Labor, Capital, and Tourism in Rural China: Notes from an Applied Anthropologist in the Field

By Xianghong Feng
Eastern Michigan University

Xianghong Feng

Can you help me think what small business would be good for me to do?” San Ge1 asked me. It was after dinner at my host family’s (San Ge’s older brother) house in Longcun2 Village in Fenghuang County in the summer of 2011. San Ge just returned from Tuo River Town, the urban and tourist center of Fenghuang, where he drove tourists with his mini-van to rural areas where there was no public transportation available. San Ge had bad business that day again. “I made only 20 yuan today, not even enough to cover the gas money.” He complained.

Longcun Village in Fenghuang, China. Photo by Xianghong Feng.

In his early thirties, San Ge had worked as a migrant worker at factories in Hanzhou, an eastern city in China, for eight years before he returned to Longcun to be by his dying father’s bedside. His wife left him several years ago. Since then, his old parents had been caring for his two young children back in the village. He had two older brothers. Among the Miao, it was the youngest son’s responsibility to live with and care for the parents, a custom distinctly different from the Han. With his father’s passing away and his mother’s health deteriorating, he decided to stay. After all, life as a migrant labor in the city was harsh, and he wanted to be able to take care of the old and the young. With several tens of thousands yuan saved over the years from his wages, he wanted to start a small tourism business.

Fenghuang is a marginalized rural area in interior China, and slightly more than half of its population is Miao, one of the fifty-five officially recognized national minorities in China. With the booming of Miao village tours in remote rural communities, transporting tourists as a private driver seemed like a profitable business. San Ge spent ten thousand yuan on a driving school and a driver’s license, and the rest of his savings. Additionally, he used a loan from the local agriculture credit union to help him purchase a new mini-van. However, he had neither the financial capital nor the guanxi (social network) to obtain a commercial driver’s license. “We thought it would be good business,” San Ge asserted, “if it were not because I was so scared of getting caught by the traffic police and then paying a heavy fine, I would have had a lot more business.” When I spoke with him, he was not quite sure if he wanted to continue this business, and said, “I am tired of thinking these days. I have to think hard all the time how to make money. It is not like working as migrant labor when I barely needed to think. I knew exactly how much I would end up making every month.” He then asked, “Can you help me think what small business would be good for me to do?”

Involving predominately women at all ages, making and selling flower-wreaths to tourists was one of the few tourism-related small businesses left to the local people. Photo by Xianghong Feng.

I was not able to answer San Ge’s question right then. He sought my advice, believing that my education and research on Fenghuang’s tourism could point him to practical alternatives. Little did he know that few could likely offer a satisfactory answer to his question, a question at the core of many issues concerning Fenghuang’s tourism development.

In recent years many rural communities worldwide have undergone significant change as a result of the transition to income-generating, non-agricultural  activities such as tourism-related work. Although often advocated as an antidote for poverty, tourism in an impoverished region may be a product of national economic inequality and often disproportionately favors a few special-interest groups, especially when it is an elite-directed process (Bodley 2008). From an anthropological power and scale perspective (Bodley 2003), my previous research on tourism development in Fenghuang suggests that in the absence of counter measures, growth in the scale of local and regional income, revenues, and wealth will “naturally” tend to concentrate benefits and disperse costs, thereby unintentionally making economic development increasingly uneven (Feng 2008). With more and more tourist attractions and land use rights being leased out to outside private developers, the majority of the local people will be gradually excluded from small businesses that can provide a decent profit. In Fenghuang, those outside the circle of private developers will be forced to drop out of the tourism-with-a-decent-profit picture, because they have no access to now heavily privatized tourism resources. Furthermore, because they cannot afford the rocketing rent for a shop or stand, they are being marginalized more and more amidst the economic and political forces’ construction and reconstruction of local tourism space.

Applied anthropological tourism research could play a critical role in tourism development for the good of the community. To strive for a sustainable tourism, it is important to explore the aspirations and struggles of the local people’s involvement in tourism. Stronza (2001: 276) argues that “in current efforts to make tourism participatory and to involve local residents as decision makers in tourism projects, anthropologists can make a difference by focusing more attention on the reasons local residents choose, or are able, to become involved in tourism.” In case of the Fenghuang’s case, to assist the local lower-class Miao’s small-scale capital endeavor, external inputs such as providing microfinance through special programs sponsored by government or NGOs are instrumental. But what is more fundamental is the structure of local political and economic institutions.

Heading for the village Communist Party secretary's house for an interview, Xianghong Feng ran into a villager who was on her way to set up her souvenir stand before tourists' arrival. Photo by research assistant Huali Long.

The decentralization of budget and decision-making, along with the establishment of an increasingly liberating market gave local authorities new powers that were sometimes abused (Cartier 2001). Use rights of land and other resources were transferred through informal negotiations at rates that benefited the local authorities, and public participation in the process was non-existent (Cartier 2001; Lew 2007). The absolute control of the central government that had once extended well into its vast rural communities now resided increasingly in local governments at all levels, especially regarding specific economic and development policies. However, in the case of Fenghuang, the county government weakened itself as a state power financially and politically by leasing out tourist attractions and land use rights to outside private developers in the process of its large-scale capital-intensive tourism development (Feng 2008).

The paradox is that the withering of state power at local level is concurrent with the strengthening of its political officials’ personal wealth and influence through their facilitation to private developer’s pursuit of profit. According to Walder and Zhao (2006), China’s market economy enhanced the relative earning power derived from office and kinship ties to office holders in its rural communities. Lew (2007: 152-153) points out, “the division between government, politics and business is more blurred in China than in many Western market economies, creating a particular type of power relations often based on elite alliance or business ‘network’.” Such elite alliance and business networks at various local levels are the major forces shaping the social landscape in late socialist China. In the Fenghuang region, the individual political officials, connected with private developers, are reaping the most material rewards from its tourism market economy. Under existing conditions, local villagers like San Ge have few options for their small-scale entrepreneurial endeavors. Rural enterprise is the greatest contributor to rural inequalities in China (Khan and Riskin 2005; Zhou et al. 2008). In Fenghuang’s current situation, the improvement of local poor’s livelihood depends in a sense on their ability to shift the primary source of family income from labor to small-scale capital.

Yet such a shift seems increasingly difficult for the local Miao of Fenghuang, despite the prosperity of the local tourism market, despite their individual diligence and aspiration, and despite the availability of small capital through personal savings and small loans. Church and Coles (2006: 281) state that exposing power and powerlessness remains a key agenda for conducting relevant and meaningful studies of tourism in shaping contemporary social life. To have an impact on tourism practices, it is crucial to expose the system at work that produces and reproduces the power and powerlessness, and to explore the counter measures for sustainable changes striving for social equality. Assessing local choices and constraints in anthropological tourism research, as advocated by Stronza (2001), helps shed light on this practical orientation. In the tourism industry, small-scale entrepreneurial endeavors demand less on capital outlay, special skills, and education. The sociopolitical means and will to realize meaningful public participation for an equal share of the economic benefits and costs of tourism seems particularly critical to enable San Ge and his many fellowman gain more control for the improvement of their own living conditions.

As I was searching for an answer to San Ge’s question, I heard that San Ge was going back to Hanzhou again. Two days after he sold his mini-van to search for new small business opportunity, his eight-year old son was hospitalized in critical condition after an accidental fall in the village. Without insurance, the hospital bill cost San Ge all the money he had and some more borrowed from friends. “I really want to stay close and take care of two young kids. What is the use of money if I lose them? But I have no option, I have to go out again at least for a few more years to make some money. The kids are growing up, and I would like to be able to afford for them to continue school. Otherwise, they would end up like me. I have to go.” Ten days after his son was released from hospital, San Ge left for Hanzhou. Before his leaving, he asked a shaman from a neighboring village to come conduct a blessing ceremony for his family’s health and his moneymaking journey as a wage laborer in Hanzhou.

1. This is a pseudonym.

2. The village, which I call Longcun, is not its real name.

References Cited:
Bodley, John. 2003. The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Bodley, John. 2008. Victims of Progress. Fifth Edition. New York: AltaMira Press.

Cartier, Carolyn. 2001. Globalizing South China. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Church, Andrew and Tim Coles. 2006. Tourism and many faces of power. In Tourism, Power, and Space, edited by Andrew Church and Tim Coles, pp. 269-283. London: Routledge.

Feng, Xianghong. 2008. Who Benefits?: Tourism Development in Fenghuang County, China. Human Organization 67 (2): 207-220.

Khan, Azizur and Carl Riskin. 2005. China’s Household Income and Its distribution, 1995 and 2002. The China Quarterly 182: 356-384.

Lew, Alan. 2007. Pedestrian shopping streets and urban tourism in the restructuring of the Chinese city. In Tourism, Power, and Space, edited by Andrew Church and Tim Coles, pp 150-170. New York: Routledge.

Stronza, Amanda. 2001. Anthropology of Tourism: Forging New Ground for Ecotourism and Other Alternatives. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 261-283.

Walder, Andrew and Litao Zhao. 2006. Political Office and Household Wealth: Rural China in Deng Era. The China Quarterly 186: 357-376.

Zhou, Yingying, Han Hua, and Stevan Harrell. 2008. From Labour to Capital: Intra-Village Inequality in Rural China, 1988-2006. The China Quarterly 195: 515-534.

One Response to Labor, Capital, and Tourism in Rural China: Notes from an Applied Anthropologist in the Field

  1. David Binder says:

    I liked your article, I wanted to see if you will be at the conference this year in Baltimore? I would love the chance to talk more about this. Thank you
    David Binder

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