This week, the news that a primary school in Suzhou, a city in eastern China, had decided to erect a fence splitting the school in two rather than allow migrant students to intermingle with the children of local residents sparked a furious debate on the Chinese internet. After two decades of rapid urbanization, China now boasts some of the largest and most modern cities on earth. But living underneath this gleaming façade of urban prosperity — sometimes quite literally — are millions of rural migrants and their families. Such migrants represent the very foundation of the modern Chinese economy, yet they remain marginalized and discriminated against as China transitions from a centrally planned economy to one dictated by market forces.
These migrants are rural residents — as defined by China’s hukou household registration system — who move to China’s cities, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, in search of opportunity. In 2017, China was home to more than 280 million rural migrants, most of them working in low-paid, menial jobs. Their low status means they are often treated as a disposable resource, to be used and discarded as the need dictates.
Rural migrants themselves have little recourse against such treatment. Hailing from some of the country’s poorest regions and with most forms of independent labor organization restricted by law, they generally take whatever pay they are offered. After all, even a few months of urban wages far exceed what they could make farming.
The result has been their rampant exploitation by corporations. Beginning with the introduction of the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and accelerating after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, international capital has flooded into China over the past few decades. In need of an inexpensive workforce, China’s newly built factories turned to migrants. Twelve-hour days, overcrowded dorms, and oppressive management techniques were commonplace, as were worker suicides.
Today, companies continue to take advantage of migrants' quasi-legal status at every turn, forcing them to work long hours in terrible conditions. In 2016, 2.3 million migrant workers reported their wages were in arrears. This, together with arbitrary fines and wage reductions, is a frequent source of labor disputes. The construction industry in particular is known for a flagrant disregard for worker safety, and it is not uncommon to hear reports of workers being injured or even dying on the job.
These problems have been compounded by misguided policy. Even as they provide cheap labor to local businesses, migrants cannot collect social welfare benefits from already stretched urban coffers. And whenever an economic downturn hits, it is easy for cities to pressure migrants back to the countryside, since they had no legal right to live in the city in the first place.
The effects of this callous approach cut across generations. Publicly funded urban schools in some cities are typically closed to migrant children or enforce strict quotas, preventing them from receiving the stable, quality education they need to move up in the world. Most migrants therefore have to choose between breaking their families up or enrolling children in private, low-quality migrant schools known for high turnover rates among both teachers and students.
The poor treatment and lack of legal rights faced by migrants has created the conditions for sustained urban poverty, as can be seen from the country’s urban villages — which provide densely packed, often informally constructed housing for migrants and other poor residents. In China, migrants usually live in geographically concentrated areas.
As they are locked out of most social services, migrant communities frequently turn to a shadow economy that operates with little to no government oversight or protection. “Black clinics,” for example, provide treatment that is more affordable than big hospitals for migrant patients — who must be legal residents of the city to access urban medical insurance — but the risk is higher, too.
This void has been filled by nongovernmental organizations and campaigners for migrant rights. After the 2003 death of Sun Zhigang — a migrant worker who died as a result of beatings suffered at the hands of employees of a local detention center — a group of lawyers and academics successfully campaigned for the abolition of the country's migrant custody and repatriation system. Soon, more nonprofits began offering services and assistance to rural migrants — especially women and children.
Despite being home to large concentrations of migrants, urban villages rarely foster a sense of community or solidarity among people from different regions. In contrast to the close-knit villages these migrants hail from, cities are home to a wide range of residents, all with their own values, all pursuing their own ends. Surrounded by strangers and an ever-changing cast of new arrivals, migrants and other urban dwellers gradually grow alienated from the people around them — not just their colleagues and acquaintances, but also the neighbors next door.
Even family members are growing apart from one another. Long-distance marriages, in which husband and wife work in different cities or even different provinces from one another, are common. Kids, too, are often left largely to their own devices in the countryside, watched over only by those family members too old to work elsewhere. According to government statistics, as of late 2016 there were more than 9 million of these “left-behind” children living in the Chinese countryside.
All this has left many migrant communities suffering from apathy and malaise. As the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once noted about residents of ghettos, “Sharing stigma and public humiliation does not make the sufferers into brothers; it feeds mutual derision, contempt, and hatred.” In cities around the country, rural migrants have formed a new status hierarchy among themselves, with those from poorer provinces at the bottom, and those from richer agricultural provinces at the top.
One of the most positive changes to have taken place in the past few years has been an increased awareness on the part of urban residents of the injustices suffered by rural migrants and their children. Yet many urban residents continue to view migrants as dangerous, or as a drain on urban resources that they view as theirs by right. Meanwhile, demands migrants be kept separate, whether in walled compounds or second-rate schools — as well as the continued blind eye being turned toward workplace abuses — are creating the conditions for a permanent urban underclass.
Urban residents and officials should recognize the contributions these migrants have made to China’s growth and development, and become advocates for their cause. This support will be crucial if migrants are to throw off their chains and finally share equally in the fruits of their labor.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A migrant mother takes her daughter to school in Beijing, Aug. 26, 2011. Zhu Jialei/VCG)