China Made Brief #2

Invisible Infrastructure: a project outline
Alessandro Rippa, January 2019

My research to date has primarily focused on large-scale and highly visible infrastructure projects such as roads, Special Economic Zones, and new resettlement projects in rural China. My theoretical approach to such infrastructural spaces has been influenced by works in the social sciences that see infrastructure as ‘fundamentally’ relational (Star and Ruhleder 1996). Here infrastructures are understood as both things and relations among things (Larkin 2013), and thus defined by a multitude of practices (Björkman 2015). Furthermore, infrastructures are highly symbolic, generating affective responses and political outcomes. In my work, I address infrastructures as compelling sites for studying particular regimes of expectations (Harvey and Knox 2012), as well as points of relation that generate deferral and abandonment. Embedded in particular social, institutional, and material landscapes, infrastructures produce paradoxical outcomes that are both generative and destructive (Howe et al. 2012), inclusive and exclusive (Anand 2012; Ghertner 2015; Bennett 2010; Carse 2017).
While highly visible development projects speak to the material and political lives of infrastructures, as a Henry Luce postdoctoral fellow at CU Boulder, my current project brings attention to the less visible doings of infrastructural interventions. I address questions of labor and maintenance by focusing on a number of infrastructural projects in Tengchong county in Yunnan Province, where I have conducted research since 2015. In so doing, my aim is to shed ethnographic light on the embedded practices and knowledge that underpin the relational workings of infrastructures, and on the invisible processes that mediate between their sheer materiality and the forms of knowledge surrounding them. While it would be an oversimplification to say that all infrastructures remain invisible until they breakdown – roads, electricity, dams are rather striking, and often problematic, for their high visibility – most of the practices that assure their smooth functioning are seldom addressed (Larkin 2013). This is the form of invisibility that I attend to in this research: the ‘invisible,’ mediated practices that precede, or follow, moments of rupture. In so doing I attend to the ‘infra’ quality of infrastructural interventions (Harvey et al. 2017; Carse 2017), one that is often overlooked in contrast to infrastructures’ sheer size and visibility.

Pic. 1. Ground recently cleared for a new high-rise housing complex in the center of Tengchong (Rippa 2017)

Tengchong is a prosperous county-level city in Western Yunnan with a long history as a military, administrative, and trading outpost. Many of the oldest Tengchong families have long-lasting ties with nearby Myanmar, and revenues from cross-border trade constitute a major part of Tengchong’s wealth. Since the 1990s, local authorities have put significant efforts into the development of Tengchong as a ‘bridgehead’ between China and Southeast Asia through several large-scale infrastructural projects. These include: an upgrade of the road to Myitkyina, capital of Myanmar’s Kachin state; a new railway line connecting Tengchong to Baoshan and Kunming; a major logistics center; a border trade zone; and a new international airport terminal.

Pic. 2. Borger gate at Houqiao, China-Burma border in Tengchong county (Rippa 2016)

The current spate of investment in infrastructural development has led to significant changes in social as well as economic spheres. For instance, while the overwhelming majority of Tengchong’s population remains Han Chinese, the formalization of cross-border trade with nearby Burma led to a growing presence of Burmese migrants. While there is no official record of the number of Burmese migrants in Tengchong, estimates collected over the past three years of research among city officials number them at approximately 50,000 – a significant figure considering Tengchong’s overall population of 650,000. While men are generally employed in the construction sector, women work as house maids or as helpers in Han-owned restaurants and shops. As in several other border areas across China, this gendered labor presence has become an essential component of the city’s economic and social life.

Pic. 3. Location of Tengchong, Houqiao, and the China-Myanmar border (Google Earth)

By looking at the daily engagements between Burmese migrants and Chinese infrastructural development, this project directly addresses the ‘invisible’ (dis)functioning of infrastructures – and by doing so, it will attend to the ‘invisible’ practices and knowledge surrounding them. By maintaining a relational approach to infrastructure in the study of migrant labor practices in Tengchong, the questions at the core of this project are both theoretical and ethnographic. How to approach and understand the invisible workings of infrastructure? What defines the infra quality of large-scale material interventions? Why are some practices surrounding infrastructural development less visible than others? What does a theoretical approach focusing on visibility and invisibility contribute to the literature on the topic?

Pic. 4. Burmese traders selling amber in Tengchong (Rippa 2017)

To answer these questions, a first aim of this project is to gain ethnographic insights into the lives of migrant workers employed in large-scale infrastructural projects in Tengchong. Moving from classical works on labor migration, as well as from more recent research on foreign migrants in China (Pieke 2012), I focus on the role of migrant workers in the material production of modernity in rural China. More broadly, I am interested in questions of precarity and subalternity in the context of large-scale infrastructural development. In Tengchong, particularly, migrant workers remain largely absent in official discussions over the development of the city and are in fact remarkable for their non-presence in the city’s main residential and shopping areas. The invisibility of the migrant worker strikes an interesting parallel with the invisibility of the tasks they are employed for. It seems hardly paradoxical, then, that a foreign, un-recognized, and largely un-regulated labor force is in charge of the smooth functioning of infrastructures across Tengchong. In this research I attend to this particular quality of infra-structures: the lives and work of the invisible force in charge of their construction and maintenance – a study of what is beneath, foundational, and largely unseen. Some of the questions that I address are the following. What are the legal frameworks through which Burmese are currently employed in Tengchong? How is their presence addressed by local officials? What are the work conditions, tasks, and salaries? How is the invisibility of migrant workers in Tengchong experienced, perceived, and expressed by them?

Pic. 5. Infrastructural breakdown in Tengchong (Rippa 2017)

The second, related aim of this project is to directly address the continual work of maintenance that large-scale infrastructural projects require. While infrastructures as material processes are always subject to potential breakdowns, maintenance remains for the large part a ‘missing link’ in social theory (Graham and Thrift 2007). In Tengchong, as elsewhere across China, new, spectacular infrastructures are often hampered by the poor quality of the construction materials they are made of, or by the lack of craftsmanship of their builders. But since infrastructures are rarely broken in the same ways for everyone, this project investigates the social and political processes of decay, maintenance, and repair. Does infrastructural failure, in Tengchong, simply indexes preexisting inequalities, or does it deepen, undo, or generate them? How is the spectacularity of infrastructure construction replicated – if at all – in the maintenance of such spaces?
Both the role of foreign labor and that of maintenance and repair display the invisible qualities of infrastructural development. By thinking through such qualities, and of infrastructure as an assemblage of the social and material, invisible and conspicuous, I will develop a comprehensive, ethnographic picture of the doing of infrastructure in China. A direct engagement with Burmese migrant workers provides an ethnographic point of entry into the lives of infrastructures. By looking at maintenance and repair, on the other hand, I attend to the destructive, vulnerable nature of even the largest infrastructural project. As such, my broader goal is to shed ethnographic light onto the ‘liveliness’ of infrastructure as well as to understand how these entanglements actually unfold through contingent and contextual practices and knowledge.
Data for this project will be mostly collected in the course of five months of field research in Tengchong in the summer and fall of 2019.


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