The Most Interesting Place in Beijing

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Beijing West Railway Station is a miserable place to visit. But it’s probably the most interesting site in China’s capital city.

I don’t know of anywhere else where a major demographic shift is so tangible. As I write in my NRO piece today, China’s urbanization reached a milestone in 2011, the first year where more people lived in cities than the countryside.

At Beijing West, that urban migration is obvious. To get there, you must cross the bridge over Lianhuachi Road. Travelers flowing in opposite directions collide on the bridge, and there is no right side of the road. Some people have their entire families in tow; even more have left their families behind but carried with them all their earthly belongings, packed haphazardly in rice sacks and cheap plastic-woven bags. Making your way to the train station is a long, physical process. You can’t emerge without bruises.

Getting there is stressful; being there, even more so. On average, between 150,000 and 180,000 people pass through every day, and during peak seasons such as Chinese New Year, reportedly as many as 400,000 do.

People can get swallowed in such an overwhelming setting, and that’s a pity, because the people are the most interesting thing about Beijing West. Many of the travelers are migrant workers and their families, who’ve come to the cities looking for work. They’ve lived hand-to-mouth their entire lives, and they dream of being part of China’s other major demographic shift — the emerging middle class — and they’re working hard to make that dream come true.

Their optimism might redeem the accompanying tragedies. The first time I arrived at Beijing West, in early 2012, I had just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. In the U.S., that sort of story is outdated, a relic of times that won’t be repeated. But in China, it’s happening, right now. Many of these migrant workers arrive in the cities, struggle to find good work, and are treated terribly by the permanent residents. They have little money and no prospects back home. Their misery is exacerbated by the Chinese government’s policies; as I write in my piece today, the hukou policy tethers these workers to their rural hometowns, making it tough for them to relocate to cities for good. Many are separated indefinitely from their wives, parents, and children. They may be counted as urban residents, but they’re really permanent itinerants.

In my past visits to Beijing West, I’ve been a fellow traveler — hustling to buy a ticket before the train sells out, and straining to hold my place in line, despite the constant queue-cutting that’s standard in China. But I’ve been curious about these migrant workers and their epic, sad stories. I was finally able to indulge that curiosity a few weeks ago, visiting the station with an interpreter and a notebook.

China’s migrant workers didn’t disappoint — they were as interesting as I’d imagined. You can read their stories here.

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