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MMC interviews Biao Xiang
“Covid as catalyst”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Biao Xiang teaches social anthropology at the University of Oxford and is a director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. He has worked on various types of migration—internal and international, unskilled and highly skilled, emigration and return migration, and the places and people left behind—in China, India and other parts of Asia.

The range and scale of changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic came as a surprise to Biao Xiang, who is fascinated with the implications not only for mobility—in all its various forms and inter-relationships—but also for immobility, and what he terms the “redistribution of mobility”. More broadly, the global health crisis offers us an opportunity to shape a more positive future world.

As you’ve been watching the impact of Covid-19 from the start, have you been surprised at the extent of the impact on mobility in all its forms? Or could you have even predicted them?

I was very surprised, and I continue being surprised. I’m surprised for three reasons. Number one: how dramatic the change has been. For example, we witnessed a large-scale panic flight from Wuhan, for example. Immediately after the government announced a lockdown, about 200,000 to 300,000 people were estimated to have fled from the city within a day. A similar thing happened to Milan, in Italy.

The second reason that I was surprised is that a lot of changes are really unintended. The most obvious example is in India: when the government announced a lockdown, on the 24th of March this year, what we witnessed is huge mobility instead of immobility. Huge-scale mobility of internal migrants from cities back to the countryside. They often had to walk for days to reach their home areas due to the unavailability of public transport.

Thirdly, I was surprised to see how consequential the change in mobility can be on people’s basic livelihoods. So once the mobility stopped, we see many businesses had to shut down and the people lost their wages, especially the poorer populations because for them, in order to perform manual work, their main means of production is their body, and in order to bring their body to their work site, they will have to move physically. No mobility, no work, no money.

What I find particularly interesting is what I call the redistribution of mobility. When some people stop being mobile, you need another group of people to become extraordinarily mobile on your behalf. Delivery workers are the most obvious example, but also you have “key workers”, who need to move around frequently in order to provide essential services for the people who now stay at home. So what does this redistribution of mobilities mean? And how is such redistribution achieved? And to what extent it is achieved through commercial mechanisms pushed by platform companies, and to what extent it has been coordinated by government? These are questions that must be figured out empirically. That is something I did not anticipate either.

Can you briefly sum up what you mean by “shock mobility”? [1]

Shock mobility means the pattern of mobility that arises as a response to acute shocks and great uncertainties. For example, if you have a large-scale economic crisis such as the 2008 financial crisis, you witness large-scale return—or reverse—migration from cities; because of loss of jobs, people go back to the countryside. And this time [with the Covid pandemic] you have a large number of people fleeing from the epicentres and they suddenly go back to the countryside, or rush to their second home. And then, during this process, you have all kinds of unanticipated immobilities too. For example, in India again, many people became stranded halfway. They cannot complete their planned mobility because they started the journey without any planning, and they don’t have basic resources. Then it became a humanitarian challenge.

I want to emphasise that shock mobility is often short-lived. Many refugee flows start with shock mobilities, but only a small percentage of shock mobilities led to noticeable refugee flows. When the world pays attention to refugees, we are most concerned with the post-shock, long-term problems. I think we need to pay more attention to the short-livedness of the shocks. In many cases, shock mobility will go away after a while. Everything appears to resume normalcy on the surface. But we don’t know enough about the implications these short-lived shocks may have for long-term development later on.

Why do you consider immobility more dramatic than movement?

Immobility is more dramatic and consequential in the context of the contemporary global economy. Our global economy nowadays is based on mobility, is organised through mobility. The defining icon of today’s economy, if we’re just thinking visually, is not assembly lines or factories; rather, it is cargo ships in the ocean that distribute products across the world, and the moped on the street which deliver goods to individual customers. This is how the global economy manifests itself. It is about mobility.

So once this movement is stopped, it is truly a systemic shock for the global economy. An interesting comparison can be made between the pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis. The 2008 financial crisis was primarily a crisis of the financial sector. But this time, what happened is that the basic human activity—mobility— had to be put on hold. So we feel the impact is much larger than 2008. But the good thing is, probably, this really urges us to rethink the entire economic model more thoroughly than what happened in 2008.

You’ve identified five types of mobility resulting from shocks like Covid-19: reaction mobility, reaction immobility, survival mobility, limbo mobility and substitution mobility. Why did you choose the term “link-moment” to group these different outcomes? What is it linking to, the future?

The notion of “link-moment” is meant to clarify what added value the concept of shock mobility has. What I want to say is that none of these different forms of shock mobility are unique or take place in isolation of each other. The value of the “shock mobility” concept is not that it points to anything empirically new in itself, but rather to the relationships between existing mobilities, and between mobilities and other social experiences. Thus “link”. The concept of shock mobility also calls attention to the fact that existing mobilities can go through very dramatic transformations in a short period of time in a particular context, thus “moment”. Shock mobility isn’t a fixed type of mobility; shock mobility brings these different elements into new relations.

For example: migrants in India rush home. This doesn’t mean that these people were not moving around before. Certainly, these people went back home regularly, every few months or every year, because they are circular migrants. Therefore, the fact that that is a rush home is not completely new. What’s new is that this mobility emerged precisely because their older, established-pattern mobility was disrupted. They used to go back every few months or every year after receiving their salary, and they go back during the busy agricultural season. But because of the pandemic and the lockdown, their older pattern was disrupted, and the shock mobility is in fact a result of the loss of existing rhythm. It is specific to a moment of acute uncertainty. Then we may ask why the migrants lost their mobility so quickly, and why couldn’t they stay in the city as the government instructed them to do? In order to understand this, we have to look into other factors. For instance, they are labourers who receive daily wages, and they rent houses in shantytowns and buy food on a daily basis, which means that they don’t have cash to pay the rent and buy food once they stop working. Their only choice is to go home. So, the “link” [in the phrase “link-moment”] means the linkages of all these elements.

You have written that “tomorrow’s normalcy will grow out of today’s disruption.” How will it help us to analyse potential problems in the decades to come, as you have claimed it would?

This is not an empirically verified statement. That is more a style of thinking, a style that I think is useful to probe possible futures. We have a major disruption, and we have short-term responses. These responses could lead to multiple futures. One possible scenario is the stabilisation of the redistribution of mobility. The increasing demand for delivery work now is the temporary redistribution of mobility as a short-term reaction. Will this become a kind of stable structure— or division of labour—in which some people outsource mobilities and the associated risks to others? There are other possibilities too. For instance, economic transactions can become more localised and the level of mobilities can be reduced. The key point in the idea that tomorrow’s normalcy will grow out from today’s disruption is to convey a sense of urgency. This is to say, we are standing in a critical point of time, which we may be able to shape what kind of normalcy will arrive tomorrow, precisely because we have this disruption. Multiple possibilities have opened up; it’s up to us to shape the future. But it’s incredibly hard. We need imagination, but more than imagination, we need a very careful empirical analysis to gauge what is feasible and what is not.

You’ve speculated on the resilience of capitalism to not only re-set itself after shocks like Covid-19 but also to offer some huge economic opportunities to certain people or firms. Presumably, if there are opportunities, these will be mainly for the already powerful and already wealthy and not for the migrants themselves. Do you agree?

Objectively and empirically, that is a likely scenario. But whether or not there will be further consolidation of global capital, I’m not very sure. What we actually see is that, after the coronavirus there is new alignment between political power and financial capital. We previously had the image that financial capital overrides sovereign power. Financial capital can move anywhere, and the sovereign powers facilitate globalising capital. But now political power as embodied as sovereign power will have a major role. This is clear when we examine how governments tackle the pandemic, and how the trade war between the US and China is leading to a new Cold War. Financial capital will also be more closely coupled with military considerations. So yes, capital will try to benefit from this crisis, but probably in new forms with closer relations with political power and military power.

You recently wrote, “It can be expected that the longer-term socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 would increase people’s wish or need to migrate while simultaneously limiting their resources to do so. And further restrictions on mobility may remain, further limiting people’s capacity to migrate.” How do you think these processes will interplay in the future, and can you speculate on what might happen as a result?

This is a speculation, but with a certain [evidential] basis. After Coronavirus, probably you will have more nationalised, localised economies. In China now they’re talking about so-called internal circulation, which means that China should rely more on domestic markets and less the international markets. Then you will probably have increased wage differentiation among certain groups of workers and overseas jobs, and also very likely you will have larger-scale unemployment, at least in the short term. Why? China has so many factories which have been doing nothing but producing clothes and household goods for the international market. If suddenly they lose the international market, what do the workers do? The Chinese people themselves don’t need so many jeans and they don’t need all those Christmas trees!

If you have unemployment, you will have the demand for seeking alternative opportunities somewhere else. But at the same time, you have tighter regulation over mobility at two levels. One is border control, partly because of heightened political sensitivity, for instance associated with China-West relations. At the second level, you will also have tighter control in the more mundane sense, like you have to report on your temperature when you buy an air ticket, and in the buses you cannot sit immediately next to next passenger etc. All these regulations may be tightened and then the result can be what I call the securitisation of mobility.

I don’t think governments are really interested in stopping or reducing mobility. They will try to accommodate mobility, because that’s good for social stability and for economic recovery. But they will try to securitise it through detailed regulations and technologies, such as the contact tracing apps, big data, and then probably they will delegate more power to transport companies and to third party intermediaries. This has been my area of research for a while: the mobility infrastructure. So I predict that the mobility infrastructure, meaning a whole social-technological system consisting of middlemen as well as technology, and vehicles or tools, like cars and planes, which make mobility possible, will become more developed and sophisticated. This would help to reconcile the contradiction that, on one hand, the demand for mobility persists, and on the other hand, you want to control the mobility to a very minute and detailed level.

You wrote that the business of detecting and preventing cross-border movements and the business of monitoring and facilitating daily mobilities are reshaping how political powers operate. Could you elaborate on this from a migration management perspective?

What I meant here is how political power will be reshaped at the operational level. We probably won’t see many new laws or policy announcements, but important changes may take place at the level of how government cooperate with private companies, what kind of new apps will be introduced, how new data will be collected and stored. This is where new political power will be generated and exercised in the future. On the surface the nature of the government may remain the same. For instance it may still be parliamentary democracy, but the social consequences of the government power may be very different if it is exercised through the technological infrastructure designed and maintained by private corporations.

Can you see any positive outcomes from the Covid-19 shock for migrants and refugees, as we adjust to what Naomi Klein calls “the new normal”, in her book Shock Doctrine?

For me, probably the biggest positive outcome is that, and not only for migration and refugee issues, but also for broader global developments, it created a condition in which we can start thinking of alternatives seriously. It is very clear that many things cannot be taken for granted, and many things can be changed in a very short space of time. The fact that people now travel less, use more online communication, and pay more attention to their local community, reminds us that we can reorganise our mobility, and our daily life, differently. Another positive sign is that people now are more aware of how essential all the delivery workers are. Many of them are migrants. There is an increasing appreciation of these workers as they become more visible. They used to be invisible.

In terms of the global compacts on migration and refugees, what kind of impact do you think this pandemic will have? Has it set the compacts back, or has it provided greater opportunity for solidarity in advancing their stated objectives?

The Global Compact on Migration will probably be affected by new geopolitical dynamics which are harder to predict at this stage. On one hand, the pandemic reminds everyone that cross-border mobility should be coordinated, and the burdens should be shared among countries. Countries shutting borders unilaterally affects migrants badly. It won’t stop migration either because there will be human smuggling, which makes cross- border mobility even more difficult to regulate. But at the same time, we also witness that society and the economy are becoming re-nationalised to some extent. Just look at the relation between China, India and the US. Cross-border movements, including students, tourists, labour migration flows, are likely to decline. The public are also becoming more nationalistic in talking about different “national” models of controlling mobility and the disease. Will countries now have the incentive to sit down to talk about shared burdens, to give up some sovereign prerogative, and to have a more harmonised operational framework, to manage international migration? There will be lot of uncertainties. This is definitely an important issue to follow up with in the coming months and years.


[1] All references to Biao Xiang’s work in this interview are drawn from his blog contributions to the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society and its Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.