Dissertation Abstracts

When Migrant Women Workers Return Home: Their Lived Experiences in Fast Growing China's Hinterland

Author: Han, Yuchen , hancindy78@gmail.com
Department: Department of Applied Social Sciences
University: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Supervisor: Anita Koo
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: returnee women migrant workers , neoliberal discourses , hegemony , women's liberation
Areas of Research: Migration , Social Transformations and Sociology of Development , Women in Society


Rural-urban migrant women workers are pillars of the "world factory" and chief contributors to GDP growth in post-reform China. For numerous reasons, however, they return to their places of origin after extended periods in coastal urban centers. By interconnecting returnee women with the relocation of industries, capital, and institutional discourses, this study examines migration's impact on the lived experience of migrant factory women upon their return to the fast-growing hinterland.

A feminist extended case method is adopted as the research methodology so as to combine structural Marxist theoretical discussion with post-structural analysis. Participatory methods involving both top-down and bottom-up approaches were adopted for data collection during the five-month ethnographic fieldwork in the district, township, and village levels of YT city.

By probing into returnee migrant women's lived experience upon return in regards to production, consumption, and familial kinships, I find that neoliberal discourse is the key impact of migration experience. Returnee women articulate neoliberal characters in several ways. First, they are efficiency-centered and self-disciplined so that the local government labels them as a "selling point" in order to bring in coastal factories in an effort to boost the local economy. Second, returnee women subjectively enjoy the sense of superiority that results from their higher market competitiveness and higher suzhi. Third, they are more motivated and capable in engaging in certain forms of resistance such as striking and petitioning, but their resistance is more intertwined with hesitation because they consent more to the factory production regime. Fourth, returnee women are more conscious and capable in entrepreneurship and investment, such as in initiating small-scale production workshops and investing in housing. Fifth, they are more entangled with the value of market exchange. They even practice this value in building kinship relationships. Specifically, they increase their value in the marital market by enhancing their femininity via body-related consumption.

This research contends that returnee women's prevailing and discursive neoliberal qualities originate not only from their extended migration experience, but also from the neoliberalizing hinterland. The women are not the avant-garde introducing neoliberal discourses to their homeland, but more the catalyst in neoliberal discourses becoming hegemonic in the Gramscian sense. During this process, their own subjectification under hegemony is reinforced by both incentive consent, due to their "exemplar effects" in various life aspects, and coercive force from the collusion of local government and the imported factories. However, at the same time, their negative subjective experience upon return also sheds light on their penetration of the hegemony of neoliberal discourses. Their actions challenge this hegemony. On the one hand, most of their challenging attempts can be defined as reproducing the hegemony, because their strategies, logics, and targets are largely based in neoliberal discourse. On the other hand, they also gain consciousness and power from the neoliberal discourses.

Further, in terms of women's liberation, I argue that returnee migrant women are neither liberated subjects nor simply victims of the era. While in some sense they gain more autonomy, they experience more frustration with the female role when neoliberal values contradict traditional patriarchal values. However, this also provides opportunities for these women to seek personal space by balancing the two values. In many cases, under the collusion of neoliberal and traditional values, they are more depressed by the reinforced patriarchal power due to their higher suzhi. However, this intertwined situation also provides opportunities for these women to penetrate and challenge the patriarchy and the hegemony of neoliberal discourses.

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