China is undergoing a modernization process that has caused its urbanization process to accelerate. A mass exodus from rural areas to urban centers is already occurring. Surplus laborers in the rural areas are rapidly migrating to the towns and cities looking for jobs and better living conditions.
Some cities harbor from one to three million or more migrants who are constantly relocating between suburban and major urban centers. Guangzhou, with a population of ten million, has three million plus migrants; Shanghai and Beijing have close to three million migrants. In the city of Shenzhen, the entire population of over five million is migrants. Most of these migrants work in factories, restaurants, service industries or construction sites. Besides grassroots workers, some are young urban professionals and university graduates.
Located on China’s southern border, the major migrant city of Shenzhen sits next to the Hong Kong border. Sixty years ago, Hong Kong was once a migrant city hosting inhabitants from the Guangdong province. It was also a British colony, but is now a Special Administrative Region since its return to the sovereignty of China in 1997. Twenty years ago, Shenzhen was just an agricultural and fishing village with a population of merely 30,000. Now, a major city, the population in the city center exceeds two million with the remainder being in the suburban factory areas and villages. Most of its citizens are migrants from the neighboring provinces of Guangxi, Wuhan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Fujian, and Yunnan. A few are from the northern provinces and a minority are Cantonese. Most of these migrants have now settled down and made Shenzhen their home.
Neighboring both Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Shenzhen has come under the influence of much Western culture and lifestyle. With exposure to postmodern pomp and prosperity under the open-door policy, Shenzhen and Hong Kong have become as inseparable as the body and its shadow. Shenzhen owes her existence today to migrants much as Hong Kong owes her existence to Guangzhou and Guangdong migrants of some sixty years ago.
Shenzhen is often described as a paradise for young people. Local statistics show that the average age of its residents is 28.65 years while people aged 20 to 29 make up 35.77 percent of the city’s population. Statistics also show that 10,397 people out of every 100,000 residents in Shenzhen have received a college education or beyond, which far exceeds levels in many other major Chinese cities. A young citizen in Shenzhen said, “Life is not always working and working all the time. Young people in this city like to spend their spare time in bars and disco houses.”
However, behind the modern skyscrapers and the glittering neon signs of restaurants and shops lays a vacuum of darkness and void. This vacuum has permeated the center of the city where prostitution resides, and disco houses, bars and high-class shopping malls punctuate the horizon in a glamorous display. Just across the border checkpoint between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is an array of shops displaying pirated VCD’s, video players, hi-fi equipment, clothes and shoes that are counterfeits of major name brands. In the middle of the city stand the five-star hotel Shangri-La and a beautiful shopping center with a McDonald’s and Hard Rock Cafe as their close neighbors. In the drive to modernization, Shenzhen has become a leader among the Special Economic Zones.
Every day, there are more than 200,000 Hong Kong citizens that cross the border into mainland China. Most of these citizens work as professionals such as engineers or managers in “second-line” factories—the factories that are located in the suburbs of Shenzhen. Many of them stay in Shenzhen and return to Hong Kong during the weekend; some even commute between these two cities on a daily basis. During the holidays, the border crossings can increase to over 250,000 per day. Most of these border-crossers are on business or visiting their families and friends. Some men are even having extramarital affairs with their so called “second wives” in Shenzhen.
Migrants from rural areas often end up working in factories. Factories in southern China usually provide dormitory facilities for their workers which are usually built next to the production facilities. Some large factories, with thousands of employees, include a medical clinic, cafeteria, library and sports facilities inside the factory buildings; some even have a dance hall, television rooms, a computer learning center, karaoke facilities, a stage for public performances, barber shop and kiosk for daily necessities and snacks. The factory itself becomes a community within a larger urban community.
There are 26 million workers employed in the urban areas of Guangdong Province according to an investigative report made by the Guangdong Provincial Party Committee (see box).
Time is a valuable commodity in this city; almost everyone is busy at work during the day. Even the beggars are busy bowing to the passersby to earn a few more dollars. This culture resembles the industrious nature of Hong Kong and its citizens. Almost the entire Chinese population of Hong Kong has either migrated from Guangdong Province or is descended from natives of that province. In the past decade or so, Hong Kong businessmen and manufacturers have relocated their factories to Guangzhou and its surrounding towns. Many of these factories are in Guangdong’s three Special Economic Zones: Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, which were opened to attract foreign trade and investment. The region offers lower labor costs than in the more developed Asian countries.
The Cantonese have always been considered a distinct group in the Chinese world. Separated from the Yangzi area by an east-west mountain range and far from the early centers of Chinese civilization in the Yellow River basin, Cantonese culture has been relatively isolated allowing the province to develop its distinct identity and its own distinct dialect—Cantonese. Its people are a little bit more distant than are the northern Chinese who are more relaxed and enjoy life at leisure. The northerners enjoy talking to strangers and neighbors as their national past time. The Cantonese, however, enjoy work much more than leisure. They have no time to talk to each other or neighbors—much less to strangers.
Another major city full of migrants is only an hour’s train-ride away to the north of Shenzhen. Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is the largest metropolis of south China and the capital of Guangdong province. Having a population of over ten million, Guangzhou is one of the busiest and richest cities of China. With a subtropical climate, an extensive coastline and a mesh of tributaries from the Pearl River, Guangzhou is located on a rich alluvial delta.
The modernization process has brought enormous international influence into Guangzhou. With Giordano’s and McDonald’s lining up side by side on Beijing Road, expensive modern shopping arcades and dining areas become a common sight. Whether at noon or at night, Beijing Road is always full of crowds shopping. At night, the Beijing Road neighborhood is blocked off from private cars, and people can shop and walk freely on the street. The buildings are old, and the area has a resemblance to the Hong Kong of thirty years ago. The streets are packed with buses, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, dust and people.
Behind the dazzling neon lights of Beijing Road and beyond, the city continues to have a spiritual void. A decade or more of economic reform has made communism a facade, an idol to be worshipped only in the minds of the Chinese authorities. Materialism is the new goddess for the young and zealous. People are living for today and hope for the best for tomorrow. Chinese people need to have a hope: a hope for a better future, not merely in this material world but for the world to come.
For the past 25 years, Christian ministry has taken place mainly in the rural areas of China. A mass movement of the house church was initiated in the villages and spread to nearby suburban and urban centers. The gospel to China’s urban centers was primarily targeted at university students. Now, however, these university students have graduated and formed small, young, urban, professional churches in the cities that have no connection whatsoever with the rural church network.
The percentage of Christians in the urban centers is very low. For example, in the city of Shenzhen, about one percent of the population is Christian and in Guangzhou, less than two percent. Some cities are really unreached, especially townships of less than one million people. Sometimes, migrants in the megacities consist of more than thirty to fifty percent of the population. They are the new “unreached” people group in the urban centers of China. Young and energetic, some even well educated, they will become the morning stars of the New China.
May God send more of his laborers to the harvest fields of the cities. May we all keep watch and pray for China’s migrants in the cities.
Image credit: 10014-SV-IMG_2262 by neville mars via Flickr.
Clarence "Chuck" Chan, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, USA and chairperson of Pacific Rim Foundation, LTD (Hong Kong), currently lives in southern China with his wife Queenie. He is involved in China research, leadership, and theological training. In the past two decades, he and his... View Full Bio