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Urban China Series featuring Eli Friedman – The Urbanization of People: The Politics of Development, Labor Markets, and Schooling in the Chinese City

February 13, 2023 @ 8:30 pm 10:00 pm

Speaker: Eli Friedman, Cornell University

Beginning in 2014 China’s central government began pushing for more people to move to cities, as they believe that increased urbanization will be necessary in advancing a new phase of economic development. But despite cities’ heavy reliance on the labor of rural migrants, major institutional obstacles remain for those wishing to settle permanently. Perhaps the most important form of social exclusion for migrant workers is in education. Using the school system as a lens on the urbanization process, I ask how local governments are managing flows of people into the city, which groups are included in which places and why, and what the socio-economic consequences of this approach are for Chinese society. My key empirical argument is that urban governments are providing access to public education precisely to those that need it least, i.e. families with already high levels of economic, cultural, and social capital. The only option for excluded migrants is to enroll their children in resource-starved private schools, which are sometimes subjected to closure and even coercive demolition. Elite cities have developed evaluative frameworks that allow them to fully incorporate those migrants judged to be of high quality, while the “low-end populations” are shunted away to smaller, less well-resourced locales with inferior public services. These conditions appear likely to reinforce existing social and spatial forms of inequality.

Eli Friedman is associate professor and chair of International and Comparative Labor at Cornell University. In addition to The Urbanization of People, he is also the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.

This event series is made possible by the generous support of the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab, the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, and the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.


February 13, 2023
8:30 pm – 10:00 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


Presented via Zoom

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