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The Age of Migration

By Xinyuan Wang, on 13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.

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