Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants

Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants spoke at the 16th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair on 27th October 2012. Here’s what she had to say:
Until quite recently, media in the West liked to talk about China only in terms of its fast growth and prosperity. Chinese media talk about this century as the Chinese century of growing national strength and pride. What doesn’t make the headlines is the other side of the story: the reality of those who make the so-called prosperity possible. Scattered Sand is about this army of labour, whose spontaneous and unorganised movement into the cities, in search of a livelihood, has shaped China in the past three decades.
Today, an estimated 130 million Chinese peasants have migrated out of their home provinces in search of work, while an additional 70 million migrants migrating to work within their provinces. They are massive, representing half of China’s urban workforce, and are responsible for half of China’s GDP. And yet they have no organisational power and experience institutional discrimination and segregation.
They are called ‘min-gong’ (or nong-min-gong, literally meaning peasant workers) – the term reflects society’s deep-seated ideological reluctance to include rural migrant workers as part of China’s industrial working-class. In the 1990s, they were referred to as “mangliu” (literally “blind flow”), a negative term that refers to the uncontrollable nature of the labour movement. The media have long played the role of shaping and reinforcing prejudice against migrant workers and justifying social segregation.
The major institution for segregation is hukou, the household registration system set up in 1958 to control rural-to-urban movement. The system works in similar way to immigration controls and fundamentally divides the rural from the urban…Under hukou system, a migrant going to work in a city has to apply and qualify for hukou transfer in order to be given rights to access the most basic public services and education in the cities.
A migrant worker who has been working and living in Beijing for a decade but never able to qualify for hukou, said: “I would never call myself a Beijinger because they don’t treat me like one. Despite having lived here for ten years, I still don’t have hukou and can’t move my minimal medical insurance with me to the city. My two children cannot access the health service in the capital, and I have to pay 1,000 yuan per year for their education, when Beijing children are entitled to free primary education.”
(The majority of migrants are in the same situation. They have to send their children to poorly-facilitated private schools as they can’t afford paying 1/3 of their wages to send children to state schools.)
Each local authority has their own brand of discriminatory practices against migrant workers. In Shanghai (as well as Guangzhou), they adopt a rating system, in the same way as an immigration point-based system, to evaluate nationals born outside the city who are seeking a hukou transfer. A long list of factors are examined, including the applicant’s age, education, employment, housing condition, training, professional skills and the industry he or she works in. Only those with a high score will be granted a permit that allows them access to basic services and education in the cities.
In some cities, such as Hangzhou (where half the population is migrant), the authorities require that migrants have at least senior middle school education, to qualify for hukou, which excludes the majority of migrants. Apart from education, the city also requires migrants to have a fixed residence, stable job, and hold a temporary residence permit for at least three years…
Looking at the second-class social position of this group of workers, it’s hard to believe that in fact they came from a class that has shaped modern China. The peasantry has shaped the history of modern China. Sixty years ago, the peasantry brought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to power. They were the vanguard of the 1949 Revolution, which was a peasant revolution (that was primarily anti-imperialist in nature); with the aim to win national independence for China as a republic. Since then, the peasantry has been an unchangeable category of social class, like workers, the national bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia in the Maoist idea of New Democracy, which is the first stage of the Chinese revolution in which the main task was to rid the country of imperialism and develop the economy. In the post-1949, New Democracy era, the “four blocs of society” were the four main social classes, working together to achieve modernisation of the Chinese nation, in Mao’s words. In this formation, class status was fixed and permanent, no matter which occupation you entered or your relationship to the means of production. If you were born a peasant, you are categorized as a peasant (nong-min) on your ID and you inherit the peasant status all your life.
Similar to Stalinist Russia, in China’s drive to industrialisation, the peasantry served as a massive backyard production team for the urban population – agricultural production was aimed at feeding the cities and its industries, while agriculture itself was neglected. There were no initiatives to develop rural infrastructure. The collective power of the peasantry was simply used as a vast resource to help develop China, culminating in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958. Communes were set up to direct rural labour power into national use, and local cadres inflated figures to meet unachievable grain production targets set by the state , resulting tragically in the death of tens of millions of peasants.
In the four years following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Deng Xiao-Ping emerged as leader out of the fervent power struggle at the centre of Chinese politics. He soon embarked on a process of change known as gaige kaifang, meaning “economic reforms and opening-up”, focused on de-collectivisation of the countryside and de-centralisation of national industries – both have led to migration into the cities and abroad.
In this new era, China’s countryside remained the production backyard: the reforms intended in the countryside continued to be based upon the scheme to feed the development of the cities and the country as a whole. To achieve this, Deng abolished the communes and introduced the Household Responsibility System in 1980. Peasants were given limited rights to the use of land through 15-year contracts (later 30-year contracts), and with the increase in grain prices, production increased.
However, the amount of land distributed to each household was very limited and fragmented, and too many people were allocated too little land to till. And apart from the insufficient arable land, since the reform era, public services were becoming privatised and decentralised. Healthcare became unaffordable for the majority of peasants. Healthcare was state-funded from 1952 to 1982, with communes providing free health care to all. The Cooperative Medical System established health centres in villages staffed by medical practitioners with basic training – health services were poor in quality, but available.
But when the communes were abolished in 1982, public healthcare was dismantled and peasants became uninsured. with the central government massively reducing its funding for social services (its share of funding in national health care fell from 32% to 15% between 1978 and 1999). Hospital revenues in China come mainly from drug sales – In 2007, the total revenue of public hospitals in China were 375.4 billion yuan, out of which 200 billion yuan were from drug sales. That year, government funds were only 28.5 billion yuan, which was 7.6% of the total revenues for China’s hospitals.
The result is that healthcare is no longer accessible to most. Local authorities in the interior provinces in particular were unable to fund healthcare properly, and little attention has been paid to the rural regions, with only 7% of rural residents and 3% of residents in the interior provinces having health insurance, compared with 49% of urban residents in 1999.
In 2006, according to the Ministry of Health, under 10% of rural residents have health insurance, compared with 50% of urban residents. It is also reported that 87% of rural residents paid for ALL of their healthcare.
With the disintegration of public services, retired peasants began to have to rely on their children to pay for basic healthcare and for a living. It became apparent that population has grown in the countryside as a result. As the government phrased it, the size of the “superfluous” population was growing. “Superfluous” means off-work, “extra” labour.
Growth in agricultural production since the reform era lasted only a few years, as long-term state investment in agriculture was insufficient. After 1985, growth stagnated and rural income began to decline. The process of decentralisation had created a huge local party bureaucracy that profited from the commercialisation of rural economy. Corruption of the local bureaucracy was one of the major causes for inequalities in the villages. Local bureaucrats imposed heavy taxation and grabbed land which became the major source of suffering for peasants in the past three decades. It’s estimated that 70 million peasants have been affected by land grab.
A Chinese migrant worker in London said his life of migration had begun since his village land was taken by the local authorities for redevelopment: “One day, the local government suddenly announced that they were taking over the village land for commercial use. The village committee had decided to sell it to a developer to build private property and department stores, without even consulting us the villagers. No compensation was promised. We were all outraged and went to protest to the committee… I helped to lead the protest for three years: everyday, we held village meetings and organised demos in front of the village committee building. We were ignored; our land was taken by force. To continue the fight, villagers elected 3 reps, I was one of them, and we went all the way to the land bureau in Beijing to hand in our petition. But at the land bureau, we were told to visit the central discipline committee instead. So we did, but the officials there ignored us too. ‘Go back to talk to your Fuqing city government,” they said to us. And of course, the Fuqing city government ignored our petition, too. We organised another protest, marching to the city government building shouting ‘Return our land!’ They sent in the police. We realised that we were actually powerless. We returned home, and since then, many of us had decided to borrow from the moneylenders and go abroad to seek other means of livelihood.”
Land grab is a common phenomenon in the reform era as China opened up to the market economy. During this time, the gap has widened between rich and poor, town and country. Today, half of China’s wealth goes to the top 5th of the population while the bottom 5th receives just 4.7%. Under the above conditions, the 200 million peasants could no longer depend on the land for a living. They began to open up the restricted rural-to-urban movement and became the new mobile proletariat, going from one city to the next searching for work.
Just like the opening-up to global capitalism had pushed them into the cities, it can impact on their working life there, too.
Since 2007, the recession has pushed migration backward as well as forward. In 2008, more than 600,000 small and medium sized firms closed down, mostly in the manufacturing south, centred in the Pearl River Delta region, including 9 prefectures of the province – Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Foshan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing – along with the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau. This region serves as China’s biggest magnet for international capital since the reform and opening up began in the 1970s. Since 2008, in this region, millions were thrown out of work. Many migrants had to return home without any pay.
During the waves of lay-offs and factory closures, local governments have sided with the companies. Guangdong’s Justice Department announced rules in January 2009 that laid out protection for enterprises, in order to “help enterprises go through the economic crisis and promote enterprise development.” There are “Six Nos” announced: No to freezing company assets ‘at random’; No to monitor and close-down company finance ‘at random’; No to blocking enterprise communication; No to reportage and news coverage that damages enterprise reputation; No to ‘casual’ arrest of company chiefs; No to negative impact on enterprise production activities. But the local government never said NO to employers who flee without paying wages.
Many of the workers who become victimised in the recession are those first-generation migrants who have given their youth to the work in the cities. Their labour is what makes the export-led manufacturing empire possible.
A migrant worker from Sichuan was among the thousands forced to quit their jobs. He said: “When my wife and I moved to Guangzhou in 1997, we were full of hope. People felt things were looking better down south, with better work opportunities and better pay. We were young and willing to take low-paid work, but for ten years, I was earning 700-800 yuan a month, 12-13 hrs a day, 7 days a week, with only 2 days off each month. We also had our food and accommodation deducted from our wages when they were supposed to be covered… The company was able to do whatever they liked… and in a recession, they sacked the replaceable workers, and lowered wages for the rest of us… Take it or leave it, is the idea.”
China is the world’s largest manufacturer, producing almost 20% of globally manufactured products. Its manufacturing sector represents over one third of its economic output and employs around 40% of China’s migrant workers.
Today Guangdong, the centre of the manufacturing empire, has developed into China’s largest provincial economy, with a scale surpassing three trillion yuan.
Wang Yang, secretary of CPP’s Guangdong provincial committee and now one of the most promising future leaders of China, has proudly claimed that Guangdong has sustained an average annual growth rate of 13.8% in the past three decades. The province accounts for around 30% of China’s exports and a third of global production of shoes, textiles, toys and other goods.
The government announced that “Guangzhou has become the first Chinese city to reach a per capita income of $10,000,” and it is the first to have reached this threshold for a “developed” city. But later, it was found that this figure had counted out the millions of migrant workers living and working in the city.
Wang Yang and the rest of the Chinese political elite treat migrant workers as non-existent – like ghosts who built wealth for Guangdong’s middle-classes. Wages of migrant workers here is around one twelfth of working-class wages in the UK. Not only do migrant workers face institutional exclusion and segregation made possible by hukou, they also often have their labour rights violated and abused by their employers – it was as if the Labour Contract Law hadn’t been enacted. Not only that the legal minimum wages are around 60% below living wage levels, withholding wages, or delay payment of wages for a month or more is common practice. And in a recession, it is again migrant workers who bear the brunt… So the backflow of migration (caused by the recession) lasted, from 2007 to 2009.
During this period, there were also many laid-off migrants who had to stay unemployed in the cities because they had to carry on seeking a job in order to support their families back home. I met many migrants in this situation in Dongguan, a city with a migrant population of 8 million, eight times the local population. The entire city is built by migrant workers, who have no proper status or rights in the city.
Since mid 2009, many migrants went back into the cities searching for work as there appeared a shortage of labour in the factories, but wages stagnated as employers used the excuse of a recession to cut costs. Many workers found themselves having to tolerate poor conditions just to stay in work.
At the labour market in Dongguan, a laid-off migrant in her twenties, from Hainan, told me that wages had begun to decline since spring 2009. “People were eager to get work and the companies exploited this situation. I have never seen wages so low in Dongguan, in these three years of living here,” she said. The decline of wages was also made possible by the low local minimum wage standards which remained unadjusted during the downturn while prices and living costs keep rising.
As migrant workers are not organised as a workforce, they find themselves fighting injustice alone. During recession, particularly, when work regime toughened, some find no way out of the situation of harsh exploitation. Their isolation and the extremity of despair can sometimes express itself in the most tragic way. Since 2008, the number of suicides, as the final protest of victimized migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta region, has increased – and they culminated in the series of workers’ suicides at Foxconn.
At the same time, workers’ anger and growing class consciousness was demonstrated in the growing number of “mass incidents” (demos, riots, blockage of roads, etc) across China – during the beginning years of the recession, from 2006-2008, the number of mass incidents had increased from 80,000+ to 120,000 – the largest increase in a decade.
Since the summer of 2010, following the series of tragic suicides at Foxconn, migrant workers began to really fight back by organising their own strikes in a number of factories supplying Honda and Toyota. Workers demanded higher wages, improvement of working conditions, and the right to form their own independent unions.
Since 1 July 2010, in the middle of the spontaneous strikes, local governments raised the very low minimum wages, by up to 20%, in various cities and provinces, to lure workers back (after a two-year delay for the pay-rise).
In 2011, as workers continued their fight-back, many cities also saw that minimum wage raised again. But the minimum wage level remains 40-60% of the local average wage level (In Guangzhou, for instance, the minimum monthly wage has been raised to 1,300 yuan in March 2011, still very low compared with living costs in the city). In China today, the average monthly minimum wage for migrant workers is 768 yuan (75.5) and with the rising food price and living costs, migrant workers find themselves hardly coping.
The rural/urban divide continues. Today, nearly 100 million migrant workers under 30 years of age, who are the backbone of China’s industries, are still earning about half the income of urban residents. The recent waves of spontaneous strikes (since 2010) show that they are not tolerating this second-class status any more. They demand what they deserve. In the past two years we continue to hear about strikes and other action taken by the young generation of migrant workers. The latest was at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant where up to 4,000 workers walked out in protest of the company’s harsh quality control (without proper training) and the company’s demand for workers to work through holidays. Migrant workers are growing ever more confident in demonstrating their anger and frustration by organising industrial action. They offer the hope that China’s future migrant workforce may not be “scattered sand” any longer!
(c) Hsiao-Hung Pai
Hsiao-Hung Pai is a freelance journalist, whose report on the Morecambe Bay tragedy for the Guardian was made into the film Ghosts. Her book on undocumented Chinese immigrants in Britain, Chinese Whispers , was shortlisted for the Orwell Book Prize in 2009. She lives in London.  Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants was published in August (Observer review). (This article was first published by Word Power Books and is republished here with thanks.)

Comments (1)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.