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.
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.