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On the evening of November 18th, 2017, a blaze broke out in a two-storey building in Xinjian urban village, located just outside Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road. At least 19 people, including 8 children, died in the flames. Yet in the days that followed locals had no chance to mourn: before the gutted building was even fully soused, the local authorities had issued a comprehensive eviction order for Xinjian. Using fire safety as its rationale, the city government condemned the entire settlement, and its inhabitants, perhaps as many as 250,000 of them, were forced to evacuate their homes. Xinjian had emblematized inequality and exclusion well before the fire, and its residents long counted among contemporary China’s most precarious people. What kind of change, then, might the evictions mark? Or to put this another way, what does it mean to be officially banished from a place of already de facto exile?

In this talk, Professor Margaret Hillenbrand suggests that the evictions provoke questions about the limits of inequality, exclusion, and insecure work as meaningful descriptors of social conditions in our times. These limits have prompted Saskia Sassen to argue that we are now witnessing “the emergence of new logics of expulsion” in the global political economy. Professor Hillenbrand will explore the logic of expulsion in contemporary China, its capacity to foment both solidarity and social strife, and its relationship with cultural forms. In particular, she looks at how people living under precarity in China today use culture as a space to vent feelings of rage, resentment, distrust, and disdain that are taboo under the diktats of so-called harmonious society.

The Lau China Institute are delighted to welcome Margaret Hillenbrand, Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford for a discussion of her book 'On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China', chaired by Professor Astrid Nordin, Lau China Institute. 

About the speakers

Margaret Hillenbrand is Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford. Her research focusses on literary and visual studies in twentieth-century China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, especially cultures of secrecy and protest. Her books include Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China (Duke University Press, 2020), and On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China (Columbia University Press, 2023), from which this talk is drawn.

Astrid Nordin holds the Lau Chair of Chinese International Relations in the Lau China Institute. She is also Senior Fellow of the Institute for Social Futures, and Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Her research develops critical conceptual tools that draw on Chinese and other global traditions of thought, and uses these to understand global challenges as they relate to China’s growing global role - from the Belt and Road Initiative, through sustainable cities, to practices of censorship and resistance.

Registration is required for all external attendees.

At this event

Astrid Nordin

Lau Chair of Chinese International Relations

Event details

King's Building
Strand Campus, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS