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17-18 April 1998
Institute of Asian-Pacific Studies, Beijing

Labour Mobility and Migration in China and Asia

The International Conference on 'Labour Mobility and Migration in China and Asia' was held in Beijing, 17-18 April 1998. It was organized by the Institute of Asian-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of the People's Republic of China, in collaboration with the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden) and the Institute of Social Studies (The Hague) of the Netherlands.

By Leila Fernandez-Stembridge

Surrounded by blossoming trees stirred by a breeze, the historical building was the perfect setting for the discussions on one of today's hottest topics in the Social Sciences: the origins and implications of labour mobility and migration both in China and the rest of Asia. The Conference was divided into four sessions, which were all linked: the industrialization and urbanization process in Asian countries; the effects on the labour structure; the importance of governmental and non-governmental policies; and finally the problems and effects of labour migration.
If we want to understand how migration flows evolve in the Asian context, it is fundamental to consider the case of China as an essential case of study reflecting the tendencies in labour migration, the role played by migrant workers, and the response offered by governmental authorities. Needless to say, it is also necessary to understand migration in the rest of Asia in order to create a more coherent framework for the Chinese case. After all, the globalization of a more developed system of transportation and communication has eased and increased the frequency of human movements. This implies therefore a necessary comparison at the Asian regional level. Now, the question is whether the progressive marketization of all Asian countries has eased labour mobility or has it rather been impeded by governmental intervention, and has therefore created obstacles to a real economic and social integration of migrants in their respective places of destination. Thus, the process of job-hunting may be motivated by economic interests, but may also be necessarily dependent on the government political interests, as governments tend to explicitly advocate further freedom of mobility, but in fact provoke barriers that impede migrant workers to achieve their objectives.
During the conference the linkage between Chinese characteristics and Asian features often surfaced as a key for further debate. In addition, comparative studies between India and China or between Vietnam and China proved both the parallelisms and differences in the rapid process of urbanization and modernization of the three countries. This implied an important academic exchange that could be seriously considered for future projects of discussion.

Different Perspectives, Similar Results?
Despite the hot debates raised on the economic, social, and political challenges caused by the rapid economic development of China in particular and Asia in general, only few of the participants challenged the classical and theoretical concepts of migration originating from the Todaro Model. Instead, the majority raised questions about the crude reality migrant workers are generally forced to face.
On the other hand, the globalization effects of migration were seriously considered in the context of today's growing Asian economies, and the phenomenon of expanding markets became a target within the causal relationship between capital and labour. In that sense, it was concluded that both factors of production, capital and labour, are doubtfully correlated, which makes more dubious what can be expected or wished to be a high level of labour mobility.

Some Shortcomings and Some Suggestions
As usually happens in seminars or conferences dealing with a wide range of countries or topics, two days were simply not enough. Interesting aspects such as informality, regional disparities, migration policies, or network and mobility, were considered on a general basis but lacked a more in-depth insight of what their implications on labour mobility could have been. If two days were the established limit for whatever reasons, strategic or economic, then it would probably have been more useful to have divided the topics into discussion groups, rather than solely relying on plenary sessions. That way, scholars with common interests would have had a higher probability of finding consistent solutions for at least some of the problems that were raised, and a loss of focus that inevitably emerged on several occasions would have been avoided.

Initially, the Conference was meant to be comparative. Nevertheless, each subject of discussion proved to be somewhat unique, taking into account the political and economic differences in each of the cases involved. It is encouraging to think that countries that are considered to be geographically associated are, however, different in essence and inevitably create different opportunities for migrant workers that have no other option but to change their working and living conditions.
In that sense, and despite the inconveniences mentioned above, it was overall a positive idea to join scholars from different backgrounds. The conclusions resulting from the discussions in April will be reflected in a book that is likely to be published by the end of the present year, both by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in PR China, and the Institute of Asian Studies in The Netherlands, and will hopefully allow all those who are interested in and working on migration and labour issues to have an illustrative instrument of reference.

Leila Fernandez-Stembridge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.

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