention to the dangers the so-called floating population presents to "social order,"  than the benefits they contribute to cities.  For it has been precisely those "surplus" boys and to some extent girls from rural China who have provided the major labor force fueling the urban development (i.e. construction work) of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and so on.  Also, the role of very young factory girls in labor intensive, short term, export manufacturing industries in Shenzhen and other SEZs is well known. 


Mobile laborers such as these enjoy very little in terms of welfare and social security which urban residents take for granted.  When in recent years  the economy has slowed young workers have either been driven back to their home counties, (though not necessarily back into agricultural production) or have turned to even more insecure, badly paid short-term jobs; and some young women have shifted themselves from factory  production into the "service sector" where they are then absorbed into the "entertainment" industry.  In the absence of young laborers, and when the arable land is still very limited in terms of per capita units, villagers have only older, less able, less energetic laborers available and these remaining hands must struggle under the double burden of field and domestic labor, a fact that is  accelerating socio-economic decline in rural areas.  This leads to a further consequence.  For now it is even more than what was arguably genuine surplus labor that is beginning to seek off-farm work in towns and small cities.


Embracing the chimera of "globalization" process has had many of these largely unexamined consequences.  Let us use a hypothetical instance. In some of the communities where I have worked outside experts and government officials are arbitrarily setting the poverty line (lets say for arguments


sake) at one dollar per day.  These outsiders, working very hard and being very responsible, still have no idea that to achieve this "minimum" goal laborers remaining in the villages (many of them women with children) would have to work even harder, only in the end to confront seriously polluted air and water, massive land erosion and general environmental degradation.  It is costing them more to stay healthy in an increasingly hazardous social and physical environment.  In another good example of unanticipated fall out from the "globalization" processes, people now living in what have become areas hazardous to human habitation require not just that the Chinese nation-state grant them permission to resettle elsewhere, but permission must be obtained as well from the very international organizations and investors who had set the artificial development levels in the first place.  Is it not ironic that in the midst of so-called "globalization" the poor are not legally permitted to move as either temporary job seekers or even seasonal migrants harvesting cash crops, to say nothing of removing to safe, unpolluted farms?


Not every piece of this puzzle is the direct result of globalization processes.  Still, in the last years many observers are beginning to see that the state authorities and the corporate investors are in fact responsible for the huge labor redundancy.  They on their part are attributing this fallout to the "normal," necessary and classical capitalist processes and so prefer to employ "normal" ways of handling labor and capital.  Critics of the process have not fully recognized that "globalization" of capital and technology, while affording greater cultural capital (language, electronic media, social skills, etc.) to the minority, will, at the end of the day simply eliminate however much labor it can.  The question of social welfare and social security, it turns out, is not exclusively a question for social democrats in "welfare states."  In the end -- male and female, employed and unemployed, aged, skilled and unskilled every one of us will be confronted with this problem.  So let me restate my question:  if globalization were to truly work at the level of labor itself would it sound so attractive to us then