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Reflections from a Foreign Friend: My Years with China’s Migrants

In 2010, for the first time in history, China’s urban population surpassed that of its rural counterpart. It is expected that the historical rural/urban divide of 80% to 20% respectively will be reversed by the year 2030, all in line with the central government’s aggressive urbanization strategy. The unprecedented demographic shift and rapid urbanization have been accompanied by deep social pressures, dividing millions of families across the nation, and depriving an untold many of adequate education and health care.

It is helpful to understand the political and social background of today’s migrants. In 1958, Mao Zedong instituted the system of family registration (hukou) as a means of tracking all of China’s citizens and to prevent villagers from migrating to the cities. All social services such as medical care and education were tied to the hukou; the sick would be treated and children would receive an education in their hometowns, the place where they were registered.

When the economic reform era began in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping, foreign-owned factories and industries sprang up by the thousands, all requiring cheap labor for building, manufacturing, and maintaining. Uneducated villagers began pouring into coastal areas, finding employment as unskilled laborers on construction sites and in factory assembly lines, as security guards and cleaners, trash recyclers and fruit sellers. Throughout the 1980s, the initial waves of migrants transformed—seemingly overnight—coastal towns into megacities, and further swelled the population of already large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. Within 30 years, 300 million villagers had left their homes in search of a piece of China’s growing economic pie, fueling the engine of the world’s hottest economy.

The price paid by the migrants, however, has been steep. For one, China has been slow to change the hukou system, leaving migrant families for decades without access to standard education and medical care. Many families felt forced to separate, and it was not uncommon for a family of three (two parents and a child) to be living apart from one another with both parents working in different cities and the child being cared for by relatives in the hometown. The villages themselves have been decimated with only the elderly and the children left behind in many of them. In addition, as villagers and urbanites now live side-by-side in cities, most migrants can describe their experiences of being discriminated against by wealthier and more sophisticated neighbors. There have also been countless stories of migrants working on the basis of a verbal contract but not receiving promised wages and then finding no legal recourse.

At present, it seems that the “migrant phenomenon” is slowly subsiding. There is a national strategy to encourage industry in lower-tiered cities so that more migrants can find work closer to their hometowns. However, the process of “settling China” cannot happen overnight, and the needs within the migrant world will persist for some time.

The Urban/Rural Divide

When I was studying Chinese, I came across an interesting and telling sentence in the course reader. The topic of the particular lesson was discrimination, and the sentence went something like this: “City people discriminate against village people and village people discriminate against mountain people.” My teacher affirmed that this was indeed the case. That urban/rural split, a physical reality pre-Deng when never the twain shall meet, became a social and emotional experience in the era of migration.

China’s urban churches differ from migrant churches, the former largely comprised of middle class, educated Christians with greater earning potential and the latter of poorer, uneducated people generally reflecting village culture. An educated Beijinger, a devoted Christian, once told me that she has more in common with people outside China than with people from the villages.

In Beijing, I lived in a nice apartment, and many of the other residents were wealthy businesspeople who drove high-end cars, but the security guards were all young men from the countryside, most in their early 20s. They were paid less than minimum wage, and even this was often withheld at the whim of the management company who would regularly cite quite minor infractions. They were housed in a dormitory space next to the underground parking: two concrete, dank, and windowless rooms for about 12 of them.

One of the guards was 25-year-old Guohong from a village in the neighboring province of Hebei. His wife and young son lived back in his hometown, and Guohong would send most of his monthly wages back to them, though he often complained that his wife was spending the money faster than he was earning it. We spent a few years developing our friendship; I would visit him and the other guards in their dormitory, and Guohong would occasionally come to my flat. Though we would both eventually leave Beijing, we have kept in touch over the years, and he always addresses me as “older brother.” He has traveled around, working on construction sites in different provinces—Inner Mongolia, Fujian, and Jiangsu—usually staying for a year or two in each place and continuing to send most of his earnings to his wife. Eventually, however, he discovered that she had been having a long-term affair and had been using his earnings to support the other man. They were divorced, and then Guohong’s son moved into his parents’ care. Guohong continued to work in construction and sees his son occasionally. He is one of 300 million who make up the “migrant crowd,” each of whom has a story to tell.

Another young friend is Xiao Fan from the province of Henan, who set up a small noodle shop close to my home in Beijing. We became close friends, first as a customer in his shop and then especially when, one night, I helped mediate a dispute between him and his 18-year-old kitchen assistant. At 30 years of age and single, Xiao Fan was earning just enough to support himself and to send a little back to his retired parents in the village. Eventually, he closed his shop in Beijing and moved to Nanjing for two years where he opened another noodle shop. Then he closed that shop and returned to Beijing where he opened yet another noodle shop. Now in his late thirties, he is haunted by the fact that he has no marriage prospects and very little to offer a potential wife. He is like millions of migrant young men desperately trying to find enough economic success to make him “marriageable” but all the while watching his youth slip away.

My friendships with people like Guohong and Xiao Fan have allowed me to enter the world of migrants. By entering their worlds, I have been given an opportunity to “see and know,” as Christ did, that is, to witness first-hand the pressures that they face and have thus become more acutely aware of these vulnerable sheep who need a shepherd. These men were certainly intrigued by the novelty of forming a friendship with a foreigner but even more drawn by the experience of having someone from a higher (in their minds) social class express interest in them. The relational chasm between wealthy urban Christians and migrants remains, something that is not uncommon in our world, but felt more acutely, perhaps, in China’s cities. How can we help disciples of Christ in the city see and know the plight of their rural counterparts so that they can learn the compassion of Christ?

Missions: Empowerment, Christian Multiplication, and Full Circle

The ongoing movement of hundreds of millions of people throughout China—the “floating population”—is one of the best vehicles in the world today for fulfilling Christ’s global mandate. The father of republican China, Sun Yat-Sen, described the Chinese diaspora as being like sand scattered throughout the world and encouraged them to return to their homeland to help rebuild it. Today’s internal diaspora is also scattered like sand in every part of the nation. Christians who are part of this movement of people are more like seeds than sand, bringing the life and light of the kingdom to places in which they have been scattered.

Stephen is a church planter now in his mid-40s, originally from Henan, who moved to the southern part of Beijing. He came to the city with his wife and two children, found a job to support his family, and began sharing the gospel. Some years back, Stephen had attended a Bible school in his hometown and from that time on realized that his mission in life was greater than just working to support his family. Within two years after moving to Beijing, as a result of both his and his wife’s gospel witness, Stephen had planted two churches. He quit his job to focus his attention on building the growing body and planted several more churches. Over the years he has trained coworkers to help care for the growing flock.

The Beijing government has enacted policies that have pushed many migrants away from the city. Some are moving to other, more welcoming cities, and some are returning to their home provinces, choosing to settle down in smaller cities closer to their hometowns. Stephen is finding this to be an opportunity to commission his flock. Having spent years equipping them, he is now sending them to plant churches in other places. A few years ago, two of his closest coworkers were commissioned by his church and have already planted new churches close to their own hometowns, one in Henan and the other in Hunan. From empowerment to multiplication, the mission has come full circle.

Another example of the missionary potential for China’s internal diaspora may be drawn from two coworkers, Moses and Gregory. Now in their early 40s, both Moses and Gregory have been planting churches in Beijing for over 15 years. They met as teenagers in a village Bible school that has operated for some 15 years near the border of Henan and Anhui. Each year young people graduate from that same school, and Moses and Gregory have influenced their lives. Some become full-time evangelists or church workers, but most migrate to the cities for work. Hundreds have been scattered throughout China from Xinjiang in the far northwest to Shenzhen in the southeast and virtually every major city in between. For example, one traveled to Dongguan in the south, started selling mantou (steamed buns) on the street and sharing the gospel with customers. A church was established, and a young pastor couple was recruited to further develop the work. Other students from that village Bible school are now living and proclaiming the gospel among Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang as well as among the Miao people in the south.

Moses and Gregory keep in touch with this slice of diaspora from their hometown. They have brought these graduates together for leadership training and to encourage them to keep sharing Christ wherever they are planted.

The migrant world continues to undergo change. While there has been much pain and struggle within this slice of society, God has used the migrant phenomenon to bring many to himself. Through the movement of Jesus’ followers, the proclamation of the gospel has been and is going into every corner of the nation.

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Image Credit: A friend of ChinaSource

Reggie Reimer

Reggie Reimer (pseudonym) has served alongside migrants in China for 15 years. View Full Bio