University of Illinois at Chicago
LI-DISSERTATION-2019.pdf (2.08 MB)

Mothering in a Polluted, Developing China: Class, Risk Perception, and Environmentalist Motherhood

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posted on 2019-08-01, 00:00 authored by Jialin Li
Overall, this research asks how do mothers cope with the modernization risks with Chinese characteristics in a polluted but drastically developing post-socialist China? To be more specific: to what extent are Chinese mothers willing to have their little children tolerate the modernization risks in urban China? Considering urban and rural residents have been benefiting as well as suffering from the modernizing China differently, how do mothers from two classes perceive and cope with the risks differently? With a focus on two case studies: electromagnetic radiation-shielding maternity clothes (cloak) and post-Sanlu infant formula scandal in 2008, this dissertation explores the series of questions through 12 months of qualitative research in Shanghai, including in-depth interviews with pregnant women and new mothers from two classes, ethnographic fieldwork in a low-cost maternity hospital (PJ hospital) and a rural-urban migrant non-governmental organization (New Citizen Life Space/NCLS), and archival research on the reports about the environmental pollutions and food safety issues. This project argues that the dilemma between the drastic state-governed economic development and environmental degradation as well as moral decay has created fear and anxieties over reproductive health, which gives rise to what I term “the responsibility and morality of Environmentalist Motherhood”. In the context of post-socialist China, mothers not only need to perform good motherhood but also claim their distinctive class, knowledge, and positionality. Well-educated, middle-class mothers tend to see the issues of the environmental pollution and food safety problems as a “Chinese” problem rooted in the economic and political path China is taking. Their practice of mothering is facilitated by their economic power but constrained/blinded by their political weakness. By contrast, rural-urban working-class migrant mothers show a fragmented performance of good motherhood due to the discriminatory social structure, their limited disposable income, and a lack of access to the emerging knowledge of mothering that is dominated and communicated among middle-class mothers through social network and on social media. The dissertation starts with a government-subsidized, low-cost maternity hospital for rural-urban migrant women in order to paint a general picture of the ideal, reproductive citizenship in contemporary, urban China as well as the lack of health rights among rural-urban, working-class migrant women due to the long-term consequences of hukou system and suzhi discourse. The following chapters reveal how well-educated, middle-class mothers practice their Environmentalist Motherhood through “cloaking” pregnancy and “delaying” their baby’s contact with China’s environment. All these strategies require tremendous monetary, time, and knowledge investment, and simultaneously cause gendered burden due to their inferior position in the global information as well as commodify flows. Rural-urban working-class migrant mothers, by contrast, are sealed off the outsider world. Their practice of Environmentalist Motherhood is constrained by their desire for economic betterment and the discriminatory structure they are facing in urban areas. The dissertation ends with a general discussion on several emerging core themes, such as global environmental justice, modernity and toxicity, and the dilemma of Environmentalist Motherhood.



Decoteau, Claire


Decoteau, Claire



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

McInerney, Paul-Brian Orum, Anthony Patil, Crystal Hanser, Amy

Submitted date

August 2019

Thesis type



  • en

Issue date


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