The reform and opening-up policies that started in 1979 have helped coin many new phrases in contemporary Chinese vocabulary.
One phrase, now appearing in major news media almost daily, is mingong, which means rural workers.
Until the early 1980s, few Chinese would think of venturing away from their homes in search of work.
Rural folks had land to till in the "people's communes" and later, rural factories to join.
In the cities, the food and clothing were rationed, housing was limited and jobs were assigned.
Urban resources - from kindergartens, primary and middle schools to stores for grocery, grain and clothing - were allocated according to the number of urban residents registered in the cities.
But under the planned economy, urban centres exercised extreme caution in urban population expansion.
This meant it was hard for anyone to live in a city without registering there.
As a result, few would shake off their urban roots to settle anywhere else, except for the best and brightest young rural and urban college graduates, who found other opportunities to move.
Once the new policies had been operating for a few years, the economy in eastern regions and large cities developed so quickly that there was a shortage of labourers in the middle, especially in the late 1980s.
Businesses in cities began to recruit new workers from the countryside.
But as the idea of the market economy gained momentum, businesses got around the conventional norms of the planned economy, even though urban centres were still managed with the idea of controlling its population.
Because there was a surplus of workers in the limited Chinese countryside, farmers began to flow into the cities, firstly to small towns and then to big cities.
Since their employment had not been "planned" and "registered," the cities were simply not ready to allocate their resources to rural labourers who got jobs in cities. The mingong could not share the benefits of the urbanites either.
Migrant workers were regarded as transients in cities.
A photo of Beijing Railway Station crowded with migrant workers appeared in the People's Daily, criticizing the phenomenon of the mangliu (unplanned flow of rural population to an urban area), another term used for migrant workers at that time.
Wang Lingyi, deputy editor-in-chief of the Scientific Phenomena magazine, believes the recognition of migrant workers has gone through four phases. The first is the phase of "mangliu," when the urban governments and residents considered migrant workers were a negative influence.
Until the 1990s, they were known in the cities as the "Three Have-nots" (lacking ID cards, temporary residence cards and work approval cards).
At the same time, the cities were starting to realize that they needed them.
The third phase happened at the turn of the century, when "migrant workers" became a formal title, and some of them had become partially accepted in the cities.
Now there is talk of the fourth phase, as to whether they should have the same pay and social welfare as urban residents.
Many believe that the mingong have been vital to China's economic development over the past two decades. They not only help build skyscrapers in cities, but also speed up the development of their hometowns.
Statistics indicate that farm workers send home about 100 billion yuan (US$12.1 billion) each year.
Beijing, where the number of migrant workers and other people without residency registration reaching some 3 million, has asked local enterprises that employ migrant workers to provide pensions, unemployment insurance and industrial injury insurance.
Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of the Institute of Population and Development at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, had a transient population of about 1 million in the early 1990s. The population has been increasing all along.
In 1997, the number of rural migrants working in Shanghai was 2.76 million. The number grew to 3.87 million in 2000. Spot checks last year showed Shanghai's floating population was around 4.98 million, about 80 per cent of whom were migrant workers.
In the Dabie Mountain area in Anhui Province, almost all young people in the countryside there have left their rural homes to work in the cities, according to Wang Zhen, director of the Research Centre of Human Resources at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
Most of them are now working in the Yangtze River Delta area. Of their family income, 55 to 60 per cent comes from their work in the cities.
Wang Lingyi believes it will probably take five to six years for migrant workers to transfer from a rural lifestyle to an urban lifestyle.
Non-material requests like children's education and medical care usually follow a change for the better in lifestyle.
But Wang Zhen cited one survey, which shows that only about 10 per cent of these workers finally settle in the cities.
"After women migrant workers get married, or men migrant workers reach 40, they usually go back to the countryside, because they can't do more heavy physical work and employment becomes hard in the cities," says Wang.
"There aren't many really urbanized farmer workers."
Wang Lingyi contends that the central problem has always been the social assurance or fair distribution of urban resources, which is the real essence of the urban residency registration system.
"In fact, there have always been two labour markets, an official one, and an unofficial one, which is mainly made of migrant workers."
Li Hongbing, a reporter with the People's Daily, has pointed out that the social assurance of farmer workers is actually taken care of in the countryside.
Most farmer workers eventually go back to their homes and rely on their land for endowment.
But Li sees progress in Shanghai's inclusion of migrant workers in its calculation of per-capita GDP. In the past only permanent residents counted.
"Migrant workers accelerate the modernization of the cities," says Zhou. "Without migrant workers, the cities' construction would not have been so quick."
Zhou specifically notes the four advantages brought by migrant workers: they make direct money for the cities; they provide abundant and low-cost labour; they increase consumption; and they spur competition in the labour market.
But conditions for migrant workers are not wholly satisfactory.
Since the late 1980s, their pay has not really gone up because of the huge labour supply. Some urban residents see the flow of workers as a potentially unstable factor, and crimes in the cities are often linked with the influx of farmers.
Zhou objects to these views on crime. "Migrant workers are mostly young people. The crime rate for urban residents of this age is also high," says Zhou. "The flow of migrant workers is generally a stable factor, because they advance the cities' social and economic development, which is the ultimate stability."
According to Wen Wei Po of Hong Kong, the floating population on the Chinese mainland was about 30 million in 1982. The number exceeded 100 million in 1997.
It is estimated that the floating population will increase at a speed of 5 million a year in the coming five to 10 years, reaching 130 million in 2005 and 160 million in 2010.
(China Daily January 17, 2005)