The Chinese Exodus (Li Ma) - A review


THE CHINESE EXODUS: Migration, Urbanism, and Alienation in Contemporary China. By Li Ma. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018. X + 138 pages.


                As I write this review, the United States is in the midst of a major debate over migration/immigration. It is also engaged in a trade war with China putting China at the center of many conversations in the USA. Regarding the immigration debate, a lot of attention is being placed on building a wall at the southern border to prevent persons from south of the border to immigrate. “Build the Wall” has become a rallying cry for anti-immigration groups and the President of the United States. They are being opposed by groups pushing for more humane immigration policies, even as American business's advocate for immigration reform so they may might have access to the workers they need (both skilled and unskilled). The debate seems intractable, as both sides dig in. It's in this context that I read with great interest Li Ma's book about migration issues within China in her book The Chinese Exodus. 

The author of The Chinese Exodus, Li Ma, is the senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell University. Thus, she comes to the issues from the perspective of a sociologist informed by a Christian view of the world. As a sociologist, she draws upon Max Weber, but most importantly, she draws upon her own research and work in China, working among rural migrants who have come to the city looking for work, but who remain trapped in poverty. In her theological reflections, she draws especially from Miroslav Volf and JΓΌrgen Moltmann, but most importantly from St. Augustine's City of God. 

The book’s subtitle serves as a guide to what we will read in this relatively brief, but enlightening book. That subtitle reads: "Migration, Urbanism, and Alienation in Contemporary China." This is a book of sociology focused on the effects of migration on China’s increasing urbanized nation, and the sense of alienation it creates both in the urban centers and the rural areas from whence most of the migrants are coming. While it is a sociological analysis, it is tempered by the author’s theological vision. Part of the questions she addresses concerns the future of Christianity in China. Theology is also drawn into the question about alienation, that migrants are experiencing as they try to navigate life in the city. The migrants largely come from the rural peasantry, which is being drawn into the web of the city, but this is not without cost to the rural communities.

I am not an expert on China and its socio-cultural situation. Yet, as the author, Li Ma, reminds me, I participate in its situation due to my participation in the global system that both sustains jobs and creates a context in which people get exploited and ultimately alienated from God, themselves, and from each other. By the end of the book, I felt as if I had been drawn into a story of alienation, while given the possibility of experiencing a hope that isn’t being fully realized at this point in time. 

The situation in China results from a combination of economic liberalization, globalization, communist totalitarianism, and traditional policies like the "Hukuo system." This system operates something like a caste system that has the effect of preventing people from moving out of their predefined places in society. In the past, it was almost impossible to move from rural areas to the city, but that has changed. What has not changed are the limits placed by the social-cultural system on moving out of one's given station in life. These forces are compounded by the migration to the burgeoning cities, so that where in 1985 only 20% of China's population lived in the cities, now it is 50%. Often those who remain in the rural areas are the aged and children. Adult men and women move to the cities, hoping to gain income to return home and maybe farm. That doesn't always work, but it drains the rural areas and creates significant problems in the city. As for work, women often work in factories and men in construction. Unfortunately, they work for minimal wages, and often do not get paid. 

Although China is officially a socialist nation, which in theory holds out the promise of economic equality among the people. However, China's population does not experience equality. There is great economic disparity present in China. These realities are explored in chapter two, titled "The Regime and the Underclass," which sets the foundation for what comes afterward. In Chapter three, the author speaks of the connection between urbanism and alienation. There exists a sense of rootlessness that is related to unemployment, social status, and lack of opportunity. In her theological reflection, she speaks of the dehumanizing nature of urbanism, which includes the effects of consumerism, globalism, and the dehumanizing nature of much of the work engaged in. This is accompanied by a loss of community, the subject of chapter four. Here it is the loss of community as experienced in rural villages (you might say where everyone knows your name) to the anonymity of the city. This is compounded by the fact that rural migrants are often treated as if they are foreign workers (think of undocumented workers in the United States). The realities of migration included the breakdown of the family. Theologically, this has led to a threat to one's experience of being created in the image of God—living in community. As she notes, "Human beings are born with the need for connection, solidarity, and interdependence." (p. 95). This is being lost --the question she raises regards how the church can minister in this context. Chapter five is titled "Good Samaritans," and the focus here is on efforts to ameliorate the dehumanizing experiences faced by the migrant workers, many of whom suffer from serious illnesses due to the work they engage in. Theologically, the question is— "how to do good in the midst of social evil." There are significant challenges to do what is good. But it's not impossible–and includes Christian hospitality to the stranger as a means of restoring human dignity. 

The situation for rural migrants in China is dire. They experience economic and social deprivation. They experience significant challenges from traditional cultural expectations, the government, and globalization. For rural peasants as well as rural migrants educational opportunities are limited. Many of the jobs they are drawn to are dangerous to health and life. A quote from Machiavelli opens the conclusion: "The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power. And the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power." (p. 115). This is the case here. The rural migrants have little control over society. So, is there hope for the city? Part of the answer requires the church to recognize that justice matters. She couches this in a recognition that this is a spiritual battle against global Babels.

This is an intriguing book. It is accessible, so even if one doesn't know much about China and its situation, you can stay with the conversation. She brings sociology into conversation with theology rather adroitly. She offers this as an invitation to Christians in China (most of whom will never read the book) and those of us in the English-speaking world, who might have an awakening as to our own complicity in this situation, to consider anew the challenges faced by Chinese Christians. Thus, LI Ma's The Chinse Exodus is a very helpful look at important issues of our day that often get overlooked.  

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