Critical Perspectives on Chinese Infrastructures

Title: 1384 | Critical Perspectives on Chinese Infrastructures
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Timothy Oakes, University of Colorado Boulder, United States (discussant)
Thorben Pelzer, Leipzig University, Germany (presenter)
Bo Wang, University of Lausanne, Switzerland (presenter)
Goeun Lee, University of Kentucky, United States (presenter, co-organizer, co-chair)
Leif Johnson, University of Kentucky, United States (presenter, co-organizer, co-chair)


Alongside recent work that has attempted to bring the broader “infrastructure turn” in the social sciences into deeper contact with work in China studies (see Oakes 2019), this session brings together scholars employing a variety of critical perspectives on Chinese infrastructures. The papers gathered in this session follow other infrastructure research in asking how (and who and where) people come into contact with the various infrastructural systems that move things and people through urban and rural China, how everyday life is shaped by the modernist promises of infrastructure (Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018), and what nationalist visions of infrastructure (Barker 2005) are generated in the context of China as the “paradigmatic infrastructural state” (Bach 2016). Panelists contributions range from ethnographic analysis of technological cultures surrounding waste disposal, to the historical and contemporary backgrounds that shape decisions taken by infrastructure engineers, to the interplay of capital and labor that goes into the construction of infrastructure itself. Methodologically, participants have employed ethnographic, discursive and archival approaches to critically analyze infrastructural projects that include transportation, communications, and waste disposal. Theoretically, while the papers collected here make arguments using diverse frameworks from political economy to politics of ethnicity and gender, they are united in their focus on the social inputs and implications of infrastructure as the set of material arrangements that enable things to move (Larkin, 2013).

Panel Abstracts:
US-Educated Engineers in Beiyang China: Wang Jingchun (1882–1956) and the Politics of Transportation
After the Qing abolished the Imperial examination system in 1905 and the US Congress passed the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program in 1908, Chinese student numbers in the USA grew rapidly. While studies have dealt extensively with humanities students of that era, including Hu Shi and Wellington Koo, the most popular major was engineering. No less politically concerned, Chinese engineering students joined the cosmopolitan movement and participated in democratic initiatives. Their time in the USA also shaped their understanding of the engineering profession, its ethics and “gentleman” ideals. The world of blueprints held its own political potential, through the ability to connect and nationalize regions via transport and communication. After their return to China, the students upkept their US networks and engineering ideals. Their democratic and nationalist views soon clashed with their first-hand professional experience. The technical incompetence and financial inability of war-ridden Beijing led to the believe that not bureaucrats, but experts should oversee infrastructure. Wang Jingchun (1882–1956), who studied civil engineering at Yale and in Illinois, was an influential Beiyang railway administrator. His career and thought are a prime example of civil engineering as a political practice. Through biographical analysis, including his many writings and archive material, the paper aims to reconstruct the dynamics behind Wang’s nationalist and cosmopolitan affiliations. His experiences as an engineer constantly reordered his perception of political realities, his ideals of governance, and his identity as a Chinese republican with Christian roots and a US biography.

Everyday Waste Habit Cultivation, Loudspeakers and Acoustic Spheres in Urban China
Since China’s 2018 foreign waste ban the state has continued its effort in posing restrictions on waste import, and in constructing a national environment for cultivating an everyday waste habit. While rigid regulations on household from door to waste bins provide a legal/solid infrastructure comprised of fines, acoustic spheres, such as loudspeakers, that are created in public space render effective in the everyday waste habit cultivation as a sensory/soft infrastructure. Aiming at mitigating waste, these loudspeakers themselves can become a source of waste, that is, sound pollution. Focusing on connections between loudspeakers and everyday waste habit cultivation, I argue that the differences in the techno-social context (Larkin 2008) and the aim of such acoustic technology matter, in that loudspeakers first assisted modern communication, then socialist propaganda, and now the ecological civilization project in China. I also argue that to achieve ecological civilization, the practice of establishing loudspeakers in public varies across regions. Evidence from ethnography shows that loudspeakers retreated from public space such as city squares in urban centers predominantly inhabited by Han, and gained centrality in urban temples of cities whose residents are minorities such as Tibetans. The differentiated techno-sociality of loudspeakers has to do with the state’s strategy: to negotiate with the Han majority versus to discipline the Tibetan minority, both as the target of ecological civilization. This differentiated strategy may lead to distinct acoustic spheres in which atmospheres of power are materialized through physical infrastructures (Chu 2014) and in return shape the everyday habit through sensory infrastructures.

Technologies of Waste Separation and Futuristic Masculinity in Shanghai
Through a series of policy notice in recent years, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) announced that a new nationwide waste-source separation policy will be fully implemented in 46 key cities by the end of 2020. Shanghai, as a testbed and a model of the new waste-source separation policy, attracted and commissioned companies and individuals to help advance the city’s waste infrastructure for the state’s sustainable development.This paper explores ways that male engineers engage with nationalist discourses through creating and marketing a "smart" waste bins for the new waste infrastructure. Using ethnographic data based on interviews and participant observation with a group of male engineers who create the artifacts that eventually appear on Shanghai streets, I show the infrastructural city making of Shanghai reinforces the symbolic association of technological advancement and masculinity (Wajcman 1991, Traweek 1988) through futuristic discourses. I argue that the notion of categorization which is essential in the design and operation of the AI waste bins is made into a conceptual device that disconnects (Marx 2010) urban infrastructure from the messy materiality of waste. Drawing on the Massey’s (1992) insight that future is spatially and theatrically crafted, I examine discourses and practices of male engineers who territorialize the modernist vision with a masculinist version of sustainable development.

"A High-quality Urban Life": Theorizing Ascriptions of Human and Material "Quality" in the Everyday Labor of a Shanghai Infrastructure Upgrading Project
With the official goals of continuing “high quality urban development,” constructing a “high-quality urban environment”, and providing “high-quality urban life,” Shanghai, China is currently undertaking a multi-year infrastructure renovation project in which all overhead cabling in in built-up areas of the city (including power lines, fiber optic cables, and legacy copper telephone cables) will rerouted underground, thus requiring the large-scale construction of new underground infrastructure and the removal of existing aboveground cabling from nearly every corner of the city. As is the case in other urban infrastructure construction projects in Shanghai and elsewhere across Asia (Kumar and Fernandez 2016), this project requires large quantities of construction labor, which is drawn from a low-wage, precarious, and largely informal migrant workforce (Swider 2015). Based on long-term participatory research alongside migrant workers employed by a subcontracting company directly engaged in the implementation of this infrastructure project, this paper argues that pervasive ascriptions of “quality” in both human (suzhi) and material (zhiliang) forms (see Jacka 2009; Kipnis 2006) play a key role in demarcating the boundaries of belonging and value in urban space. In turn, these boundaries facilitate infrastructure construction itself by maintaining an exploitable “low-quality” labor force that is nonetheless engaged in the construction of Shanghai as an exemplary, “high-quality” Chinese city

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