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Urban China Series featuring Leif Johnson – Building infrastructure, building the urban: Migrant labor in a Shanghai fiber-optic reconstruction project

April 24, 2023 @ 8:30 pm 10:00 pm

Speaker: Leif Johnson, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

While scholars have long tracked China’s rapid infrastructural development, the everyday labor of migrant workers in infrastructural construction has often been rendered as a natural and uncomplicated aspect of rural-urban migration. In response, I trace the development of a long-term telecommunications infrastructure reconstruction project in Shanghai from the perspective of the workers who implement it at ground level. Like other infrastructure projects across China, this reconstruction of the city’s fiber-optic network relies on labor drawn from a low-wage, precarious, and largely informal migrant workforce that is not expected to be incorporated into the city as urban residents. Through participant observation of the everyday experience of migrant men on construction sites and in dormitories, I emphasize the gendered and classed geographies of migrant construction labor as key elements the production of high-tech infrastructure that is paradoxically central to imaginations of the city’s position as a modern world city. In the process, I theorize the production of both technical knowledge about infrastructure and physical infrastructures themselves through ostensibly low-skilled migrant labor, providing a novel understanding of migration policy and the spatialities of construction as key factors in Chinese urban infrastructure.

Leif Johnson is assistant professor of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Trained as a geographer at the University of Kentucky, his research centers on rural-urban migration in China, with an emphasis on the ways that boundaries of the urban are constructed through everyday gendered practice. His current research and writing focuses on the experiences of men who migrate into the construction industry in the Yangtze river delta, using participant-observation on infrastructure construction teams to better understand how cities are built and maintained, and how the construction industry reinscribes borders between rural and urban space.


April 24, 2023
8:30 pm – 10:00 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


Presented via Zoom

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