The in-between world: new wave migrants

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Entanglements and struggles

As a Beijinger, Zhang Qianru's lifestyle has changed, almost without her realizing it. She grants herself the luxury of a daily bath, and her lodgings are air-conditioned. Although her salary is not lavish, she sometimes treats her friends to dinner. Some days she is grateful for her affluent city life; others she is kicking herself for unnecessary waste. "I want to live a low-carbon life, and wonder if it is necessary to take a bath every day. But not to do so seems contrary to convention. The city always makes people go adrift. When we gather for a restaurant dinner, I hope to go Dutch so as to avoid waste. My grandmother is reluctant to throw away leftovers even after two days. But here people never eat leftovers, saying it is bad for their health. Actually, the more fussily one lives, the weaker one becomes. I have been careless in my life, but I am as strong as a horse," sighs Zhang Qianru, tucking an additional shirt and pair of slacks into her bag. She is not accustomed to the low temperatures in air-conditioned offices and has to bundle up so as not to suffer muscle cramps in her legs at night.

In truth Zhang Qianru has soured on the city. "After I first came to Beijing, many people admired me for it, but I'm not happy here. Why? Too fast a pace of life and too many rich people perhaps? It is often something insignificant that makes me feel inferior. For instance, an ordinary apartment would cost RMB one million, which is beyond my reach. Beneath the beautiful and noisy surface I often glimpse my status at the bottom stratum of this city. I work hard, but it is not paying off. I cannot achieve the ease of other urbanites. Meanwhile, the city is changing its worker-bees; we can't go home again, but we can't get a foothold here either. I am always preoccupied with the entanglements and struggles of this life."

Some of her peers in similar circumstances have lost themselves in the material world, and some of them, surprised, panicked and struggling, suffer personality disorders. She speculates, "This causes distortions in the entire migrant family, so from this population of people how can I be expected to find a healthy man to be my boyfriend?"

Some 55.9 percent of new migrant workers plan to buy an apartment in the city and settle down in the city where they work, according to the China Youth and Children Research Center (CYCRC). The Ministry of Public Security concluded in 2007 that 74.1 percent of migrant workers found RMB 3,000 per square meter an acceptable housing cost, and 19 percent were open to paying RMB 3,001-4,000; even 6.9 percent could countenance RMB 4,000 or more. But houses in the RMB 3,000 per square meter range are concentrated in the counties, cities or towns of the central and western regions. In the eastern coastal areas where migrant workers congregate, the housing prices in small towns hit the higher ends of the scale, and in big cities, the price has gone beyond RMB 10,000 per square meter. The conclusion is that no more than 10 percent of the new-generation migrant workers can actually afford to buy houses and settle down.

During rush hours, the buses passing through Banbidian Houjie outside the West Fourth Ring Road are jammed with young migrant workers making the best of their crowded commuting conditions by reading novels on their cell phone or listening to music. Banbidian Houjie used to be a small village of 300 households at the edge of Beijing city proper. Now it teems with 10,000 migrant residents. The villagers have built lots of multiple-story buildings, and many of them are seven-story economy units. RMB 300-400 will get you a room here with a shared toilet and kitchen, and it will be dark and narrow, equipped with only one bed and a table. Water and power supplies are unstable in these compounds, and the garbage is piled up outside. It is reported that all such communities will, in future, be dismantled and relocated. Low-rent housing will become more and more scarce within city boundaries, and the lodgings of migrant workers will hover beyond the suburbs.

Labor force issues highlight other complications. Unequal pay, unequal benefits and unequal rights attached to equal positions -- that is what the buzz around "unequal citizen treatment" is about. For instance, migrants are not entitled to a paid vacation, and female migrant workers do not enjoy paid maternity leave. They do not have equal access to the city's public services, nor are they entitled to enjoy the benefits provided by policies designed to improve access to low-rent or economically affordable housing.

Chen Guorui, a section chief with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, said that China's household registration system is a form of population registration and management. Under the planned economy it played an effective role in managing population flows and influencing labor demand and supply cycles. Unfortunately, this institutional framework has not changed with the times, and regulations associated with it impinge on education, health care, social security and matters of common welfare. Social discrimination and inequality deprive migrant workers of what urbanites can automatically expect.

Zhang Qianru, as both ingénue and street-wise woman, may be that odd combination that keeps a person seaworthy in the urban tides of Beijing, but the thrill may be chilling: "Beijing, as the national political and cultural center, offers more opportunities than coastal industrial hotspots. This city is built on migrants. Many living examples of migrant success are on hand here, making the Johnny-come-lately types fearless. But the city faces increasingly acute stresses, and we newcomers are coping with different kinds of troubles."

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