History of Representation of Migrant Workers in China
Globalization, according to Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (2006), is the “reorganization of time, space, people, and things”. Under such context, the unprecedented advancement in technology and economy enable mass movement of population. The border and the distance across places are no longer limiting individuals like they used to. China, with a population of 1,370,536,875 (National Bureau of Statistics, 2011), has taken a major place in the manufacturing segment of the global market. In every corner of the world, it is not hard to see products labeled with “Made in China”. However, while many people benefit from the low prices and good quality of Chinese products, few people are aware of the stories and issues behind them. Most of the products are made by migrant workers, who account for nearly one fifth of the entire Chinese population——286,520,000 people (National Bureau of Statistics, 2017). However, seeking a living in cities is not an easy task for migrant workers. To understand the challenges and issues with migrant workers, one must connect the history of Chinese migration and the current state of the representation of labor.
Easily ignored, migrant workers and their representations are rarely topics of discussion in contemporary media and can often be overlooked by the majority of the population. Therefore, it is important to ask these two questions: What are the contemporary conditions and representations of Chinese migrant workers, seen through the Chinese government’s perspective, and the influence of the history of television in China on these representations? What are the stakes and implications involved in these modes of representation?
Exploring the hukou system and its effect on the migrant experience lays a basis for understanding the rural migrant experience. However, their representation is not one dimensional. Instead, it is multifaceted, with representation coming from the Chinese government and the media which is governed by the restrictions set in place by that same government. The discrepancies between the representation of Chinese migrant workers their actual situation highlight the insufficiency in their representationwithin their citizenship, workplace, and community, revealing the inherent power hierarchy and presenting challenges in changing their circumstance.
Before an understanding of representation can occur, there must first be an understanding of the situation being presented to Chinese migrant workers, coming from rural to urban districts. The main reason why large numbers of workers are traveling so far is because of China’s economic boom occurring over the last three decades, mostly in the manufacturing sectors (Holdstock, 2017: 5). The abundance of cheap labor from the countryside made China an attractive place for multinational corporations to open factories (Holdstock, 2017: 5).
Migrating to a large city and buying a home is not an option for most workers because every Chinese citizen has a hukou, a document that ties them to a specific place (Holdstock, 2017: 6). A person’s ability to claim rights to basic services such as health care, education, subsidized public housing, a pension, and unemployment benefits are limited to the area where they are registered, and the same applies for their children (Holdstock, 2017: 6). This system grew out of a method of family registration in Ancient China used to impose taxes and conscription (Holdstock, 2017: 6). Now, it has become the main reason why people travel so far for work, leaving their children at home because they do not have access to public education.
The only way for migrants to become permanent city dwellers is if they can switch their hukou to the city, which is a rarity, or for the system to be abolished all-together (Holdstock, 2017: 7). In 2001, the People’s Daily blamed the hukou system for the widening gap in urban and rural wealth (Holdstock, 2017: 90). In 2014, the Chinese government began to clarify the ways the system would be amended (Holdstock, 2017: 89). While in theory migrants would be able to apply for permanent residency in any urban setting, in reality there was a daunting set of requirements that would exclude them from receiving residency (Holdstock, 2017: 86). For medium and large cities like Beijing, the requirements are prohibitive, involving a point system that rewarded people who held college degrees or those who studied abroad (Holdstock, 2017: 89). Yet people admitted on this point system were limited as well because of the quota put in place (Holdstock, 2017: 89).
The hukou system has turned into a system of apartheid where rural migrants are second-class city dwellers (Holdstock, 2017: 6). Sylvie Démurger investigates migrants as second-class workers and the income gap by using statistical microsimulation on a nationally representative sample of incomes from 2002 (2009: 610). The growing number of rural migrants in the Chinese labor market raises the possibility for discrimination and difficulties, receiving low income and delayed payment as well as working longer than legal working times in low-end jobs (Démurger, 2009: 611). The Chinese Household Income Project 2002 survey data indicates that 70% of rural migrants perceive discrimination in terms of wage paid for equal work, type of work, and working hours (Démurger, 2009: 611).
Démurger assesses the sources of the strong income differences between urban residents and long-term rural migrants in contemporary urban China (2009: 622). The main finding of the statistical distribution revealed that the population effect is robust (Démurger, 2009: 610). This implies that the main source of difference between migrant workers and urban residents comes from pre-market situations, such as educational opportunities (Démurger, 2009: 610). The strongest sources of earning differences is found to be related to differences in population structures, the rural migrant population being much less experienced and much less educated (Démurger, 2009: 624). Decentralization in education has increased educational costs for rural households, while at the same time it has increased opportunity in urban areas (Démurger, 2009: 624). This data begs the logical conclusion that public policies reducing the cost of education for rural people could help bridge the income gap between rural and urban citizens (Démurger, 2009: 624).
As we move towards understanding the situation of migrant workers in China, it is also important to understand the different avenues with which they can be represented, and the differences that may be observed across platforms and across geographical regions. To start, China and its many newspapers have continually written to the and about the situation of rural migrant workers coming to urban city centers.
To give some context, in Mainland China, the news media are owned by either the central government or the state, are required to follow Communist party and government policies, and act as ―the bridge between the party and the people (Chu, 2010). The government regulates the news media through the General Administration of Press and Publication of the People‘s Republic of China (Chu, 2010). This agency has the right to issue or cancel news media licenses, establish press regulations and laws, and appoint or remove chief editors (Chu, 2010).
After the economic reform in 1978, China‘s media have experienced an increasingly commercialization. Many media outlets have become or have attempted to become financially self-sufficient as the state cut funding to the media (Chu, 2010). Some were transformed into state-owned corporate media groups with a wide range of commercial interests, generally including both a major Party newspaper and others more commercially focused (Chu, 2010). The Party relaxed its censorship on those non-purely state-run media, and thus these media could provide more mass-appeal content to please the audience so as to extend their market share (Chu, 2010).
Since 2000, the Chinese press has been more attentive to the plight of migrant workers, especially during 2004-2009, when the Chinese government released policies concerning rural areas, farmers, and migrant workers (Chu, 2010). The media highlights migrant workers’ limited access to education and government services and reports suggest that the migrant workers’ social and economic status make them akin to illegal immigrants (Chu, 2010). In fact, millions of farmers who have abandoned the land remain stuck at the margins of urban society and phenomenon has led to numerous problems such as children left in rural households without parental supervision, rising crime rates, unemployment, and exploitative employer practices (Chu, 2010).
Framing migrant workers in the Chinese media, studies that have examined the plight of migrant workers indicated that this marginalized group has been underrepresented and treated with prejudice in the Chinese media (Chu, 2010). Some claimed that media reports have constructed false realities around this group (Chu, 2010). Studies have also shown that media coverage of migrant workers always focuses on their identity as workers but not as citizens of a city (Chu, 2010). Chu (2010) reported that the coverage of migrant workers usually includes the following eight topics: migration and management, crime, relationship with industry (difficulties in finding jobs and delays in the paying of salaries), relationship with cities (how migrant workers adapt to city life or how they change cities), relationship with their friends and relatives (children left behind in villages), daily life (sources of entertainment), and transportation during holidays (means of getting home and returning to the cities).
Chu also reported that although migrant workers’ relationships with industry receive a lot of attention, their relationships with people around them and their daily lives are rarely discussed. These practices help create the image of migrant workers as a burden to society. Industry safety (physical harm to workers in unsafe working conditions) was the dominant topic employed by the Lanzhou Evening News (Chu, 2010). Social security, salary, and the protection of individual rights were commonly occurring topics. Four other topics that were also common: (a) policy (such as migrant workers’ medical care, housing, and insurance), (b) accidents (inside and outside the workplace), (c) protection of individual rights, and (d) social help (Chu, 2010). They stated that newspapers were concerned about migrant workers’ employment, housing, medical care, social security, children's education, and skills training. The publications also spared no effort to report on salary issues, accidents, disasters, and crime. Issues such as cultural life and work safety were covered rarely, and migrant workers’ physical and mental health and other daily life issues were practically ignored.
The newspapers in Mainland China focused on the government policies or regulations towards migrant workers, saying that the government needs to take care of them and respect them. When central and local governments had meetings, government officials were often quoted as saying, “Migrant workers are very important labor force in our country, and they are also our brothers and sisters” (Chu, 2010).
By comparison, the representation of migrant workers in Hong Kong is relatively different than the portrayal by Mainland China. This is because of the different structures of the Hong Kong news system and the unique history of Hong Kong in general. In Hong Kong, the government-media relationship did not change dramatically after the reunification of China in 1997. Under the “one country, two systems‖ promise” Hong Kong is still a capitalist society, and the media are mostly privately owned. Although the Chinese government let Hong Kong maintain existing broadcasting laws, which limited political authority over licensing, it also moved to restrict peaceful protests and to control civic organization’s ties with foreign groups (Chu, 2010). The Chinese government’s interest in keeping news coverage from supporting independent political interests within Hong Kong and Taiwan, potential subversion of Chinese communist authority, and personal attacks on Chinese figures.
These political concerns are managed within Hong Kong’s journalism through ―strategic rituals (such as offering opposing points of view, both critical and supportive of Beijing); distinguishing editorials, which must not critique Beijing, from freelance columns, which may; and utilizing narrative forms that use conditional language and assert face over opinion (Chu, 2010).
Because Hong Kong media ecology is dominated by the businessmen-acquired professional press, their primary goal is to boost market share and attract attention, which is achieved through human interest stories (Chu, 2010). These type of stories leads the coverage about migrant workers. A report in Wenwei Po on November 7, 2007, for example, was about a crime toward 40 migrant workers in Inner Mongolia, the journalist described the injury of one worker in gruesome detail: serious skull fracture, brain hemorrhage, surgical removal of the skull fragments of nearly 7 cm in diameter and so on (Chu, 2010). In general, the Hong Kong news media frequently reported on crime and personal accidents that happened to migrant workers in 2006 and 2007 (Chu, 2010). Some of these include the kidnapping of migrant workers in Shanxi Brick kiln, injuries of migrant workers who asked for their owed wages in Inner Mongolia, the mine disaster and mountain torrents caused the death of migrant workers and so on (Chu, 2010).
The content analysis reveals significant differences in the news frames between the two regions. Attribution of responsibility and morality are the most frequently used frames in Mainland newspapers, while human interest and responsibility frames dominate coverage in Hong Kong newspapers (Chu, 2010). Media in both regions portray this issue with a fairly neutral tone but have different attitudes towards the Chinese central government. Mainland news articles show a positive attitude, while Hong Kong journalists hold a neutral stance (Chu, 2010).
In addition to representation within newspapers from journalists in Hong Kong and Mainland China, representation comes from television stations and different programs that highlight the migrant experience from a unique lens. To understand this lens, we must explore what television in China is like today.
Altogether, there are over 3,000 television stations across the country and large international TV expositions, including the Shanghai Television Festival, Beijing International Television Week, China Radio and Television Exposition and Sichuan Television Festival, are held on a regular basis (Guo, 1991). Since China entered the World Trade Organization, the trend within China's media industry is to form inter-media and trans-regional media groups operated with multiple patterns so as to meet competition and challenges from powerful overseas media groups (Guo, 1991).
When looking at television programming in Mainland China, decisions about what programs are shown and censorship is controlled entirely by the state and is handled by the General Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Hays, 2019). In May 2004, SARFT issued guidelines to local stations required TV anchors to refrain from dying their hair strange colors and wearing bizarre clothes, ordered celebrities to not wear trendy clothing and Western fashions and told television station to show less foreign programming that does not fit China's ‘social system and national conditions” (Hays, 2019). In recent years, however, Chinese broadcasters have become increasing freewheeling and independent, pushing the line of what censors have deemed acceptable (Hays, 2019). Despite this, there are still many rules and regulations television stations must follow. In 2007, the main television regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, instructed CCTV and other networks to limit prime-time programming to “ethically inspiring TV series that could reflect the reality of China in a positive way” (Hays, 2019). For an eight-month period preceding the National Party Congress meeting in the autumn of 2007, the Chinese broadcasting monitor call for only “ethical inspiring television shows to be broadcast during prime time as part of the effort to promote national harmony and ensure a better television environment” (Hays, 2019).
More recently, in October 2014, rules were passed to ensure that actors and actresses that have used drugs, visited prostitutes, or broken the law are not allowed to appear on television, movies, or other forms of broadcast (radio and advertisement) in China (Hays, 2019). The ban also encompasses online media, film and publishing. China Daily reported that the ban is meant to “keep the industry healthy” and “celebrities who break the law should not be invited to appear in programs, and transmission of their words should be suspended” (Hays, 2019). It was also noted that “recent cases involving stars using drugs or visiting prostitutes have harmed the image of the entertainment industry and set a bad example for young people” (Hays, 2019).
In addition, CNN has reported that their broadcast agreement in China includes an arrangement that their signal must pass through a Chinese-controlled satellite. In this way, Chinese authorities have been able to black out CNN segments at will. CNN has also said that their broadcasts are not widely available in China, but rather only in certain diplomatic compounds, hotels, and apartment blocks (Hays, 2019). Blacked out content has included references to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Dalai Lama, the death of Zhao Ziyang, the 2008 Tibetan unrest, the Chinese milk scandal of 2008 negative developments about the Beijing Olympics, and historical dramas, such as Story of Yanxi Palace(Hays, 2019). An example of the way censorship is employed comes during the Summer Olympics in Beijing. All Chinese television stations were orderee to delay live broadcasts by ten seconds, a policy designed to give censors time to react to different things such as demonstrations of Tibet protests or other political protests (Hays, 2019). During a television report of the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, the state-run China Central Television abruptly cut away from its coverage of the address when he spoke of how earlier generations faced down fascism and communism” (Hays, 2019).
Most recently, the government has also added rules and censorship in regard to banning homosexuality, drinking, and vengeance on television. These restrictions instituted by SARFT, one of the main media censorship bodies, do not allow Chinese producers to make television shows depicting “abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior”, including “homosexuality” or “perversion” (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016). These new rules also ban shows that depict smoking, drinking, adultery, sexual freedom or reincarnation, among many other activities (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016).
China’s“General Rules for Television Series Content Production” were first reported by Chinese media on March 2nd, 2016 after being made public by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) at an annual meeting of China’s television producers on February 27thof that same year (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016). Li Jingsheng, head of SARFT’s TV series unit, told the meeting that online dramas will have the same restrictions, and staff censors will supervise online content around the clock (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016).
The rules are an update of ones issued in 2010 (link in Chinese) by SARFT, but with far more detail, and mark the first time that Beijing has issued specific bans on many themes (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016). The rules have been drafted in order to “thoroughly implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech at the national forum on literature,” to promote China’s TV industry, and to help TV series producers to avoid risks during production, the introduction says (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016). Television production companies were told that they should “earnestly follow the regulations in the general rules, actively produce the content promoted by the general rules, and must not produce any content that is banned by the general rules” (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016).
Article five of the rule spells out which “specific content must not appear in television series,” and includes a lengthy list of banned content, mentioned by Horwitz and Zheping and the most relevant included below:
A. Does not meet the national conditions and social systems, to the detriment of national image, endangers national unity and social stability:
a. Damages the image of the country, state systems and policies.
b. Damages the image of army, police, national security forces, judicial officers and other specific professions, groups, and public. figures of other social organizations and group.
c. Exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society.
d. Belittles the role of people in promoting [China’s] historical development.Sets a negative character as a main character, or exaggerates the positive sides of a reactionary, backwards, evil, or illegal [acting] person, society, or organization.
e. Promotes feudal dynasties’ conquests in other countries in Chinese history.
f. Promotes colonialism in dialogue, cinematography, or titles.
g. Breaks with national sentiment, lacks a foundation in basic living, or promotes an luxurious lifestyle
B. Damages ethnic groups unification:
a. Plots, line, titles, characters, shots, or music that hurt the feelings of ethnic groups
b. Exaggerates, vilifies, or insults unique ethnic customs and religious beliefs
c. Shows ethnic wars or historic incidents that hurt the feelings of ethnic groups
d. Shows the history of inter-ethnic conquests as wars between nations
C. Contains pornographic or vulgar content
a. Depicts prostitution, fornication, rape and other ugly behaviors
b. Expresses or displays abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior, such as incest, homosexuality, perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence.
c. Promotes unhealthy views of marriage and relationships, including extra-marital affairs, one night stands, and sexual freedom.
d. Contains shots that give sensory stimulus, and similar manifestations and indirectly related to or suggestive of sex
e. Contains shots, lines, music and sound effects that are obvious allusions to sexual advances, sexual harassment, sexual humiliation.
f. Exposes of male and female sexual organs and other hidden parts, or contain sexually suggestive clothing
g. Uses vulgar language
h. Contains sex-related images, lines, music, sound effects that are not suitable for minors
D. Distorts ethnic cultural traditions
a. Exaggerates ethnic or social aspects that are lagging behind
b. Contradicts basic historical facts to “reverse a verdict”‘ for the historical figures or historical events which have been settled, or [attempts to] “rectify the name” of controversial historical figures or historical events.
c. Tampers with classic works of art, or distorts their original spirit
d. Contradicts basic knowledge of history, lacks historical basis, or distorts history
e. Depicts history, especially revolutionary history, as leisure or a game
The rules are part of a concerted crackdown on what China’s state media can show, and formalize attempt to scrub depictions of homosexuality from entertainment around the country (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016). However, these many rules and regulations have dire ramifications for the representation of subjugated people within China. There are very specific regulations on how to depict minorities and an emphasis on unity and strength and ramifications for shows that deal with social unrest and separation. The restrictions have very real consequences for the representation of migrant workers within China in television shows.
While they were publicized by SARFT, they were issued by the China Television Drama Production Industry Association, a 400 member group that produces 90% of China’s television content, and the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television, a self-described civil society group (Horwitz & Zheping, 2016).If enforced as written the rules would force many of China’s most popular shows off the air.
Exploring the representation of migrant workers made by the Chinese government becomes increasingly important when there is an understanding of the power relations between the two entities. The dynamics of media representation reproduce forms of symbolic power, and when looking at a country like China, where all forms of media are either regulated or produced by the state, the symbolic power associated with representation belongs almost exclusively to the Chinese government (Hall, 2002).
The representation that is being analyzed comes in the form of a television show. “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids” is a show aired on Jinan TV, a network that covers the Shandong and Jinan province areas and portrays the life of a married couple who are migrant workers struggling to find their place in Beijing (Teng, 2015). In the beginning of the series, Tian Beilei gets pregnant with a second child and her husband Guo Yiming supports her decision to get an abortion because of the financial burden of a second child (Teng, 2015). When Yiming’s parents find out that Beilei is pregnant, they rush to the hospital to stop the termination of the pregnancy (Teng, 2015). After this, both the Guo parents and Tian parents decide to live with the young couple to ensure that Beilei doesn’t get an abortion, leading to conflict and tension in the home (Teng, 2015).
The premise of the television series portrays multiple ideas of progress. Progress, as defined by Keohane, can come to mean many things. Progress can be the idea that humanity is steadily moving forward, becoming better than it once was (Keohane, 1982: 27). Yet, it can also be defined as a willingness to take responsibility, improving oneself morally leading to the improvement of the entire species (Keohane, 1982: 32). It is also interpreted as a steady development in technology, the economy, and economic security for the majority (Keohane, 1982: 25). Beilei and Yiming’s stance as migrant workers implies an economic progress in the country, where a necessity for labor and migration signals a healthy economy. In this way, the series portrays progress in the life of the migrant workers.
In addition to economic progress, “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for my Kids” portrays a moral progress even when only looking at the title. Becoming a migrant worker for the good of a child and of a family, as stated in the title shows a willingness for self-sacrifice. The couple puts themselves in a difficult situation to give opportunities to their child, taking a sobering responsibility for their actions and the consequences their child will face because of them (Keohane, 1982: 32). The filial piety of both Beilei and Yiming shown by their generosity in allowing both sets of parents to live with and off of them throughout the series paints a moral progressiveness that emphasizes the good of others over selfishness. This portrayal of progress feeds into the representation of the family, and by extension families of migrant workers in China.
The representation of this extended family in Beijing is very specifically tailored. Stuart Hall states that a representation is not only standing in for the true meaning of the object represented, with a gap between reality and representation, but that representation distorts reality (Hall, 2002). When looking at “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids”, there is a clear representation of what a migrant worker’s family and life looks like. Already, Beilei’s character is presented as being from Beijing, her parents living there, which means that she has a hukou belonging to Beijing (Teng, 2015). This means Beilei and her family are entitled to healthcare, education, pension, and unemployment benefits in Beijing, something little to no migrant workers are afforded. This representation shapes the perceived reality of a migrant worker’s life, creating the idea that all life for migrant workers is this fundamentally easy.
In Episode two, Beilei is seen working at a high-level company and in Episode five, her company throws a party that the extended family attends (Teng, 2015). Episode four shows the Tian family able to afford a surgery for Beilei’s father, who suffers from a heart attack, and Yiming drives around the city in a car to reach the Tians (Teng, 2015). The house that Yiming and Beilei lives in is big enough for the whole extended family and the fridge is always stocked with food (Teng, 2015). These facts by themselves mean nothing, but they are used to represent the average experience for the Chinese migrant worker. According to the Chinese government, this is what the life of a migrant worker looks like, with these afforded amenities and luxuries. This is what is being shown to the citizens of China, which is why it is important to look at the picture that is being painted of this family and of the way they can live their lives. Because representation is not separate of an object, but instead weaved into the constitution of the object being represented, this television show becomes reality (Hall, 2002). Yet, this created reality is not representative of migrant life and the misleading image that the government is presenting through this show invalidates the majority experience. The representation presented by this television show enables the distortion of the reality faced by migrant workers and is reinforced by TV censorship and the total control of media presented to the public.
Besides governmental representation of migrant workers that prevails in the media and underplays their hardships, the representation by migrant workers themselves are rarely seen by the public due to social marginalization.
Instead what prevails is the government’s curated view of the situation. Chinese cities are depicted as spaces with potent economic opportunities and development where rural migrants can accumulate economic capital. However, accumulation through mobility entails various violent and alienating experiences as result of state instruments. This sentiment is expressed through various processes of 'othering' in visual culture, which can serve to produce and reinforce disparity. The rural is marked as other and occupying a space in contrast to the urban.
Television is a powerful technology that has the capacity to shape social relations and values as well as establish and maintain forms of cultural hegemony within societies. In the case of texts likethe drama above,the power of television also relies on its capacity to make sense of mobility, to translate the social forces of motion and their implications for subjectivity into commonly understood everyday realities. The wide spread circulation of television shows and the structure of television is extremely significant in the construction of perceived realities.
These understandings make it possible to normalize the current place of the floating population as a nomadic labor force who are essential to the development of Chinese cities and yet are not 'desired' to remain in urban places. In rejecting the urban settlement of migrants in cities, rural-urban disparity is left unchallenged and in the process legitimized and reproduced.
This paper has gone through the historical and contemporary context of migrant workers within China by exploring the hukou system and the how it has shaped the migrant workers’ experience. Holdstock showed the complexity of moving to the city to work without a hukou and Démurger investigated the income gap the migrant workers face once they reach the city and its causes. Hays layed out the history of television and censorship in China, while Horwits and Zheping highlighted more current and specific rules that television shows must abide by. Chu brought forth an analysis of newspapers in Mainland China and Hong Kong, and the differences in both of their framing and portrayals of the situation that faces migrant workers.
In addition, through the analysis of the Chinese and Hong Kong newspapers’ differing news stories and themes and the research of the primary sources “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids”, the representation of migrant workers was analyzed through the perspective of the government. Though representation is conflicting and multifaceted, it is clear that these works have shown the discrepancies between the representations of perspectives and the semi-distorted reality that is publicized in Mainland China in comparison to the lived experince.Overall, the portrayals presented by the government in both news and television highlights the tensions felt in real life.
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