If you are from a Chinese village, my reader, do you have some fellow villagers working elsewhere in a city? Do you have a neighbour whose family members are scattered around the country? Or you may have your own family members working at different locations of China, with a brother in Guangdong and a sis in Beijing?


If you are a city dweller, where do you think the waiters and waitresses are from at the restaurant where you have a dinner party? Do you find some workers at a construction site? Where are they from?


The Chinese rural population has been moving into towns and cities on a large scale since the 1980s. In this blog entry Shengliver will explore this subject—migration in contemporary China.


Migration is one of the most prominent social phenomena that are transforming China. Is it good or is it bad? It is neither. It is a challenge the Chinese have to face up to and adapt to.




The whole nation getting on the move came with the reform and open-door policy initiated in the late 1970s by the then Chinese leadership under Mr Deng Xiaoping. Before the policy was introduced and implemented, China was very much an “immobile” society, lacking vigour, harming trade and hindering progress of ordinary people’s living standards. Then a Chinese citizen had limited freedom of travel. A traveller had to obtain permission from the public security authorities, be they the production squad leader, the People’s Commune police, or the county police head. Only with such a permit was s/he allowed to travel to the designated destination.


I still remember an extreme case in my childhood. It must have been the mid 1970s. The families in my production squad were not allowed to go and visit their relatives and exchange gifts. Probably the Communist Party of China was attempting to “reform the social customs and simplify the lifestyle” then. However, through Chinese history it has been the custom to give gifts on various occasions, when a baby is born, when a marriage is taking place, at a funeral and so on and so forth. It was a funny picture. Two guards stood by the road leading to and from the village. They stopped the travellers on the road, interrogated them and confiscated the gifts they were carrying.


Freedom of travel was restricted by another factor—poor transportation facilities. No proper highways, no buses, no private cars, not even a bike for most families in the 1970s. Expressways were unheard of then. Without the infrastructure in place, how could ordinary people have travelled FREELY?


The reform and open-door policy injected mobility into this stagnant China. Roads have been built and bettered, and a network of roads, expressways, railroads and air routes has been put in place covering the whole country. Of course this construction of infrastructure is still going on in many parts of the country. Today a villager can without trouble take a bus from the township where he belongs, travel to the county town, to the regional capital, and on to the provincial capital in a matter of hours.




What comes to our mind usually when the term “migrant workers” is mentioned are those peasant farmers, carrying their luggage in a woven bag, which is originally used as fertiliser packaging on the farm. However, a look at the definition from Encarta Dictionaries shows that migrant workers include other groups than the peasants.



somebody moving from place to place: somebody who moves from one place to another, often for employment or economic improvement


Another group that should be covered by the definition are business people. They migrate (travel regularly for a purpose), too. Their hometown might be in Zhejiang but most of the time they are in different parts of the country looking after their local business interests.

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Both groups migrate for the same reason—job opportunities and a better living. I will focus on Chinese peasants who migrate in this entry.


China has seen a big surplus of labour force in the countryside ever since the reform and open-door policy was enacted. Each family has its own plot of land to work. The small farm doesn’t need so many workers on it and its yield doesn’t help improve the family’s living standards very much. For a lot of farmer families who have a limited area of farmland, especially in the vast mountainous areas of interior China, their farming is no more than for subsistence.


In cities, some jobs are not done properly and Chinese cities have been sprawling for the past decades. Therefore job opportunities are increasing simultaneously in cities, where there is a demand for more workers doing these jobs—street cleaners, waiters, cooks, hairdressers, construction workers and toy makers. The list goes on and on.


The surplus workforce in rural China and the need for more workers in urban China are the driving force behind this movement—the influx of country folk into cities.




As said earlier, this migration cannot be judged in a simplistic manner as either “GOOD” or “BAD”. Benefits brought about by the movement of surplus rural labour abound.


Creation of wealth


A large proportion of Chinese migrants work in the manufacturing sector. In the Pearl River Delta, the Southern Jiangsu Economic Zone, and the Yangtze River Delta, there are numerous factories producing toys, garments, foods, appliances and the like. These jobs do not need highly technically trained workers. Work at such places is long-hour, low-paying and repetitive. The migrant workers find their places in a lot of such factories. In a sense, a large part of China’s economic growth derives from the wealth created by cheap labour of migrant workers.


A rise in living standards for both rural and urban China


With the surplus workforce finding jobs in cities, services are a great deal bettered. To be honest, some city folk despise some of the work migrant workers do. Will you be a toilet keeper? Will you be a street sweeper? Will you vend vegetables and slaughter chickens at a market?


On the other hand, a better income for the migrant workers facilitates changes in the countryside. With money flowing from cities to villages, better houses are built, more labour-saving appliances purchased, farmer kids better fed and better educated.


Some successful migrant workers have left behind their villages and become permanent dwellers of a city. They purchased a new home in the city and their children grow up in the new environment. These Chinese people have climbed high in the social ladder and their new wealth has elevated their social status.


Chinese culture changing for the better


The interaction itself between migrant workers and permanent city dwellers is an educational process for both. More and more city people are developing tolerance towards those seemingly low-class workers. These workers’ existence lends the urban folk a new perspective into their own life.


The communication is a two-way process. Country people are as much influenced by the way of life in the city, if not more so. Their sense of inferiority consciously and unconsciously helps them to give up old ways of being and to adopt new attitudes—attitudes to sex, marriage, girls and entertainment, to list a few.




Side by side with the benefits are the problems with Chinese migration. Cracking the problems should see China progress further in its social development; failure to do so would only result in more human misery and social unrest.




Migrant workers do not receive fair treatment, and inequality exists between them and permanent dwellers of a city. They do not benefit from the same medical care, social security, education, housing and other policies as their permanent counterparts do.




It is a fact that migrant workers live in a different world although they work in the same city. An invisible wall stands between their world and the outside. Are they second-class or third-class citizens? When they are sick, do they go to the same hospitals? Why do their kids attend the so-called “schools for migrant workers’ kids”? Why can’t they send their kids to the same schools the luckier kids go to if they don’t pay extra fees or bribe their way in there? Why can’t their kids take the national college entrance exams where they have been growing up?




Most Chinese migrant workers leave home for cities usually with a junior high school diploma. They have no access to vocational training at all in many places in China. It would be a good idea that at the county level free vocational training be provided for all those junior high graduates who fail to enter senior high. It would be a foolish mistake to send all kids to university, and it would be as foolish a mistake to ignore those kids who are eliminated by the exam system.


Kids and old folk left behind


A common scene in Chinese villages today is absence of the father and/or the mother. Kids are left behind with their grandparents as the guardian. There are some cases where the kids have no guardian at all. Growing up without parental guidance and care contributes to a lonely childhood. Childhood experiences impact their behaviour when they are adults.


In the two classes I teach, a lot of the teenagers do not go back to their hometown on some traditional festivals for their parents are not home. They keep in touch with their parents on the phone. Money is sent in to support them. A boy called Chen Hu did not see his parents for some consecutive years. Last year, his mother did not come back home until December 26th (on traditional Chinese calendar). They spent the Spring Festival with his uncles and aunts instead of in their own home because their house was dusty and dirty without anyone dwelling in it for such a long time.




Switching between the two environs—the city and the country—requires the migrant workers to be mentally strong for the contrast between the two is sharp. Who looks after their psychology village09and mental wellbeing? Are there agencies offering counselling and advice to those troubled, shocked and perplexed? The loneliness, fear and despair experienced by the kids left behind in home villages are detrimental to the healthy development of their character.


More spending on rural schools


Different parties approach the issue from different angles. As an educator, I still believe the best possible solution is better schools for the countryside. Despite so many years of propaganda and political advertising of the importance of education, quality teachers are still in short supply in country schools—devoted teachers with a passion for their work and with a love for the people. Young Chinese college graduates are misled by materialism and some of them have turned snobbish. Those graduates supposed to be teachers turn to other fields, where they hope to make a bigger and quicker fortune and live a comfier life. Their ideals are lost and money reigns over their souls.


Country schools would be much better if better teachers were there with the kids. Many of the current problems resulting from national migration could be solved by the presence of qualified and devoted teachers, better classrooms, better meals, a library with plenty of resources, paper and digital, and of course more funding from the government. Money is not the issue here if you think of the luxury office buildings occupied by the local authorities and the excessive eating and drinking going on every day in fancy restaurants.




The country is huge and the population figure in China is staggering. Most issues in this country are of Chinese characteristics. The government and the Communist Party of China have done a good job in running the country by and large. But there is still room for improvement. Only with the countryside bettered will China be bettered. This country will still be a weak country only with a small number of metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai. Real change will come about only when the mass population are better educated and human suffering is reduced with a sound social support system. Migration is a channel through which the nation can improve itself and progress further on its way to modernisation and prosperity.


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