The Chinese Exodus

Migration, Urbanism, and Alienation in Contemporary China

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Li Ma
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , July
     150 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since China’s marketization reforms of the 1980s-90s, the social consequences of rural-urban migration, loss of social security and alienation in ever-proliferating megacities have stimulated conversations among Chinese intellectuals of all persuasions, attempting to diagnose and correct the contemporary malaise. Recently, a small number of religious spokespersons, including Christians, have joined in this conversation as well. Mostly repudiating the legacies of Maoism and hence eschewing an overtly revolutionary, liberationist idiom, these voices are theologically conservative, but socially activist and envision alternative futures based upon transcendent visions of justice.

Li Ma is among the most articulate of these Christian voices of resistance. The book under review, The Chinese Exodus: Migration, Urbanism, and Alienation in Contemporary China, is the product of this synthesis.

Originally a Cornell dissertation aimed at recording untold stories of China’s urban underclass—migrant laborers from the rural countryside who labor and live in undignified poverty—her project eventually evolved into a theological critique of rural migration into China’s new urban centers, and the multi-layered alienation these new city dwellers experience. Ma locates the predicament of migration and the accompanying “exclusion, discrimination, exploitation, alienation,” as symptomatic of universal human suffering, which requires both sociological and theological reflection (7). Her aim in this book is thus “to formulate a socio-theological hermeneutic of migrant experiences and urban poverty in contemporary China” (9). Each of the four empirical chapters are divided in two halves: first, a sociological analysis of the problem, followed by a theological meditation and critique.

The second chapter, “The Regime and the Underclass,” offers a brief history of rural-urban inequalities in China. Ma locates this within the socialist-state’s invention of hukou, a socialist-era household registration system which has persisted into the post-socialist present, intentionally discriminating against migrant laborers’ access to basic services like education, healthcare and housing in the cities where they work (31). The third and fourth chapters discuss urbanization, alienation, and the loss of community among migrant workers in the city. In Ma’s account, escaping to the cities is a rural-dweller’s form of resistance to the systemic oppression of hukou, yet migrants find “capitalist mammon” increasingly elusive, alienating, and ultimately unsatisfying. Hence, rural migrants bear a “double-yoke,” standing in-between socialist-state-imposed peasant identities, and a “rapacious profit-driven capitalist economy” (61). Ma deploys the theologian Jacque Ellul’s The Meaning of the City to illustrate the “liturgies of global capitalism and rituals of fetishism” in the urban marketplace, foregrounding the destructive capacity of capitalism which she argues have robbed individuals of their God-ordained dignity of humanity (63).

What follows in the fourth chapter, “Loss of Community,” is a moving portrait of an urban slum in central Shanghai, where Ma tells the stories of the city’s invisible urban underclass through four short vignettes. She highlights the real conundrums among migrant workers over living conditions, access to education, domestic violence, and even premature death. This section is the most illuminating, although regrettably short, and her thick description of migrant families in Shanghai could have made an even greater contribution to understanding the complexities of an otherwise opaque space within China’s megacities.

The fifth and final chapter, “Good Samaritans,” is where Ma’s wields her evangelical credentials, directly addressing the thousands of registered and many more unregistered NGOs in China—often affiliated with Christian organizations—seeking to enact positive social change. Whereas Ma critiques evangelical outreach without challenging structural injustice, she nevertheless affirms that true community building and change must be underpinned by an overt expression of the “love of God,” and it is within Christian hospitality that “social distinctions of superiority and inferiority” are levelled (114).

Ma herself readily acknowledges that The Chinese Exodus is an experimental work that aims to bridge the divide between sociology and theology, and function as a starting point for future conversations. My main gripe with Ma is not her bridging of disciplines—as some might critique—but rather with her limited discussion of theology, especially in reflecting on poverty. Save for a nod to liberation theology on the second-to-last page of the book, the conspicuous absence of engagement with this literature is striking; Ma’s claim that Christian theologians have neglected critiques of capitalism probably stems from an overly narrow survey of existing literature (122).

Nonetheless, one strength of this book is that it convincingly abolishes the residual trope that Christian resistance within China is predisposed to being uniformly pro-Western and pro-capitalist. The author’s critique of authoritarian capitalist regimes in Asia, like the People’s Republic of China and Singapore, which creates citizens well-disciplined to produce and consume, underscores this point by foregrounding the alienating features of both authoritarian governance and neoliberalism (66). Whereas for Ma as theologian, it is ultimately an egalitarian Christian vision which realizes the insufficiencies of both Maoist socialism and neoliberal capitalism, readers who don’t necessarily agree with her teleological end-point may still identify with her object of critique.

I propose reading Ma’s pithy volume as foremost a manifesto for Chinese Christians, both within China as well as within an increasingly vocal and influential diaspora, to reclaim its prophetic voice of resistance against the current state-led neoliberal order. Her reminder to Chinese Christians that solving the problem of alienation in a society dominated by structural injustice, is equally important to the evangelical mission of saving souls, is also an important corrective (121). Among English-speaking audiences, The Chinese Exodus will likely enjoy wide readership in evangelical circles. Arguably however, its largest and most long-lasting contribution would come in the form of a Chinese translation that deserves a wide circulation in China, not only within churches, but also among young Chinese activists who are increasingly turning to religion as a source of resistance.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Tan is a doctora student in History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.



Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Li Ma is a Research Fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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