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The Would-Be Migrant: Post-Socialist Primitive Accumulation, Potential Transnational Mobility, and the Displacement of the Present in Northeast China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2014


This article argues that ‘would-be migrants’ – people who prepare for migrating overseas to the extent that their present lives are significantly changed – should become a central figure in migration studies. There are many more would-be migrants than actual migrants, and they also have deeper impacts on migration processes and local societies. Instead of treating the would-be migrant as a derivative of the category of ‘migrant’, this article establishes it as the primary figure, and argues that migration is a contingent outcome of being a ‘would-be’. In order to do so this article delves into the living conditions of would-be migrants in northeast China, with a focus on two aspects that concern them the most: the exorbitant intermediary fees and the high risks involved. The would-be migrants' experiences suggest that the prevalent pattern of unskilled outmigration since the 1990s should be understood as a result of developments inside of China, particularly a condition that I call the ‘displacement of the present’. The figure of would-be migrant is not only methodologically revealing for migration studies, but also urges us to rethink how we may engage with rapid social changes.

Copyright © Institute of East Asian Studies, Sogang University 2014 

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