Entrapment by Consent: the Co-ethnic Brokerage System of Ethnic Yi Labor Migrants in China


Xinrong Ma

PhD defended at: 

Leiden University


Over the past thirty years, China has been witnessing the largest internal migration in the history of the world. Among the studies of sojourning labor migrants in China, ethnic minority labor migrants have been largely ignored. In most cases, the literature on issues of ethnic policies in China in concerned with “grand politics” (nationalities’ policies, Tibet, Xinjiang or regional autonomy). Studies on specific social issues within a given ethnic group are rather rare, especially if sensitive issues are involved. This Ph.D. thesis fills this research gap by focusing on ethnic Yi workers who migrate from the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Region in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province to the Pearl River Delta area of China. The situation of Yi labor migration that I investigate in this thesis is conceptualized as “entrapment by consent”, meaning that workers are not coerced by but compelled to rely on an exploitative and controlling co-ethnic brokerage system. This dissertation explores how and why an exploitative and controlling co-ethnic brokerage system is formed and sustained; and how class, ethnicity, and state policy intersect in producing the social inequality of Yi labor migrants through the co-ethnic brokerage system. During seven and a half months of fieldwork in both villages in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Region and factories in the Pearl River Delta area, I conducted in-depth interviews of Yi migrant workers, brokers, employers, and government officials, as well as participatory observation of workers’ lives in factories and collective resistance. Based on this fieldwork, this thesis shows the existence of a dualism within the employment figuration (between Yi workers and Yi brokers on the one hand, and Yi workers and employers on the other). In addition, beyond the issue of co-ethnic brokerage with its significant differences from brokerage among China’s ethnic majority (called ‘Han’), the thesis is concerned with issues of the factory regime, everyday forms of resistance, collective resistance, and the intersection of Yi labor migrants and the local state in a prosperous region far away from the less developed home area of Yi workers.
This thesis is organized in eight chapters. Chapter 1 is concerned with laying out the background, the frame of analysis and the methodology used. Chapter 2 describes the internal and external ascriptions of the Yi. It begins by elaborating the social structure of Yi society, constituted by factors such as clan identity, the Black-White Yi hierarchy, the spirit of public participation, and so on. It showed that “ethnic Yi” is not a homogenous category, as the Chinese government portrayed; instead, Yi society is constituted by its own characteristics. The illustration of these
characteristics of Yi society helps us gain a better understanding of the inherent logic of the co-ethnic brokerage system.
Chapter 3 depicts the emergence of the co-ethnic brokerage system among the Yi, its functions and its inner nature. Yi workers’ perception of the co-ethnic brokerage has been influenced, presumably, by their hierarchical social structure, including patriarchy, community values, and psychological affiliation with their clan and kinship group. Nevertheless, while social stratification in traditional Yi society is mainly determined by descent (Black Yi or White Yi), the new hierarchy in migrant-receiving cities transforms to fit the language of economic status: brokers and
workers. In this way, the co-ethnic brokerage system replicates, rather than abandoning, the traditional hierarchical system in Liangshan society, but it does so in economic terms.
Chapter 4 untangles the puzzle of the dependency of Yi workers on their co-ethnic brokers by tracing the exploitative and controlling co-ethnic brokerage system from both the perspective of Yi workers and brokers. Co-ethnic brokerage is a double-edged sword. One side of the sward is that it provides the essential support that the workers need to build their lives in cities, the flexibility of changing workplaces as well as the ethnic and kin networks in which they feel protected. The other side of the sword is that it is in many ways a villainous system that victimizes Yi
workers. It does not facilitate the socio-economic advancement of Yi workers; instead, it perpetuates their unenviable position, trapping them in a vicious circle by debt, and
in the tentacles of patriarchy.
Chapter 5 addresses in detail the issues of labor recruitment, the factory and dormitory regime, and everyday forms of resistance. In both the labour market and workplaces, Yi workers are frequently stereotyped and stigmatized by the dominant Han group, and their minority ethnicity has been blamed for their poor performances in workplaces. However, in an analysis of the interaction of Yi workers with Han managers in factories, this chapter finds that the low performance of Yi temporary workers is largely related to their low class status, being marginalized as poor and unskilled workers and lacking training in the labour market, rather than their ethnicity. The result is that ethnic Yi workers, especially young workers, use everyday forms of resistance, such as stoppage, absenteeism, slowing down, taking sick leave, and refusing to do overtime work, to express their discontent. Their social exclusion from the outside world makes them rearticulate their Yi identity more precisely than they once did, which reinforces the self-identification of Yi migrant workers in
migrant-receiving cities.
Chapter 6 is concerned with the question of collective resistance of Yi labor migrants in the co-ethnic brokerage system. It describes patterns of collective resistance as well as the role of Yi brokers in steering these processes as both instigators and appeasers. By exploring the different forms of collective resistance that Yi migrants workers engage in, this chapter shows that it is often the Yi brokers instead of workers who are decisive in organizing collective actions, or not organizing them, as the case may be. In some cases, the brokers were definitely a positive help to workers in demanding their labour rights by preventing arrears in wages and finding settlements to various disputes. In other cases, however, Yi brokers instigated disputes for their own economic benefit.
Chapter 7 demonstrates how the local state copes with ethnic Yi disputes on the one hand, and the means by which Yi labor migrants respond to the governance on the other hand. I find that underneath of the overarching purpose of maintaining stability, the local government has been reluctant to show extra tolerance towards some ethnic minority migrants in comparison to non-ethnic minority workers, although they have negative stereotypes towards these ethnic minorities while doing so. Meanwhile, Yi brokers are skilled at utilizing their officially recognized ethnic
category to add weight to their bargaining power during labor disputes; and Yi customary law and cultural logic, transposed by Yi brokers, can be an effective instrument in resolving disputes in cities. The conclusion is that present ethnic policies only manage to keep the lid on Yi collective disputes in the short run, but victimize ethnic Yi migrants in non-autonomous regions in the long run.
Chapter 8 is the conclusion of this thesis. It contributes to the following fields: labor migration, ethnic and employment relations, and power dynamics between ethnic groups and the local state.