An inside story – the invisible and ignored migrant workforce

By Violet Law

Migration has been a familiar part of China’s history through the centuries, with Chinese explorers roaming 
the globe and traders following in their wake.

Millions left, from the south of the country in particular, to escape famine and poverty, eventually settling and setting up vibrant communities throughout Southeast Asia. Today, in virtually every country across the world, there are communities – some big, some small – whose forebears emigrated from China.

As large as this emigration has been, it is dwarfed by migration within the country. In the 1950s, following the Soviet Union’s lead, the Communist Party government, which took power in 1949, followed a policy of developing heavy industries. Farmers flocked to urban centres to work on production lines, encouraged by a relatively relaxed attitude to internal migration by the central authorities, which aided this mass movement. By the end of the 1950s, 20 per cent of the population had settled in cities, predominantly in the eastern half of the country.

During the 1960s the policy radically changed: a “rustication movement” was inaugurated, with millions of party cadres, intellectuals and students forcibly sent to the countryside. Continuing urbanisation was condemned as being bourgeois: instead people had to learn from those working in the commune movement out in the country.

This policy was only reversed after the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976 and the gradual unveiling of economic policies more open to the outside world in the late 1970s. With a move towards a more market-orientated form of economic development foreign investment was welcomed. Special economic zones were set up to entice domestic and foreign industries.

China began to grow at breakneck speed, with large numbers of workers providing relatively cheap labour the key. People migrated from rural to urban areas – mainly from west to east – in their millions.

Since 1979 China’s urban population has grown by 440 million to 622 million today – the largest mass movement of people within such a time period anywhere in the world. Nearly 55 per cent of the 1.36 billion population now live in urban areas. There are six cities of more than 10 million. In the past five years alone Shanghai, the most populous city in the country, has grown by 4 million to 23 million and Beijing by 3 million to 18 million.

Media focus on economic migration

Interest in migrant workers, at once the ubiquitous and the invisible in Chinese society, seems mostly to take place in the context of economic development. Generally the media seems to view them only as a collective source of cheap labour in factories and at building sites, fuelling urban economic growth.

The media, including internet news portals, are tightly controlled by central government thus reflecting official attitudes and policies to migrants, who are valued only for their contribution to economic growth and not as equals to long-term residents of the cities.

The most striking manifestation of such attitudes is the “hukou” system, under which all citizens have to register with the authorities in their place of birth. It operates in a way similar to an internal passport, with a citizen only entitled to public benefits and services – such as medical or educational – in his or her place of birth.

So while rural migrants are free to move to the cities, they and their urban-born-and-bred children are deprived of their entitlements once there. It’s estimated that more than 270 million people from the countryside – over a third of the country’s entire workforce – live and work on rural status in China’s cities and are effectively treated as second-class citizens.

Only infrequently does the media draw attention to the suffering caused by the “hukou” system. Shortly before the 2010 meeting of the National People’s Congress, one of the main policy-forming bodies, a group of 11 national newspapers called for reforms, saying: “We hope that a bad policy we have suffered for decades will end with our generation, and allow the next generation to truly enjoy the sacred rights of freedom, democracy and equality bestowed by the constitution.”

However, despite calls for reform, little has been done, with few signs that “hukou” is going to be dismantled soon. In some cities, such as those in the special economic areas of Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the south and in Chengdu in western China, officials have relaxed requirements of the system by allowing long-term migrants to receive certain benefits, including locally available healthcare and education for their children.

In large part such changes have been brought about by economic realities rather than changes in official attitudes; a one-child policy which came into force in 1980 in much of China is now giving rise to labour shortages; there is also the fact that the country has one of the world’s fastest-ageing populations.

The numbers willing to work for low wages – and a long way from home – who once fed the industrial power base are just not there anymore: industries are being forced to relax the “hukou” system to entice more workers.

Generally, when these internal migrants are written about as individuals rather than as a factor important for economic growth, their second-class citizen status is reflected in news coverage. Reporters tend to be biased against their status and rural origins, and portray them in an unfavourable light, when such portrayals are neither substantiated or warranted.

For example, a local resident of Tiantongyuan, a Beijing suburb that has more migrant workers than locals, was quoted using deeply critical terms in an article entitled “Migrants out” in The Global Times newspaper, the English-language version of the state-owned People’s Daily: “The whole place is ruined by the messy and dirty crowds,” said Liu.

In the rare cases where reporters attempt to highlight the discrimination migrant workers face, there is regrettably very little critical coverage of policies which continue to add to their plight.

Perhaps self-censorship is at work: reporters do not want to fall foul of the authorities. They also might feel their work – if at all critical – will be censored if they describe such policies as “hukou” in a negative way. Consequently most media coverage is either based on or occasioned by official pronouncements and reporters often appear to have made no effort in challenging officials.

A member of the Chinese Peoples Political Conference (CPPCC), talking to journalists about recent migrants to Shanghai, suggested that they no longer sought to work for their living. “Shanghai has been attracting residents from other regions because of its migrant-friendly education and health policies”, Chai Junyong, a CPPCC member told The Global Times.

“When the first generation of migrants came they came for jobs,” Chai said. “Then they started to bring their children. Now, they are coming because they want their children to be educated here.” No one challenged the CPPCC’s statement: the views of migrants themselves were not given.

Coverage of migrant issues is generally limited to once a year during the Spring Festival travel season, spanning the Lunar New Year. This sees as many as 175 million travelling for family reunions.

Although the event is repeated year after year, with such mass travel first witnessed from the mid-1980s onwards, the media still gives full coverage to detailing how millions of workers return to their towns and villages. But again, little is said of their suffering and hardship, nor is there questioning of broader issues such as whether these vast movements are good or bad.

Amongst the generally negative and lop-sided coverage, there is only one exception which really stands out. YazhouZhoukan – literally Asia Weekly – is a Chinese-language news magazine published in Hong Kong but barred from the mainland.

In reporting the annual Spring Festival migration, YazhouZhoukan makes efforts to provide informed news. An early 2015 edition devoted 10 pages to five stories detailing different aspects of journeys home – to the perils of the trip, the migrants’ hopes and the realities they face.

Reporters presented the varied life experiences of migrants. Most, they report, are stuck on the bottom rung of society, though some manage to save money and build a business or otherwise advance in life.

YazhouZhoukan reported: “Working in a factory is the surest way to wear down one’s will,” said Lei Jianxin, 29, who at 13 left his home in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, to work. Now a low-level supervisor at a shoe factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, Lei works the production line.

“Every day you clock in, clock out. You collect your paycheck, and you won’t think about much else. A decade ago I might still have dreams; now, I don’t have any whatsoever.”

Yazhou Zhoukan’s reporters went to various parts of the country and travelled alongside migrant workers, some of whom were loaded with gifts to bring home, travelling by motorbike with wives and children. Others travelled in overloaded vans.

In addition to capturing individual stories, reporters also sought to examine the mass travel phenomenon: they pointed out that despite modernisation of the rail system, migrants still face considerable financial and technical difficulties in securing a ticket home, with many forced to spend frustrating hours waiting at stations.

Interestingly, the media gives little coverage to outward migration. Over the years there have been many reports in western media concerning Chinese trafficking gangs, and people paying substantial sums to be smuggled from China to western countries, mainly to the US and Canada, with large numbers also going to Europe. Such stories have received little or no coverage in China.

In 2000, 58 migrants from China being smuggled into the UK died when they suffocated in a container truck. In 2004, 23 Chinese illegal immigrants – both male and female – were killed by rising tides while working to gather cockles in Morecambe Bay, in the north of England. The incident received widespread coverage in the UK national and international media though little within China.

One reason for this lack of coverage is perhaps reporters’ fear that giving space to such stories might be construed as criticism of the status quo in China – reporting that people are seeking to leave the country and work abroad in often harsh conditions could imply that all is not well at home. The media has chosen instead to focus more on those migrants who successfully build businesses overseas.


Migration and media in Hong Kong

As a British colony, Hong Kong had a long history of opening its doors to diverse peoples from around the world – from the Indians and Nepalese who came to serve in the British Army and the local police force to refugees fleeing wars and political purges in mainland China and Vietnam.

There has been a large influx of Chinese to Hong Kong since 1997, after Beijing resumed sovereignty over the former British colony. There are stringent border controls and a strict quota system to regulate migration from the mainland.

Usually only mainland Chinese citizens with family ties, special talents or substantial financial resources are granted an immigrant visa to live permanently in Hong Kong. More than 800,000 have settled since 1997, accounting for 11 per cent of the current population. In addition, there are tens of thousands who are on temporary student and work visas.

However, this latest wave of migration has roused much conflict and controversy. Even though nearly all recent Chinese immigrants and local people share ethnic origins, a substantial segment of Hong Kong society sees a gulf between the newcomers’ value system and cultural habits and its own.

Reporting often tends to mirror such attitudes. For example, TV or tabloid news reports invariably mention whether the new Chinese immigrant involved in an incident is on a one-way permit – that is a permanent visa, as opposed to a two-way, temporary permit.

The city’s leading English daily paper, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) gives generally wide coverage to migrants though articles seem to focus on the extremes – the people mentioned are either desperate and needy or very rich.

Coverage often focuses on money and not on human interest stories, as in the cases where some new immigrants asserted their rights as permanent residents to welfare and other entitlements. A 2012 feature headed “Call to cut number of mainland immigrants” in the SCMP gave the results of a poll on public attitudes:

“The view that new migrants lowered wage levels was held by almost half of those polled – 46.7 per cent – and almost four in 10 said they stole locals’ jobs. Meanwhile more than a third thought a rise in new migrants would result in more crime.”

There are those in Hong Kong who say the government and the media should do more to counter what they feel are excessively negative attitudes.

“This (the poll result) is worrisome,” Professor Chou Kee-lee of Hong Kong’s Institute of Education was quoted as saying. “The sentiment needs to change. The government needs to face this problem before it gets worse … to change negative public sentiment through education, and increase policies targeting immigrants to help them integrate.”

A rapidly ageing society with one of the world’s lowest birth rates, Hong Kong should regard immigration as a boon rather than a nuisance, and a population flow within what is the same country should be seen as normal.

Bringing the migration story out of the shadows

While China has for centuries seen its people migrate overseas, few foreigners, particularly in more recent times, have been allowed to settle in the country.

The experience of having been subject to successive colonisations by foreign powers has sowed deep suspicion, at least within officialdom, towards foreigners. But with China’s economy growing rapidly in recent years many foreigners have sought to establish themselves and participate in its rapid growth.

Yet, this new land of opportunity is also the land of a draconian immigration regime. Very few foreigners are allowed to become naturalised. Permanent residency, introduced only in late 2004, may be available for those with strong family ties or with large amounts of money to invest. Even so, the naturalisation quota is minuscule.

The 2010 census was the first time China officially counted foreigners, who now number around 850,000, less than 0.1 per cent of the total population. Amongst them, Africans, Americans, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis and South Koreans represent the largest groups, mostly living in the most populous cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Although Beijing and Shanghai have a higher percentage of foreigners, Guangzhou’s foreign population is by far China’s most visible concentration of migrants. An estimated 200,000 Africans, who arrived to trade from a number of countries – including Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Ghana and Tanzania – live in Guangzhou: more than half are believed not to have proper immigration papers.

“In the early days, media coverage of these people was mostly negative,” says Li Zhigang, an academic who has researched Guangzhou’s foreign population.

In 2009, a police chase resulted in two Nigerians jumping to their deaths. Coverage focused not on the circumstances of the incident but rather on the commotion caused when angry Africans surrounded the local police station.

However, as the presence of these new arrivals became less a curiosity and more accepted, coverage has become more enlightened.

The foreign traders were recognised as important patrons of local factories; reporters noted that some Africans come out of hiding only at night in order to avoid police attention. News reports also sought to explain the difficulties these foreigners had with the local bureaucracy.

But there are still issues which go unreported: there is no mention of the extrajudicial detention of migrants and traders who might have overstayed their visas or been accused of minor offences. Nor is there mention of cases where permanent visas are denied to those married to local Chinese.

Migration is an issue of great importance in China although many aspects have gone unreported or are under-reported.

The economy, though still growing at rates many countries can only dream of, is slowing down. Migrant workers, many from the countryside, are being laid off. It will be interesting to see how these developments are reported, whether an open discussion is allowed or whether the media, nervous of official disapproval, will seek to avoid them.

Main photo: “Migrant Worker Style” By Matt Ming licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0



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