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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit



Ed Pulford

University of Manchester

Caught between Spectacles: Migration, Friendship and State Performances on the China-Russia Border

Until the Covid-19 pandemic led to the near-total closure of the Sino-Russian border in 2020, many Russian migrants and visitors to China have in recent years participated in vivid celebrations of the purported Friendship between their home and host countries. Amid burgeoning Beijing-Moscow ties, these border-crossers are called upon to embody the positive interstate relationship by participating in a variety of literally and metaphorically performative spectacles, from song and dance shows to staged TV appearances. This has been particularly evident in a string of small northeastern Chinese towns which have been popular destinations for Russians since the 1990s. More recently, however, these same Russians have also been part of a very different kind of spectacle, though also one serving state ends, as official crackdowns have seen PRC law enforcement agencies stage official “cleanup” operations targeting those living and working in China without the correct paperwork. Russians are not alone in experiencing this change: migration policies and policing have become stricter nationwide since the late 2010s as the Chinese authorities join a global vogue for draconian measures against transnational migrants. But Russians occupy a unique position vis-à-vis these Chinese incarnations of what Nicholas De Genova calls “spectacles of illegality”. At once celebrated and excluded, they are subject to dual spectacles which, while countervailing, both pivot around their (often racialised) Russianness. Studying this Sino-Russian situation in the context of recent anthropological work on migrant illegalization, this paper suggests that this case offers new insights into how the PRC’s inward and outward-facing approaches to difference intersect, and in doing so reveals the limits to universalising critiques of state migratory enforcement.

In-person seminar taking place at the Mond seminar room (limited number of attendees) and live streamed via zoom – please contact should you wish to attend and for further information.


Tuesday, 30 November, 2021 - 16:30 to 18:00
Event location: 
Mond Building Seminar Room, Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane Cambridge CB2 3RF