The in-between world: new wave migrants

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Compared with the original generation of migrant workers, the new generation has a better education, greater expectations for their careers, and higher goals for their material and spiritual enjoyment; unfortunately they appear to have lower endurance levels for work. The profiles of the two generations of migrant workers are totally different and that is changing everyone's expectations.

What a child really wants

Migration split families. Twenty-one-year-old Zhang Qianru left Shenyang in northeast China right after her college graduation a year ago, to join her parents who run a small tailor shop in Beijing; they had been separated for 15 years. When Zhang Qianru was three years old, her father Zhang Wanxu left their village in Liaoning Province and headed for Daqing City in Heilongjiang Province to work in a small machinery factory. Her mother stayed back, working as a cook for a brickyard in their village.

Then in the 1980s, China's countryside began to divide general land use rights up among individual farmers. Many rural areas had surplus labor because of the shortage of land, and displaced farmers began to make their way in the world as itinerant laborers. At first, the migrant workers concentrated in township enterprises nearby their rural villages, but by the 1990s China had entered an era of rapid economic development, and the boom lured migrant workers farther and farther from home. They began to flow to the southeast coast where the dense manufacturing industries offered work, especially in export-oriented enterprises, processing and textiles.

Until recently, these people made up a class of laborers commonly referred to as "migrant workers." Zhang Wanxu and his family are typical. In 1988 they obtained 2.4 mu of land per person. In Northeast China, farmers reap only one crop of rice a year. During planting and harvest seasons he had the helping hands of relatives, but after that the farmer had time on his hands. In 1992, Zhang Wanxu left his village and went out as a migrant worker, leaving the farm work and his young son and daughter in the care of his parents. Two years later, Zhang Qianru's mother followed him to the same factory in Daqing to do hard labor. Daqing is a small city with petroleum mining to thank for its prosperity, and the income of migrant workers here is slightly higher than that offered by export-oriented enterprises on the southeastern coast. Their monthly income of RMB 600-700 required ten hours a day or more to earn - without weekends off. As a truck driver, Zhang Wanxu often drove at night despite the severe cold. His only annual leave was a two-week break to join his children and parents.

China's labor-intensive industry reached a critical mass and needed an abundance of cheap labor; the income gap between city workers and farmers just kept widening. In 1978 the income of urban inhabitants was 2.4 times of the rural inhabitants; by 2008, the disparity had reached 3.13 times. More farmers in economically backward areas moved to economically developed areas. The children of these migrant workers grew up unaware of poverty or the need to do any farm work because of the relatively higher incomes their parents earned in China's burgeoning urban centers.

"I recall my childhood, when the four brothers and sisters in my family sat around the dining table snatching at the few and meager meat dishes… it makes me want to cry and laugh. But my own children have never been deprived," said Qianru's mother Xue Jing. Her daughter and son grew up in the care of their grandparents. In their childhood there had been no worries about food or clothing. Qianru only has good memories, "I grew up in the countryside. Our courtyard was large, filled with many fruit trees and a vegetable garden. When I was small, my little friends and I played hide-and-seek among the cucumber trellises. We also played on a swing, a rope tied between two trees. We had never done farm work, but played in the sunshine and on the soft soil. I think we were happier than urban children who seem plugged into computer games now."

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions did its own survey on the new generation of migrant workers, finding that 89.4 percent of them basically don't know how to do farm work, and 37.9 percent have no experience of farming at all. Many of them are born in cities, and the village authorities no longer assign means of production to them, such as land use rights. Their childhood is almost identical to that of urban children.

Even though the children of migrants working in cities lived comfortably enough, they missed their parents and looked forward to family reunions during the Spring Festival. "Whenever they came back they brought a lot of food and other things for us. Many of these things I had never seen before. We children felt our city-dwelling parents lived in another world full of strange, and sometimes amazing, things. But nothing can replace parental love. Despite the gifts brought home for us, my brother and I would rather have been together with our parents and had their love."

Psychologists generally hold that a child lacking parental love becomes an adult with higher demands in his or her emotional life.

Serve the people, or yourself

In 1997, Zhang Wanxu and Xue Jing built a new house in their home village. The 200-square-meter residence took all their earnings from six years of work and almost all the savings of their parents on both sides. The four members of the Zhang family are all rural residents, entitled to have farmland, and to build a house in the village. Zhang Wanxu and Xue Jing have also joined various kinds of rural insurance programs. They expect, "We do not really belong to cities. When we are old we will go back to our village to live. In cities we just serve the people, and everything else is provisional. But we are glad to do so, and have no regrets, since in many ways we are doing better here than back on the farm."

Only 10 percent of migrant workers like Zhang Wanxu can actually settle in cities; it depends on their technical expertise or management capabilities. The Zhangs run a tailor's shop in Beijing making an annual income of RMB 60,000-70,000, ten times a farming income. The majority of the first-generation migrant workers, now in their 50s and above, have gone back to enjoy a simple life on their contracted village plot and ancestral homestead. They nursed hopes that their children might marry in the countryside and give them children that would need their care. This dream seems more and more out of reach. Zhang Wanxu and Xue Jing are beginning to regret that they built such a big house.

Not surprisingly, the survey conducted by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions shows that the new-generation migrant workers are much better-off than their parents. They have never suffered from hunger or cold, so their physical endurance is far inferior to their parents. In this respect they are similar to their urban peers. A year after arriving in Beijing, Zhang Qianru acknowledged, "My parents suffered a lot of hardship, and they are satisfied to live frugally. I could not endure what they have. I have no plan to establish my own business, but it is impossible for me to go back to our village to live a simple life! So I must make my own way in the cities."

Her schoolmate recommended a particular job and Zhang Qianru found herself the envy of many college graduates; she became an assistant to a researcher at the Division of Metrology in Optics and Laser under the National Institute of Metrology. With no permanent residence in Beijing and academic levels sufficient to gain her a better position, she serves as a "temp" with a monthly salary of RMB 1,500. Fortunately, the office is spacious and the work is easy. The perks are a free lunch, learning skills from the researcher, and accumulating social experience.

Because of her sanguine disposition and cleverness, her boss -- a female doctorate 12 years her senior, took to her quickly and they soon became good friends. The researcher required Zhang Qianru to attain undergraduate level accreditation, pointing her in a definite career direction. "Although I am competent at my job, without credentials the workplace will not renew my contract. If I am employed with formal credentials, my pay will double," smiled Zhang Qianru.

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