Bringing emotional reflexivity and emotional regime to understanding ‘the hukou puzzle’ in contemporary China

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Jingyu Mao Bielefeld University, Germany

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This article examines the dialogic relationship between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime as it explores ‘the hukou puzzle’ in China. In theory, migrants in small- to medium-scale cities can transfer their hukou (household registration) to urban areas, yet are unwilling to do so in practice. Relying on six months’ ethnographic fieldwork and 60 in-depth interviews with ethnic migrant performers, this article argues that previous theorisation of the hukou puzzle neglects emotions and assumes migrants are making rational choices to maximise their profits. In reality, different emotions and feelings inform migrants’ reflexivity regarding an opaque migration regime, which highlights the crucial role of how they exercise their reflexivity in emotional and relational ways. Moreover, a neoliberal emotional regime at the Chinese societal level – which emphasises positive energy, happiness and ‘the China Dream’ – also significantly shapes migrants’ emotional reflexivity. This article points to the need to further explore the intersection between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime in relation to migration.

Abstract

This article examines the dialogic relationship between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime as it explores ‘the hukou puzzle’ in China. In theory, migrants in small- to medium-scale cities can transfer their hukou (household registration) to urban areas, yet are unwilling to do so in practice. Relying on six months’ ethnographic fieldwork and 60 in-depth interviews with ethnic migrant performers, this article argues that previous theorisation of the hukou puzzle neglects emotions and assumes migrants are making rational choices to maximise their profits. In reality, different emotions and feelings inform migrants’ reflexivity regarding an opaque migration regime, which highlights the crucial role of how they exercise their reflexivity in emotional and relational ways. Moreover, a neoliberal emotional regime at the Chinese societal level – which emphasises positive energy, happiness and ‘the China Dream’ – also significantly shapes migrants’ emotional reflexivity. This article points to the need to further explore the intersection between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime in relation to migration.

Introduction

This article explores how rural-urban migrants in Southwest China use their emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2010; Burkitt, 2012; Holmes and Burrows, 2012) to make sense of an opaque migration regime and how this emotional reflexivity is heavily informed by the current emotional regime (Reddy, 2001), which promotes personal responsibilities. In doing so, it highlights the dialogic relationship between emotional reflexivity (which is often discussed at a personal level) and emotional regime (which exists at the societal level), elucidating how emotions work in shaping migrants’ experiences and imaginaries of the migration regime.

Rural-urban migrants in China form one of the largest population movements in human history, as the number of individuals migrating from their places of hukou registration has been rising since the 1980s, reaching 221 million in 2010 (see Liang et al, 2014). The huge gap between rural and urban areas is the fundamental motivation for millions of migrants to seek work in the city. Similar to the unequal global development that has pushed men and women from the Global South to migrate to the Global North for work, migration to the cities has become the personal solution of migrants to a public problem (Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003).

While emotions and migration has become a burgeoning field (Svasek and Skrbis, 2007; Ahmed, 2010; Boccagni and Baldassar, 2015), it remains a neglected area in a Chinese context. The writing of emotion is scattered throughout the rural-urban migration literature rather than being systematically organised and analysed. Among the few notable exceptions taking emotions seriously to understand rural-urban migration in China (Wang and Nehring, 2014; Choi and Peng, 2016), emotions are usually theorised within the sphere of intimate relationships. Without diminishing the importance of such a focus, it is beneficial to broaden the scope of this inquiry and ask further questions such as what migration regimes make people feel.

This article is an effort to bring emotions into rural-urban migrants’ experiences in China by focusing on a group of ethnic migrant performers in a small city in Southwest China. It focuses on how they experience the migration regime – in this case, the household registration system (hukou) in China, which functions like an ‘internal passport’ scheme and denies full citizenship to rural-urban migrants in their own country. Established in 1958, hukou has become and remains an integral part of China’s economic and political system and social stratification, despite changes and reforms in recent years, with large variations in different regional contexts and among different categories of workers (Chan, 2010; Liang et al, 2014; Woodman, 2017; Lin and Mao, 2022). Hukou functions in a way that is similar to Castles’ (1995) depiction of ‘differential exclusion’, which ensures that migrants are incorporated into certain areas of society (most prominently labour markets) but are denied access to others – such as welfare systems. As hukou continues to curtail internal migrants’ access to welfare provisions and public services such as housing, medical care and education, rural migrants without local hukou continue to be excluded and marginalised in various ways, especially in big cities with stringent population controls (Dong and Goodburn, 2020). Therefore, the hukou system further contributes to the formation of China’s new generation of the working class (Pun and Lu, 2010), as it places migrant workers in a ‘permanent position of legal and economic instability and vulnerability’ (Nyiri, 2010: 19).

For decades, many scholars and policy makers have pursued structural change. In recent years, a series of hukou reforms loosened the restrictions of hukou transfer, especially in small- and medium-sized cities. In small cities such as Green City (with a population of around 300,000), policies and scholarly work have confirmed that ‘hukou acquisition should be open to all those with legal and stable residence’ (Zhang, 2018: 866). Expecting such a policy to be met with migrants’ enthusiasm to transfer their hukou to urban areas, as urban hukou is associated with more benefits and would ensure migrants’ access to public provisions and services, many policy makers and scholars were surprised that migrants were reluctant to do so, even when the majority of them had strong intentions to eventually settle in cities (Chen and Fan, 2016). This phenomenon has been termed ‘the hukou puzzle’ by Chen and Fan (2016), and their work was among the first to systematically explore this puzzle by asking, ‘Why do rural migrants not want urban hukou?’ I follow their terminology in referring to this phenomenon as the hukou puzzle.

This article argues, taking informants’ complex emotional reflexivity into account illuminates the hukou puzzle (Chen and Fan, 2016) about why migrants are not enthusiastic about transferring their rural hukou to an urban area despite the absence of a local hukou continues their exclusion and marginalization. Here, I follow Burkitt (2014) in defining emotions as a response to how people are embedded in relational patterns with others and to significant social and political events or situations. Instead of specifying which emotions to focus on, this article engages with the concept of ‘emotional reflexivity’ (Holmes, 2010; Burkitt, 2012) and ‘emotional regime’ (Reddy, 2001) to explore how different kinds of emotions are always involved in the ways that individuals exercise their reflexivity, and how emotional reflexivity should be understood in relation to the broader social and cultural norms of emotions on the societal level.

First, I bring together existing literature to illuminate China’s ‘emotional regime’ (Reddy, 2001), arguing that this regime is manifested by discourses including positive energy, happiness and the China Dream. After introducing the methodology, I demonstrate how the lack of clear rules and information means that migrants need to practise their emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2010; Burkitt, 2012) in navigating an opaque migration regime when they consider or imagine hukou-transfer decisions. Following this, I analyse the ways migrants practise emotional reflexivity and how such processes are deeply shaped by the current emotional regime, which emphasises personal responsibility to fully explore the dialogic relationship between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime in relation to the hukou puzzle.

Navigating a neoliberal emotional regime in post-socialist China: the importance of emotional reflexivity

Work on migration has considered the importance of emotions in various aspects of migration, including but not limited to migration policy, migration experiences, a sense of belonging and a feeling of home (Ho, 2014; Liu, 2014; Sirriyeh, 2018). These insights should be in context and their relationships to the emotional regime of a particular society considered. ‘Emotional regime’ refers to ‘a normative order for emotions’ (Reddy, 2001: 129), often enforced by political institutions in a given historical context. Reddy (2001) argues that any enduring political regime enforces its emotional regime through official rhetoric, rituals and practices, as well as penalties (however straightforward or subtle) for those who do not conform to the emotional regime. While there is a spectrum regarding people’s emotional liberty, a good emotional regime will allow individuals substantial emotional liberty to ensure its stable political power (Reddy, 2001). Therefore, an emotional regime provides a broad framework for people to navigate their feelings and emotions, and it also allows variations and liberty.

More recent work challenges understanding an emotional regime as a singular form (a ‘norm’) existing at the societal level while pointing to how different organisations can embody certain emotional (sub)regimes that might seem paradoxical to outsiders. For instance, the emotional regime of ‘procedural correctness’ at a Swedish migration board enabled workers to maintain a sense of pride despite organisational failure, because they rigorously followed procedures (Wettergren, 2010). In this sense, an emotional regime becomes an ‘internalised individual emotional disposition’ in various ways (Wettergren, 2010: 401). While the meaning of the ‘emotional regime’ is still under negotiation, nevertheless it has been well recognised how an emotional regime profoundly shapes the ways migrants regulate their emotional expressions in the context of transnational migration (Ho, 2014). This article employs the concept of the emotional regime to refer to a set of rules, norms and practices about how to feel within certain historical and social contexts, and situate migrant performers’ experiences in the broader emotional regime of contemporary China.

Building on previous literature, I argue that China’s current emotional regime is deeply rooted in its neoliberal governance, which expects people to be self-reliant. Although there is much debate around the meaning of neoliberalism in China (Harvey, 2005; Kipnis, 2007), it is increasingly recognised that neoliberal ideology is used as a form of governance to shape individuals’ subjectivities and emotions (Rofel, 2007; Yang, 2014; Wielander, 2018). Here, I take neoliberalism to mean how an ‘individual is held responsible and accountable for his or her own actions and well-being’ (Harvey, 2005: 65). In the Chinese context where one’s wellbeing continues to tie closely to one’s family (Barbalet, 2016; Qi, 2021), self-responsibility also means that one is held accountable to strive for one’s family’s wellbeing through individual efforts of self-improvement and self-entrepreneurship, as will be demonstrated later. I further clarify how China’s emotional regime is manifested by three closely interlinked discourses: positive energy, happiness and the China Dream. Many observers have pointed out how these three discourses are particularly prominent under President Xi Jinping’s rule, as the state seeks to tighten social control not through coerciveness but through ‘softer’ means which seek to permeate personal and emotional spheres (Yang and Tang, 2018; Wielander, 2018; Chen and Wang, 2019).

Positive energy (zheng nengliang) has become a pervasive discourse in China’s political sphere and popular culture. It roughly means ‘the capacity to induce positive emotions and/or attitudes’ (Yang and Tang, 2018: 15). As the number one catchphrase in 2012, ‘positive energy’ has retained its popularity, frequently appearing in political discourses and everyday use. Like the positive psychology of the West (Seligman, 2002), it emphasises the individual’s responsibility to achieve an ideal emotional state and eventually achieve happiness (Hird, 2018). Therefore, positive energy is inherently ‘neoliberal’ as it encourages one to focus on oneself rather than challenge structural inequalities, which are the principal causes of unhappiness (Hird, 2018). Using a Foucauldian approach, Chen and Wang (2019) convincingly illustrate how positive energy has been actively incorporated into China’s ideological works. They demonstrate how the effectiveness of positive energy as a governing tool lies in its lack of precise meaning, which allows the state to use positive energy in ways that suit its political agenda. Also, positive energy constructs and maintains a clear dichotomy between ‘positive emotions’ (for example, happiness, gratefulness) and ‘negative emotions’ (for example, anger, sadness, cynicism), which has pushed citizens to ‘target their own negative thoughts as an enemy, internalise the interests of the state as their own thus not only censor themselves in daily life but willingly so’ (Chen and Wang, 2019: 217). Moreover, positive energy constitutes a promise to happiness (a promise which was critically scrutinised by Ahmed [2010]), as it promises that citizens will eventually achieve a state of happiness, as long as they keep working on (sometimes even faking) their positive attitudes and emotions (Yang, 2014; Hird, 2018).

Closely related to positive energy and the China Dream, ‘happiness’ is another key word that characterises China’s emotional regime. Kleinman (2011: 267) claims that ‘the quest for happiness is one of the most important stories in China today’ and happiness is used by the post-socialist state to measure their degree of success or, so to speak, the realisation of the China Dream (Wielander, 2018). Happiness has been an important element of ‘therapeutic governing’ in China, as it becomes ‘a governing technology to sustain social harmony’ (Yang, 2014: 45). For example, for the laid-off workers in the 1990s who became largely marginalised in society, the state’s affective intervention meant that those workers were encouraged to look inwardly to achieve happiness while overlooking the overarching structural inequalities (Yang, 2014).

Contemporary China’s emotional regime is also characterised by discourses regarding ‘the China Dream’, a slogan adopted by President Xi Jinping in 2013, which depicts China’s national goal of furthering its power on the world stage. The China Dream also emphasises achieving the happiness of the people and ties this goal closely with the advancement of China as a nation. It provides a much more affectively compelling way for people to embrace the state’s initiatives, compared with other coercive approaches (Yang, 2014).

To summarise, the emotional regime in contemporary China is a neoliberal one manifested by discourses including positive energy, happiness and the China Dream. It expects people to be self-reliant while depicting a rosy picture in which people can become successful and happy by working hard and maintaining a positive attitude, thereby achieving one’s China Dream.

As compelling as an emotional regime might be as a framework, it tends to ‘overlook varieties and localisms’ (Rosenwein, 2002: 1182). Also, people do not just act according to the emotional regime, as ‘emotional liberty’ also exists where people can exercise agency and have the space and freedom to express their emotions (Reddy, 2001), although such liberty can be much more limited in certain societies than others. Pun and Qiu (2020) powerfully proposed the term ‘emotional authoritarianism’ to recognise the crucial role the authoritarian state plays in shaping young working-class migrants’ emotions and subjectivity in China. Undoubtedly, the overarching emotional regime on the societal level is powerful and the state has played an active role in engineering it. However, it is by no means a total regime in which people have no liberty to exercise agency. Furthermore, there is no clear rule regarding how people should feel when it comes to concrete situations such as hukou transfer decisions. Therefore, we should further discuss the important role of ‘emotional reflexivity’ (Holmes, 2010; Burkitt, 2012) in relation to the emotional regime, thereby recognising the agency that people have to grasp their situations emotionally and relationally.

‘Emotional reflexivity’ regards reflexivity as ‘an emotional, embodied and cognitive process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others’ (Holmes, 2010: 140). Previous theorisations of reflexivity tend to regard it as disembodied individuals stepping away from their emotions and rationally considering their situation based on existing knowledge (Giddens, 1991). In contrast, emotional reflexivity points to how ‘feelings and emotions are not just attendants to reflexivity; they are the basis and motive for reflexive thought’ (Burkitt, 2012, emphasis in original). Emotional reflexivity points to the emotional and relational nature of reflexivity – the fact that people have feelings in relation to others (or what Burkitt calls ‘others with whom we are emotionally engaged’), through social interaction or imagining how others would value and judge them (Holmes, 2010; Holmes and Burrows, 2012; Burkitt, 2012: 466). Apart from considering significant others, people also take into account ‘the generalised other’ (Mead, 1962). Such generalised others include social norms, such as gender norms (Holmes et al, 2021), organisational norms (Wettergren, 2010) and emotional norms; in other words, an emotional regime. Therefore, it is crucial to further examine the dialogic relationships between the emotional regime and emotional reflexivity, and consider how their intersection informs migrants’ actions when navigating an opaque migration regime.

Research design

This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between October 2016 to May 2017 on a group of ethnic migrant performers in a small-scale city called Green City1 in Yunnan province, Southwest China. Ethnic performers are people who perform ethnic songs and dances at venues such as restaurants and tourist sites, most of whom are ethnic minorities and rural-urban migrants. To gain an in-depth understanding of the work and migration experiences of ethnic performers, I undertook participant observation in one restaurant and two tourist sites. In the restaurant, I dressed in the same ethnic costume and worked together with informants as a waitress/ performer; in the other two tourist sites, I shadowed informants’ daily work by showing up every day and observing their interactions with guests. As performers’ work content is less relevant to this article and has been extensively discussed elsewhere (Mao, 2021; Mao, forthcoming), a detailed description of observation sites and performers’ work will not be provided here. Suffice it to say, the ways performers’ work is designed and organised further reinforces their images as the ethnic Other, as they constantly need to perform the images of minority ethnic groups who are backward, primitive and exotic. This article mainly relies on the 60 in-depth interviews I conducted with informants, which normally lasted from 30 minutes to two hours. I approached all informants on these three sites for interviews and used snowball sampling to recruit informants outside the three sites based on existing networks. Among the 33 female and 27 male informants, most of them were young migrants aged 17 to 35. Most of them come from rural villages under the jurisdiction of adjacent townships near Green City. The duration of their stays in Green City varies between a few months to more than ten years. My positionality as an urban, middle-class woman from an overseas university doing research with rural, working-class migrants deeply shaped the research process. Initially, informants were reluctant to talk to me, and they projected their imagined image of urban people onto me. Working together with informants daily became the most important way for me to build rapport. Additionally, my identity as an (officially registered) minority ethnic person also became common ground for informants to relate to me more easily. I have discussed the important issue of ethnicity in shaping performers’ experiences elsewhere (Mao, forthcoming); therefore, this article will mostly focus on informants’ common experiences as rural-urban migrants and how they experienced the migration regime emotionally. All the interviews were recorded and transcribed in Chinese and were analysed using thematic analysis. The following section will demonstrate how informants’ hukou transfer decisions are informed by complex emotions while deeply shaped by the neoliberal emotional regime.

Exploring an opaque system: the importance of emotional reflexivity

The hukou system in Green City is an opaque one, which stands in contrast to a clearly structured system such as the points-based system, which lays out specific criteria to grant hukou to the minority of eligible migrants (see Dong and Goodburn, 2020). Therefore, even though having one’s hukou transferred to Green City was theoretically easy, in practice, none of my informants seemed to know exactly how things worked in Green City, as knowledge and information about hukou seemed to be inaccessible. Even as a researcher, I could not gather enough information about the city’s hukou policy without talking to government officials. Migrants’ outsider status makes it especially difficult for them to access such information, as they are less likely to have local networks and connections (Woodman, 2017). When there are no clear rules regarding what one ought to feel and do, people tend to rely more on their emotions to guide their deliberations and decisions, highlighting the importance of emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2010; Holmes and Burrow, 2012). The following sections illustrate how different emotions work to inform migrants’ reflexivity while considering the impact of China’s emotional regime.

Emotional reflexivity and emotional regime in shaping hukou transfer decisions

Attachment to home and a lack of sense of belonging

First and foremost, the feeling of attachment to home and a lack of sense of belonging in Green City have shaped informants’ emotional reflexivity regarding hukou:

‘I will probably think about transferring my hukou when I get married and settle down. Before that, it makes no sense to do so. I am the only daughter in my family. I cannot carry my hukou wherever I go, right?’ (Ping, 25 years old, female, Forest Park)

Researcher:Have you considered transferring your hukou to Green City?
Liang:No. Why do that? I don’t want to become a Green City person anyway. I think my hometown is a good place […] And I’m a rural person after all. (Liang, 25 years old, male, Forest Park)

Both quotes reveal how informants do not feel settled in Green City, whether because of a lack of sense of belonging there, or the feeling of attachment to home and sense of obligation to family. A sense of belonging and attachment to home have been extensively discussed in the literature on emotion and migration (Skrbiš, 2008; Liu, 2014), and how a feeling of obligation to care for their families is a prominent factor in shaping people’s migration decisions (Holmes and Burrow, 2012; Baldassar and Merla, 2014). As the only daughter in the family, Ping felt a strong sense of obligation to care for her parents when they got older, as she revealed in other parts of the interview. Ping’s remarks highlight the relational aspect of emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2010; Burkitt, 2012), as she reflected on her position as the ‘only daughter’ in the family and her relationship with her parents when considering hukou decisions, rather than calculating her gain and loss as an autonomous individual. In China’s context, migration is usually a family strategy rather than an individual choice (Barbalet, 2016). The importance of the family and the strong social norm of filial piety clearly informs Ping’s emotional reflexivity, coupled with the gendered sociocultural norms in shaping migration, which expect migrant women to shoulder more caring responsibilities (Murphy, 2008). This points to the need to understand emotional reflexivity in its local context, considering how various social and cultural norms differently inform the particular nature of emotional reflexivity. Ping’s hesitation also reveals how the sedentarism bias underlying the hukou policy has prevented migrants from properly settling down and feeling a sense of belonging in many of China’s cities, since hukou policy regards sedentarism as the norm and problematises the settlement of constantly mobile individuals. Previous work has pointed out the sedentarism bias in migration studies (Salazar and Schiller, 2014). Woodman and Guo’s (2017: 742) work specifically points to the role of hukou as ‘central in this nexus of sedentarism vs. mobility’ in a Chinese context. As hukou fundamentally works as a mechanism that ties a person’s welfare entitlement to a certain place, it is a system that normalises sedentarism (Woodman and Guo, 2017). “I cannot carry my hukou everywhere,” says Ping, highlighting a common dilemma facing migrants who are constantly on the move. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one to obtain a local hukou wherever they go. Allowing migrants to transfer their hukou from rural areas to urban areas cannot fundamentally solve this systemic problem unless the hukou system is abolished.

From Liang’s remarks above, we can also see how a lack of sense of belonging prevents migrants from settling down in Green City. To understand why most informants do not feel a sense of belonging, it is necessary to look beyond hukou and consider the more deeply entrenched rural-urban inequalities in China and the role of ethnicity. The rural-urban divide in China does not only manifest through formal rules like hukou, but also works through various cultural systems of value that attach different meanings to the rural and the urban (Sun, 2013). While the urban is usually associated with being modern, the rural is often associated with backwardness (Cohen, 1993). In this context, rural-urban migration becomes an important way for many rural people to fulfil their desire to become modern citizens. However, ironically, it is after migrating that performers are reminded daily about their outsider status. Especially when they work as ethnic performers, which requires them to perform the image of the ‘ethnic Other’ during everyday work (Mao, 2021):

‘Yes, they think because we are dressed in minority costumes, we know nothing about the outside world. Once, a tourist, a man, he really looked down on us. He thought that we knew nothing, and we hadn’t even watched TV before. At the time, Yuan [his colleague] was angry and wanted to argue with him. I said to her, “There is no need to be angry. It’s only possible the man has a steady salary, and we might earn more than him.”’ (Bao, 26 years old, male, Forest Park)

It is everyday encounters like this which constantly reminds informants of their ‘out-of-placeness’ as ethnic and rural others, which contributes to their lack of sense of belonging in Green City. Bao’s account highlights the tensions that exist between ethnic performers who perform the image of ethnic others while aspiring to modernity. Yet a major part of performers’ work is to perform as the imagined ethnic minority, which places them on the opposite end of modernisation. Ethnic culture in China is celebrated as if ethnic minorities’ evolution was frozen in time, and ethnic performers become the cultural bearers of this ‘stillness’ and ‘locality’ (Barabantseva, 2010; Mao, forthcoming). As a result, performers are reminded of their ‘out-of-placeness’ as ethnic and rural others during everyday work. Bao’s reflection also highlights the neoliberal emotional regime, which equates financial capability with success and respectability. Nevertheless, it can be concluded that what informants desire to achieve or aspire to – happiness, personhood with value, respect at work and a sense of belonging in Green City – cannot be achieved by simply gaining urban hukou. Yet an urban hukou is also something that feels distant and difficult to achieve for many informants.

Not feeling entitled

‘If I could finally start my own business and be successful, of course I would want to transfer my hukou here and stay in Green City permanently. Who doesn’t, really? But I would not dare to think about things this far ahead […] It’s useless to think about success and hukou and things like that when you are nowhere near it. The best thing to do is to focus on your current life, and try your best to succeed.’ (Yang, 23 years old, male, Waterfall Restaurant)

Researcher:Would you consider transferring your hukou to Green City?
Wang:I haven’t even thought about setting down in Green City yet … However, I bet I will want to do that if I become rich one day … But now it just feels too far away.
Researcher:Why?
Wang:Because … now … to be honest, I don’t dare to think about it [bugan xiang].
Researcher:Do you feel it’s a bit too difficult to achieve?
Wang:Exactly. (Wang, 21 years old, male, Tea Park)

These two remarks show how a lack of sense of entitlement has informed both Yang and Wang’s reflexive consideration about hukou. Both of them mention how they do not feel entitled to gain urban hukou in Green City, as it seems like something distant, out of reach, and even daunting. Negotiations around a sense of entitlement are inherently emotional. Building on Williams’ (1983) theory of the ‘structure of feelings’, Hanser (2008: 8) proposed the ‘structure of entitlement’ concept to capture how different social status and social position has informed people’s different sense of entitlement to social goods, respect and social recognition. People carry this different sense of entitlement into social interactions, and such structures of entitlement further recreate social inequalities. Some people take for granted their privileges, while others internalise and naturalise their disadvantages (Hanser, 2008). In China, research has shown how a sense of entitlement is closely related to educational attainment. Well-educated migrants hold the naturalised disposition that they deserve to attain an urban hukou, while poorly educated migrants do not feel the same way (Woodman, 2017).

In this research, Yang and Wang’s responses are typical among informants, who do not feel a sense of entitlement due to their rural origin and a lack of good education. As they both shared, they often do not ‘dare’ to dream for many things in life, even when it comes to the right to be treated as equal citizens as urban dwellers – a right that is largely compromised because of the existence of the hukou system. The informants tend to internalise that hukou is only for the successful and established, as they are already accustomed to the mentality that some forms of citizenship in China are a reward rather than equally accessible to every citizen (Woodman and Guo, 2017). Therefore, they do not feel entitled to hukou and blame themselves for not being successful enough to gain it.

This feeling of a lack of entitlement was related to a hegemonic definition of ‘success’ as the neoliberal emotional regime promotes an individualistic understanding of success and happiness. Academic work has emphasised that happiness should be viewed as relational (Holmes and Mckenzie, 2019) and that the ways in which broader social inequality shapes emotions should be recognised (Skeggs, 1997; Barbalet, 2001). However, in reality, neoliberal societies are constantly reinforcing the idea that happiness is an individualistic pursuit (Yang, 2014; Hird, 2018), suggesting that ‘success’ needs to be pursued both materially and symbolically to achieve happiness. The China Dream is about desire, about depicting what kind of life people should long for, and the attempt to relate individuals’ desires to the broader project of nation building. In this sense, happiness has been ‘effectively employed as a neoliberal technology of governance’ (Yang, 2014: 39), influencing the informants to internalise their impediments as personal problems and seek eventual success through working hard and keeping a positive attitude. It is also notable that this sense of striving for success is typical among male informants such as Wang and Yang, while female informants are more concerned about their caring responsibilities and domestic roles, as shown by Ping’s example. This relates to how the gendered sociocultural norms shape informants’ emotional reflexivity in relation to migration (see also Murphy, 2008; Choi and Peng, 2016), which deserves to be more thoroughly explored elsewhere. Besides promoting an individualist and hegemonic understanding of success and happiness, the neoliberal emotional regime also emphasises individualised responsibilities, thereby amplifying informants’ fear should they make the wrong choice regarding hukou.

Uncertainty and fear

Uncertainty and fear are important parts of informants’ emotional reflexivity. China’s emotional regime’s advocacy of individualised responsibilities makes migrants extra careful when considering hukou transfer decisions. Hukou policies are constantly changing (Chan, 2010) making it difficult for ordinary people to keep up. One cannot know exactly what kinds of benefits they would lose if their hukou is transferred to another place. These aspects contribute to a sense of uncertainty and a fear of making the wrong choice, which has been repeatedly shared by my informants. For example, some informants mention the ways that social policies regarding land are changing rapidly. Therefore, they must be careful when making decisions or risk losing the few benefits they have. The fear of losing out was amplified when a solid social security system was lacking.

Researcher:Have you thought about transferring your hukou to Green City?
Zhang:I haven’t thought about it before. If you do transfer your hukou here, the land back home will no longer be yours and then you will have nothing left. If I don’t have a proper job here … I do not dare to do this. I need to at least properly settle here and have some kind of security [baozhang].
Researcher:What if you did have such security here?
Zhang:If that were the case … I think … I would want to transfer hukou here. I wanted to have my mother move here … I mean move to live here. Because back home … I feel sad when thinking about how hard my mum has to work. (Zhang, 19 years old, male, Waterfall Restaurant)

‘I need to think about my children – if I have no land left for them, what will they do if they can’t survive in the city in the future? … Everything is changing so fast in this society … The road leading to the park used to be muddy … Who knows what the future may bring?’ (Zhou, 40 years old, female, Tea Park)

These quotes show how fear and uncertainty about the future are crucial parts of informants’ reflexivity about how to act, and highlight the relational aspects of such emotional reflexivity. Zhang and Zhou were thinking reflexively about hukou transfer decisions in relation to significant others in their lives. Maintaining the right to use the land back home can provide a feeling of security because of the lack of comprehensive social security for rural residents. In China, there is a large gap between urban and rural pension schemes, with the former being much more developed than the latter. Without a comprehensive rural pension scheme established, rural residents heavily rely on their land and family support, as well as private commercial insurance to maintain their old-age security (Shi, 2006). Therefore, the fact that most migrants are expected to arrange old-age care for themselves and their families amplifies their fear of making the wrong decision, which would lead to detrimental consequences for them and their families.

Meanwhile, since migrant workers who are not ‘locals’ are usually excluded from local social welfare schemes (Tao and Xu, 2007), their land remains a safety net to fall back on if they cannot successfully remain in the city. As Zhang and Zhou fear, giving up rural hukou largely means giving up the right to use rural land. As long as China lacks a good system to fairly remunerate people for giving up their land rights (see Tao and Xu, 2007), exchanging it for urban hukou is too big a risk. Here, again, this mode of emotional reflexivity is shaped by China’s neoliberal emotional regime, which emphasises individual responsibility, as migrants are supposed to rely on personal resources to make up for the lack of an effective social welfare system.

Absence of anger

Despite all these emotional factors being present in informants’ narratives, it is also important to note the absence of certain emotions in this process. Anger, in this case. When talking about hukou, none of the informants specifically mentioned or displayed anger from their body language or tone. While anger has the potential to bring about social change (Holmes, 2004; Pun and Lu, 2010), migrant performers as a marginalised group are not encouraged to express their anger under the current emotional regime, which limits individuals’ or groups’ space to express their anger or frustration over social inequality. The fact that they may not feel angry also implies how social inequality is naturalised and internalised. Therefore, most of the time, informants use positive terms to frame their emotions about hukou, such as their aspiration to be successful. The fact that they ‘do not possess the language of justice, rights and entitlements that is expected of a politically informed citizen’ also means that they tend to blame themselves for their current hardship and exploitation (Sun, 2013: 29).

To understand this absence of anger, individuals’ emotional reflexivity needs to be related to the broader emotional regime at the societal level. In line with the state’s emphasis on the importance of being happy and embodying positive energy, as well as the ideology of the China Dream, migrants are encouraged to do emotional management to re-frame their negative emotions as positive ones. Although the sociology of emotions has challenged the dualism between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions, as even ‘negative emotions’ have positive meanings under certain circumstances (Cieslik, 2015), the current emotional regime in China deliberately encourages this divided way of understanding emotions as either positive or negative. For example, as the quotes from Yang, Wang and Zhang illustrate, instead of showing their discontent about the unequal regime, migrant performers frame it as their responsibility to achieve success and gain entitlement to full citizenship in the city. To borrow Xiang (2021)’s concept of ‘suspension’, they suspend their subjectivity as it is related to the present, and aspire to a better future related to greater monetary success and more social security. However, multi-layered, institutionalised inequality means that they will have a slim chance of ever achieving this dream or being ‘successful’.

Conclusion

This article contributes to the existing scholarship by exploring the dialogic relationship between ‘emotional regime’ and ‘emotional reflexivity’, highlighting the ways emotions work at both macro and micro levels, and how migrants exercise their emotional reflexivity both in accordance with and resistance to the broader emotional regime. While both ‘emotional regime’ and ‘emotional reflexivity’ came out of a particular form of Western society and experiences within it, this article engages with a non-Western example to demonstrate how local sociocultural norms deeply inform the ways people navigate a migration regime emotionally.

Hukou is one of the major mechanisms that has constructed and sustained the long-standing rural-urban divide in China. While it is widely acknowledged that not having an urban hukou makes migrants’ lives difficult in the cities, it is puzzling to find that many migrants are unwilling to transfer their hukou to the cities, even if they are entitled to do so. Previous theorisation of the hukou puzzle largely neglects the role of emotions, and assumes migrants are making rational decisions based on ample information to maximise their benefits (Chen and Fan, 2016). This article, instead, shows how different emotions are involved in informing migrants’ emotional reflexivity when they are navigating an opaque migration system.

As ethnic others who perform as exotic minorities in daily work, the informants struggled to feel a sense of belonging in Green City. This lack of sense of belonging prevented them from wanting to gain an urban hukou and properly settle there. The attachment to home and a sense of obligation for families also informed migrants’ decision to not transfer their hukou to the city. Moreover, under the current neoliberal emotional regime in China, which promotes personal responsibility and an individualistic understanding of success and happiness, migrants did not feel entitled to urban hukou because they think they are not successful enough. Rather than recognising their structural constraints, they blame themselves for their impediments and aspire to future success that mostly manifests through monetary earning ability. In line with state discourses regarding positive energy, happiness and the China Dream, migrants tend to frame their ‘negative’ emotions into ‘positive’ ones and hope to eventually achieve success and happiness through hard work. This is also shown by the lack of ‘anger’ in the informants’ narratives. Some also internalise these dispositions which highlights individualised responsibilities in taking care of oneself and one’s family amid the lack of an effective social security system; thus, the emotional regime is effective as it becomes the internalised disposition of individuals whose fear of making the wrong choice has informed their decision to not transfer their hukou.

While a neoliberal emotional regime at the societal level is effective, migrants also challenge and resist it in different ways. Migrants exercise their emotional reflexivity in ‘relational ways’, as they often consider ‘emotionally significant others’ – be it mothers, children or parents to care for – in hukou decisions. Such relationality is also informed by local sociocultural norms, which emphasise the importance of family and filial piety, especially for female informants. This shows resistance to the Chinese neoliberal emotional regime, which assumes people are autonomous individuals, compromising relationality while only seeking personal advancement. The dialogic relationship between emotional reflexivity and emotional regime deserves further examination.

In summary, connecting emotional reflexivity with China’s emotional regime provides a different answer to the hukou puzzle by recognising the importance of emotions in shaping migrants’ hukou transfer decisions. Also, it points to the need to look beyond hukou, and to consider the informants’ experiences as the rural, ethnic Other in a more holistic way. It recognises how the deeply entrenched rural-urban divide in China goes beyond the hukou regime, and how it operates at cultural and political levels, which has an intimate and emotional impact on individuals.

Note

1

Pseudonyms are used to protect informants’ identities.

Funding

The working time for finalising and revising this article, as well as the article’s open-access publication was supported by the European Research Council project WelfareStruggles [grant no. 803614].

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Mary Holmes and Sophia Woodman for their helpful comments on the previous drafts of this article. She would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editor for their constructive comments and editorial support.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Barbalet, J.M. (2016) Chinese individualization, revisited, Journal of Sociology, 52(1): 923. doi: 10.1177/1440783315587413

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burkitt, I. (2012) Emotional reflexivity: feeling, emotion and imagination in reflexive dialogues, Sociology, 46(3): 45872. doi: 10.1177/0038038511422587

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burkitt, I. (2014) Emotions and Social Relations, London: Sage.

  • Castles, S. (1995) How nation-states respond to immigration and ethnic diversity, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 21(3): 293308. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.1995.9976493

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chan, K.W. (2010) The household registration system and migrant labor in China: notes on a debate, Population and Development Review, 36(2): 35764. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2010.00333.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chen, C. and Fan, C.C. (2016) China’s hukou puzzle: why don’t rural migrants want urban hukou?, China Review, 16(3): 939.

  • Chen, Z. and Wang, C.Y. (2019) The discipline of happiness: The Foucauldian use of the ‘positive energy’ discourse in China’s ideological works, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 48(2): 20125.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Choi, S.Y.P. and Peng, Y. (2016) Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cieslik, M. (2015) ‘Not smiling but frowning’: sociology and the ‘problem of happiness’, Sociology, 49(3): 42237. doi: 10.1177/0038038514543297

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, M.L. (1993) Cultural and political inventions in modern China: the case of the Chinese ‘peasant’, Daedalus, 122(2): 15170.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dong, Y. and Goodburn, C. (2020) Residence permits and points systems: new forms of educational and social stratification in urban China, Journal of Contemporary China, 29(125): 64766. doi: 10.1080/10670564.2019.1704997

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ehrenreich, B. and Hochschild, A.R. (eds) (2003) Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, London: Granta Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Hanser, A. (2008) Service Encounters: Class, Gender and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China, California, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Hird, D. (2018) Smile yourself happy: zheng nengliang and the discursive construction of happy subjects, in Chinese Discourses on Happiness, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, pp 10628.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ho, E.L.E. (2014) The emotional economy of migration driving mainland Chinese transnational sojourning across migration regimes, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 46(9): 221227. doi: 10.1068/a130238p

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holmes, M. (2004) Feeling beyond rules: politicizing the sociology of emotion and anger in feminist politics, European Journal of Social Theory, 7(2): 20927. doi: 10.1177/1368431004041752

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holmes, M. (2010) The emotionalization of reflexivity, Sociology, 44(1): 13954. doi: 10.1177/0038038509351616

  • Holmes, M. and Burrows, R. (2012) Ping‐pong poms: emotional reflexivity in contemporary return migration from Australia to the United Kingdom, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 47(1): 10523. doi: 10.1002/j.1839-4655.2012.tb00237.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holmes, M. and McKenzie, J. (2019) Relational happiness through recognition and redistribution: emotion and inequality, European Journal of Social Theory, 22(4): 43957. doi: 10.1177/1368431018799257

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holmes, M., Jamieson, L. and Natalier, K. (2021) Future building and emotional reflexivity: Gendered or queered navigations of agency in non-normative relationships?, Sociology, 55(4): 73450.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kipnis, A. (2007) Neoliberalism reified: suzhi discourse and tropes of neoliberalism in the People’s Republic of China, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(2): 383400. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00432.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kleinman, A. (ed.) (2011) Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person: What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us about China Today, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Liang, Z., Li, Z. and Ma, Z. (2014) Changing patterns of the floating population in China during 2000–2010, Population and Development Review, 40(4): 695716. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2014.00007.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lin, J. and Mao, J. (2022) Policy brief: changing household registration systems and worker welfare in China and Vietnam, Bielefeld: Bielefeld University, www.uni-bielefeld.de/fakultaeten/soziologie/forschung/projekte/welfarestruggles/pdf/policy-brief-1.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Liu, S. (2014) A search for a place to call home: negotiation of home, identity and senses of belonging among new migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to New Zealand, Emotion, Space and Society, 10: 1826. doi: 10.1016/j.emospa.2013.01.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Loveday, V. (2016) Embodying deficiency through ‘affective practice’: shame, relationality, and the lived experience of social class and gender in higher education, Sociology, 50(6): 1140155. doi: 10.1177/0038038515589301

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mao, J. (2020) Using Intimacy as a Lens on the Work and Migration Experiences of Ethnic Performers in Southwest China, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mao, J. (2021) Bordering work and personal life: using ‘the multiplication of labour’ to understand ethnic performers’ work in Southwest China, China Perspectives, (1): 917. doi: 10.4000/chinaperspectives.11283

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mao, J. (forthcoming) Doing ethnicity – the multi-layered ethnic scripts in contemporary China, The China Quarterly.

  • Mead, G.H. (1962) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Murphy, R. (2008) The impact of socio-cultural norms on women’s experiences of migration and the implications for development, in Migration and Development: Future Directions for Research and Policy, SSRC Migration and Development Conference Papers, 256–76.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nyíri, P. (2010) Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

  • Pun, N. and Lu, H. (2010) Unfinished proletarianization: self, anger, and class action among the second generation of peasant-workers in Present-day China, Modern China, 36(5): 493519. doi: 10.1177/0097700410373576

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pun, N. and Qiu, J. (2020) ‘Emotional authoritarianism’: state, education and the mobile working-class subjects, Mobilities, 15(4): 62034. doi: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1764264

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Qi, X. (2021) Remaking Families in Contemporary China, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Reddy, W.M. (2001) The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Rofel, L. (2007) Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Rosenwein, B. (2002) Book review: The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, William M. Reddy, The American Historical Review, 107(4): 1181–2.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salazar, N.B. and Schiller, N.G. (eds) (2014) Regimes of Mobility: Imaginaries and Relationalities of Power, London: Routledge.

  • Seligman, M.E. (2002) Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy, Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2: 312.

  • Shi, S.J. (2006) Left to market and family – again? Ideas and the development of the rural pension policy in China, Social Policy & Administration, 40(7): 791806.

    • Search Google Scholar
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Jingyu Mao Bielefeld University, Germany

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