Creating Community, Rejecting Community: Migrant Women in Beijing
Elisa Oreglia
School of Information UC Berkeley


In the summer 2007, I conducted a 2-month research1 on the social lives of six young Chinese rural-to-urban migrant women in Beijing and their use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). I did a series of semi-structured interviews, and spent considerable lengths of time participating to their social activities, as well as observing them while at work. Between 2007 and 2009, I remained in more or less regular contact with three of the interviewees, through occasional emails and online chats, and I have had a chance to observe from afar some of the changes that were occurring in their lives and in their ICT use. In the summer 2009, back in Beijing, I was able to meet again five of the six original interviewees, to again interview and spend time with them. A longitudinal analysis is particularly useful when taking the use of ICT as an entry point to understand people’s lives, because it allows the researcher to be aware of the greater context of her findings. In 2007, there was virtually no Internet use among my interviewees, and I was not expecting the dramatic change I found in the summer 2009, when everybody was using social networking websites. Although I cannot point to specific factors that have caused this change, if indeed they exist, the existence of the change itself has been an important lesson on the necessity to take a long-term approach when developing policies or programs based on ICT. In discussing the discipline of social informatics and its objectives, Rob Kling states that “Our point… is to understand how (people and groups) behavior can help us develop empirically-grounded concepts that help us to predict (or at least understand) variations in the ways that people and groups use information technologies.” (1999). Understanding changes in behaviors through time can help us grasp better the relationship between people and information technologies. ‘Change’ is, in fact, the main theme of this paper, and the lives of the women I interviewed are more in flux than more established segments of the population. They are part of what in China is known as ‘the floating population,’ that is migrants who move back and forth between the countryside and urban areas, and find themselves as ‘in-betweeners,’ as Tamara Jacka defines them, people who are neither urbanites nor locals (Jacka 2006, Solinger 1999). Their use of ICT is in constant flux. The communities to which they belong are ever-changing: they are caught between home-based communities, embodied by family and former classmates, and newly-created urban communities that are made of other migrant workers. Both communities are alternatively embraced and rejected. Meanwhile, their urban experience is characterized by failed attempts at joining communities of urbanites, who are typically unwelcoming. In this paper, I explore the existence of different communities, and how ICT are, can be, or are not, tools to support them.

In 2007, I interviewed six women: three who worked at a university (Ms Wang, Ms Long and Ms Xie), and three who worked in the private sector, in beauty and massage parlors (Ms Wei, Ms Song and Ms Wu).2 They were all in their early twenties, from different provinces, and had been in Beijing for three to seven years; some of them had boyfriends, a couple of them were transforming their jobs into careers. Only one of the women had family in the city, while all the others came alone or with friends from their various hometowns. They chose Beijing because it is the capital, and they all thought that they would find many more opportunities there than back home. They all found jobs right away, and although these jobs often turned out to be less than ideal, nobody was planning to go back home in the near future. They all went back home for more or less regular visits, at least once a year and more often if time and money allowed, and a couple of them said that their families wanted them to go back to get married.

The interviewees belong to two distinct groups: one that represents a more established pattern of migration, where young, unmarried women go (or are sent) to work in the city in order to help financially their families. Ms Xie, Ms Long and to a certain extent Ms Wang belong to this group: they moved to the city to help support their families, and are sending part of their wages back home. The second group represents a different type of migration, where young women move to urban areas mainly to see the world and fulfill their ambitions, and do not need to send money back home. Ms Wei, Ms Song, Ms Wu moved to Beijing with this self-realization goal in mind, to find good jobs and improve their chances in life, and without any financial obligation toward their family of origin.3 As I will describe more in detail later, the shift from the former “need-based” to the latter “desire-driven” migration shapes the way these women perceive their jobs and their income. Even though the two groups are very similar in terms of how they live, their work conditions and hours, their ambitions, and even their spending patterns (most of their disposable income goes towards fashion items and ICT), the women who do not need to send money home are readier to change jobs and take risks, as well as less concerned about saving money.

The following short biographical sketches might be useful to understand better the lives of these women as individuals, rather than as simply part of the group of anonymous Chinese internal migrants that are notable mostly for their numbers.4

Ms Wang (25 years-old in 2009) is from Shanxi, and has been in Beijing since 2000. When she was in her early teen, her parents and elder brother moved to Beijing to work at a university, and she joined them as soon as she finished middle school. She has worked at the same university first as a waitress, and then in the foreign students building. In 2007, she made about 1,500 Renminbi per month, and gave all her earnings to her father, who then gave her an allowance. In 2009, she is still working at the university; she has been promoted and is now in charge of the daily managing of the international students building, under an administrator. In theory, her shifts are quite regular, but in practice she is on call whenever there are other people’s shifts to cover, or events that require a certain degree of decision making, such as guest registration. She is now earning about 2,800 Renminbi per month, which she considers quite good, especially compared to current wages outside. In 2007, she lived in a shared room in the university dorms for staff. She recently married, and is now living with her husband at her in-laws house.

Ms Long (23) and Ms Xie (24) also work at a university, Ms Long at the reception of the international students building, and Ms Xie as a cashier in one of the campus supermarkets. Their family situations are very similar: they are both the eldest daughters, Ms Long of three and Ms Xie of four children, they were both sent by their families to Beijing as soon as they finished middle school to earn money to keep their younger siblings in school, and they are both supposed to send half of their pay back home. Both women like shopping very much, and struggle with the fact that, as Ms Xie puts it, “pressures (to buy clothes and keep up with others) are high, and money is not enough.” In 2009, Ms Long is still at the university, and has been promoted to a position of more responsibility. The wage is about 1,700 Renminbi per month, a substantial increase since 2007. She still lives in the dormitory at the university, sharing her room with seven other colleagues. Her parents still expect her to send half of her pay home, but, as in 2007, she still sends less because “there is so much to buy in the city!” and because now her sister works, so there is less need for her money. Ms Xie has left the university, and I have not been able to talk to her, but her former colleagues told me that she is still in Beijing.

Ms Song (25) is from Anhui, and has been in Beijing since 2004. In 2007, she worked as receptionist /supervisor/accountant for an upscale nail salon, which also provided her with a room, shared with three other colleagues. She had a boyfriend, for whom she had found a job at the same salon, and was saving money to get married; she did not need to send money to her family. She got married in October 2007; in 2008 she was promoted to manager of the nail salon; in early 2009 she moved out of the dorm to rent a small apartment; in August of the same year she had a baby, and was planning to go back to work as soon as possible.

Ms Wu (27) is from Shanxi, has been in Beijing since 2001 and works as a masseuse. She arrived with a few middle school friends, to see the world rather than to make money for her family. She is the youngest of six children, the only female, and by her own admission rather spoilt. In Beijing she soon realized that she was working hard, but her boss was the one making money, so she decided that she wanted “to be the boss.” In May 2007 she and five colleagues opened their own massage parlor. They were making less money than when they were employed, but enough to live on, and, they all agreed, worth the freedom. The shop closed early this year, but all the partners are still in Beijing, some back to salaried work, some unemployed. Ms Wu is currently unemployed, but is not looking for a job. She has gone back to school to study Japanese. For the time being she says she is happy “resting” and has enough money to get by without a job. She rents a room in an apartment, which she shares with one of the friends with whom she came to Beijing and with whom she set up the massage parlor. She has a boyfriend and he wants to get married, but she wants to wait, because “after you get married, there is a lot of pressure to have children, and children are expensive.”

Ms Wei (20) is from Shaanxi, and has been in Beijing since 2004. She came “to see the capital,” and to become a beautician. She has three siblings, one of whom is in Beijing, but does not need to send money back home. In 2007 she spent most of her earnings in shopping and fun, and she says that this is still true in 2009. In 2007, she really liked her job as manicurist, but now is bored and is not sure what to do in the future. She has changed workplaces a few times in the past two years, and has moved to different neighborhoods, unlike the other interviewees who have stayed in the same area where they first found a job. She goes home every few months, often after quitting a job, but always comes back to Beijing. She says that her future will be here.

All these women work in the service industry, rather than in factories, and this is significant for at least three reasons. Firstly, women in the service sector work and live according to a very different schedule than women working in factories. While the latter’s lives are dominated by the clock (Lee 1998), the patterns in the service sector were – and still are - much more fluid. Waiting for clients in a beauty salon – at work, but not working – sometimes takes most of the day (and incidentally those are moments of intense ICT usage); if there are clients at closing time, then work continues until the clients leave. Passing time, in the sense of not doing productive work, but rather sitting around at the workplace and waiting, in a sense defines these women’s working lives. Their working hours are as long if not longer than women working in factories, and they cannot leave their workplaces as they please. Downtime, however, is interwoven with work time. Secondly, women working in factories live away from the city center, in peripheral areas where there are only other factories and a few basic shops. They spend most of their time there, among other migrant workers, and away from the everyday of city life. Women working in the service industry live everywhere in the city; even when they live in dorms provided by their employers (as all but one of my interviewees did in 2007), these are close to their workplace. They live in the city in a manner that is inaccessible to their colleagues living in factories, and although they do not intermingle very much with urban dwellers, they build stronger and more lasting ties with urban life than other migrants. Indeed, as I found in 2009, they are very likely to stay in the city and become a new type of urban resident, who maintains family ties with the countryside, and creates a new life and a new network of ties within the city proper, rather than in the ‘cities of migrants’ that grow around industrial areas. Finally, the fact that most of my interviewees came to the city on their own, and that once in the city they live in small groups, with more freedom than factory workers, means that they are freer from the (despotic) localistic networks that still characterize most internal female migration (Lee 1998).5 In other words, once in the city they are not tied to their co-villagers as factory workers often are, and they can create new networks and new communities with migrant workers who come from other provinces and work in different sectors. Ms Wu is a good example of someone who has maintained links with co-villagers by choice rather than because forced by the circumstances (she has known the woman she currently lives with since they were little girls), and at the same time has created new, strong ties with women from other provinces: the women with whom she set up the massage parlor are all from different provinces, and they all met while working in different massage places in Beijing.

Urban Life and Multiple Communities

Migrant workers in the city belong to several communities at once. One is composed by their co-workers, with whom they spend most of their time (migrant workers usually live in dormitories provided by their employers). One can be made of co-villagers, who, as discussed above, are often also co-workers. Then there are virtual communities of people who are geographically distant: former classmates and friends; family back home, or family members who are also migrant workers. And finally there is the general community of ‘migrant workers,’ the ‘club’ they would prefer to not be part of, and which segregates people coming from the countryside from urban dwellers. This latter ‘community’ is defined as such by the government, which originally created it by enacting rules on residency (hukou) that tied people to their place of birth and made it extremely difficult for rural people to move permanently to urban areas.6 The perception of migrants as separate from the urban population is reinforced, among other things, by the existence of non-profit/non-governmental organizations dedicated to serve migrant workers (Fu 2009). Organizations such as the well-known Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women in Beijing offer migrants training, legal rights counseling, and opportunities to socialize with other people – other migrant workers – in what can be a very lonely life. I call the communities that are formed through the intermediation of these organizations ‘communities of convenience,’ or communities whose members come together in order to obtain specific services (e.g. computer training), or for a specific purpose (to meet other people) – as opposed to the ‘communities of choice,’ that is family, friends, or groups of people to whom migrants like my interviewees choose to belong. ‘Communities of convenience’ can also be communities of co-workers who are thrown together because of work and living arrangements. All the women who lived in dorms shared their bedrooms with four to six other colleagues, and bathrooms and kitchens with dozen others. Roommates, who are often workmates as well, cannot be chosen, and this forced, prolonged proximity can result in long-lasting friendships, but can also be a source of constant tension. Even when a woman does not like or get along with her co-workers and roommates, they are often the only group of urban acquaintances she has access to, since meeting and befriending urban residents is very difficult. Ms Long and Ms Xie did not like to spend their free day with their roommates, but often did it anyway, because they did not have other friends. Ms Wei often changed jobs and dorms to escape this situation, until she decided to spend more money on her accommodation so that she could share her room with only one roommate. Ms Wu, on the other hand, made the transition between ‘community of convenience’ to ‘community of choice’ by keeping in touch with a few of her former co-workers with whom she got along, and by starting her own shop with them. Clearly, these communities are part of a continuum that is highly dependent on time, place, and circumstances. What was, in the past, a ‘community of convenience’ like a group of classmates, becomes a ‘community of choice’ once one lives away from it, in a urban environment that is often not welcoming towards migrants. Family is not chosen, and indeed the rejection of family can play an important part into some women’s decision to migrate (Gaetano 2004). But once one is away, family can become the community that offers acceptance and reliability. Similarly, people met through ‘communities of convenience’ can become fast friends.

ICT play a role in both communities. In the case of NGOs for migrant women like the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, this role is, as far as migrant women are concerned, rather marginal.7 The organization’s website serves mostly to present its work and mission to the external world, to provide information to potential supporters and increasingly as a fund-raising tool. The emphasis in the activities for migrant women is on face-to-face encounters, since one of the goals of the organization is to provide a place where isolated women can meet. However, the unpredictable work schedule of women in the service sector can make attendance to any kind of planned event difficult. My interviewees often had their weekly day off cancelled, cut short, or rescheduled at the last moment, and their work day would end when there were no more clients, rather than at a fixed time. Moreover, a strong desire to become part of the urbanized community can result in a certain reluctance to participate to these encounters and be identified, even if only to oneself, as explicitly belonging to a group that caters to migrant women (the “Groucho Marx” club). Women who could benefit from the services of the organizations, but cannot or will not participate to the meetings, are therefore excluded. Ms Long often talked about her desire to go back to school, but always ruled out attending a class for workers like herself.

Conversely, ICT play a strong role in supporting ‘communities of choice,’ however shifting they may be. All the women I interviewed said that in their first years in Beijing, the link with family, and even more with friends from back home was very important. Ms Xie mentioned that going back home for Spring Festival, and meeting a group of former classmates for an impromptu dinner, was one of her most cherished memories, because she felt she was among friends and people who really understood her. These ties were supported by mobile phones – occasional calls, frequent text messages – and, in the case of Ms Song, by chats on QQ, an instant messaging software very popular in China. Asynchronous communication is very important, because it is a non-intrusive way of maintaining relationships alive despite different schedules and the demands of work. As Ms Song noticed, “I use text with my friends who work, so that if they are busy they can just answer when they have time.” In my interviewees’ first years in Beijing, these home-networks were crucial in providing friendship and familiarity, and this made the adaptation to the new environment easier. As Cara Wallis points out, “the cell phone emerges… as an “expansive communication tool” used for maintaining ties with friends and lovers who are spread all over China (Wallis, 2008). In other words, many migrants have a number of close relationships that are maintained almost strictly through their mobile phone.” (Wallis 2009).

As the women have become more integrated in the city, their social networks have changed. All my interviewees have now lived in Beijing for several years; they have changed jobs, or met new people at their old jobs; they know more people who are staying permanently in the city, and they have more friends, although mostly migrant workers rather than urban residents. Ms Wang is marrying a Beijing resident, but she is the exception, and her in-laws made it clear to her that they are disappointed that their son would marry a migrant woman.
At the same time, ties with people back home weaken after a few years away. Ms Xie went back home for a visit in the summer 2007, and when she came back earlier than expected she confessed that she had been at home with her mother most of the time, and had become very bored. Her friends and classmates who were still in the village had a life that was completely different from hers: they had married, had children, and were too busy to hang out with her. Paradoxically, when at home she spent a lot of time texting friends living in other places. Ms Song remarked in 2007 that she often called or text messaged her friends from back home, both those who had stayed and those who were migrant workers themselves, because it was hard to find friends in Beijing. Now she has many more friends who also live in Beijing, some colleagues, some former colleagues, and some friends of friends who have become her friends, again all migrant workers. Most of her calls and text messages are now for this new group of friends, and she does not maintain her ties with old friends very actively. Occasionally, she says there is a group chat on QQ of old classmates, but much less often than before. These new ‘communities of choice’ are built upon face-to-face experiences, and then kept alive through mobile communication and increasingly, as I will discuss below, social networking websites. In 2007, I found that these communities were always a ‘lost mobile phone away’ from disappearing: it was enough for a woman to lose her mobile phone (a very frequent occurrence especially if she lived in dorms and did not have any place to store her possession securely) to lose touch with all the members of her network with whom she was not in daily, face-to-face contact. Now, however, it is possible to get one’s phone number back from the phone company, so even though the address book is lost, one can still be reached (and in fact, when I came back in 2009 all my interviewees still had the same phone number, even though they all had new phones, often because they lost the old ones).

Mobile phones are not the only ICT that supports these ‘communities of choice.’ The ICT that remains the most familiar, and the most trusted, is television, the omnipresent and constantly referenced source of information, entertainment, and education. Television is a medium that can easily disappear in the background, and that allows for intermittent attention, which fits well the professional lives of women working in the service sector. Television also contributes to create a shared language of daily life, dreams and aspirations. Watching television is often a social activity. Ms Wang says that what is showing is not as important as the communal experience and the discussion that goes along with it. She has some favorite programs (Korean soap-operas in particular, which are very popular among all the interviewees), but she will usually let the younger colleagues decide what to watch. If other people are not joining in, she would rather listen to music. In 2007, Ms Wu and her colleagues had the television on constantly in their shop. Their TV-watching was very fluid: there were a couple of programs they tried to follow, but in general they watched during lulls in the flux of work. Two or three of the colleagues were dedicated TV-watchers, the others came and went, or did something else while watching. In 2009, watching television was still a favorite activity, in fact more pervasive than ever. Tv programs were accessible almost everywhere: buses had screens streaming television programs and advertisements, as did underground stations and trains; mobile phones with a built-in application to watch television were common and quite cheap (starting at about RMB 600), dvd players doubled as television players. But despite the pervasiveness of television screens, for most of my interviewees television watching is an activity characterized by its communal aspect, something to do with other people. The commenting of the shows was as important as the show itself.

In contrast with 2007, the Internet-connected laptop had become very popular and very intensively used. In 2007, all the interviewees except Ms Xie had or could have easily had regular access to a networked computer, at work or in Internet cafes, but they scarcely used the Internet. Ms Wang explained: “I did take a 2-week course on how to use the Internet, but then I forgot everything. When I look at it, it just doesn’t seem so interesting.” Internet cafes were not popular: all interviewees agreed in considering them ‘dirty places,’ literally, because everybody smoked, and figuratively, because the majority of patrons were men, making the places uncomfortable and unwelcoming for women alone. Only two of the interviewees, Ms Song and Ms Wei, went to Internet cafes with a certain regularity. Ms Song went with her then boyfriend, now husband, who liked to play videogames (she tried, but was not interested); she usually stayed for rather extended periods of time, minimum two hours, but rarely surfed the web. She watched movies, used instant messaging, and sometimes checked her email, but she did not consider this an important activity, so much so that when she wanted to tell me her email address she could not remember it. Ms Wei was the only woman I met who would visit an Internet café by herself, although only during the daytime – at night, she did not feel it was safe, and she would go only with other friends. She used the Internet for entertainment purposes, but also to find websites related to her job.

In 2009, four of the six interviewees had a laptop: Ms Song and Ms Wang shared their husbands’, Ms Wu bought herself a new one, which she shares with her friends, and Ms Long bought a used one, which was not connected to the Internet but which she used to play games and to watch DVDs. Ms Long started to go to the university Internet café with her boyfriend, and all the others had Internet access at home, through DSL lines. Their computer use is very social, and similar in many ways to their television use. Several people shared a computer, and played or searched together. Activities were often collective, with one or two people playing, or chatting, and the others watching, commenting, offering suggestions and criticizing search strategies or game preferences. Everybody used the computer almost and exclusively as a way to access the Internet. In addition to a browser (everybody used Internet Explorer, and was familiar with multi-tabbing and applications like KingSoft dictionary, which allows to translate Chinese to English), the only programs that were used regularly were the instant messaging programs QQ and MSN chat. Email was still not very popular, and was always accessed online. Photos were downloaded from digital cameras to the computer, but only to be uploaded to social networking sites. The two most popular social networking websites were and These sites have the usual features that are found on social networking websites such as photostream, friends, messages from friends, a diary. Kaixin001, however, is best known for its very popular games, and, although targeted at white collars and university students – people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen – was very popular among my interviewees. Ms Wang, Ms Song and Ms Wu all had an account, but they did not use its traditional social networking features such as photo streams and messaging. The main point of being on kaixin001 was to play its most popular games. They were all recent users, who started playing sometimes in 2009, out of curiosity, with their boyfriends. But they soon became regular visitors to the site. is similar to, and seems to be particularly popular among migrant workers.8

Ms Long showed me her profile, the photos she had uploaded, the video she had created using online tools, and her friends’ pages. She is ‘friend’ with a few pop stars, but mostly with other migrant women who are or were colleagues.

Internet and Community: from Access, to Use, to Effective Use

The evolution in the use of computers and Internet among the my research participants, and the way the communities they maintain through the use of mobile phones and Internet is changing, might hold some lessons for NGOs who are attempting to integrate more ICT into their activities, in order to reach more people, to make their work more permanent, and to create more stable communities.

As mentioned above, in 2007 most of my research participants had reliable access to computer and the Internet. And yet, they mostly remained on the wrong side of the digital divide. They were not like the “have nots” first featured in the 1995 report by the American National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), which pointed out that in the United States, in the early days of the Internet “many of the groups that are most disadvantaged in terms of absolute computer and modem penetration are the most enthusiastic users of on-line services that facilitate economic uplift and empowerment. Low- income, minority, young, and less educated computer households in rural areas and central cities appear to be likely to engage actively in searching classified ads for employment, taking educational classes, and accessing government reports, on-line via modem.” (NTIA 1995). The only ‘educational’ use of the Internet that I witnessed in 2007 was Ms Wang being forced to learn one English word per day, which her boss sent every morning by email to all the staff.
The idea that access was all that was needed to make the leap to job security and empowerment was short-lived, and a more nuanced view emerged, that interpreted digital divide as a wide range of objective and subjective difficulties in using new technologies. Warschauer (2002, 2003) suggests that factors such as content, language, literacy, education, community and institutional structures are crucial if people are to use ICT in meaningful ways. In particular, he argues that the if lack of access to ICT harms life chances, the reverse is true too. In the same vein, Gurstein points out that ““access” in all its various components is a pre-condition and an enabler of “effective use” but is not a substitute for it” and that “effective use means that end users can make use of what it is they have access to – in the current form, much of what is currently available (i.e. accessible) is of little use or benefit and some may even be harmful.” (Gurstein 2003).

My interviewees started out uninterested in the Internet, or unable to discover what would be interesting for them there, and evolved into competent users of search engines and websites in two years. Their use of the technology to play, chat, and watch movies, was an intermediate but crucial step between access and effective use. Use can occur in different ways, depending on the people, the circumstances, the need, and it definitively includes anything to do with entertainment, or with social purposes – that is, not linked to ‘useful’ activities such as looking for jobs or education. In early 2008, Ms Wu decided together with her colleagues to buy a laptop, because they thought it could be useful for work. Soon after the computer was connected to the Internet, she wrote to me to announce the news. A few weeks later, she wrote back again to say that they had concluded that computers were worthless for work-related purposes, but that they had all started to see if they could find boyfriends online instead. The use of Internet for entertainment purposes has created enough familiarity with the tools needed to play online games, or find a favorite soap opera on a video-sharing website, or tracking down old acquaintances in order to steal their virtual rabbits in one of the most popular games on kaixin001, to allow the users to move to other, more ‘effective’ activities. Ms Wu, for example, has found the room she currently rents online. Her roommate is job hunting online: she has uploaded her resume on the website, and a few potential employers have called her on her mobile and done a first interview by phone. As she says “It’s very convenient, now: I don’t even have to leave the house to look for a job!” Ms Song also mentions that when the nail salon she works at needs to hire new people, it relies both on word-of-mouth and on a vacancy notice posted on the shop’s website. Shopping is still a real-world activity, but websites are increasingly used to compare prices. In the summer 2009, Ms Long’s mobile phone broke, and I accompanied her around shops and online as she was looking for a new one. She went first to a store to see the actual phone, and then checked online if it was available for cheaper.9 Ms Long said that this time she wanted to research well her phone (her third one), and compare prices, because the last one was an impulse buy and she spent more than she should have. And indeed, after looking at the model she liked at the store and noting down its price, she found it on an online store which a colleague had recommended as reputable, and bought it there.


The changes in the lives of the young rural-to-urban migrant women I interviewed in Beijing in 2007 and 2009 were accompanied and in part reflected by changes in their use of ICT. They moved between ‘communities of convenience,’ that is communities to which they belong by chance, or for practical benefits, or for lack of choice – for example, group of co-workers with whom they also shared living accommodations – and ‘communities of choice,’ initially embodied by their families and friends back home, and subsequently by urban co-workers who become friends. Mobile phones played a role in supporting both kind of ties. They were used to keep in touch with colleagues, or with work, as well as to maintain contact with their communities of choice. What initially did not play a role in any of these communities was the Internet. Although everybody had more or less convenient access to the Internet, it was not used very much, partly because it was not perceived as something very interesting. The exception were instant messaging programs such as QQ, used, again, to keep in touch with friends.

In 2009, the five women I interviewed again are loaded with ICT and connectivity. They all still own mobile phones, now Internet-enabled camera-phones; four of them own their own laptop; three of them have access to the Internet in their living places, and the fourth goes often to an Internet café. Social networking websites are where most of their online activity is concentrated, but their newly acquired fluency with the use of a browser and with performing searches, partly due to their use of the Internet for entertainment purposes, is put to use into more ‘valuable’ activities such as looking for jobs, searching for accommodation, and price comparison when going shopping.

I am not suggesting a teleological trajectory in the use of ICT, that sees the online role-playing game World of Warcraft as the gateway to taking educational classes and accessing government reports online, in a modern-day replay of the early American public libraries debates on whether or not fiction books would open the world of serious literature to the uneducated masses (Garrison 2003).10 But looking at ICT use as a dynamic rather than a static event, and enlarging the definition of ‘meaningful use’ to include entertainment, can provide a very different picture of how ICT fit in people’s lives. Search for information is a matter of problem solving (Bates 1979), and people adapt their strategies to their circumstances, their needs, and their goals. In other words, information seeking is driven by motivation, not only by ICT access, and shaped by previous experiences. Going back to the idea of communities, and how they are supported by ICT, in 2007 the networks that my interviewees created in the city were rather temporary and short-term oriented. Everything was seen in a ‘here and now’ perspective, and once a colleague moved to a new job or back home, she was ‘lost.’ Mobile phones were the key tool to support these temporary networks and to support ties with home, but they did not create a wider support network, for example to look for a new job by contacting former colleagues. In 2009, online social networks which require users to have a vast number of contacts in order to play successfully their most popular games have encouraged all my interviewees to rekindle old contacts and find people they knew in the past but who had not remained in touch. Ms Wang has looked for all the people she has met since arriving at the university nine years ago; with some she just plays, but with a few she has re-established a certain degree of friendship. Whether this represents a real change in social relationships or simply a temporary fashion that will be replaced by something else in a few months remains to be seen. But these newly established online identities, combined with retrievable cell phone numbers and with an increased integration in the city, have created a more traceable, less ‘floating’ urban identity, which might be one step closer to creating a less discriminated migrant population.

What lessons are there for NGOs whose goal is also to help migrants integration in urban areas, as well as to increase right awareness and facilitate the creation of new communities? How can ICT be integrated into their activities in a way that targets the people they serve, and not only their donors and supporters?

Two aspects stand out when looking at my interviewees use of ICT. One, ICT are equally part of their social and their working lives, and increasingly include the Internet, accessed both through computers and mobile phones. Two, use of ICT complements and supports existing communities and existing ties, many of which are the ‘weak links’ that lead to better jobs and to social mobility (Granovetter 1981). It does so by integrating entertainment and social moments into work-related tasks. Colleagues will text each other about switching shifts, but will also forward jokes and make plans for free days. On a day off, while out shopping, Ms Song saw some items that she thought would be appropriate for the nail salon, so she called her boss and then proceeded to buy them on her behalf. Boundaries are fluid, and do not respect the division between work- and free-time that characterizes the activities that NGOs organize for migrant workers. ICT can bring some of these activities to workers who cannot attend, for example through online classes or instructional videos. More importantly, it can help to foster a sense of community by letting organizations keep in touch with their constituencies in informal ways, and by letting migrant workers remain in touch socially after they participate to training and workshops. If people who meet in person in a class find entertaining ways to keep in touch afterwards, for example through social networking websites, they might be more likely to develop a sense of positive community. Warschauer identifies several strategies critical to promoting social capital in community technology projects, implying that an increase in social capital will allow a more effective use of ICT in supporting weak ties. Among them are leveraging community resources and mapping and connecting community resources and organizing new social alliances (2003). However, it is difficult to leverage community resources when people are so disconnected from the communities where they live, and have jobs and schedules that do not facilitate the creation of face-to-face, physical communities. ICT, and specifically ICT for ‘entertainment’ and for social purposes, could be an important step in transforming communities of convenience into more sustainable and long-lasting communities of choice that can have a real impact on the society into which they are embedded.


Bates, M. J. (1979). Information Search Tactics. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 30 (4), 205-14.

Cartier, C., Castells, M., & Qiu, J. L. (2005). The Information Have-Less: Inequality, Mobility, and Translocal Networks in Chinese Cities. Studies in Comparative International Development (SCID). 40 (2), 9-34.

Chan, K.W., & Buckingham, W. (2008). Is China Abolishing the Hukou System? *. The China Quarterly. 195 (01), 582-606.

Davin, D. (1999). Internal migration in contemporary China. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.

Fu, D. (2009). A Cage of Voices: Producing and Doing Dagongmei in Contemporary China. Modern China. 35 (5), 527-561.

Gaetano, A. M. (2004). Filial daughters, modern women: migrant domestic workers in post-Mao Beijing. In A. M. Gaetano and T. Jacka (Eds.), On the move: women and rural-to-urban migration in contemporary China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Garrison, D. (2003). Apostles of culture: The public librarian and American society, 1876-1920. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.

Granovetter, M. (1981). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Albany: State University of New York, Department of Sociology.

Gurstein, M. (2003). Effective use: a community informatics strategy beyond the digital divide. First Monday. 8(12). Retrieved October 28, 2009, from

Jacka, T. (2005). Rural women in urban China: Gender, migration, and social change. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Kling, R. (2007). What Is Social Informatics and Why Does It Matter? The Information Society. 23 (4), 205-220.

Lee, C. K. (1998). Gender and the south China miracle: Two worlds of factory women. Berkeley: University of California Press

Qiu, J. L. (2009). Working-class network society: Communication technology and the information have-less in urban China. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Solinger, D. J. (1999). Contesting citizenship in urban China: Peasant migrants, the state, and the logic of the market. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United States. (1995).Falling through the net: A survey of the “have nots” in rural and urban America Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration.Retrieved November 4, 2009, from

Wallis, C. (2009). New Media Practices in China, Part 2: Mobile Phones. Blog post on Futures of Learning. Retrieved November 5, 2009, from

Warschauer, M. (2002). Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide. First Monday 7(7). Retrieved November 6, 2009, from

Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and social inclusion Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

1 The 2007 research was supported by a grant from Intel. The 2009 research was partially supported by a grant from Intel. I am very grateful to Barbara Woodward, Suzanne L. Thomas and the People and Practice Research Group at Intel.

2 Names have been changed, provinces of origin have not. Phrases in quotation marks are from both 2007 and 2009 interviews.

3 From the earliest days of the recent wave of internal migration, female migrants mentioned “see the world and have a taste of freedom” as an important motivation for leaving their place of origin, much more so than male migrants, who put “earning more money” as their primary reason (Jacka 2005). However, until recently, even women who migrated ‘to see the world’ sent money back home, contrary to what half of my interviewee in 2007 and all but one in 2009 do.

4 In 2006, the Chinese National Statistics Bureau counted 131.81 million of migrant workers, but unofficial estimates hover around 200 million (Cartier et al. 2006)

5 In her study of Southern China factory women, Ching-Kwan Lee noticed that the workforce in a Shenzhen factory was organized strictly along ‘localistic networks,’ where people from the same village and often same family stuck together. These networks, always dominated by men, are crucial to bring workers to a factory, to provide identity papers and other documents necessary to work, to find out information about other jobs, etc, and are very similar to the localistic networks that characterized the Chinese (and other countries’) international diaspora through the years.

6 Before 1978, movement within China was strictly regulated through a household registration system (hukou). People could get a job and access social services only in the place where they were registered, which ensured that the state maintained a strict control over who could move where (Davin 1999:5). The establishment of a ‘socialist market economy’ put the population in motion, as the booming industrial sector in coastal areas required extra labor. The state changed slightly the rules on residency, and people with a rural hukou were allowed to enter cities, although they could not (and still usually cannot) officially move their residence. The lack of access to housing, education, and social safety net has been very effective in guaranteeing that most migrants return permanently to their homes, regardless of how many years they have been away (Qiu 2009). However, recently there has been a considerable relaxation of these rules. For example, since 2001, there have been several pilot projects in different towns that have allowed migrant workers to register as urban residents under certain conditions, and some provinces have been experimenting with the devolution of regulations pertaining residency to local entities, rather than the provincial government (Chan 2008).

7 I had first-hand experience on the organization’s use of ICT since I volunteered there in 2005-2006 to help their webmaster on web design issues.

8 Jack Qiu, personal communication, 2009

9 Since Chinese websites offer many ways to pay that do not depend on having credit or debit cards (e.g. paying at the post office with a money order, at a store on delivery, or directly on home delivery), buying online is accessible even to people who do not have bank accounts or bank cards.

10 I am grateful to Elisabeth Jones of the Information School, University of Washington for this observation.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441