5.1 Mobility constraints of migrants in Dashilar
Our interviews revealed that the interviewees’ daily activities took place within and near Dashilar. Most of the interviewees traveled no more than five kilometers from their home each day, and they walked on most of their daily trips. Dashilar and the surrounding areas provide migrants with all kinds of job opportunities, so most of them could commute by walking: “There are so many opportunities around here in Dashilar and we can walk to the workplaces” (A2, female, age 33). Like A2, many migrants living in Dashilar benefit from the presence of visitors, especially foreign visitors, to Dashilar, as well as the large number of local residents. As B1 (male, age 62) observed, many of the migrants living in Dashilar had temporary jobs in the city center of Beijing. For example, some of them took photos for visitors at Tian’anmen Square during the daytime, and others drove tourists around Dashilar in rickshaws. Another group of interviewees owned businesses serving residents of Dashilar. They sold daily necessities such as vegetables, meat, and groceries or provided everyday services such as haircuts, shoe repair, and deliveries. All these jobs were located near their homes, and most of them were low-skilled jobs serving tourists and local residents.
Another important routine for migrants was escorting their children home. All the children of the interviewees were attending the same primary school, located in the heart of Dashilar. As one parent said, “It is very convenient for children to go to school. He could walk five minutes to get home. It is also convenient for us to take him home” (A9, female, age 39). Interviewees and their children admitted that the primary school was of poor educational quality, even worse than that in their hometown, and the migrants’ children had to endure contempt from local students. Nevertheless, in terms of the children’s safety and ease of transportation, the school was quite convenient and quality was considered an unattainable luxury.
The interviewees’ daily shopping and leisure activities other than work and escorting students were also mainly within Dashilar. They seldom traveled beyond the neighborhood for shopping, recreation, or dining out, even on weekends. It was their consensus that the small stores and the markets in and near the study area could satisfy their basic daily needs.
In contrast, there were obvious variations in travel for social activity among the respondents. A few of them had relatives and close friends living outside Dashilar in Beijing, so they sometimes visited these people’s homes or ate with them in other neighborhoods. On the other hand, those who did not have relatives or close friends outside Dashilar reported that their social relationships in Beijing were limited to neighbors, work colleagues, and people from the same hometown who lived in Dashilar. These people seldom left Dashilar even for social activity—or, still worse, some of them seldom had social activities.
Dashilar, like many other migrant-rich areas, provides migrants with various transportation resources and activity destination choices, helping them to settle conveniently among fellow migrants. However, the employment opportunities in Dashilar are mostly low-skill service positions, and the educational quality of the neighborhood primary school is unsatisfactory. Additionally, the business destinations within the neighborhood are all groceries, markets, and vendors. Located in the downtown area of Beijing, Dashilar has good access to high-quality education resources, supermarkets, libraries, museums, public parks, civic centers, and top-tier hospitals. Migrants could also reach various activity destinations in Beijing easily by bus or metro. These urban opportunities are important to improve the migrants’ quality of life and to help them attain social inclusion. However, our findings suggest that migrants living in Dashilar seldom go to these destinations, despite their convenient accessibility. What obstacles discourage them from accessing urban opportunities outside their immediate neighborhood? The following section will articulate three categories of barriers: social networks, limited time and money, and institutional barriers.
5.2 Determinants of constrained mobility
5.2.1 Social networks
Social networks are an important barrier to daily mobility among migrants. Travel for social activity has become the fastest growing segment of daily travel because of improvements in transportation systems and information and communication technology (ICT) and increased leisure time [81,82,83]. However, the socially disadvantaged tend to have smaller social networks than other people, contributing to their higher exposure to social isolation and poorer physical health . Social trips are generated by social networks. Thus, people with smaller social networks have fewer opportunities for social trips , which may be detrimental to their physical and mental health.
Most of the migrants acknowledged that they did not have a stable social network before they came to Beijing. They came to Dashilar and secured jobs in the area because their relatives or others from the same hometown had gone there and made money. A11 (male, age 42) said, “I came here in 1996 … I found my present job through people of the same origin.”
Another group of people came to Dashilar to be reunited with their families after one or more family members got a job there:
I came here with my parents and my younger brother. My parents opened a restaurant in the Dashilar area. I came here after graduating from high school. (A7, female, age 23)
My husband came here in 2009… and then I came here. (A2, female, age 33)
Relationships in individual social networks could be distinguished in terms of interaction intensity between weak and strong ties. Strong ties refer to intimate relationships in which people know each other well; in contrast, weak ties refer to one’s acquaintances, who generally know little about each other . Social networks are important for individual well-being and attainment of social status . From the perspective of social capital, social networks provide a platform for people to invest and adopt social resources .
Lin  indicated that social capital could improve individual opportunities in several ways: flow of information, which facilities better matches between individuals and organizations; influencing decision makers; functioning as social credentials; and enhancing an individual’s identity in a social group. Obviously, the social capital of migrants can have a significant impact on their job search, socialization, and neighborhood participation, and thus on their self-identification as being part of the city. Nevertheless, interviews showed that migrants’ social networks were mainly restricted to their families, relatives, and people from the same hometown. Admittedly, these strong ties are characterized by similarities in social status and power, and thus these relationships should be typified by a high level of mutual understanding, which is essential in meeting emotional and socialization needs.
However, many sociologists argue that weak ties are more important because they function as bridges connecting the strong ties of different groups of individuals . A scarcity of weak ties could seriously weaken individuals’ social capital. Indeed, the lack of weak ties among migrants in Dashilar was a serious problem affecting their social inclusion. According to a Chinese sociologist, the strong ties of migrants could be viewed as ascribed resources, which are important for them to get the first job and settle in a city. However, without the help of weak ties, defined as achieved resources, they cannot build up their local social resources and thus they struggle to become assimilated culturally and psychologically in the city . Many migrants living in Dashilar, especially the more recent arrivals, acknowledged the constraints of their social networks, particularly the lack of weak ties, as their major mobility challenge: “I used to take part in many social activities. I think the activities could relax me, and it is very important. … When I have time, I do not know what I should do or whom I should contact. I do not know anything and I feel I am becoming more shortsighted” (A5, female, age 29).
Social networks could be a bridge motivating people to move into Dashilar. Maintaining and extending social networks could facilitate the exchange of information and emotional feelings, which reinforces a sense of trust between individuals. The accumulation of social capital among the transportation-disadvantaged could improve their spatial cognition and also increase their motivation to move around [12, 32, 34]. Accumulating social capital via work and residential mobility, as well as through more interactions with work colleagues and neighbors, could significantly improve migrants’ mobility.
In some cases, interviewees stated that social trips helped them to overcome depression and stress. A barbershop owner (A16, male, age 38) said, “I have many relatives and friends in Beijing. I often dine out with my relatives or friends. This kind of face-to-face communication is a good way to strengthen emotional ties and express our feelings. We are all stressed in this city.” Another female who had moved to Dashilar with her son said, “I’m outgoing and I would like to know new neighbors. I have moved several times and have many friends here. They are willing to keep in contact with me, and we get out together for shopping and leisure” (A3, female, age 55) Even so, she admitted that most of her neighbors and friends were migrants living in Dashilar. It was very difficult for her to make friends with local people who had been born in Beijing.
5.2.2 Time and money limitations
The second set of mobility challenges that migrants face involves poverty, in terms of both time and income. Time poverty means that individuals do not have enough discretionary time beyond their work and family commitments . The ability of travel is a function of access to destinations and disposable time. Lacking time for leisure activities is a major obstacle that leads to insufficient involvement in leisure and social activities, and this inability to participate in turn reduces social exclusion .
The migrants interviewed were mainly employed in low-skilled positions that require excessive physical labor, with no employment contracts. Facing the financial burden of both maintaining their daily life in Beijing and supporting their family members back home, they needed to work long hours. Many of them had to work well into the night, because their jobs entailed providing local people’s daily necessities.
B1 (male, age 62) pointed out that Dashilar was also home to many wholesalers. Living near the wholesale market or having good access to the market is of vital importance; Dashilar facilitates this access because it has so many bus stops nearby. It was very convenient for these people to access the market by taking the last number 204 bus to the Beijing Zoo market. However, they worked at night and slept during the daytime, and so they seldom had time for non-work travel. Therefore, the scarcity of discretionary time squeezed out leisure activities such as shopping and dining out.
For example, A12 (female, age 45), a waitress working at a restaurant in Dashilar, described her long work hours as a major reason for her constrained mobility: “For us waiters, work is too busy. When I need something, I buy it by walking. You could find almost everything you need here in Dashilar.”
The situation is even worse for migrant female workers than for males. In the rural areas of China, traditional belief holds that men are the breadwinners and should earn the money for the whole family while women shoulder all the household tasks. As the migrants settled in Dashilar, their social status had not changed much. Besides, considering the benefits for the whole family, women were willing to shoulder more than their share of the household tasks. As one young female migrant claimed, the only way to cope with time poverty was to reduce leisure travel: “I work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. I have to clean the room and do the dishes every day. I’m busy every day. I’m accustomed to buying things for one month at a time from the surrounding shopping malls. If I have sufficient time, I take the bus. Rather, I take the subway instead” (A15, female, age 32).
Moreover, late work hours and time committed to family led to a mismatch between the opening time of potential activity destinations and the interviewees’ discretionary time, preventing them from taking part in social and leisure activities that would help them to cultivate spatial awareness and a sense of belonging: “We would like to take children to the Beijing Zoo. It sounds interesting. We could get there easily by metro line number 4 in less than thirty minutes. But we are so busy that when we get there, the zoo will be already closed. I am sad about this situation. Just staying in the home makes me like a frog in the well” (A2, female, age 33) Although Dashilar provides various transportation resources such as buses and subways, some interviewees considered it a waste of time even to make the trip to and from the transit station. A16 (male, 38 years) complained that it was too hard for him to get out of the study area on foot. It took him about 15 min to get to the nearest subway station. Fifteen minutes may sound like an acceptable travel time for transportation researchers, but for migrants already shouldering high-intensity physical labor, it discouraged them from enlarging their activity space.
Additionally, financial burdens imposed extra pressure preventing migrants from moving around. Under the economic pressure of supporting themselves and their families in their hometown, they felt forced to stay in a relatively small activity space to avoid incurring more costs: “The big malls on the subway line are good and convenient to us. But we could not afford them” (A9, female, age 39). Interviewees who had lived in Dashilar for many years were familiar with the area and knew the surrounding leisure and shopping destinations well, but they indicated that financial constraints prevented them from leaving Dashilar to travel to those destinations: “I bought a piece of chocolate in the market in Dashilar for my son. It was about to expire and the flavor was awful. … There is no doubt that the commodities in the malls like Walmart and Merry Mart outside the neighborhood are of good quality, but they are too expensive” (A8, female, age 38).
Obviously, interviewees won’t have the resources to move around if they don’t work. However, their average wages were significantly lower than those earned by local people with a hukou , compelling them to work longer hours to meet their financial needs in Dashilar and those of their extended family back home. For this reason, they made work a much higher priority than socializing or leisure trips, which could help them to become more involved in the civic life of Beijing.
5.2.3 Institutional barriers
The third set of barriers to daily mobility among migrants consists of institutional barriers resulting from the hukou system. Being without a Beijing hukou made the migrants feel even more different from others. The hukou system seems to be an insurmountable wall for most of them. They expressed feeling as if they were left outside the door, unable to enjoy the same welfare support as citizens of Beijing.
Discrimination against migrants penetrated into almost every aspect of everyday life. First, work experiences reinforced people’s sense of being outsiders. In Dashilar, there was an obvious employment gap between migrants and local people of the same age. Most interviewees had jobs serving local people and tourists, whereas local people of the same age typically had professional jobs in downtown Beijing. Although migrants could earn enough money to support their family members in Beijing and in their hometown, they still did not think that they were part of Beijing. Their low-skill job experiences serving people of higher socioeconomic status left them feeling humiliated about the things that they did not possess. For example, A17 used to be an auto detailer. Once he saw the ID card of the owner of a Porsche car. The owner was the same age as he was, causing him to think about the gap between them. Later, he was unwilling to connect with people because he was afraid to interact with the rich. As he put it: “You feel as if you do not exist. The rich look at you differently.”
Second, migrants were also excluded from urban education and healthcare resources because of their hukou status. Some migrants stated that they would like their children to go to better schools in Beijing, because they thought this was the only possible way for their children to climb the social ladder. There were several top-tier primary and middle schools nearby, just outside Dashilar. But to enable their children to receive these educational opportunities, they had to submit a residential certification, formal residential rent contract, employment certification, and hukou certification. Their residential rents were usually based on oral contracts with local renters because of the complicated housing tenure system in Dashilar, and their jobs had no formal contracts. Thus, they were ineligible to enroll their children in better schools and had no choice but to send them to the school in Dashilar. Exclusion from pursuing equal education opportunities prevented the interviewees with schoolchildren from reducing intergenerational poverty . Some parents said that after summer vacation, the school in Dashilar also prohibited children whose families could not submit the required certifications from attending school. Therefore, many parents had to send their children home or even left Dashilar.
The discrimination against migrants could even extend to everyday life. For example, A2 ascribed her limited mobility to her unwillingness to move around by bus: “Beijingers look down on me. One time, I took the bus and knocked a passenger down by accident. I said I was sorry, but he insulted me and tried to beat me. He said there were too many people without a Beijing hukou in Beijing, and that they were of low quality. It makes me feel that this is not my city” She further explained that migrants could be easily distinguished from local people by their accent and clothing. Life experiences like this one caused migrants to develop negative impressions of local people, which could inhibit their aspiration to move around and make connections with local people. Hukou was like a wall that not only blocked the mobility and activity space of migrants but also reduced their willingness to extend their social networks to include local people, thereby slowing their accumulation of social capital and their attainment of social inclusion.
5.3 Coping strategies and social impacts
5.3.1 Electric bicycles: The symbolic exclusion of migrants
The analysis above showed that interviewees experience various challenges in daily mobility. They needed to arrange their daily work and also complete necessary household tasks during the daytime. To move faster, many of them rode electric bicycles, a popular mode of transportation in the study area. A1, a 43-year-old female, said, “It saves money, saves petrol, and is fast and safe. Therefore, it is the most desirable travel mode in this area.” Some interviewees explained that the high speed of electric bicycles saved travel time and increased their physical mobility. For example, A1 got a job outside the neighborhood several months ago. The one-way travel time was 45 min by electric bicycle. She said that the electric bicycle had expanded her ability to pursue job opportunities with higher wages.
In contrast, local residents seldom rode electric bicycles: “The local young people have formal jobs here. They take the bus or drive to work” (B1, male, age 62). Although there existed no exact data showing the mode share variations between migrants and local residents, the narratives from our interviews with the two groups of participants indicated that electric bicycles were a predominant mobility tool among migrants. Local residents living in Dashilar were mostly young people with formal jobs who owned their houses, or elderly people who did not want to move out. These two groups seldom relied on electric bicycles. Local residents had much less stringent time and financial constraints than the migrants, so most of their travel could be accomplished on foot. Additionally, many of them owned private cars.
Traveling by electric bicycle can involve serious safety concerns and greater risk of traffic collisions with cars or larger vehicles. Migrants’ aspirations of moving faster was intrinsically in conflict with the threats to bicyclist safety posed by distracted auto drivers. Meanwhile, speeding electric bicycles had become a source of complaints by local residents:
“The migrants are riding electric bicycles too fast. There are so many old people and children in the Dashilar area. Every time they ride by the post office of Liulichang, the local old people are always calling, “Look out! Electric bicycle! The migrant! Barbarous!” Even if they knock a dog down, it is impossible for them to pay for it. It is impossible for the local people to ride so fast.” (B1, male, age 62)
One day, I went to my tutor’s home. On the road, a migrant from northeast China, riding an electric bicycle, was drunk and hit our car. My dad warned him to be careful. Amazingly, he slapped my dad across his face. The migrants are quite unreasonable. (B4, female, age 12)
It is impossible to confirm whether the narratives from these two local residents were biased, but the electric bicycle had clearly become a symbol of migrants in Dashilar, signifying differences in social status and lifestyle between migrants and local residents. Although the electric bicycle helped migrants to better organize their daily travels and lives, it also shaped a modal split between migrants and local residents, and it further increased conflicts between the two groups and discouraged friendly social interactions.
5.3.2 Mobile phones: A paradox of improving and fixed mobility
The prevalence of mobile phones among migrants in Dashilar has significantly improved their virtual mobility. Almost all the respondents said that the mobile phone was their primary means of contacting family members and friends in their hometown. The mobile phone was important for them because it helped them to sustain connections and reinforce their emotional ties with social relationships back home . Exchanges of voice and emotions by mobile phone could help migrants to transcend the boundaries of space and time . “Contacting people by telephone could almost replace face-to-face communication. It is impossible for me to go back home a few times each month” (A14, male, age 38).
Undeniably, the mobile phone facilitated communication and life organization for migrants, as well as giving them a convenient way to interact with neighbors and friends. It could also help them ask others to complete household tasks when they were unable to leave work. Moreover, the social relations enhanced by the mobile phone increased migrants’ confidence and their aspirations to get out of their home and participate in leisure activities. For example, A2 (female, age 33) used the mobile phone to notify her neighbors if she needed their help in picking up her children. A3 (female, age 55) said that she had many friends’ numbers in her telephone. When she wanted to go out for recreation, she would ask if others were available. By means of the mobile phone, every migrant could build up his or her own mobile social network and contact any node in the network at any time. In this way, an integrated mobile community developed, by which migrants could readily communicate with each other.
In addition to reinforcing emotional ties and social networks, the Internet could provide migrants with a platform by which to learn information, search for jobs, and even accumulate power. As Castells argued , in the Internet arena, connectivity and online access play an indispensable role in power and power sharing. Most of the migrants interviewed had difficulty in accessing the Internet by computer. Some respondents had computers at home, but they admitted that their children were the main users. In contrast, smartphones substantially lowered the requisite skill development, making it much easier for respondents to connect each other or access the Internet.
On one hand, mobile Internet access was a sort of substitute for travel because many tasks could be completed online instead of by physical movement, such as collecting information about jobs and commodities. Chatting by Internet video compensated for face-to-face contact by displaying mobile images and providing a sense of reality. On the other hand, mobile Internet use facilitated daily mobility by enabling migrants to obtain useful information such as weather reports and real-time traffic conditions of public transportation. Mobile Internet access could also support mobility by providing more information about leisure activity destination choices: “I pay attention to getting information about good restaurants and recreation through the mobile phone. When I have time, I would go with my family” (A13, female, age 35).
Moreover, the Internet accelerated the flow of information and knowledge about laws, policies, and news related to migrants, thus giving these individuals greater confidence and material to express themselves in online and offline communities:
“I could learn some laws and news through the mobile phone and get some “positive energy.” (A9, female, age 39)
I learn about everyday weather by the mobile phone. I also have many official accounts on WeChat (a chatting service application in China). I could find out about something I have interest in, such as the education policies in Beijing for migrants. … I feel better informed and often talk about what I learned on the Internet with my colleagues, neighbors, and e-friends. (A15, female, age 32 years)
However, as one Chinese sociologist has argued, ICT presents a paradox of empowerment and disempowerment among migrants. The socio-organizational structure favors the upper class, whereas migrants are disadvantaged with regard to participation in online resources . In communities connected by the mobile Internet, people become nodes in complicated interpersonal systems, constructing their individual virtual networks according to their individual interests and social networking. But this does not mean that e-society is egalitarian. In the virtual world, even if everyone had access to the mobile Internet, the ability to use it would vary across different groups of people, due to individual differences in socioeconomic status and the quantity and quality of Internet resources they possessed. Respondents in Dashilar might still be at the margins of the virtual world because they remain disadvantaged in terms of education level and in social networks.
Virtual society is also structured, and migrants may also experience a new type of social exclusion. For example, A17, a 30-year-old messenger service employee, spoke of his exclusion experience in WeChat:
Our company has a WeChat group. There are couriers, municipal managers, and regional managers. Managers invite us to the group, but the conversations are always initiated by local managers and regional managers. We cannot say anything, and the conversations have nothing to do with us. In daily life, we are at the bottom. For us, the WeChat group is the same as reality. (A17, male, age 30)
This feeling of being marginalized in society, which extended from the real world into the virtual world, could further undermine the migrants’ sense of meaningfulness and belonging as well as their motivation for mobility. This study thus demonstrates the paradoxical role of the mobile phone in both improving and holding back people’s mobility, but we did not have enough information to determine whether the negative or the positive side was dominant, nor could we draw causal connections between mobile phone use and physical mobility.
5.3.3 The role of community
Communities were also important forces pushing migrants to become more involved. By “communities,” I refer to those residential committees (juweihui) that serve as a bridge between a sub-district government and the residents living within that government’s jurisdictional boundaries. Activities organized by residential committees can improve trust within the whole community, enhance community satisfaction, and extend community support resources. These functions can all be considered forms of social capital that could contribute to the social inclusion of migrants living in Dashilar [15, 92]. Several interviewees told me that communities organized activities designed to bring migrants together, improve their understanding of each other, and alleviate misunderstandings between migrants and local residents:
Every year, the community organizes free physical examinations for us migrants. This provides us with an opportunity to get to know each other, and we can receive a gift after the examination. We are valued by the community. (A9, female, age 39)
For the migrants living in Dashilar, this feeling of being valued was important for their social inclusion. Although none of the interviewees said that they had the opportunity to give input before community or sub-district policies were adopted, forms of assistance like physical examinations for migrants could be regarded as a good start toward harmonious cooperation. Such community initiatives could reduce misunderstanding and cultivate trust between migrants and local people, incorporating migrants into the broader community. Moreover, these activities could make migrants more familiar with the services provided by residential committees and help them build more friendships with both local residents and other migrants. These benefits would all contribute to migrants’ accumulation of social capital, encouraging them to participate in more community activities and enjoy greater mobility.
Community volunteers were another bridge connecting the residential committees and migrants in Dashilar. These volunteers, mostly retired elderly people who remained enthusiastic about community affairs, could play a positive role in the inclusion of migrants. For example, B6, a 63-year-old retired female with a Beijing hukou, stated:
I am a volunteer in Sanjing Community. Every time a new migrant comes here, I introduce the person to the conditions in the community and to safety issues. I also ask new arrivals to tell me their hometown, name, and occupation. In this way, I can help them in their daily lives, such as receiving deliveries and taking in their laundry on rainy days.
These volunteers could be regarded as active agents willing to help migrants build social ties. They had time available because of their flexible schedule, and their knowledge of Dashilar and their trusted status could help migrants to quickly become familiar with their new home, make friends, and take advantage of local resources. Moreover, migrants could also rely on these retired volunteers to assist in resolving conflicts with local residents. However, the number of community volunteers was limited, and many interviewees had not even heard about them.
Such community initiatives are a promising way to help migrants living in Dashilar to move beyond their constrained mobility space and become constructively involved in their new community. However, many interviewees exhibited “voluntary immobility”  and were not interested in extending their social networks. They did not regard social networks, especially those with weak ties, as an important part of life. For these people, life was simple. Their social network consisted only of their relatives, and they refused to make use of the weak social ties established at work, as they saw no benefit in doing so. Rather, they viewed work as simply a place where they gave their physical labor and time in exchange for money. These migrants regarded accumulation of income and improving their quality of life as the only way to achieve social inclusion. To some extent, they didn’t regard Dashilar as their home at all or a place where they belonged, but only as a place for earning money. Entering into even small social networks felt dangerous to these interviewees. Since they were not forming or extending their social networks, their lives basically revolved around physical labor routines (paid work and housework) and family affairs. The low-level, repetitive nature of their job duties made it impossible for them to move upward toward a higher socioeconomic status.