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Ruling the Road: Transportation Mobilities and the Struggle over Chinese Spaces


This dissertation draws on a mixed methodology of archival work, textual analysis, and online ethnography to show how transportation mobilities become sites for the reproduction of wider social inequalities in Chinese society and, at the same time, for the enactment of citizenship and national identity. I delineate the regime of mobility embedded within China’s transportation modernization project, a regime that advantages the mobility of particular segments of society, such as urban car drivers, yet constrains the mobility of other segments, including Tibetans, Uyghurs, and peasants. Additionally, travel and infrastructures of travel are shown to be important mediating factors in naturalizing the territorial control, cultural narratives, modernization ideology, and international position of the Chinese nation-state.

There has been a massive transformation in Chinese mobility in the past few decades. Once the exclusive privilege of Communist Party leaders, the automobile has become relatively democratized, with many Chinese now envisioning the good life as requiring a home and a car. Meanwhile, Chinese roads have also changed from a sea of bicycles to the domain of motorized vehicles, the mixed-use streets now featuring soaring expressways and grand tunnels. China now has the most miles of highways, the most extensive high-speed rail network, and consumes the second largest amount of gasoline in the world.

This dissertation explores how an authoritarian state, built on control of ideas and civil society, adapts to the relative freedom of movement enacted by these new modes of transportation. As I argue in this dissertation, decisions about mobility are decisions about immobility. Modernization has created favored forms of mobility, establishing spaces for middle-class adventure, ethnic commodification, artistic expression, migrant control, and tax assessment. The greater freedom of movement that the transportation network affords has forced the state to transform its approach to controlling populations and maintaining the safety of public spaces. I understand travel and transportation mobilities as key instruments in the constructivist process by which, through movement and production of space, national territories and narratives are forged.

In China, travel and transportation have played an integral role in relating circuits of power to geography. I see infrastructure and forms of transportation as contact sites between official state functioning and identity-formation, where territorialization and culturation meet more individualized projects of distinction and taste-making. I argue that if we want to understand political control, we must understand the cues, embodied practices, and emotional encounters associated with transportation.

Most broadly and metaphorically, what I argue is that our identities as political entities are partially determined by how we move. I shed light on how mobilities becomes instrumental to the very coherence of the nation-state itself. States are symbolic constructions that require constant cognitive and material affirmation, their “realness” and “naturalness” subject to open and covert contestation. The contingent processes of state-making and the perception of common-sensical, exclusive political units are tightly implicated in transportation and travel.

This dissertation traces the construction of political power through the material, kinetic, and symbolic dimensions of transportation mobilities—how the diverse circulations associated with modern mobilities re-define ways of being a part of the Chinese nation-state. Thus, a major theme of this work is that movement provides a steadying place in the world; mobility creates stable places, structured meanings used to establish public identifications. In this dissertation I address the following questions: How do practices of mobility contribute to the constitution of the nation-state? How are state infrastructures and circuits of movement (streets, highways, and traffic codes) symbolically incorporated into public identities, becoming means for defining self-worth and hierarchies of achievement? Relatedly, what forms of personhood and group identities are framed by different practices of movement? Finally, how does travel, domestic and international, build repertoires of citizenship, drawing boundaries of social privilege and exclusion?

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