Feudal Future

Feudal Future Podcast — Episode 3

Rural-Urban Migration and Class Structure in China With Li Sun

In this episode of Feudal Future, hosts, Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, interview guest Li Sun. Li is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds in the UK. Originally from China, she has resided in several other countries since 2007, and is a consultant for the UN, the World Bank, the OECD, and the governments of the UK, the Netherlands, and China. Li’s main areas of research interest are China’s urbanization and globalization, and she is the author of Rural-Urban Migration and Policy Intervention in China.

The conversation begins with a discussion of Li’s work on Chinese migrants, which was influential on Joel’s own writing on feudalism. Li’s interest in the topic is grounded in her own experience, and she talks to Joel and Marshall about the “left-behind children” and “left-behind elderly” in China, the large population of migrant workers and how it developed and operates, some recent reforms, the impact of COVID-19 in China, and the rise of such tech as AI. With regard to COVID-19, Li points out that, because of the timing of the breakout in China, many migrant workers had already traveled home to celebrate the Chinese New Year at the time when lockdowns were declared; thus, they were not stuck in cities, but able to spend time with family as they stayed inside to protect themselves and the community.

One topic of special interest in the conversation is whether or not disparities between the wealthy and the poor in China could lead to unrest in the future. Li does not believe that this will happen, since migrant workers have last-resort recourse to rural property where they can work as sharecroppers (which is also a guard against homelessness in the nation). The Chinese focus on community good, the government’s top-down approach, and the different way of conceiving of social class in China than in the US all argue in favor of Li’s assessment. Moreover, Li points out that the migrant poor in China tend to be happy, since they see that they are better off than generations before them; they are not able to compare themselves to people in other parts of the world.

The conversation concludes with a consideration of the ingrained sense of personal responsibility that the Chinese tend to have, and which is not as broadly characteristic of the US.

Related links:
Learn about Li’s book Rural-Urban Migration and Policy Intervention in China
Learn more about the Feudal Future podcast.
Learn more about Marshall Toplansky.
Learn more about Joel Kotkin.