2012 Holland Prize

Predatory Princes and Princeley Peddlers: The State and International Labour Migration Intermediaries in China

Biao Xiang
Oxford University, Oxford, UK
Volume 85, No.1, March 2012, pp. 47-68

Download Article

Biao Xiang

A sterling combination of in-depth ethnographic research and theoretical sophistication, this year’s Holland Prize winning article by Biao Xiang examines the question of why and how chains of migration agents or brokers in China continue to thrive despite state attempts to deregulate and re-regulate them. Arguing against the common view of private migration agents as interstitial actors operating between demand and supply, markets and states, or migrants and governments, the article demonstrates that agent chains composed of both state-owned migration agents (predatory princes) and sub-contracted private enterprises (princely peddlers) flourish because they form an integral component within a complex and centralized system of governance. The rich fieldwork contributes new knowledge for specialists of China, while the argument provides a refinement of and a challenge to the existing analyses of not only migration brokers but also state-society relations.


  1. Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

“Interest” is tricky. Interest as intellectual curiosity is almost always tied to interest as material and symbolic desire, yet the relation is always hidden. If by “interesting” we mean something that makes us think in a sustained manner (thus different from puzzle, wonder or fascination), then I am always interested in the state. Growing up in China in the reform era (started in 1978), it is impossible for me to think of social issues without thinking of the state. The party-state both changed significantly and remains the same when embracing the market and globalization, of which labor outmigration tackled in this article is a case. This on-going transformation is obviously hugely consequential, yet cannot be readily explained by existing knowledge. Figuring out what is happening on the ground right now is what we can do and must do.

I wasn’t particularly interested in labor outmigration per se—there are many other bigger issues that the Chinese people are worried about. But I was expected to work on Chinese emigration for my job in the UK because the West is interested in this, and within this topic the regulation over labor recruitment was closest to my concern. There are values in examining a relatively minor case, one of which was that it forces me to pay greater attention to specificities. Thus, my interest in the subject is banal and is not that interesting in itself. All I can do is to be careful about whose interests, including my own little instrumentalist calculations, makes me feel “interested” in certain issues in certain ways.

  1. What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

The article explains why the recruitment process of low-skill temporary outmigrant workers became more complex and costly for the migrants since the 1990s, while the Chinese government strove to simplify it. Policy liberalization changed international migration from state projects to individual initiatives. But in order to make the liberalized mobility governable and migrants protectable for the centralized bureaucracy, the state has to rely on commercial intermediaries (recruiters) in daily management. New rules were then introduced in order to control the intermediaries. The intermediaries in turn seek profits from the system by making it even more complex. How the state makes order from transnational labor migration is how the intermediaries make money. Economic liberalization in a centralized state is socially complicating.

  1. How did you gather the empirical data for your article? Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of research?

My method was very basic: talking to as many insiders as I could. It was very hard to build rapport with the bureaucrats and the intermediaries, and I found a sense of dialoging was crucial. I told my informants what I thought and challenged their narratives by citing others’ competing views. When urged to think hard, some of them became very open and energized. In figuring out how the centralized post-socialist bureaucracy works with liberalization, one has to appreciate complexities and contradictions, and has to investigate a wide range of dispersed practices and often conflicting views of different actors. It is a major struggle to draw out something coherent from all these. But it is through such struggles that we see something that a particular insider doesn’t see, and that theorization becomes necessary, natural and real.

  1. What might be the larger implications of your argument and research for studies of migration (and other subjects) in the Asia-Pacific and beyond?

Pacific Asia is one of the most mobile regions in the world, yet it is where mobility is most regulated. What make this possible are highly complex regulatory configurations as exemplified in the article. The labor recruitment process is part of the particular articulations between state interventions and the free market, and between national regulation and transnational flows. Such articulations have been characteristic to the region, especially after the Cold War. The so-called asean way of regionalization, for instance, is driven by the twin objectives of pursuing region-wide economic integration and safeguarding member states’ political autonomy and sovereignty. The asean nations encourage international migration, and precisely for this purpose they make it an explicit rule that each member must consider others’ concerns on sovereignty when determining its own policies. This is not something unique to Asia. 9/11 and then the 2008 financial crisis seem to made the whole world rethink the relation between state power and transnational movements.

My article points out that the Chinese state reinforces its control over transnational migration by conferring considerable authority to intermediaries. The intermediaries enhance their position not by maintaining the boundary between the state and the market, but by blurring it. The intermediaries became an integral part of a centralized system of governance. As such, I hope the article raises some questions that all of us should care about: when state and non-state actors are so deeply intertwined, and when organized class struggle looks impossible and human rights concerns tend to reinforce instead of challenges the hegemony, what should be our basis for making ethical and political assessments of the reality? Where are the spaces of new possibilities and sources of new energy? What can be our realistic strategies for social change?