At our first meeting of the Sino-UK exchange programme at Sun Yat-Sen University, we met with Professor Guo and thirteen of his colleagues and students. Looks of interest, fascinating research projects, but also an unexpected injection of vitality - this is how we would describe the students and researchers we met today. It was a great day of learning.
During our introduction to the host group of Sun Yat-Sen University, the term 'hukou' frequently came up in conversation. This is a word that is likely to reappear in our blog. It is impossible to discuss citizenship in China without mentioning it.
Hukou, or the household registration system, has its origin in ancient northern China. Many East Asian countries used this system for centuries. Today, only China and Japan maintain the system. In practice, it means that the place where individuals are registered as residents does not change when they migrate. People registered in one area will have difficultly accessing benefits and other rights if they live in another. In China, hukou has acted as a regulator of rapid urbanisation by creating a two-tier citizenship regime. The effects of this are most visible in major urban areas. But will hukou reform, which the government is considering, bring a real change to an increasingly polarised society? Or will it be just a cosmetic cover of real issues?
The rights of rural migrants in urban cities emerged as a major issue in our discussions. Problems of environmental sustainability, labour rights, and divisions between rich and poor within the Asian city are topics that crossover with our own interests at the level of research, dialogue, and political action. The future of the city is inextricably tied to the rural agrarian economy globally. Our sympathies, interests and convictions are tangled in routes across borders and roots in different foresaken soils: the plight of the migrant worker, the struggle of the almost all but forgotten farmer, the exploitation of the urban poor. "It is a sad issue," someone says. And yet, beyond sadness it is an issue that broaches a space for translation.
During the meeting and the following dinner, discussions on cutting-edge research, on historical and cultural forms of citizenship were intermingled with jokes, laughter and negotiations of forms of national identity. Performing one's culture and family history in a new context and in the presence of strangers always generates a different experience. It not only reveals new sides of ourselves, but also gives birth to some interactions that cannot be replicated. The energy in the air tonight was thrilling. Hospitality, friendship, curiosity, genuine efforts to understand each other notwithstanding the insufficiencies of language, to assume our ‘common’ desire of ‘communication’ as the post-orientalist principle of our little new-born ‘community'; these were the special ingredients of tonight ‘s dinner with our Chinese hosts at Sun Yat-Sen University.
At one point, we wondered whether a possible direction to our questions on ‘after orientalism’ was to be found precisely at the dining table. No matter how strong our differences, we were there to share; and the whirling surface of our dinner was a testament to the idea of a fundamental sharing, especially when compared to our individualized dining style in Europe, with each course in its allocated place. Looking at the different dishes, the way they were mixed together in the same plate, refusing the linear discipline of Western first, second, third course – this Chinese way seemed to resonate with the profusion and blending of discourses and questions that were circulating as the dishes were passed around.
We are lucky enough to be in excellent company. The joys of academic thought and dialogue are perhaps not found with immediate answers, but in carving out imaginative futures.
- The Oecumene Team, 10 June 2013