Left Behind: Care in China’s Depleted Countryside

Greetings to all! I am Sun Kang from China. I received my post-graduate education in the US, and now I have the good fortune to be part of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE). The title of my first post is the namesake of my first CARE project, in which I would like to examine the care (or lack of it) of Chinese peasant workers’ left-behind family members in China’s countryside. To me, this project is essential to expanding the concept of “care” beyond the medical understanding of not suffering from any illness. Here are some of the basics for you to better understand this project: Who are peasant workers and what does “left behind” mean? The formation of peasant workers as a social group is closely connected to China’s opening up to the outside world at the end of the 1970s. With Shenzhen and Haikou being pinpointed by the Chinese central government and the late leader Deng Xiaoping as special economic zones (SEZs), many coastal cities soon followed suit to establish similar zones in the 1980s. International capital in forms such as joint ventures and foreign direct investment (FDI) very soon created plants and factories for manufacturing. As a result, more workers were needed. The agricultural population in China’s interior lands entered these coastal cities to become “peasant workers” – since they are both officially peasants by the government’s household registration system and at the same time also industrial workers by the trade that they actually undertake. Peasant workers as a social group came into being as China’s cheap industrial workforce, occupying positions that city dwellers are unwilling to do. The manufacturing industry demands young and middle-aged peasant workers. However, their salaries tend to be so low that they cannot afford to bring their family members to live with them in the city. Thus, children and elderly family members are left behind in these peasant workers’ hometowns. Why can the left-behind become a subject for the Culture-Centered Approach (CCA)? The Culture-Centered Approach pays special attention to the marginalized population. It endeavors to promote the formation of agency from a local, community level. It depends on the communication generated within the community to formulate alternative voices and actions for possible structural changes of the society. Thus, understanding how the left-behind take care of one another links our understanding of care and health with the hidden price of China’s development and of a neoliberalized international political economy. The personal family care (and the lack or depletion of it) is no longer merely personal. Rather, it is through a structural hierarchy, in which peasant workers have to go to cities for the national economy to have its staggering speed of growth, that such personal care (and the lack of it) becomes structural. From this perspective, care links everyday activities of family care with China’s hierarchical development scheme that has left its countryside behind. With CCA, I hope this project will not only deconstruct the left-behind family members’ family care, but also generate certain structural changes, however localized those are, such that the community might benefit. How am I going to access these people? Born in the countryside in Northern China, I have grown up with cousins, playmates, pre-college classmates, and friends all from similar impoverished economic conditions. Many of these people become peasant workers, with their families left behind. The better ones can afford to have their children staying with them in Chinese cities; however, they are still confronted with many different issues concerning equitable opportunities for school education and city citizen’s status. Accessing these people is like accessing an alter ego if I had not had the chance to receive my college education. Therefore, I choose the place where I was born as the major site for interviews and focus groups. Apart from that, I also choose to follow up the initial interviews, conducted with the left-behind family members of peasant workers, with a-second-round of interviews with the returned peasant workers. If time permits, I intend to follow these peasant workers to their city workplaces to observe and interview them on their daily working schedule. With such multi-locale interviews and observations, the project might provide a solid structure for the lack of family care to be understood within a translocal framework. Care as a health communication concept can be filled with many locally specific contents “with Chinese characteristics.” What is the research timeline? Currently, the research proposal has already been approved by Professor Mohan Dutta, Director of CARE, and also the major theorist of the Culture-Centered Approach. The IRB approval materials have been prepared. The ideal timeframe for this research is before and after China’s traditional spring festival since that is the only time when peasant workers unite with their family members. All my fieldwork will be planned around February 10, 2013, the coming Chinese traditional New Year.

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