China: The Biggest Migration Ever

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From here… [NgKKh / Flickr]

…to here [erutan / Flickr]

China now boasts the biggest migration in human history: some 120 million people so far. It began in the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” (experimentation with free markets and foreign trade) started a tidal wave of migrant workers and entrepreneurs flowing from rural farms to factories in eastern boomtowns — initially focussed on “overnight cities” like Shenzhen, which grew from a small fishing town to a modern metropolis of 4 million in two decades.

The migrants workers are generally young — just out of school — and drawn by stories of making it big in the city. What started primarily as seasonal work for male laborers soon changed to include year-round work and vast numbers of women (so many that some cities like Dongguan are now 70% female). And recently, a number of migrants have started settling in urban areas instead of making their way home after a few years. The laborers typically eat, sleep, and work under one roof — often for negligible wages, working seven days a week. Sweatshop conditions to some; to others, a chance for a better future. The money they send home is now the biggest source of income in many rural villages.

China’s “floating population” is rapidly shifting the country from an agrarian society to an industrialized one — thereby changing the social fabric of the countryside and creating an urban youth culture with strong hints of individualism, materialism, and feminism. We hope to draw the big economic, social, and political picture of how China is changing and also learn the particular stories of individual migrants: why they left home, what factory life is like, how they learn to make their way in the world, and what it’s like to return home to a sleepy village with traditional mores.

Peter Hessler

Beijing correspondent, The New Yorker

Author, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present

Kenneth Roberts

Professor of Economics, Southwestern University

Leslie Chang

Reporter, Beijing bureau, Wall Street Journal

Li Zhang

Professor of anthropology, UC Davis

Author, Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks Within China’s Floating Population

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  • Sounds like a fascinating show. If this recent migration in China is the biggest in history, what other migrations come close? What were the causes and consequences of those migrations?

  • So, lots of rural folk are migrating to urban centers for jobs. Didn’t I just hear recently that in urban centers, homes are being destroyed with not reparation to the owners to make room for corporate buildings? Are they displacing some to house others in sweatshops?

  • jackpalance

    Kudos for covering this powerful subject.

    It is my understanding that it is anticipated that another 200 million peasants will move to the cities in

    coming years.

    Skipping the good news in the cities, how much rumbling is there in the countryside? Is China’s peasantry underrated as a political force by China’s leaders?

  • Those in or visiting San Francsico should see Liu Xiaodong’s Three Gorges Project paintings at the Asian Art Museum. Not about the migrants, but about the Chinese countryside.

  • diemos3211

    allison: Yes, the people who used to work in the old state factories when China was Communist (instead of “Socialist with Chinese Characteristics” as they bill themselves now) are being/have been displaced to make room in the cities. From what I can tell they are not being displaced to make room for migrants, rather they are being moved out to make room for pricey developments aimed at the new urban upper crust. Think of it like gentrification on steroids and you’re not too far off.

    BTW, the old workers now find it difficult to even get work in the new factories. They’re too far behind the curve and often too old to compete is my understanding. Apparently there’s not a lot of call for the old 50 lb. Flying Pigeon bicycles in the export market.

  • h wally

    Cheap and disposable labor. The peasant farmers are worth more as laborers in factories or in support capacities. I recently heard an interview with someone who worked as a consultant in China. His job was to line up production facilities in China with western corporations looking to do business in China. He describer one version of a factory. It was a walled in city with all the facilities a city would have except it’s reason for existing was to produce. The people working and living there were all brought in and assigned their jobs. They weren’t free to quit and go somewhere else. He described this as a popular idea. I’m sure with the increasing demand for chinese goods there is also an increasing demand for workers. The small farms will just be replaced with large corporate farms. It seems the chinese have been listening to us all along.

  • h wally

    I’m reminded of the “dust bowl” in our own countries history. Large corporate farms replace the small farms and the people were converted to a cheap labor source.

  • seltzer

    h wally,

    the description of a factory in which “The people working and living there were all brought in and assigned their jobs. They weren’t free to quit and go somewhere else” seems to me to be the definition of slave labor.

    If it’s accurate, it’s a serious human rights violation in a country that has more than its fair share.


  • h wally

    I’ve never been to China to actually check out their working conditions but I’ve heard this type of factory mentioned several times by seemingly reputable sources. The sad part is that the US could be a voice against such things but our indebtedness to them seems to silence any official protests. I recently heard a story on Cambodia. They’ve been struggling to keep their garment industry going. They’ve been working hard to stick to the rules we gave them concerning working conditions. Most of the people employed in these industries are women. Some of their representatives recently travelled to this country to get help for their struggling industries. It seems that no one was interested in listening to them. Our politicians are too busy to bother with them. The sad part is that , as reported, many of the women will turn to prostitution to support their families. I wish we could help countries such as this before things get to the point of being a disaster.

  • joel

    This country has never actually been able to wean itself from slavery. Products of slavery are merely of those industries moved offshore. Which is why U.S. workers cannot compete anymore and this society imports those low priced items with glee. The large corporate plantations of the Banana Republics, sugar, coffee, bananas, have been around ever since slaves went out of style here. The practice has expanded to nearly everything we buy, especially, shoes and other clothing and all other manufacturing and agriculture products we no longer produce – up to computers and state of the art electronics and now IT and related services. This will continue as long as we crave our inflated wages for what we produce while craving, also, all those cheap imports.


  • Potter

    Leslie Chang, the guest tonight, wrote a wonderful two-part report for the Wall Street Journal in 2004. I was so entranced by the writing, the story.

    Part One is called “The Chinese Dream. Part Two is called“Min’s Return.”. I looked and found what I think is the whole piece on this web site. It’s posted in chunks and the poster says it’s an abstract, but it appears to be the whole two-part article, the last chunk is labeled part 1 when it is really the end of the piece ( as it should be).

  • Dorian

    If “choice” is increasingly becoming a part of the lives of the migrant workers, will Chinese workers eventually “choose” to make a change in their repressive government? I fear the level of crackdown, if this ever becomes a serious threat to the status quo. The results of a perceived worker revolt (the massacre at Tinannamen Square) was covered thouroughly on Frontline’s “Tank Man” episode which aired on PBS recently.

  • I am looking forward to this show because I do not know very much about the Chinese migration. I’m wondering if this isn’t the same thing that has happened throughout the world ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution but on a huge scale. One factor that sometimes gets ignored is the environmental distruction that generally accompanies an urban migration. If the industrial or corporate powers take the natural resources from the countryside they get the double benefit of claiming the natural wealth while making the environment less hospitible to supporting the rural population while gaining the cheap labor to turn the natural resources into manufactured goods.

  • spacebo

    Would blogging be the way the migrant workers could unify to make their conditions better. check out China Digital Times in time inforamation about Chinese people

  • Following nother’s lead on another thread, I went and interviewed a couple of Chris’ “farm girls” and a couple of other young Chinese women (in their early 20s) that now are studying in Tokyo. Their experiences and those of their friends were similar to those mentioned on the show, though a couple of interesting points came up. They felt that the harsh factories that restricted workers from leaving the premises were a thing of the past and they had not heard of such a thing recently, though they acknowledge that much of what would be reported in Japan does not show up in the Chinese media.

    They worry about the growing disprity in incomes which is reflected in the workplace conditions. They took it as a matter-of-fact that low-wage factories had worse conditions and more sexual and other harassment. But this wouldn’t keep them from going to the city to work and live. One good thing, they said, is that work finishes usually at 5 and they have more leisure time (than workers in Tokyo). Just at the beginning getting set up costs more than expected since unlike on the farm, everything must be purchased.

    In terms of the “great migration,” they really didn’t think it was anything special and in a sense, I felt like they thought it was strange to be asked about it. One woman ask back, isn’t this the same everywhere? But two women from the north said in their region around Dailing migration to the city was not that great. Still the family is most important and people do not want to leave home. There are also not the same job prospects. Yet going to one of the booming southern cities is very challenging both culturally and linguistically and they do not know of many people from their who leave.

    This latter point shows us that it is important to avoid broad generalizations about China. There may be one political party, but it is a vast, multi-ethnic and multicultural society.

  • elphaba

    Thank you Potter for the link to the article by Leslie Chang. It seems to give a good picture of what is happening in rural China. Two of my daughters are from China and I am printing the article to share with them when they are older. Both of them come from poor provinces. The only study that I know of done on where babies in China available for adoption come from, said that most of them are from poor rural families who have at least one daughter and often more, and are hoping for a boy.

    I have been in China three times. The rapid rate of change is amazing. I noticed that even poor cities are becoming more prosperous. Attention was being paid to marketing in the small stores.

    I found the agricultural practices fascinating. People were gardening on the roadsides. The agriculture is intensive. Anyone can cultivate unclaimed ground.

  • Jazzblowin

    I was in China last year. It is amazing to see the growth in smal and large cites. Parts of shanghai remind me of New York, but 10 times larger. The factory towns by the road side are amazing in number. I visited a city 50 miles outside of shanghai/pudong that was a town of factories. Workers live on the grounds, but there was life outside; shops and places to eat. I got the impression that most seemed content to have employment.

    My experince makes me pause and not jump the gun on thinking all is bad in china. The migration story is familer. At 15, I left my home town of Albany NY and headed to Los Angeles. I finished school, found work and made a better life.

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