SEATTLE — Imagine a world where the poor, the middle class and the rich are separated by a state-mandated sleep schedule, with each class only allowed to inhabit the city at its scheduled time. Resources are scarce and shared unequally. There is a constant air of hopelessness. This is the world of Folding Beijing, an award-winning novella by Chinese author Hao Jingfang. According to a New York Times interview, Hao was inspired by the “invisible people” living in modern Chinese cities, including migrant workers. While the world of Folding Beijing is fictional, the challenges facing China’s migrant poor are real.
China’s Migrant Poor a Result of Rapid Urbanization
Until recently, the majority of China’s population lived in rural villages. Over the past thirty years, however, the urban population has grown by 500 million people, propelled mainly by China’s modern economic growth. The Economist described it as “the biggest movement of humanity the planet has seen in such a short time”. While the Chinese government is working to build up infrastructure to accommodate this trend, there are still some growing pains.
Specifically, there are more than 200 million people who live in China’s megacities but do not have the hukou, or legal residence status, required to receive public services in those cities. Most of these people are workers who migrated from the countryside to work in cities like Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing. Lacking a legal right to live in these cities, many of China’s migrant poor are unable to take advantage of local hospitals, schools and other services, leaving them without support in their new homes.
Even when migrant workers are able to access public services, they are underserved. One study found that only about 20 percent of schools for migrant children in Beijing were accredited by the government. Only a third of elderly migrants have pensions, and those who do are allocated too little to survive in urban areas.
Rights of Migrant Works Often Not Respected in Cities
Most migrant workers work in service industries like construction, manufacturing and the restaurant industry. About 48 percent work in transportation industries, meaning that migrant workers are an essential part of China’s domestic infrastructure. Despite the meaningful labor they do, on average migrant workers are only paid ¥3,500 a month, far below the amount needed to live in China’s urban areas. This is especially concerning considering that migrant workers make up almost 35 percent of China’s labor force.
Besides experiencing displacement, poverty and a lack of access to public services, China’s migrant poor are often discriminated against. As the need for migrant workers decreases in China’s coastal cities, migrants are being encouraged to return to their home villages, using both incentives and threats. After a fire in Beijing killed 19 people (17 of whom were migrants), the local government evicted thousands of migrants from “illegal structures”. Many residents were given minutes to pack and could only take what they could carry. While a representative of the Beijing Administration of Work Safety stated that claims the government targeted the poor for eviction were “groundless,” local activists and intellectuals decried the “ruthless” campaign.
Growth and New Initiatives a Boon to Migrant Workers
Despite these serious challenges, there are positive elements to the situation facing China’s migrant poor. For example, because of growth in China’s western provinces, many migrants are moving back to their home provinces, resolving the issues of hukou and scarce resources they face in the coastal cities. In 2016 alone, the portion of migrant workers in the western part of China grew by 5.3 percent. Besides helping migrant workers, this trend will relieve population pressure in the megacities and help develop rural areas.
There are also several programs run by NGOs designed to support migrants who do not move inland. Some are domestically formed and serve a union-like role, working to protect the legal rights for migrant workers in the face of China’s authoritarian state. Others, such as the China Migrant Initiative, were started by foreign organizations like the Legatum Foundation. They have implemented after-school care and vocational programs to improve the lives of migrant workers living in underserved urban areas.
Ultimately, while the situation facing China’s migrant poor, like the story of Folding Beijing, seems to foretell a grim future of inequality in China’s cities, there is potential for development and growth. A continued focus on providing opportunities for migrant workers will help them better meet their needs and rise out of poverty.
– Lydia Cardwell