Young migrants changing the face of China’s cities

By Anita Chang
The Associated Press

DONGGUAN, China (AP) — Li Biying, 20, has no plans to go home. Unlike older migrant workers who came to earn money for a few years before returning to their villages, the new generation intends to stay, envisioning a life in the neon-splashed cities.

For China, the shift presents a challenge: how to integrate the new arrivals into already overburdened cities. An agrarian society for thousands of years, China is on the cusp of having more urban than rural dwellers for the first time.

“People my age think, what would I do in the countryside? I don’t know how to do anything!” Li says in the simple dorm room she shares with two other women in Dongguan, a southern coastal boomtown near Hong Kong.

“I remember once, we were growing wheat at home, it had just sprouted and it looked just like grass. I couldn’t tell the difference, so I pulled it out,” she recalls. “My mom was so mad, she said, how could anyone not tell the difference between wheat and grass?”

Li started working in factories at 14, dropping out of seventh grade to help support her parents, sister, and brother.

She sews lining into unfinished bra cups, earning 20 cents for every 12 pieces. In a good month, she’ll make about $225 — that’s roughly 14,000 pieces sewn during shifts that begin at 8 a.m. and don’t end until 10:30 p.m.

The workers, almost all women, get one day off a month. They might browse at a nearby department store.

Of an estimated 150 million migrant workers in China, 90 million are under 30 and they are driving one of the most significant demographic shifts in the country’s history.

The government forecasts that China will be majority urban by 2015. Some estimate the number could rise to 1 billion by 2030.

“Traditional migrants were like migratory birds, and felt like both a farmer and a worker,” says a report released last year by China’s official trade union umbrella group. “They identified themselves as visitors in the city.”

A 2008 survey of migrants under 30 found that 56 percent planned to buy a house and settle in the city where they worked, according to the China Youth Research Center.

“They are more accustomed to urban life than rural life,” the trade union report says. “They’ve never been hungry, never felt the cold, and never had to worry about food or clothing.”

It’s hard to distinguish young migrants from their urban counterparts. Li sports short black shorts over black tights, working the pedal of her sewing machine with high-heeled boots trimmed with faux fur. She has two red studs in one ear, cuffs with thin chains on the other.

“My parents say I’ve been working in the city for so long that I don’t look like a country girl anymore,” Li says. “I tell them, people learn and they change. You want to become a better person and keep moving forward.”

China’s cities still treat migrants as second-class citizens. Under the country’s “hukou” registration system, for example, migrants are considered residents of their rural hometowns. So as “visitors” to a city, they often face higher medical and school fees and can be cut off from subsidized housing and other social services.

“Society should give equal opportunities to people of all levels,” says Wang Chunguang, who studies migrant issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Bill Clinton became the U.S. president. A Chinese migrant worker should also be able to become a top cadre, a president, a government minister. It shouldn’t be that the children of migrant workers can only become migrant workers.”

Already, last year saw a wave of large-scale strikes over pay and working conditions, a sign of an increasingly confident labor force. But wide-scale upheaval is unlikely as long as the migrants continue to make money and feel they have opportunities, predicts Leslie T. Chang, author of “Factory Girls,” which examines the lives of young workers.

“Some of these people will become middle class and some will become a new urban working class,” she says. “But they are very different from the traditional working class associated with state-owned enterprises. This is a new working class that’s very independent, very mobile, and really on its own.”

It’s impossible to say exactly how many migrants have settled in cities, because of their transient nature and still shallow urban roots. But statistics show growing numbers in the cities, coupled with new migrants leaving the countryside every year.

The migrants themselves hesitate to say they’ll never return to the farm. Without job security, their small plots of land are their only insurance. Still, it’s clear China’s villages are slowly dying.

One by one, families in southwest China’s Sanxing village are moving to the nearby town or even further away, leaving plots covered in weeds between tended patches of vegetables.

“Over there, there’s four empty houses, there’s a lot of them like that,” Li says, gesturing past the dirt road next to her family’s three-story brick home, which was built with her and her siblings’ factory earnings. “The ones who came back for the holiday, they’re living in town, they don’t come back to the village anymore.”

“Of course I want the young folks to stay in the city, it’s better there. It’s hard living in the country,” says 56-year-old Li Weishu, her father, noting that only grandparents and small children remain. “We don’t have much land, this is a mountain area and there isn’t enough to live on.”

A visitor might see rustic charm in the sturdy hand-knitted clogs worn by elderly women, green fields of winter vegetables, homemade salt pork hanging from kitchen rafters, and cooking stoves fired by dried corn husks.

“No,” Li says with a bite in her voice. “This place is backward and poor.”

She has lost her taste for the spicy food of her hometown and prefers the milder flavors of southern Chinese cooking. Sometimes, she slips into Mandarin instead of her native dialect.

At the factory, Li’s day clicks ahead with every unit of 12 pieces. She beams as factory manager Miao Linglin hands her a thin stack of 100 yuan notes. Most of it will be sent home, and after living expenses, there’s not much left for herself.

Anyway, there’s no time for cruising Dongguan’s noisy shopping arcades. After a 14-hour work day, the women rush back to the dorm to get hot water that’s only available for 20 minutes a day.

Li, parked on her stool in front of the sewing machine, dreams of a future in which she owns a home in the city and has a stable job working only eight hours a day.

“Even though I’m from the country, I want to improve my life and be like people in the city,” Li says. “Everyone yearns for that kind of life. I yearn for that kind of life, too.” ♦

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