Professor Biao Xiang

Biao Xiang




Professor of Social Anthropology

Fellow of St Hugh's College

Migration, state, labour, social reproduction, ethnic relations, business, China, India

Having grown up in southeast China and educated in Beijing, I was most influenced by the tense debates in 1980s China. I became interested in ethnographic research because of its attention to complexities that cannot be foreseen beforehand and I have always sought to integrate ethnographic data into historical, institutional and especially political economy analysis.

Current editorial/advisory board membership

Anthropological Theory; International Migration Review; Pacific Affairs; TRaNS: Trans-National and -Regional Studies of Southeast Asia; Migration Studies; Open Times (Chinese); Asia Matters; Business, Culture and Theory; Advances in Applied Sociology; Anti-Trafficking Review; Archives of Anthropology; British Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies; Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics and Sociology; e-SocialSciences; Aceh International Journal of Social Sciences


2008 Anthony Leeds Prize for Global 'Body Shopping': An Indian International Labor System in the Information Technology Industry. Princeton University Press. 2006. 

2012 William L. Holland Prize for Predatory Princes and Princely Peddlers: The State and International Labor Migration Brokers in ChinaPacific Affairs. 85 (1): 47-68. 2012.


Telephone: +44 (0)1865 612372

Oxford China Centre
Oxford South Asian Studies Programme
Please visit my COMPAS page for more information.

Teaching and research interests

I have worked on migration and social changes in China, and subsequently India and other parts of Asia, since 1992. My first project, a six-year study on a migrant community in Beijing, demonstrates how rigid official boundaries internal to the Chinese state, which are essential for the state's control over society, have paradoxically facilitated the growth of new social spaces. I did this as an undergraduate and then postgraduate student at Peking University (1991-1998) partly because of my discomfort with the dominant discourse in China at that time that regarded the 'low-quality' populations, especially rural-urban migrants, as an obstacle to development. I was thus particularly keen to find out as detailed as possible about what the migrants were doing everyday. I was told later that what I was doing was 'anthropology'.

Hoping to make myself less parochial, I chose a completely unfamiliar topic for my PhD in Oxford - migrant Indian Information Technology engineers in Australia. As an ethnographic critique of the mainstream narrative about the global high-tech industry in the early 2000s, the work explains how the flexibility and volatility of the industry, which was often presented as inevitable and even desirable, is socially and culturally constructed based on multiple existing inequalities on a transnational scale.

I started my third major project in 2004 on unskilled labour migration from China to Japan, South Korea and Singapore. I tried to work out why commercial recruitment intermediaries became so prominent - a condition that I call 'intermediary trap' - given that modern institutions and technologies are supposed to be dis-embedding and dis-intermediating.

Currently, I am developing an interest in transnational reproduction (what does it mean when an increasing number of nations have to rely on foreigners to reproduce themselves demographically and socially, and more people cross borders to nurture life, for instance as care-givers, patients and students?) and ethnic relations in China (how do internal and international migrations affect the two pillars of the Chinese ethnicity policy: clear demarcation of autonomous regions and categorical divide between domestic and foreign affairs).

List of publications.

DPhil students

I am happy to discuss your research ideas related to migration and social changes in Asia, particularly China. Tell me why you think your topic worth one to five (or even more) best years in your life. Curiosity is not enough; you need to have some concerns and, even better, a bit of anger. It is more important to have your own voice than to have clever ideas, and to know what's going on than to know what latest literature says.

Recent and current DPhil students:

Daniel Guiness: Fijian players in global rugby (currently Research Fellow at University of Amsterdam)

Miriam Driessen (co-supervised with David Zeitlyn): Chinese road construction in Ethiopia (Postdoctoral Fellow at Peking University, and Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow, Oxford, from 2016)

Sangmi Lee: Hmong diaspora in Laos and the U.S. (Lecturer in Southeast Asia Studies, Seoul National University)

Ka-kin Cheuk (co-supervised with Marcus Banks): Indian traders in south China (Postdoctoral Fellow at Leiden University)

Sonia Lam: Youth movements in Hong Kong

Loretta Lou (co-supervised with Anna Lora-Wainwright): Green movements in Hong Kong