rightChina is now experiencing the largest mass migration of people from the countryside to the city in history. An estimated 250 million Chinese---a number equivalent to two thirds the population of the United States or three times the number of people who emigrated to American from Europe over a century---have left the countryside and migrated to the cities in recent years. About 13 million new people join the legions every year. The number is expected to surpass 300 million and maybe reach 400 million by 2025.

According to 2010 census figures China's migrant population now numbers 221 million, or 16.5 percent of all citizens. A government report issued in 2011 said more than 100 million more farmers would move to urban areas over the next decade. Between 2000 and 2010 an estimated 116 million people from China's hinterlands migrated to the booming coastal cities in the hope of finding better lives.

China’s migrant workers make up half of China's urban workforce and account for half of the country's GDP. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Known derisively as “waidi ren,” or outsiders, the migrants are the cut-rate muscle that makes it eminently affordable for better-off Chinese to dine out, hire full-time nannies and ride new subway lines in places like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. According to the Beijing Bureau of Statistics, more than one-third of the capital’s 19.6 million residents are migrants from China’s rural hinterland, a figure that has grown by about 6 million just since 2000. “The middle class hates to see that kind of poverty, but they can’t live without their cheap labor,” said Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington who studies China’s rural-migrant policies. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times August 29, 2011]

The China Economic Review reported: “These workers have spilled into urban centers from provinces near and far, peddling fruit and vegetables, powering factories and---beam by beam---raising some of the world's greatest skylines. But they don't take part in the life of the cities they build, instead living on the fringes of society and increasingly, the hard, industrial edges of conurbations like Shanghai. [Source: China Economic Review, May 19, 2014 \^/]

Most migrant workers have traditionally gone to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and the coastal cities but more are heading to the interior where new opportunities are opening up and there is less competition. In some cities, the migrants almost outnumber the residents. The small industrial city of Yiwu, for example, in Zhejiang Province, is home to 640,000 official residents and a migrant population of several hundred thousand. Up until recently the booming cities have been desperate for cheap labor while the countryside has experienced labor surpluses. The cities provide so much work they are sometimes called “factories without chimneys.”

Although they are a source of great social upheaval in the villages and cities migrant workers keep villages going that might otherwise die by providing relatives back home with money and they keep cities going by providing the cheap labor that fuels economic growth.Some have described the migration of workers in China as the largest peacetime movement of humanity ever, dwarfing the Irish and Italian migrations to America (the entire Irish migration to America between 1820 and 1930 was around 4.5 million people) and the fleeing of refugees from places like Afghanistan and Kosovo.


Good Websites and Sources: China Labor Bulletin (Chinese government sources) china-labour.org ; 2009 New York Times article nytimes.com ; China Beat blog report thechinabeat.blogspot.com; Children of Migrant workers China Labor Bulletin ; Links in this Website: URBAN LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

China’s Floating Population

In 2006 it was estimated that China was experiencing a –0.39 per 1,000 population net migration rate. Of major concern in China is its growing “floating population” (liudong renkou), a large number of people moving from the countryside to the city, from developed economic areas to underdeveloped areas, and from the central and western regions to the eastern coastal region, as a result of fast-paced reform-era economic development and modern agricultural practices that have reduced the need for a large agricultural labor force. Although residency requirements have been relaxed to a degree, the floating population is not officially permitted to reside permanently in the receiving towns and cities. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006 *]

The "floating population" is defined as people who live apart from their domicile as defined by China’s stringent hukou or household registration system. So many migrants leave their homes looking for work they overburden the rail system. In the Hunan province, 52 people were trampled to death in the late 1990s when 10,000 migrants were herded onto a freight train. To stem the flow of migrants, officials in Hunan and Sichuan have placed restrictions on the use of trains and buses by rural people.

Many migrant workers are farmers and farm workers made obsolete by modern farming practices and factory workers who have been laid off from inefficient state-run factories. They include men and women and couples with children. Men often get construction jobs while women work in cheap-labor factories. Most come from Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces. A 60- year-old grandmother from Sichuan who was as laborer on a construction site in Shanghai told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re willing to work, you can get a job here even is you’re old.”

“As early as 1994, it was estimated that China had a surplus of approximately 200 million agricultural workers, and the number was expected to increase to 300 million in the early twenty-first century and to expand even further into the long-term future. It was reported in 2005 that the floating population had increased from 70 million in 1993 to 140 million in 2003, thus exceeding 10 percent of the national population and accounting for 30 percent of all rural laborers. According to the 2000 national census, population flow inside a province accounted for 65 percent of the total while that crossing provincial boundaries accounted for 35 percent. Young and middle-aged people account for the vast majority of this floating population; those between 15 and 35 years of age account for more than 70 percent. *

The migration is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the government has tried to restrict it. One young girl told National Geographic, “All the young people leave our village. I’m not going back. Many can’t even afford a bus ticket and hitchhike to Beijing." Overall, the Chinese government has tacitly supported migration as means of providing labor for factories and construction sites and for the long term goals of transforming China from a rural-based economy to a urban-based one. Some inland cities have started providing migrants with social security, including pensions and other insurance.

Urban Migration Patterns in China

20080225-Migrant workers China Labor Watch.jpg
Migrant workers looking for work
A significant portion of China's urban dwellers are migrant workers. A national census published in April last year showed China counted more than 221 million migrants, and a government report released months later predicted that more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020.According to recent census data, about 7 million migrants live in Beijing, making up roughly a third of the city's population. The labor of Beijing’s migrant workers has been essential to building the city. People with skilled jobs such as welders on high rises get paid $280 a month.

Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Beginning in the 1980s, tens of millions of migrant workers from the countryside crowded Chinese cities to sell their labor in construction, sanitation, and other menial tasks. They were the bedrock that made Deng’s “economic miracle” possible. But under the government’s “household registry” system, they technically remained rural residents and were denied the rights of urban residents. Their children---even children born in the cities---also lacked urban registry and thus were not allowed to go to school. [Source: Fang Lizhi, New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011]

The migrant work drive began in earnest in 1992, when China’s coastal economic powerhouses found they could not grow further without the government loosening travel restrictions to attract workers from all over China. So, more personal freedom to move around China was unleashed then. [Source: Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, August 31, 2008]

Sociologists call the migration to the cities the "bright lights effect." In most cases village men head off to cities to find work, leaving their wives and children behind to raise the children and take care of their land. The men often get menial jobs and send the money back. After a man establishes himself in the city he is joined by his wife and children, then nephews and uncles and other extended family members, who in turn establish themselves and are joined by their families and extended families.

The poorest of the poor usually don't migrate to the cities or abroad, rather its people that can scrape together some extra money for the trip. Some people move to the cities to seek a better life. Other have been driven off their land as a result of soil depletion, erosion or disasters. Chinese sociologists say many families would rather brave the uncertainties and the difficulties of life in the cities than return to their rural hometowns, where opportunities are in short supply. "They're just moving from one place to another," one said. "Very, very few of them go home." These days fewer and fewer plan to return to their villages in retirement. M any younger migrants have little experience of farming, and believe their futures lie in towns. "[Urbanisation] is better than an economy without growth. But when you grow, you also have to provide services to [migrants] and not only use them as cheap labour---You need children to move with their parents to cities and you need services for the left-behind elderly," Tao Ran, an expert on rural affairs at Renmin University, told the Guardian.

Migration to the cities has been described as “the most effective way for reducing the birthrate” and improving life. The poor generally have better access to education, health care, safe water, sanitation in the cities than they would in the countryside. The World Bank has called migration “a powerful force for poverty reduction.” In 2005, 200 million migrants around the world sent home $167 billion. That is twice the size of the world’s development spending, and up from $31 billion in 1990.

Every year, during the lunar New Year, 130 million workers return from China’s industrial cities to their homes in the countryside, Some have called this temporary shift in population the largest human migration in the world. See Film, Last Train Home

Many migrant workers---especially the younger, so-called second generation---are increasingly frustrated with the treatment they receive, and the issue has in some cases sparked violent unrest. In June 2011, three days of riots broke out in the southern province of Guangdong after rumours spread that police had beaten a street hawker to death and manhandled his pregnant wife.

Migrant Worker Trends as Revealed by the 2010 Census

According to the 2010 census, China’s "floating population"---as defined by people who live apart from their domicile as defined by China’s stringent hukou or household registration system---mushroomed from 144 million in 2000 to 261 million in 2010. Most of these are migrant workers from the heartland provinces who seek opportunities in manufacturing centers such as Guangdong and Shanghai. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, March 10, 2011]

Between 2000 and 2010 the eastern coast’s share of the population increased by 2.41 percent to reach 37.98 percent, while that of the western and central regions declined respectively by 1.11 percent and 1.08 percent to reach 27.04 percent and 26.76 percent. With 104.30 million people, Guangdong is now the country’s most populous province. That honor used to belong to Henan. With 94.02 million people, the central province has dropped to No. 3, behind coastal Shandong, which boasts a populace of 95.79 million.

The Chinese government made a great effort to count the migrant population in the 2010 census. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In an effort to tally China's staggering migrant population, estimated at more than 200 million, census takers are seeking to count people where they live, rather than at the homes where they have their hukous, or residency permits. Until a decade ago, people who had moved to big cities without permits could be arrested and deported. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times November 10, 2010]

Migrant Workers in China

right There are more migrants workers in China than the entire workforce of the United States. The migrating laborers work for low pay, often under horrendous conditions, in factories, at construction sites, in mines and on railroads and roads. They work in restaurants, die in coal mines, make bricks, peddle bicycle to deliver coal and pick up trash. They follow jobs from city to city. One worker told the Times of London, “We do the dirtiest and hardest work and everyone despises us.”

On the migrants in Beijing, James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “Country people stand out in the urban crowd. Their hands and faces are more weathered, their clothes simpler and more ragged. Often they move about town lugging unwieldy bundles of bedding and belonging wrapped in plaid-patterned woven-plastic fabric that somehow has become the standard for such purposes in poor countries around the world.”

Describing one migrant construction worker in Beijing, Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Li Guangqiang is not tall, but there is a bullish solidity to his body. In repose, his features fall into a wary stillness, and his eyes narrow as if he is perpetually on the lookout for a trick. But his smile is quick, spilling unexpected relaxation over his face. When he migrated to Beijing in 1995, he planned to stay only a few years. He'd make some cash and go home. But now he's addicted, not just to the money, but to the city itself. He describes his village as unsophisticated and dull. "I'll stay in Beijing until I'm 50," he declares.” [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

The writer Wang Shan has called China's migrants "an active volcano." Most of the migrants head to cities where there are factory jobs, thousand of construction sites and large public works projects’such as the new subway in Beijing and freeways in Shanghai. Around 7 to 10 million new migrants leave their villages for the cities every year. The migrants arrive by bus and by train in the cities, with the possessions crammed into red or blue plaid nylon sacks. In the cities they live in shanty towns, dormitories or public spaces--or sometimes right on the sidewalk. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Wang Fang and her husband, Chen Shuangfu, arrived in the provincial capital, Guiyang, 10 years ago, with just 10 yuan in their pockets. Their hard, unappealing work---collecting and sorting rubbish for recycling---earns them as much as 20,000 yuan a year, compared with their 1,000 yuan income back home. But their rural hukou means they are not entitled to many services---and, since the hukou is inherited, neither are their sons. Schools do not receive extra funding for migrant pupils; many claim they are full, or charge hefty illicit fees. The couple have spent 50,000 yuan since their sons reached school age in "donations" to get them into a public school and illicit extra fees. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 2, 2011]

"I can't read or write; I can't even speak standard Mandarin well. We don't want our children to be like us," says Chen. Migrant workers build China's cities, clean their homes and clear their rubbish---but other residents "call us beggars and use dirty words," added Wang.

Migrant Workers in Shanghai

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Chen Dandan spends his days suspended hundreds of feet above downtown Shanghai, building one of the city's newest skyscrapers. What gives the 26-year-old migrant worker a sense of vertigo, though, is his daily walk home down Nanjing Road, the city's glitziest shopping street. In soiled, blue overalls and a yellow safety helmet, Chen gawks at a Gucci storefront. At a place called Tomorrow Square, he ogles a red Ferrari whose price tag equals about 80 years of his $3,500 annual income. "All these people may have money," he says, "but we are the ones who are building Shanghai." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]

As with its former growth spurts, the city's current boom would not be possible without an influx of foreign investment---and armies of migrant workers. Of Shanghai's 20 million people, a third are migrants without residency permits and some associated benefits. Many of these waidiren---outsiders---live in well-established communities, some with their own private schools to accommodate children whose unofficial status bars them from public education. Others, like Chen, form a floating population on the lowest rung of Shanghai society.

In Shanghai's early days most migrants became part of the culture, living in lilong and learning the local dialect. Today, in an era of easy travel and communication, such assimilation is rare. Chen has worked in Shanghai for two years, but he's never considered staying permanently---and he hasn't learned a word of Shanghainese. Most of his wages go to his family in nearby Jiangsu Province.

At the end of his walk down Nanjing Road, Chen heads into the workers' "dormitory"---plywood rooms on the third floor of an unfinished high-rise. Across the street is the 22-story Park Hotel, the tallest building in Asia when it went up in the early 1930s---and a symbol of Shanghai's earlier global pretensions. It too was built by migrant labor. Chen may not be welcome in Shanghai during Expo 2010. In those six hallowed months, construction will halt, and most contract workers will be sent home. But Chen will be back. "As long as Shanghai keeps growing," he says, "it will always need people like me."

20080225-Workers take a rest China Labor Watch.jpg

Money Earned by Urban Migrants in China

Some migrants from Sichuan in Beijing earn around $50 a month sifting through garbage dumps for recyclable materials. Factory workers work 14 hour days, 7 days a week for between $40 and $120 a month (See Labor). Migrant construction laborers are paid around $1.25 a day, a wage that is pitiful by Western standards but much higher than what they can earn their home provinces. Some are promised wages of $1.72 a day but end up getting only 57 cents.

The average migrant earns $100 a month and sends about a third of it home. Families with at least one migrant worker are almost automatically lifted above the poverty level of $1 a day.

Migrants send home around $45 billion a year. Some send four fifths of their incomes to their families. This money is vital to keeping the rural economy going, allowing families to move into new, better homes, send their kids to school, and buy things like livestock, home additions, a plow or tractor, or a big-screen television. The phenomena is similar to that of migrants who go abroad to seek opportunity except that no borders are crossed. The money also helps get local and national governments skirt their responsibilities of providing villagers with social services.

Some workers do not know how much they get paid and go years without receiving any money. They work 12 hour days, seven days a week, and receive room and board in a cramped dormitory, daily rations of rice and noodles, and $12 a month in spending money, with money docked from their pay of they are sick. Some bosses arbitrarily declare work substandard and deduct money from their pay.

Often migrant workers are not paid until the job they are working on is completed or until they return to the work site after returning home for the New Year holiday. This practice is done so the worker’s don’t work for a month a then leave. But some employers abuse the arrangements and tell workers they will get paid after they work a few more weeks and repeatedly deny them their pay. There have been cases of workers working for two, three even ten years without getting paid. Even under these conditions new workers keep coming because opportunities in the villages are so limited.

Expectations among migrant workers are rising. Li Changping, a researcher and advocate for farmer’s rights, told Reuters, “These migrant workers carry expectations about building a home, getting married, having children, becoming successful, and there’s a real pressure from trying to keep up.

Image Sources: Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/, China Labor Watch, Cgstock.com http://www.cgstock.com/china

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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