China Made Brief #2

Invisible Infrastructure: a project outline

Alessandro Rippa, January 2019

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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.


  • Anand, Nikhil. 2012. Municipal Disconnect: On Abject Water and its Urban Unfrastructure. Ethnography 13(4): 487-509.
  • Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Björkman, Lisa. 2015. Pipe Politics, Contester Waters: embedded Infrastructure of Millennial Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Carse, Ashley. 2017. ‘Keyword: infrastructure: How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world.’ In: Harvey, Penelope; Jensen, Caspar Bruun and Morita, Atsuro (eds.) Infrastructure and Social Complexity: A companion. London and New York: Rutledge, 27-39.
  • Ghertner, Asher. 2015. Rule By Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Graham, Stephen and Thrift, Nigel. 2007. Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance. Theory, Culture & Society 24(3), 1-25.
  • Harvey, Penny; Jensen, Caspar Bruun; and Morita, Atsuro (eds.). 2017. Infrastructure and Social Complexity: A Companion. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Harvey, Penny; and Hannah Knox. 2015. Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  • Howe, Cymene; Lockrem, Jessica; Appel, Hannah; Hackett, Edward; Boyer, Dominic; Hall, Randal; Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew; Pope, Albert; Gupta, Akhil; Rodwell, Elizabeth; Ballestero, Andrea; Durbin, Trevor; el-Dahdah, Farès; Long, Elizabeth; and Mody, Cyrus. 2016. Paradoxical Infrastructures: ruins, Retrofit, and Risk. Science, Technology, & Human Values 41(3), 547-565.
  • Larkin, Brian. 2013. The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42, 327- 343.
  • Pieke F.N. (2012), Immigrant China, Modern China 38(1): 40-77.
  • Star, Susan Leigh; and Ruhleder, Karen. 1996. Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure. Information Systems Research 7(1), 111-134.


Alessandro Rippa, January 2019

至今为止,我主要研究道路,经济特区及中国农村安置项目等大型且显眼的基础设施。认为基础设施是‘根本性’相对的社会科学研究对我自身研究基础设施的理论产生了重大的影响。基础设施在这里同时被看为事物以及事物之间的关系。此外,基础设施有高度的象征意义,能产生情感上的回应和政治结果。在我的研究中,我强调将基础设施作为研究特殊政权期许的有力场所,和研究导致延期或遗弃关系的关键点。植根于具体的社会,体制机构与物质的基础上,基础设施能产生自相矛盾的结果:他们可以同时具有生产力与毁灭性(Howe et al. 2012),包容性与排他性 (Anand 2012; Ghertner 2015; Bennett 2010; Carse 2017)。尽管高度显眼的发展计划能体现出基础设施的物质及政治特点,作为在科罗拉多大学博尔德分校工作的亨利卢斯博士后研究员,当前我的研究更关注于较少被提及的基础设施的干预介入特点。我从2015年开始在云南省腾冲县进行学术研究工作。通过关注腾冲县的几个基础设施工程,我强调研究与劳工和设施维护的相关问题。如此一来,我的目的是采用民族志的方法来清楚表明加强基础设施相对性观点的根深蒂固的实践与知识。同时阐明调节他们纯粹的物质性与不同类型知识的无形的过程。即使基础设施只有在出现故障的时候才会褪去其隐形性这种观点过度单纯化,但是大部分确保其顺畅运行的实践却是极少被提及的 (Larkin 2013)。这正是我研究中所关注的隐形性:那些调节在基础设施故障前期,中期或问题过程中的实践。如此一来,相比基础设施惊人的规模与可见性,我的研究关注基础设施中经常被忽略的干预调节性(Harvey et al. 2017; Carse 2017)。


当前的基础设施投资已经对当地社会及经济方面带来了重大的影响。例如,尽管绝大部分腾冲的居民仍然是汉族,与邻国缅甸跨国贸易的形式化是的缅甸流动劳工数量上涨。虽然目前没有官方数据纪录缅甸流动劳工的数量,城市行政官员过去三年的统计数据大概是5万人 -一个与腾冲本地65万人口相比惊人的数据。尽管大部分男性流动劳工的工作与建筑业相关,流动女工通常是在当地汉人拥有的餐馆或者商店里做佣人或者帮手。类似于中国其他地方,这样性别分明的劳工分配已经成为城市经济与社会中不可或缺的一部分。

通过观察缅甸流动劳工与中国基础设施发展的日常互动,此研究项目将直接阐释基础设施隐形的(非)功能性。这样一来,也可同时关注围绕基础设施无形的实践与知识理论。 在学习流动劳工在腾冲的经历中采用相关法来研究基础设施,该项目的核心问题是理论且实践性的。如何接近并且理解基础设施中无形的力量?是什么决定了大型基础设施的特质?为什么某些基础设施发展的实践过程更不引人注目?采用一个理论性方法关注基础设施的可见性与无形性对该主题的学科著作有何贡献?

尝试回答这些问题,该项目的第一个目标是通过民族志的研究方式来了解在腾冲大型基础设施项目中缅甸流动劳工的日常生活。远离经典的劳动力迁移学习与近期关于外来流动劳工在中国的研究(Pieke 2012),我关注缅甸流动劳工在中国农村现代化物质生产过程中所扮演的角色。从广义上讲,我对大型基础设施发展中的不确定性与属下性尤感兴趣。在腾冲,流动劳工的身影不仅在城市发展的官方描述中缺席,更不存在于城市中心主要的居民区与购物区。这些流动劳工的隐形性与他们被雇佣工作的隐形性形成了惊人的相似处。这样一来,国外不被认可且不规范的劳动力群体与他们在腾冲所管理创造的平稳顺畅的基础设施功能也就几乎不矛盾了。在这个研究项目中,我关注参与建设与管理基础设施的人员与工作 ——一个学习那些通常被忽略的、最基本的因素的研究。我期待回应的问题包括以下:在腾冲的缅甸流动劳工是通过什么样的法律框架与条款获得工作的?当地官员对在腾冲的缅甸流动劳工是什么态度?他们的工作环境,薪资以及具体工作是什么?缅甸流动劳工的隐形性是如何被他们自己所体验,认知以及表达的?

该项目第二个目标是直接回应大型基础设施所需的连续性管理。尽管基础设施的物质性过程常常遭遇潜在的故障,社会理论中关于基础设施的管理仍然是一个很大的“缺失”(Graham and Thrift 2007)。类似于中国其他地区,腾冲崭新、激动人心的基础设施尝尝被劣质的建筑材料与建筑工人缺失的特殊技能所限制妨碍。但正因为每个人对基础设施的故障体验十分不同,该项目将研究基础设施老化,管理以及修复的社会及经济过程。腾冲基础设施的失灵只是简单的反应出已经存在的不公平性?还是这些是失灵会加深,废除或产生新的不公平性?基础设施的奇观是如何在其空间管理中被复制,如果复制确实存在的话?国际劳工以及其管理修复的角色表明阐释了基础设施发展的无形性。通过对这些特质以及其作为无形且显眼的社会和物质合成体的思考,我将呈现一个对基础设施功能全面的民族志理解。与缅甸流动劳工的直接接触将作为一个了解基础设施历程的民族志切入点。通过学习基础设施的管理与修复,我同时关注其毁灭型与脆弱的本质特点。如此,我更广阔的目标是通过民族志的研究方法呈现且展示基础设施的“生动性,”同时了解这些纠缠牵连在一起的事件是如何在具有偶然性与特定背景性中展开发生的。


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