Predatory Princes and Princely Peddlers: The State and International Labor Migration Brokers in China Biao Xiang


Private recruitment agents have been a major concern of policy makers in international labour migration. The agents are seen to undermine state authority, the market order and migrant rights. It is commonly suggested that their role can be curtailed or even eliminated if the administrative red tape of migration control is cut down (a liberal approach), or regulation on the intermediary business is tightened up (an interventionist approach). The Chinese government has done both at different times since the 1980s, but only to make the process of recruitment more complicated and private agents more powerful. This paper explains why. Based on a period of seven years of field research and documentary study, the article provides an ethnographic account of the change of the practice of international labour recruitment in China, especially in relation to systemic reforms, between 1980 and 2008. The centralized state in a liberalizing economy seems to need private agents in order to render individual mobility governable, migrants protectable and agents themselves “blamable” and punishable. If limited centralization of state power gave rise to earlier intermediary forms (e.g., tax farming), intermediary agents today result from governmental practices of the highly centralized state. As such, private agents should not be construed as autonomous entities located between demand and supply, or between migrants and states; they are instead an integral part of a complex structure of governance.

Xiang, B. (2012) ‘Predatory Princes and Princely Peddlers: The State and International Labor Migration Brokers in China’, Pacific Affairs, 85(1): 47-68