The Specter of “the People”

The Specter of “the People”: Urban Poverty in Northeast China

Mun Young Cho
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1xx55b
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  • Book Info
    The Specter of “the People”
    Book Description:

    Despite massive changes to its economic policies, China continues to define itself as socialist; since 1949 and into the present, the Maoist slogan "Serve the People" has been a central point of moral and political orientation. Yet several decades of market-based reforms have resulted in high urban unemployment, transforming the proletariat vanguard into a new urban poor. How do unemployed workers come to terms with their split status, economically marginalized but still rhetorically central to the way China claims to understand itself? How does a state dedicated to serving "the people" manage the poverty of its citizens? Mun Young Cho addresses these questions in a book based on more than two years of fieldwork in a decaying residential area of Harbin in the northeast province of Heilongjiang.

    Cho analyzes the different experiences of poverty among laid-off urban workers and recent rural-to-urban migrants, two groups that share a common economic duress in China's Rustbelt cities but who rarely unite as one class owed protection by the state. Impoverished workers, she shows, seek protection and recognition by making claims about "the people" and what they deserve. They redeploy the very language that the party-state had once used to venerate them, although their claim often contradicts government directives regarding how "the people" should be reborn as self-managing subjects. The slogan "serve the people" is no longer a promise of the party-state but rather a demand made by the unemployed and the poor.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6743-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    It was July 2008. The Beijing Olympics were just ahead. In Harbin, a city in northeast China more than 750 miles from Beijing, no Olympic events were taking place. Nevertheless, the Olympic Games were at the core of everyday conversation in Hadong, one of the city’s peripheral shantytowns. People were thrilled, agitated, irritated, and worried about the largest and most extravagant event in the modern history of the country.

    As the Olympics drew near, the tone in which street office director Li Yuming spoke to local cadres grew more somber. In a weekly street office assembly (jiedao banshichu) he announced:...

  6. Chapter 1 In Search of “the People”
    (pp. 21-45)

    On the morning of August 14, 2006, I headed to Hadong with a friend from the Harbin Institute of Technology. He and I got off the bus at Taiping Bridge and transferred to another bus to Hadong. As the bus reached a bridge across the Harbin East Railway, nothing could be seen for all the dust. Our bus was barely able to cross the bridge and then could not budge another inch. Trucks loaded with junk, buses headed toward nearby rural villages, and donkey carts with odds and ends of food were chaotically entangled. No traffic police could be seen....

  7. Chapter 2 Gambling on a New Home
    (pp. 46-67)

    One day in July 2007, fifty-four-year-old Chen Yuhua suggested that I visit a model home for a new apartment complex near Hadong. To help stabilize its financial situation, a nearby state-owned farm had decided to put up six of these apartment buildings in cooperation with a private real estate company. Located on the outskirts of the city, the new apartments had a purchase price of 2,400 yuan per square meter, which seemed reasonable compared to housing prices in downtown Harbin. Although this apartment complex targeted middle- and low-incomes buyers, it was named Elegance Life Garden. “Garden” (yuan) is a word...

  8. Chapter 3 On the Border between “the People” and “the Population”
    (pp. 68-92)

    The Guangming street office(jiedao banshichu)in Hadong holds a meeting every Monday. Primary officials in the street office as well as local cadres from eleven Communities(shequ)under the authority of the office participate in the event. The meeting is the final destination, the place where any instructions from the central government reach the street level of administration, having passed through each level of government in the province, the city, and the district of the city. On the last Monday in October 2006, the main purpose of the meeting was to prepare for an upcoming inspection from the District...

  9. Chapter 4 The Will to Survive
    (pp. 93-119)

    Mountains of refuse and waste are among the most troublesome problems in Hadong. Without drainpipes, residents usually throw the filthy water used for washing and cooking, in addition to urine and all kinds of solid waste, outside their houses. Although every street has a few small containers for wastewater and one large dustbin for solid waste, not all residents use them; it is not easy to haul garbage to a dustbin several blocks from their houses when temperatures fall below zero. In addition, the dustbin is usually jammed full because disposal trucks rarely visit this neighborhood on the urban periphery,...

  10. Chapter 5 Inclusive Exclusion
    (pp. 120-143)

    One evening in October 2006 I was preparing dinner with Sun Yufen, a forty-five-year old migrant woman, who had returned home after collecting plastic bottles. Sun Yuming, her thirty-five-year-old brother, and his two younger buddies stopped by her house to get some cigarettes on their way to work. They were going to sell used tires, which they collected in the nearby countryside. Seeing a foreigner for the first time in their lives, Sun Yuming’s friends did not conceal their curiosity about me. They wanted to know how I, a foreign student, had come to this peripheral shantytown and made friends...

  11. Chapter 6 Dividing the Poor
    (pp. 144-166)

    One early December morning in 2006 I was readingLife Daily(Shenghuo bao), one of the major newspapers in Harbin. An article on the front page immediately caught my eye because it reported a dispute that occurred in Hadong. According to the article, the conflict arose when a rural migrant, Mrs. Hu, refused to pay the security fee to Community cadres. The reporter writes: “Mrs. Hu thought it was illegal for Community cadres to collect the security fee in place of the police. . . . A severe dispute then transpired between Mrs. Hu and two female Community cadres [Li...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 167-172)

    In April 2007, at the height of my fieldwork, I was asked to give a talk in a student forum at the Harbin Institute of Technology, where I served as a research fellow. I decided to introduce students to anthropology, which was a field unfamiliar to many of them. Titling my talk “Seeing Like an Anthropologist,” and using my fieldwork in Hadong as an example, I demonstrated how anthropological perspectives help us to rethink many unwarranted assumptions about the poor and their “dependency.”

    The scale of the forum was much larger than I had anticipated. More than two hundred students...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 173-186)
  14. References
    (pp. 187-202)
  15. Index
    (pp. 203-208)