Last week, I found myself sloshing through sewer-infested water up to the thighs after a deluge of rain hit a migrant community I was visiting in Shanghai. The community was tucked away in a pocket within the city and the structures of economics had forced the poorest into the lowest lying areas of the district. Migrants sat and watched as we sloshed our way past them, creating ripples that traced themselves into the migrants’ homes through the open doors.
The ripples reminded me of the never-ceasing wave of events and the challenge to an individual’s humanity that begins when one leaves his or her rural village of many generations to become a migrant worker in a city filled with the painstaking labor that results in any one of the many products in my home.
The steady clang, clang, clang of the migrant construction worker’s hammer keeps count with the individual lives that arrive at the train stations every day, accompanied by that all too familiar smell of poverty that inevitably follows all who find themselves in the lower brackets. Yet, the migrants arrive hopeful that moving to China’s urban centers will mark a new era in the future generations of their family line. The largest flow of migration in human history is currently taking place before our eyes in China, and along with it come the complex issues and challenges associated with any migrant community of the world. Conservative estimates indicate that there are currently 150-200 million migrants in China, and a recent McKinsey report indicates (shouts, rather) that the evidence projects one billion Chinese spreading throughout urban centers by the year 2030, of which 230 million will be new migrants. They are arriving from every corner of the country with large concentrations from provinces such as Sichuan, Anhui and Henan provinces.
While China’s development is offering tremendous opportunities to those from its countryside, it also presents new challenges and uncertainties to migrants who take the risk of moving to urban centers. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated the era of opening and reform in the early 1980s, China’s major urban centers have become impregnated with what some call the “new citizens”citizens who belong to neither urban nor rural classifications. It is precisely this legal and social ambiguity that predicates the uncertainty of how migrants are positioned in Chinese society by their government and fellow citizens. Demarcated laws, which have clearly and separately governed urban and rural citizens since the inception of the People’s Republic of China, have now become “gray” laws, and so it is often the personalities of local officials, rather than legislation, that determine outcomes for the migrants. We can see this playing out in the uneven and sometimes contradictory approaches different districts within a city take towards migrant education. While some migrant children are integrated into public schools, the majority are relegated to fend for themselves in shoddy, unlicensed, private schools largely run by shoddy business owners.
Largely ignored by the public and non-governmental organizations in the early stages, China’s migrants and their children were brought to the forefront of national consciousness in the summer of 2006 with the sudden forced closure of over seventy unlicensed migrant schools in two districts of Beijing. The media, both locally and internationally, reacted strongly and people became aware of the plight facing migrants. Over time, a clearer picture of the migrant situation emerged. Migrant workers are an integral part of Chinese society and fill critical existing labor gapsthey often work jobs referred to as the “three Ds”: dirty, dangerous or demeaning. They sit on factory production lines, clean houses of the wealthy, operate roadside stalls peddling goods, construct buildings, collect trash and sweep the streets of populated and bustling Chinese cities. In addition, migrants and their families characteristically lack access to quality education and healthcare and face instability of residence. They often live in poverty-stricken communities that are unsanitary and overcrowded. Inevitably, children pay the highest price and are at risk of falling through the cracks of the Chinese system as they have limited access to education, no support network in the new city and parents working long hours every day. Unlicensed schools are the only option for the majority of migrant children and many of these buildings are dilapidated, overcrowded and lack clean drinking water and proper lavatories. Self-esteem issues exist as they do anywhere in the world when a people are shown they are not valued.
Furthermore, the hukou (residence permit) system prevents citizens from obtaining legal residence and the accompanying social benefits. The hukou can, and should be, scrapped, and yet in itself, is only a symbol to which many subtleties are attached. Deeply rooted discrimination associated with low socio-economic status constructs myriad invisible barriers that obstruct migrants from achieving an equal position within their own country.
There are many changing trends accompanying this massive migration in China. Now, it is not only the construction and factory workers who have entered the cities as aliens, as was the case for much of the first decade of migration. Rather, this second decade has seen entire families arriving as a unit and settling into the migrant communities that lie unsettled on the outskirts of city centers. Previous trends also saw the development of provincial-type villages within urban centers that reflected the strong familial ties in China’s culture. When employment opportunities became available, migrant workers would often notify relatives and friends from their local villages of the opportunities, therefore preserving “provincial families” within their urban migrant communities. In recent years, however, we have noticed that many migrant communities are no longer composed of provincial families but, instead, of migrants from various provinces throughout China. The result is that migrant workers now experience increased isolation from their network of family and friends in their home provinces, suffer from weaker social support systems and are in need of further support in urban migrant communities. As a response to this, Compassion for Migrant Children has developed a replicable community center model and various support programs in efforts to maintain a sense of community for migrants in China
There are larger-scale trends taking place as well. The winds are gradually shifting. As China’s economic development continues to evolve through new stages, factories in China are closing down in large numbers and moving to Vietnam. We will continue to see an increasing shift of migrant labor away from the manufacturing sector and towards the service industry to serve a burgeoning middle class.
It is also important to note that aside from the many commonalities that migrant communities across China share, there are also differences that distinguish migrant communities from each other. Top cities attracting migrants include Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Wuhan. We have found that each city has its own migrant culture that shares core issues with that of others but also takes on a life of its own. In Shenzhen for example, the migrant population is largely composed of factory workers in their early 20s, living in factory-provided housing and without children. Therefore, while there are often significant commonalities that exist among migrant issues around the country, there is also a uniqueness and complexity that keeps one from oversimplifying a response.
The ever-changing trends and characteristics of migrants can be both challenging and exciting for those attempting to provide life-changing services and programs to migrant populations. Working with migrant populations (Chinese refer to migrants literally as liudongrenkou, the “moving population”) requires organizations to be particularly sensitive to the rapid changes of those they are serving and flexible enough to adjust their programs accordingly. China is increasingly moving in the direction of the rule of law, which could potentially offer significant benefits to migrants in areas such as education reform. While the Chinese government’s previous policies and practices regarding migrant populations have been somewhat conflicted, recent responses and initiatives are generally following a positive trajectory. Moreover, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Chinese NGOs in particular, though still operating in a restrictive environment, are progressively playing a more important role. The Chinese media, too, has proved to be an increasingly powerful force in bringing migrant issues to the forefront of public consciousness, which is, at the very least, stirring talk of change.
While work has begun in the last few years on migrant issues, there is still a long way to go in creating movement in this area. What is needed is not mere activity but a pragmatic solidarity with a long-term commitment since the challenges faced by migrant populations and their advocates are complex and structural in nature. A “go-it-alone” approach is simply not feasible for those invested in not only changing the current situation for a few migrants, but who also want to see future generations of migrant children born into a world in which the thought that they might be second-class citizens does not even cross their minds.
More than ever, organizations can partner together to develop holistic solutions to the very holistic issues migrants face. One immediate and practical area that would benefit from a partnered approach is vocational skills training for migrant youth, as China will need a strong, two-pronged educational approach for their abundance of high-school aged youth. Collaboration across organizations, business and government sectors is critical. It is imperative that approaches to migrant issues include the efforts and momentum created by Chinese NGOs and migrants who organize in non-threatening, informal groups to speak their collective voice to an increasingly attentive audience. The business sector can, and should, be reminded of the god-like economic influence they hold in this society and how they might use this influence with the government to mobilize positive change. As valuable as the contributions from the nonprofit and private sector are, any approach that ignores the role China’s government will play in bringing greater benefits to the lives of its migrants will be limited. Quality primary education for migrant children and basic healthcare for migrant families is first, and foremost, the responsibility of the government. I believe that leverage points will be found in public opinion and a more direct media, the ability of migrants to form informal groups and three-way collaborative initiatives between the nonprofit, business, and government sectors which will serve to inform and catalyze stronger and large-scale programs.
It is likely that we will not fully realize our vision to see migrants valued as equal citizens in this generation—or maybe even the next. Non-governmental organizations will need to develop ten, twenty and thirty-year strategies to effectively address these issues. Questions engaged organizations might be asking themselves are: What historical movement is taking place among the migrant population? How does the action of movement begin? Might there be an intersecting movement? Where are the leverage points within the current framework? What role will the migrants’ spirit of entrepreneurship play in their own destiny? What lessons can we learn from migrant slums around the world? How can we most effectively affect change? If all nonprofits banded together in China, we might be able to effectively provide such services to five percent of China’s 24 million migrant children. With the partnership of business, we might be able to increase that number to twenty-five percent or even more. To see change on a larger scale, it is imperative the government takes a leading role. A collaborative engagement of the government, business and nonprofit sectors would accurately reflect the responsibilities held by each to care for the vulnerable in its society.
Faith-based organizations and groups have the advantage of Jesus’ example of a preferential option for the poor. The church can choose a response that is both compassionate and intelligent as it seeks the best for those pushed to the margins, just as Jesus reserved his best for them. Their existing networks and awareness that action accompanies faith can be used to effectively meet the needs of migrants in communities throughout China.
As I was in the hotel shower scrubbing off the grime that accompanied me back from the thigh-high slosh through sewer-infested water in the Shanghai migrant community, I cheerfully thought of how grateful I was to have a clean hotel room to come back to after the day’s ordeal. Then I remembered that for the migrants themselves, it was not just a foray, but they were at that very moment considering how they were going to sleep in a few feet of water in the dark that night.
I believe the challenges facing migrants living in the world’s slums are of such a scale that it may require a radical response of those willing to sacrifice to see change brought about; those who are willing to give up the comforts of life to understand how they might better serve migrants and their families, to sleep in the water if need be, and to never, never, never quit. Migrants around the world hunger and thirst for a just system that rightfully responds to their contributions and values the dignity of their lives. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their time is coming.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on December 20, 2022.