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Digital money and migration in China: Contemporary monetary practices and imagined economic futures

QR codes for online payment used in China

Project description

Digital forms of money, such as e-payments, online personal finance management tools and virtual currency, have undergone explosive growth in China in the past decade. These technologies represent a fundamental transformation in the mode of everyday exchange for an ever-increasing number of China’s 649 million Internet users. As of December 2014, 361 million of this group had shopped online, and 79 million users had purchased Internet wealth management products, including small loans, stocks and savings accounts (CNNIC 2015). However, far from the use of digital money services in China only being a preserve of populations with wealth or advanced technical skills, increasing numbers of low income people are also finding use for these technologies. The rise of these of these digital money services in turn raises important anthropological questions regarding the effects that such new forms of exchange have upon lives of ordinary Chinese citizens, and their position within the national and global economy.

This study will seek to investigate the social effects of these new mobile money services. I will explore how digitised monetary forms are transforming local monetary ecologies; altering the circulation of money, people and goods; reworking how individuals relate to money and its potential effects on inequality. China’s migrant labourer population particularly stand to have their lives significantly altered as a result of their adoption of digital money services. Members of this group frequently face numerous financial challenges: maintaining economic and social connections with their place of origin, barriers to the access of certain financial services (loans, credit cards), and uncertainties over their future livelihoods.

This project will use interviews (both group and individual), and participant observation with migrant factory workers in Shenzhen to understand the consequences of digital money for their contemporary lives and imagined prospects, in addition to providing a valuable account of the social implications of digital forms of money in China to a growing body of scholarship working on these themes across the world.

Principle investigator

Tom McDonald


11/10/2017 – 09/04/2020

Funding source

Hong Kong Research Grants Council – Early Career Scheme

Research outputs

McDonald, T. (Forthcoming). ‘Social’ money and working-class subjectivities: Digital money and migrant labour in Shenzhen, China. The China Quarterly. [Open Access version]

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