According to viral social media, reverse migration is the latest Shanghai initiative to achieve ‘zero-Covid.’ In turn, the government has explicitly denied that migrant workers are being forced to leave the city, calling these posts disinformation. That said, migrant workers can apply to return to their registered hometown, specifically their hukou residence. A TikTok video (below) includes the following data (translated from above image), suggesting that 8,630,500 people (roughly the population of NYC) could be directly impacted if migrant workers leave:
Shanghai is about to Release the Flood Gates! Anhui: 2,602,000 Guangdong: 79,000 Jiangsu: 1,504,000 Yunnan: 70,000 Henan: 783,000 Hebei: 67,000 Sichuan: 624,000 Liaoning: 63,000 Jiangxi: 487,000 Jilin: 59,000 Zhejiang: 451,000 Guangxi: 49,000 Hubei: 408,000 Shandong: 45,000 Shandong: 370,000 Xinjiang: 29,000 Fujian: 264,000 In. Mongolia: 24,000 Hunan: 229,000 Beijing: 23,000 Chongqing: 228,000 Tianjin: 13,500 Guizhou: 148,000 Qinghai: 11,000
Reverse migration as a trending topic online indicates just how profoundly Reform and Opening Up has been spatialized, with coastal cities and their residents benefitting from the policy at the expense of rural areas and their residents. It also suggests how contemporary lockdown politics are transvaluing internal migration, with a new emphasis on staying in place, even when one can legally move about. So thoughts:
First, for many migrants from rural areas and low-ranking cities, migration to one of the four first-tier cities (in order: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen; wikipedia summary of the tier-system here) is one of the few opportunities to improve the material conditions of the lives of family back home, despite the fact that most will never be able to buy a house in their migrant home;
Second, these viral posts suggest how isolation from and within Shanghai are not simply spatial practices, but also experienced as deeply and primarily social. Hukou status determines spatial mobility, which in turn effects social mobility in ways akin to India’s caste system, begging the question of just how ‘social zero-Covid‘ is being interpreted on the ground. Indeed, in these viral posts about reverse migration we hear echoes of other posts that have documented how Shanghai people have treated ‘outsiders’ (外地人) during the outbreak, begging the question: are reverse migrants willingly leaving the city or are they being forced out?;
Third, many potential reverse migrants hold essential jobs that keep the city running. Some are likely to be long-term residents because even if their legal status in Shanghai is ‘temporary,’ nevertheless, many ‘outsiders’ have lived in the city for decades. In turn, their children may have even more complicated relationships to the city (click here and here for accounts of how the hukou system vexes second-generation identities and opportunities in Shenzhen);
Fourth, as in Shenzhen, long-term Shanghai residents without municipal hukou perform many of low-paying, but essential jobs–delivery, sanitation and janitorial, plumbing and electrical, etc–that keep the city as a techno-engineered-amalgam functioning. Who will perform these jobs in the absence of migrant workers? Just how (in)essential are garbage collectors during lockdown, for example?
Thought du jour, the online virality of posts about reverse migration makes salient how structural inequality under hukou informs how people are thinking about the pandemic, as well as how zero-Covid is being implemented on the ground. The problem is that outside of viral posts and communication with friends in Shanghai, it is impossible to verify anything about reverse migration as policy, as practice, or as rumor. Below is a snarky TikTok that pairs hometown nostalgia and reverse migration. Make of it what you will.