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China’s Urban Immigrants: A Diet of Bitterness

• April 20, 2012 • 12:48 PM

A handful of new books, both academic and popular, explore the complexities of China’s rural-to-urban migration.

Westerners visiting China for the first time often seem surprised at the country’s relative lack of poverty. Chinese cities do not have beggar populations on the scale of India’s, nor are conditions in their shantytowns as dire as those in the favelas of Brazil.

While the country’s much-touted economic growth has clearly not been distributed equally, a quick visit to any Chinese metropolis leaves the impression that poverty is less of a concern there than in many other places around the world.

But venturing into the countryside, particularly in China’s west, reveals a different story. There, the shiny high-rises and wide avenues of Beijing and Shanghai seem a world apart from the small stone houses and unpaved streets of typical rural communities I have visited. Many farmers and villagers struggle to make ends meet, straining their finances to accommodate school fees and medical bills. With the social safety net of the Mao era gone, rural residents must handle life’s crises on their own.

For nearly three decades, those rural hardships have resulted in urban migration; anyone with the means to do so travels to the city for employment. Chinese metropolises are now home to an estimated 200 million rural-to-urban migrants hoping not only to break even but to get ahead. These migrant laborers fueled much of China’s spectacular urban development — they have built the skyscrapers, subways, and airport terminals that attract international attention. In the service industry, migrant workers provide inexpensive manicures and massages, housecleaning and child care, for urbanites now accustomed to such niceties. It is thus possible to live very comfortably, and comparatively cheaply, in Chinese cities today.

Migrant workers have proved crucial in building China’s prosperity; it is understandable that they might seek to partake in it on a level playing field.

Though the economic incentives can be significant for urban migrants, they frequently find their city lives dogged by a host of obstacles. The country’s Mao-era hukou, or household-registration system, prevents those with rural residence permits from accessing city services like health care and public education, leaving migrants to pay for those on their own. Despite increasing calls to loosen the hukou restrictions, the government has taken only tentative steps toward doing so.

Migrant workers with small children must choose between leaving them in the countryside to be raised by grandparents, or bringing them to the city for enrollment in migrant schools, which depend on charitable donations and can be shut down by the authorities. “Left-behind children” can develop strained relations with their distant parents — an emotional disconnect explored in the powerful 2009 documentary Last Train Home. And migrants can encounter savage discrimination from urban residents, as ethnographer Tricia Wang detailed last year.

Despite these obstacles, rural-to-urban migration continues on a significant scale, and China-watchers increasingly write about the lives of this population. Many of these publications have been directed at scholarly audiences, such as Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market (University of California Press, 1999), by political scientist Dorothy Solinger, and One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China (Harvard University Press, 2010), edited by sociologist Martin Whyte. Chinese writing on the topic has been similarly limited to the academic sphere, as economists and sociologists seek to understand the structural causes and effects of China’s great rural-urban migration.

Earlier this spring, though, journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka published Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration (University of California Press), one of the first books to examine the complexities of rural-to-urban migration through the life stories of individuals. Journalist Leslie T. Chang also used such an approach to great effect in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau, 2008), but her focus on factory workers — think Foxconn or Nike — differs from Loyalka’s interest in the urban informal sector or service industry.

Loyalka places one individual or family at the center of Eating Bitterness’ eight chapters, using these stories to illustrate the different challenges and opportunities that migrants encounter in Xi’an, a city in mid-western China most famous for its ancient terra-cotta warriors. Living in the crumbling (and now largely demolished) “city-village” of Gan Jia Zhai, only a short distance from Xi’an’s gleaming new High-Tech Zone, Loyalka’s subjects range from young women working as therapists in a beauty spa to an ageless knife-sharpener who roams the streets on a tricycle-cart selling his skills for 2 Renminbi (about 32 cents) per knife.

For all of them, urban life requires an inexhaustible capacity to chiku, or “eat bitterness.” Chiku resists easy translation into English; as Loyalka nicely summarizes, it involves the ability “to endure hardships, overcome difficulties, and press ahead all in one.”

Understanding the need to chiku enables Xiao Shi, a nanny and housekeeper, to care for her employer’s children while leaving her own two daughters with relatives in the countryside. It helped Hulin, an owner of convenience stores and a fitness center, bounce back when a gold-mining scheme he devised with two friends fell through and he lost his entire fortune, only to build it again. And the need to chiku propels the husband-and-wife team of vegetable vendors, Donghua and Shuanghai, out of bed every morning at 3 a.m. as they begin a working day that will last until 8 p.m. or later.

The rudimentary conditions of Gan Jia Zhai — Donghua and Shuanghai, for example, live in a one-car garage with their 12-year-old daughter — help migrants keep their expenses low and save as much as possible. They use that money to cover school tuition and medical costs, as well as construct new homes in the countryside, where they expect to return one day.

But can they? While most of the migrants sharing their stories in Eating Bitterness assume that their urban sojourns will eventually end — their rural hukou preventing permanent city residency — it is also undeniable that their time in Xi’an has changed them in ways that might make it difficult to settle back into rural life. This is especially true for the “teenage beauty queens” employed by the M. Perfumine chain of spas, who quickly pick up city practices like using makeup and dyeing their hair.

In Markets and Bodies: Women, Service Work, and the Meaning of Inequality in China (Stanford University Press, 2011), sociologist Eileen Otis perceptively terms such behavior “aspirational urbanism.” Female migrants insecure about their status vis-à-vis city residents, Otis explains, “use cosmetics and other accoutrements in abundance to counter urban stereotypes of rural people as unclean and backward.” When they visit their homes, though, they find that these new habits also mark them as different in the eyes of their rural friends and families. Living in the city exposes young migrants to a consumption-driven lifestyle that appeals to many, but they cannot permanently pursue this new Chinese Dream unless the hukou rules change.

Desire for greater economic mobility — in short, the demand that they be allowed to emerge as an urban middle class — could prove an issue that migrants rally around in pushing back against the state.

As another new book reveals, this is not the first time a Chinese urban underclass fought the government for its members’ right to be recognized as city-dwellers deserving of respect. In Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 (Princeton University Press, 2012), historian Janet Chen considers how ideas about poverty and the state’s responsibility toward the poor changed dramatically during the first half of the 20th century. While officials and charitable institutions often targeted beggars on the street for placement in workhouses, the working poor — many of them migrant laborers from the countryside — could not be hauled away.

Chen weaves a fascinating story, detailing the attempts of successive Shanghai governments to “clean up” the city by eliminating straw-hut shantytowns, and the resistance those efforts sparked. Hut-dwellers formed an association and submitted petitions arguing for their right to preserve the community, even offering to pay taxes and thereby making their residence legitimate. In one late-1930s confrontation with the Shanghai Municipal Council (composed of British and American representatives overseeing their countries’ territory in the city), the hut-dwellers accepted that some shanties would be demolished, but successfully negotiated that their owners would be compensated for their loss.

In the 1930s, observers of the shantytown dispute recognized that “The city’s prosperity had been built on the backs of these rickshaw pullers, peddlers, and laborers” and it was therefore unfair to treat them so dismissively. Today, we see that once again, China’s cities have filled with migrant workers who occupy a precarious place in the urban hierarchy: while urbanites appreciate their labor, they are less enthusiastic about the migrants’ presence in their cities.

But as in the 1930s, rural-to-urban migrants are unlikely to give up easily. The hukou reform that would facilitate this push to build a better life in the city will almost assuredly be hard-won, but judging from the life sketches that Loyalka draws, China’s migrant workers are up for the fight. They are, after all, quite familiar with what it means to eat bitterness.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine and Editor of The China Beat. A Fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, her writing has appeared at Time Asia, The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Ms. magazine blog.

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