China has an estimated 150 million migrant workers living and working in its major cities, 120 million of whom are second generation citizens in the cities from rural areas, according to Wang Chunguang, a researcher with the Sociology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Although these second or new generation workers do work unrelated to farming, their residence cards still read "farming" under profession. And their growing dilemma is that while they see no future for themselves as farmers in the countryside, the cities can hardly be called home either.
Migrant worker distribution
According to Beijing's first migrant population census conducted on November 1, 1997, there were 2.859 million migrant workers in Beijing, of which, 2.299 million lived in the city. Beijing's population at the time was 13 million.
Most of Beijing's migrant workers work in the construction, catering and services industries. Some are self-employed peddlers.
The situation is quite different in the Pearl River Delta region, described as China's economic powerhouse.
Guangdong Province, for example, has one of the country's highest concentrations of migrant workers. According to the statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics of China, migrant workers in Guangdong account for 47 percent of the total number of migrant workers in the country.
Migrant workers in Guangdong Province, in Shenzhen in particular, are mainly involved in the manufacturing industry. Most of them live in factory dormitories, unlike the general situation in Beijing.
Living conditions in Beijing
At 5:30 PM everyday, 19-year-old Yuan Shijin rides his electric three-wheeler back to his residence at Gongcun Village close to the East Fifth Ring Road in Beijing. He works at the "Glorious Land" Agriculture Produce Wholesale Market, two kilometers away from the outskirts of the city.
Gongcun Village is small; it is less than 400 meters long from east to west and from north to south. It is a very poor area. However, on both sides of a typical village street, which is only about three meters wide, there are all kinds of stores selling everything from mobile phones to clothes to groceries. Restaurants and little eateries, no larger than 20 square meters in size, serving up Sichuan, Chongqing and Lanzhou cuisines, line the grotty street, too.
The drainage system in the village is so poor that a stinking pool of wastewater graces the middle of the street.
The village is bursting at its seams because it houses more people than it should. Migrant workers have made this place their home away from home since the late 1990s.
Yi Benyao, principal of Xingzhi School, a village school for children of migrant workers, told China Newsweek that the residents of Gongcun Village are mainly scrap collectors, porters and peddlers at wholesale markets. Population numbers are five times more than three or four years ago. It is estimated that there are several thousand people now living in the village.
Countryside or city dwellers?
According to Wang Chunguang, it is not right to describe the new generation of migrant workers as farmers. This is because they have no experience at all in farming, having moved to the cities after their middle school education.
Wang, who has been studying the migrant worker population, found that the average of migrant worker in the 1980s was 30.86 years. In the 1990s, it was 22.29 years. "They are leaving their rural homes and moving to the cities at a much younger age," Wang explained.
Yuan Shijin, for example, is typical of the new generation migrant worker. Wang said that people like Yuan left their homes for the cities not only to earn a living, but also to adopt a new lifestyle and to find love, with dreams of eventually settling down in the cities.
Studies show that the migrant worker population is densest where it is farther from downtown Beijing. Correspondingly, income levels of residents are markedly lower. Large wholesale produce markets in the areas outside the Third Ring Road is an explanation why so many migrant workers live in the surrounding areas, particularly around markets in Yuegezhuang, Xinfadi, Baliqiao and Qinghe outside the Forth and Fifth Ring roads. This phenomenon has brought the countryside even closer to the city.
Yuan Shijin, our migrant worker in Beijing, has a job sending spices and condiments to hotels on his electric three-wheeler. He proudly announced that about 80 percent of the spice and condiment products available in the wholesale markets are sold by his fellow townspeople.
Gongcun is most lively after 6:00 PM when people like Yuan Shijin come back from work. The tiny streets are crowded with people. Shops and restaurants, billiard halls and Internet bars are packed with people.
Yuan Jie, 21, comes from Changting, Fujian Province. He has just resigned from a job that had him printing sale lists for a spice shop. He quit because the hours were too long; he had to work from 9 AM to 10 PM every day. Yuan arrived in Beijing half a year ago. He hopes to learn computer technology so that he can try for a job with a software company.
Wang Shuyu from Sichuan Province is 21 years old. He enlisted in the army after he graduated from middle school. He came to Beijing in March this year. He had been trained to be a chef at a restaurant in Gongcun Village. Last month, he got a job as a security guard at a supermarket.
Wang Shuyu is much happier in the city because he doesn't want to do farm work in his hometown. Like him, many young people leave the countryside for the city, and will choose to stay in the city whether or not the city accepts them.
Shan Mei (not her real name), from Shaanxi Province, is 19 and works in a factory that produces electronic balances. Her monthly income includes a basic salary and commission based on the number of components she completes. Her average monthly income is 600 yuan (US$75), without overtime.
Shan Mei, her father and two sisters arrived in Shenzhen last year after he persuaded her to shelve her university plans. She had been accepted by the Fourth Military Medical University. But her father suggested that it would be better for her to work rather than pursue a university degree. To this day, Shan Mei keeps the university notification with her, and regrets her decision each time she looks at it.
Only Shan Mei's mother remains in Shaanxi. So, she doesn't send money home. She spends most of her salary, and has little savings.
When asked why she spends all her money, Shan Mei replied: "I don't know."
"Do you have plans for your future?"
"I don't know."
"What do you like to do in your spare time?"
"I don't know."
What she could say is that she would like to be paid more. But she added that changing jobs is useless because it's all the same.
Problems for the new generation's children
According to Han Jialing, a researcher with the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, there are estimated 400, 000 children of migrant workers living in Beijing, 214,000 of whom are enrolled in Beijing's public schools. 12 to 18-year-olds account for the largest proportion of these children.
A circular was issued on April 19, 2002 by the Beijing education authority promising free primary education for migrant children from September 1 that year. However, a condition of that free education was evidence of employment for the parents.
Most migrant workers have no employment contracts because the law has yet to insist on written contracts for all.
Other administrative obstacles thwart migrant workers' education plans for their children. For example, college entrance examinations can only be taken in one's city, town or county of origin. This means that even bright students with a real chance of winning a place in university have no choice other than to return to their hometowns after high school rather than take the test in Beijing.
Many of these children, those who choose to stay in Beijing in particular, quit school at an early age, according to Shan Xiuyun, a judge from the juvenile court of Beijing's Haidian District Court. Shan added that in 2004, the court heard 425 juvenile delinquency cases, 49 percent of which involved migrant children.
Han Jialing said it is still too early to define the features and characteristics of this new group of migrants, but he predicts that the situation will become more serious if nothing is done to address it.
(China.org.cn by Xu Lin, Li Xiaohua, Wang Zhiyong December 27, 2005)