2015年1月12日星期一

The City's Reliance on the Village

This blogpost will explore the relationship between the city and the village by first examining the everlasting material effects of caste in India. Then it will introduce the similarities of India's city with China's city: both countries' urbanization relies on the village and even subordinates the village to the city. Finally it will introduce some attempts to address this issue in China.

Does caste exist only as a religious category? Historical studies on India show that caste is a result of material institutional arrangements as well. Castes should not just be understood as the most commonly cited four varnas in popular explanation but also exist as jatis (job categories). Orientalists have proposed that caste only exists as religious and thus static; but it also constantly adapting as some jobs appear and while other jobs disappear. But to what extent does caste change with the time? Certain proponents of liberal modernization theories think that caste will only be practiced in a “backward village” and cities have successfully become caste blind. (Similar problems can be pointed about the "post-racial" American society so many people believe, but that is for another blogpost.) To quote Prof. Viswanath, "Most factories in India have divisions of labor. Every factory in India a particular caste is limited to particular kinds of work. The most dangerous and filthy work is usually relegated to Dalits." In the similar vein, scholars have suggested that industries cannot rely on stable labor supply due to the migrant workers attachment to rural lifestyle and their traditional culture. According to these scholars, India has the lowest speed of industrialization for this reason. 
But unlike what some modernization theorists expect, industrialization has not erased caste. Caste and religious practices have taken up new forms and adapted to post-colonial institutions. The importance of labor history in understanding rural urban links is crucial. One of the readings have mentioned the historian Raj Chandavarkar. He studied Bombay textile workers in the period of 1900-1940 and is known for conducting research at the workers’ neighborhood rather than just the workplace. He noticed that the ties with the village is not just cultural, but also rooted in economic necessity. Dr. Chandavarkar linked business strategies with instability of workforce: Businesses keep wages low by outsourcing the healthcare and retirement costs to the village. Tasks of reproduction are also transferred to the village. Thus only young men become migrant workers and contribute to the household without keeping the household. (The danger with comparing also could produce ahistorical misunderstandings. One Chinese scholar once pointed to the lack of women joining the workforce in India as India’s disadvantage in competing with China. He may have been unaware of that this was implicit in the patriarchal development logic of India’s capitalist accumulation.Once they grow sick or old, they become social burdens and would be levied to the village, while supplemented with additional income from the city. Workers who have strong village ties can sustain the strike whereas workers who cannot return to the village cannot hold out during a strike. The worker's link with the countryside is not broken for pragmatic reasons. In light of these discoveries, the cultural explanation does not suffice to explain India's low industrialization speed. 


A cow herder possibly from the Yadav caste guides the cows across a road that connects Rishikesh with Dehradun, 2014
Although Dr. Chandavarkar studied Bombay workers in the 1900-1940, this theory is extremely relevant for China's migrant workers who are not protected by the same rights as urban citizens. Compared to many factories in India that have a long tradition of casual labor force, Chinese migrant workers are more stabilized and often live in community housing. Yet the hukou system formally discriminates against migrant workers and many do not have adequate access to resources other than the bare necessities. Chinese migrant workers thus also drift between the rural and the urban for both cultural and economic reasons. Migrant workers often work as couples, and once they have children they also rely on the child's grandparents to raise their children in the village. Their children cannot become legal residents of the city and have access to the city's public education. I am not very familiar with the land policies, but similar to India, many Chinese migrant workers return to the alternative option by becoming a peasant. As the economic advantages of the city decreases, some choose to return. However, recently there have been massive buyouts of rural land in regions surrounding Chinese cities. Even though the situation is different for migrant workers from different areas, some migrant workers are distressed with the cut off of options once they sell their land. This year, the Chinese state has tried to address this by expanding unemployment benefits to lure migrants to cities--
This would help migrant workers, who lack urban hukou, and are cut off, along with their families, from access to education and social welfare outside their home villages. Lack of a local registration should no longer be used as a basis for denying unemployment benefits, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said, according to a government website. Local governments must also provide free career counseling and job-seeking services, and subsidize career development and skill-building, it added.

But the effects of these policies are yet to be observed. The outsourcing relationship between the city and the village exists in both China and India, often by subordinating the village's interests for industrial needs. But China's subordination is perhaps more severe than India's case, since China has urbanized at a much rapid pace and much larger extent than India. The Party’s danwei system allowed for mobilization of people beyond their original hometowns and severing of rural relations.
Since the Open and Reform policies prioritized Chinese cities, much has been said about the assumed inferiority of Chinese villages and the existential crises of people with village roots. For example, Liang Hong's books on Liang Zhuang document her alienation from her ancestral village. There have been efforts that address these issues. Chinese intellectuals and activists, like Ou Ning and Chang Kun, also link both the cultural and economic needs of the countryside. By fostering book stores, public interest internet cafes, and activity centers, activists pay attention to cultural activities. At the same time, they also notice that the lack of culture is linked with the monopolization of economic resources in the city. Ou Ning has tried to think about alternative methods that are not necessarily out-right commercialization and reification of the village culture through tourism. For more about this subject, I will have to watch his new documentary first. 


Rice field in rural Rishikesh, 2014