Beijing — A rice bag holds nearly all the earthly belongings of Xu Xian He, a 60-year-old migrant worker. He sits at the Beijing West Railway Station, smoking tobacco through a long pipe and waiting for the eight-hour train ride home to Jiaozuo, Henan Province. He’ll visit his wife and his beloved farm for a few days, and then he’ll leave again to find construction work in another city.
“I like every place where I can make money,” Xu pointedly tells me through an interpreter. As long as he earns more than farm wages, “I don’t care what city. There’s nothing interesting. Every city seems alike.”
Xu says that since he began his migrant work about three years ago, he’s been richer than ever. He wears a dusty blue Mao suit with a ripped right pocket, and he kneads his hands. He lost several of his fingers decades ago in a fireworks accident, but he swears it doesn’t make construction work too cumbersome.
Before, Xu farmed peanuts, corn, and wheat, but the seasons dictated his work and wages, and summer and winter were mostly idle. Someday, he says, he hopes he’ll make enough to improve his life. The ultimate dream: Living in “good physical conditions,” he says.
China’s boom in urban migration is primarily motivated by money. In 2011, “the average rural income was around 30 percent of the average urban income,” according to a report by the British embassy in Beijing. China’s state-run media reported last year that about 128 million rural inhabitants live on less than $371 a year, barely more than a dollar a day. These impoverished citizens are increasingly looking to cities, where wages are higher and opportunities are more abundant.
China’s decades-long population shift toward urban centers reached a landmark in 2011, the first time more Chinese lived in cities than in the countryside. McKinsey has predicted that by 2025 there will be 221 Chinese cities with a million residents or more.
Yet many of these new urban dwellers are caught in a sort of residential purgatory. According to 2012 government numbers, around 712 million people lived in Chinese cities last year, but as many as 236 million of them are unable to permanently relocate, thanks to a Mao-era Chinese household-registration policy. Residence permits, known as “hukou,” offer social benefits such as housing subsidies, health care, pensions, and schooling for children — but only within the geographical bounds of a person’s hometown. Consequently, the hukou system tethers workers who might otherwise permanently abandon their rural homes.