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Affects of urban non-citizenship: “Low-level” labor and underground infrastructure in a Shanghai urban upgrading project

Authors: Leif Johnson*, University of Kentucky
Topics: China, Migration, Political Geography
Keywords: Migration, Labor, Citizenship
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Based on analysis of the everyday lives and work of migrant construction workers engaged in a large-scale infrastructure project, this paper will argue that urban citizenship in the city of Shanghai, China is necessarily constructed on a foundation of abjection or exclusion of officially-undesirable people and unsightly urban imagery. With the official goals of continuing “high quality urban development,” constructing a “high-quality urban environment”, and providing “high-quality urban life,” Shanghai 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. This project requires large quantities of construction labor, which is drawn from a pool of low-wage, precarious, and largely informal migrant labor that is spatially, administratively, and culturally separated from relations of urban citizenship. Based on participatory research alongside migrant workers employed by a subcontracting company directly engaged in the implementation of this infrastructure project, this paper outlines the everyday relations that facilitate the removal of “unsightly” material from the visible urban environment as key infrastructure is moved underground and out of sight.

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