The base: From peasant revolution to labour migration management

By: Biao Xiang, Professor in Social Anthropology

Mao assured his comrades in 1930 that the Chinese socialist revolution would succeed when the red army encountered unprecedented difficulties. The sure victory was not because the revolutionary force was strong and the enemy was weak. On the contrary, it was because the enemies were multiple: the Nationalist government aimed to eradicate warlords, while the warlords were fighting each other; and their foreign imperialist supporters were vying for dominance in China, which in turn was part of ongoing global conflicts. The multiplicity of advisories created power vacuums, especially in remote areas.

In these circumstances, Mao urged, revolutionaries should seize the pockets that arose in gaps between areas of control, develop ‘base communities’ and extend them steadily.[1] In the base, the revolutionaries carried out military training, social reforms and foodstuff production at the same time. Rooted in the soil and mingled with the peasants, the base was self-sustaining, all-round and ‘organic’ (which Al-Qaeda, literally ‘the base’, was lacking). In the base, soldiers were peasants and peasants became soldiers; the embryo of a new Chinese state was born.

Opposite to this type are the military bases pioneered by European colonialists and continued and expanded by the US. The over 1,000 bases run by the US government are distributed across the globe in a such a way that a missile can hit a strategic target within seconds and an aircraft carrier can reach a strategic area within hours.

The bases are separated from the local society but completely reliant on the outside for survival. They perform strictly defined tasks and are deeply connected to other bases globally via the Pentagon. This local disembeddedness and global connectedness made the base a central instrument in maintaining US global dominance without formally infringing sovereignty of other nations—thus a form of ‘new imperialism’ different from European colonialism, which was based on territorial occupation. The US as a global power is the US as ‘an empire of bases’.[2]

The type of base most familiar to us today is probably the production base of multinational corporations (MNCs). Often assuming the form of special economic zones in the developing world, the MNC bases are not deeply embedded, nor are they entirely imposed from above. They are firmly inside the local society, but at the same time operate outside of the purview of the nation-state in terms of how the production is managed, where  investments come from, and where the products go. They ‘jump’ out of the national space. These bases exemplify how globalization consists of processes of ‘scale jumping’ and ‘re-scaling’.[3]

Mao’s base was part of the revolutionary first half of the twentieth century, the US base had its heyday in the Cold War, and the MNC base arguably epitomizes the ‘pluri-territorial, polycentric and multi-scalar geographies’ of globalization.[4]

It is against this historical backdrop that I find a little-known base type interesting. This is the base of recruitment for low-skilled labour migration from China, especially to Japan, Singapore and South Korea, the top three destination countries. In the labour placement intermediary business, jidi (Chinese for ‘base’) means both a place (normally a county) and an intermediary. The base intermediary recruits workers in the base place for companies which receive job orders from overseas. The latter are called ‘window companies’—’windows’ to the world. Most windows follow the ‘one base place, one base intermediary’ principle.

The Chinese government attaches great emphasis on the development of labour bases as a means of regulating and promoting migration. In 2010 the government launched the campaign of ‘upgrading labour bases to Service Platforms’ aimed at making the bases better equipped as well as more effectively controlled. By the end of 2014, 257 Service Platforms had been formally established nationwide.[5]

Why is the base important? And why don’t the windows recruit workers themselves? The main function of the base is not to encourage migration per se, but to discouragespontaneous migration. It was feared that spontaneous migration and the resultant transnational networks would challenge government control in both China and destination countries. The base rules out applicants who have previous migration experience or  overseas relations, because these migrants could be more resourceful and daring. Bases also demand sureties—amounting to about USD 2,500 for Singapore and Japan, and USD 3,750 for South Korea in the late 2000s—which are refunded only after the migrants return to China without delay and without violating any rules.

The base’s position was greatly enhanced in the late 1990s with an important change in the disciplinary method. In a shift that may be described as ‘societalization’, migrants’ financial interests became a less important leverage, while more emphasis was given to social pressure. Thanks to the tightening of regulation by the Chinese government and criticism from the international community, large base intermediaries somewhat reduced monetary bonds, but made it compulsory for would-be migrants to name one or two civil servants as guarantors. The guarantors would be held financially accountable to the base for any wrongdoings the migrant might commit overseas. Civil servants are usually the most influential figures in an extended family, and pressure from them is more powerful in ensuring compliant behaviour than the threat of financial loss. Some civil servants have even been fired under order from county governments keen to protect the credibility of the locality as a base. Another method is lianzuo, or ‘linked seats’, an invention of Emperor Qin around 200 B.C. Intermediaries group migrants who may previously not know each other to form teams of collective punishment. If one misbehaves overseas, everyone would be punished, in particular by having their job contracts prematurely terminated, resulting in repatriation. In order to enforce the guarantorship and ‘linked seats’, connections to local governments, grassroots organizations (such as villagers’ committees) and migrants’ families are essential.

Thus, a base is not simply a given place or a physical space. A base matters because it consists of tight clusters of heterogeneous institutions, including government agencies, public institutes and commercial players. The clustering enables close coordination not only across the public-private divide, but also transcending rigid bureaucratic demarcations. These connections offer base intermediaries both public trust and coercive power, capacities indispensable for both recruiting and disciplining would-be migrants. Base constitutes a scale in its own right in the sense that it is a scope of coordination that generates new capacities for action.

Constituted from below rather than created by top-down commands, the labour base is obviously different from the military base. But unlike the MNC production base, the labour base is ‘stuck’.  Not only can it not upscale itself out of the local and the national, but it is its duty to be stuck—to contain the migrants’ capacity. The contrast between the labour base and the communist base is most striking. While the revolutionary base directly represented the people and therefore served as a basis for subverting the state, in the labour base migrants can rarely leverage their own networks to keep intermediaries in check. Local communities are now thoroughly colonialized by systemic power. Transnational mobilities have been domesticated into the institutional architecture of the nation-state, and in turn transnational connections reinforce state power.

Would-be migrants’ strategies are two-fold. Most of the time they work with base intermediaries. But if a major problem occurs, especially if their advance payment cannot be refunded when a migration project fails, the would-be migrants blame the local government as a whole. If the local government does not respond swiftly, some would-be migrants petition the central state for political interventions. Thus, while the base is stuck, migrants’ politics can ‘burst out’.[6] The sophistication in the administrative containment of transnational mobility makes grassroots politics more ‘jumpy’. It is hard to provide a definite assessment, on either ethical or efficiency grounds, about the base itself, but research may harness the efficacy of  jumpy politics by providing accurate analyses and useful languages.

[1] Mao, Zedong. 1930. ‘A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire‘, last accessed on 01 August 2015.

[2] Chalmers Johnson, one of the most important American public intellectuals of the twentieth century, has developed the notions of ‘new imperialism’ and ‘empire of bases’ in various publications, for an example, see ‘America’s Empire of Bases‘, January 2004, Global Policy Forum. For a latest estimate about the number of US military bases, see Nick Turse, ‘America’s Empire of Bases 2.0′. The Nation, 10 January 2011; both last accessed on 01 August 2015.

[3] There is a enormous literature in human geography that analyses globalization as processes of rescaling. For examples, see Neil Smith. 2002, ‘Remaking scale: competition and cooperation in prenational and postnational Europe’, pp. 227-238 in State/Space: A Reader, eds. Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jones, and Gordon MacLeod. Oxford: Blackwell. Erik Swyngedouw. 1996. Reconstructing citizenship, the re-scaling of the state and the new authoritarianism: Closing the Belgian mine’. Urban Studies 33(8): 1499-1521.

[4] Neil Brenner. 1999. ‘Beyond state-centrism? Space, territoriality, and geographical scale in globalization studies’. Theory and Society 28(1): 39-78. P. 69

[5] Wen Yue. 2015. ’2014 nian zhongguo duiwai laowu hzuo fazhan shuping’ [Summaries and comments on China’s international labor service for 2014]. Guoji Gongchen yu Laowu. [International Project Contracting and Labour Service]. Issue 3: 42-46.

[6] For a detailed account about such a case, see Biao Xiang. ‘You’ve got to rely on yourself…and the state!’ A structural chasm in the Chinese political morality. In Ghost Protocol: Contemporary China and Its Global Footprint. Carols Rojas and Ralph Litzinger eds. Duke University Press. forthcoming.

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