The New York Times
September 12, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; The New Uprooted; Pg. 6
HEADLINE: In a Tidal Wave, China's Masses Pour From Farm to City
BYLINE: By JIM YARDLEY
ANYONE who has visited China's ballooning, chaotic cities cannot help
but notice the construction cranes. It is not unheard of to count 50
cranes, maybe more, rising between new concrete apartment towers or
thickets of half-built skyscrapers. They twist in the twilight haze
like enormous insects.
Less obvious are the armies of migrant workers toiling below: the
soot-faced men in yellow hard hats pouring cement at infinite work
sites; the farmers arriving at bus or train stations, often hundreds
at a time with possessions bundled in nylon sacks; the girls flooding
out of thousands of dying villages to fill the humming factories
along China's southern coast.
But it is the workers that history is likely to notice.
The tide of these migrants, surging for years yet still gathering
speed, has now reached historic dimensions: China is in the midst of
the largest mass migration the world has ever seen. Not that the rest
of the world is paying much attention, because this migration does
not involve crossing borders.
But its scale already dwarfs the migrations that reshaped America and
the modern Western world. China, by official count, has 114 million
migrant workers who have left rural areas, temporarily or for good,
to work in cities, and that doesn't include tens of millions of
family members who moved with them. Government experts predict the
number will rise to 300 million by 2020, eventually to 500 million.
Today, Shanghai alone has three million migrant workers; by
comparison, the entire Irish migration to America from 1820 to 1930
is thought to have involved perhaps 4.5 million people.
"This is the largest movement in human history," said Cheng Li, a
government professor at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., who
specializes in China. "It is far bigger, and the speed is
For now, the government is encouraging migration to promote its
immediate goal of providing cheap factory and construction labor and
its long-term goal of urbanization. Every wealthy modern nation has
had to shift from a rural-based economy to an urban one in order to
prosper. China is trying to make this transition -- which involves a
fifth of the world's population -- in record time. How well, or
poorly, the government handles this migration will determine whether
these workers help create a middle-class society or just form a
permanent underclass in a country that has already become sharply
divided between rich and poor.
The Chinese are also trying to do it with a political system that
once isolated farmers in a virtual apartheid and remains among the
most oppressive in the world. Even as restraints ease, migrants often
live as outcasts in cities; they lack full residency rights and are
often denied basic services like schooling and health care.
In September, Zeng Peiyan, a member of China's state council, or
cabinet, announced that migrant workers at thousands of construction
projects, many of which are authorized by the government, were owed
$43 billion in unpaid wages. "Some have remained unpaid for up to 10
years," he said, according to state media.
But they keep coming because poverty in the countryside is hopeless.
In this way, China's migrants are like the illegal immigrants in the
United States. The farmer from Ecuador who pays a trafficker to
smuggle him to a job in an American chicken plant is not much
different from a peasant from rural Henan Province who follows a
construction boss to Shanghai.
Both are exploited and work with few legal protections. Both share
crowded apartments with other migrants. But both send back much of
what they earn to relatives left behind. Last year, China's migrants
sent back $45 billion. The countryside would die without it.
Even as China has succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions of people
out of poverty, the Asian Development Bank recently estimated that
583 million of its 1.3 billion people still live on less than $2 a
day; 203 million of those live on less than $1 a day. Most are in the
For America's defining domestic migrations, history has recorded
specific triggers: the 300,000 people who headed west in the
California Gold Rush were chasing the news that a small gold nugget
had been discovered in a valley of the Sierra Nevada. The "Okies" who
flooded the West Coast during the 1930's were running from the
Depression and the Dust Bowl. And the blacks who went north early in
the 20th century were escaping Southern prejudice and Jim Crow laws.
The seminal events in China were Deng Xiaoping's decision in 1978 to
focus on economic development, and the booming growth that followed.
But the triggers have been small bureaucratic adjustments that have
gradually loosened the draconian control levers of the Maoist era,
when a system of household registration essentially shackled people
to their villages or cities.
Huang Ping, a sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, said an early step was the introduction in the 1980's of
national identification cards, which allowed people to travel and
find work more easily. Before, he said, any traveler needed a letter
from local officials as well as a household registration card. Later,
he said, a system of food coupons that could be used only at local
markets was abolished. And, gradually, the household registration
system has been loosened.
During the 1980's, most migrants sought work in midsize cities in
their home provinces. These cities still absorb many of the migrants.
But millions now travel 1,000 miles or more to Beijing, Shanghai,
Guangzhou and other huge cities, where economic growth is fastest.
Experts say at least 7 million to 10 million new migrants leave the
farm each year, in a trend that is expected to continue. This
perception of a limitless labor pool is occasionally contradicted;
last month, officials in Guangdong Province, in the south, complained
of worker shortages. But some analysts say the problem is not
shortages but horrific conditions and unlivable wages that have
caused the workers to move on.
Technically, this is a "seasonal" migration, since most workers
return home briefly, once or twice a year, to visit family and plant
or harvest crops. But more migrants are moving permanently with their
families as the urban transition rushes forward. Of course, allowing
people to move has been the easy part. Now China's leaders face the
job of providing migrants with legal protections, affordable housing,
access to schooling and health care. These expensive building blocks
are needed to create a real middle-class civil society. The
government has started taking some small steps, but major changes
will not come easily for a Communist Party rife with corruption and
loath to open its political system.
THERE is also the challenge of keeping people employed. If China's
economy slowed too much, tens of millions of migrants would be out of
work. With so many more people expected to move, the economy will
need to roar for a long time.
Scott Rozelle, a University of California at Davis professor who
specializes in China's rural economy, said much credit for China's
prolonged growth belongs to migrant workers who have added value to
Rural China, now home to about two-thirds of the population, may one
day have barely 10 percent. "That means about 800 million people have
to move," he said.
"But 150 million already have."
Photos: Epic migrations of the past, like the movement of Dust Bowl
refugees toward California, above right, pale in comparison to the
migration of Chinese that has taken place in the last decade -- an
estimated 150 million so far, with hundreds of millions more
expected. Above left, peak travel time at an overwhelmed rail station
in Guangzhou. (Photo by Agence France-Presse)
(Photo by Bettmann/Corbis)
Chart: "From Plow to Assembly Line" Percentage of people age 16 to 20
from rural areas who work in non-farm industries1990: 23.7%2000:
75.8% (Source by "The Emergence of Labor Markets and the
Transformation of China's Economy" by Scott Rozelle, Linxiu Zhang,
Jikun Huang, Alan deBrauw)|