But far from deepening connections among rural communities, China’s hukou policy splits families. Children inherit their parents’ hukou, so if their parents move them to the city, they lack public education. Consequently, around 16 million children remain behind with elderly family members, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong–based workers’-rights organization. Spouses are also separated as wives and husbands take work where they can find it.
Wang Jian Sheng, a 40-year-old migrant worker from Henan, longs for his beautiful wife, who is living the same itinerant lifestyle in Guangzhou, a city more than 1,300 miles south of Beijing, where he has worked for the past month. She found a job in a costume factory, and though conditions are bad, he doesn’t worry about her, he says; she can take care of herself. His 17-year-old son is also a migrant worker, and his 8-year-old son lives at home in Zhumadian, Henan Province, with the grandparents.
Wang says he has no idea when he and his wife will live in the same place again: “It’s impossible.” But for China’s rural population, Wang says, “it’s normal. We need to make this life, so we have to work in different places.” In his hometown, almost all the men have left, and only the very young and very old remain, he says.
Wang can earn better money living in the city, but it’s a grim existence. He recently finished his first month-long stint in Beijing, and he hated it. Working eleven-hour days on a construction site, he earned just over $500 for the month. The weather dropped below freezing most nights, and his coat was hardly enough to keep him warm. A delicate man with a shy smile, he seems ill-equipped for such physically demanding labor.
On site, Wang shared a six-square-meter room with seven other men, trying to sleep despite the noise. The boss provided food, but the quality is bad — usually Chinese cabbage, potatoes, and rice. There were no toilets on site, much less showers.
In Beijing, Wang says, he wears the same clothes every day and bathes only two or three times a month, visiting a rental shower. While he has found friends among the migrant workers, most Beijingers look down on him. When he takes the public bus, people move away from him, commenting on his shabby dress and body odor and giving him dirty looks. It’s The Grapes of Wrath, China edition.
In recent months, the Chinese government has floated the idea of hukou reform several times, but no firm policy details have yet emerged. Nevertheless, China has a strong incentive to take on the plight of its millions of migrant workers, says Kam Wing Chan, a China specialist at the University of Washington.
“If China wants to really rebalance its economy– and they’ve been talking about this for more than a decade now– it really needs to grow and expand domestic consumption,” he says. “But if you realistically look at what is happening currently and also what will happen in the coming years . . . the growth of the urban middle-class population [who already have hukou in cities] is going to slow down significantly. The only other place where you can grow the middle class will be from the rural-urban migrants.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.