View From the Wall

The Master’s Embarrassment

Every Chinese in China knows that after Liberation the Communist Party led the working people to revolt, and workers and peasants became the “masters” of the nation. Fifty years later, the peasants, who were supposed to be the “masters,” suddenly discovered that not only are they no longer the “masters” of the house, they cannot even be called “guests.”

Each year after spring festival, tens of thousands of peasants from all over China, chasing their dreams, squeeze onto trains and climb onto buses headed for Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities both large and small. They earnestly hope to find work in the cities. Any kind of work will doselling vegetables, selling newspapers, repairing shoes, repairing bicycles, babysitting, transporting garbage, road repair, construction, washing dishes in a restaurant, mining coalall manner of dirty and exhausting jobs fall upon their shoulders. Anyplace where there is difficult and dangerous work to do you will find them.

Originally, they were peasants, but now they are doing the work of city dwellers. They came from the villages but have left the land and are now living in the cities. Yet, they cannot be called citizens of the city; rather, they are called by the names “hardship” and “difficulty.” Discrimination and humiliation are their constant companions. With their own blood and sweat they water the flowering prosperity of the city, but prosperity has nothing to do with them. With their own bodies they support modernization, but there is no place for them at the banquet table of modernization. The creators of urban civilization are destined to live in its shadow. They are called mingong.[1]

The starting point for discussing the mingong is the “peasant” (nongmin). China is a large agrarian country. Out of its population of 1.3 billion people, 900,000,000 are peasants. After the implementation of the household responsibility system in the 1970s, agricultural output increased year after year, giving rise to many “ten thousand yuan households.” In a short period of time, China’s peasants appeared to have already become extremely prosperous.

However, with the continued deepening of reform, the actual life of peasants in the countryside remained burdensome and exhausting. In many villages, peasants work year after year for an average of only several hundred yuan, or several dozen yuan per month. They still live in narrow, dark, damp, mud-walled houses. Some cannot even afford a roof, so in lieu of clay tiles they use tree bark. Because of their poverty, those who get sick just tough it out if it is not too serious. If it is serious, they just wait to die since they cannot afford a doctor.

Greedy officials suck the people dry, and the complicated tax code pressures peasants to the point where they cannot breathe. In the spring of 2000 in Jianli County, Hubei Province, a village Party secretary named Li Changping wrote then Premier Zhu Rongji a letter saying, “Peasant life is very hard, the village is really poor, and the agricultural sector is really in jeopardy.” This became a classic description of the problems of contemporary peasant life.

Harvard University economist, Dwight Perkins, said, “From the perspective of future reformers, the political experience of China is clear but often overlooked. Any process of reform should have clear beneficiaries.” At the beginning of China’s reform the beneficiaries were the farmers, the specialized household enterprises and the developers in the special economic zones (SEZs). Then, when the center of reform shifted to the cities, the primary beneficiaries became the newly created entrepreneur class and those government officials who quickly became rich. The 900 million peasants who composed the majority of Chinese society were not the beneficiaries of reform; on the contrary, they returned to the lowest class of society.

Due to low prices for agricultural products and the rising cost of production, countless peasants, who had toiled arduously plowing the fields in the countryside, found that farming was a losing proposition. Farming could not feed the family. As a result, millions of farmers were forced to leave their homes and give up the land that had been their families’ livelihood for generations. Enduring hardship, ridicule and discrimination, they poured into the cities to work, year after year. This was the beginning of a new phenomenon that emerged during the last decade, the wave of urban migrants. According to 2003 statistics, the floating population then exceeded 120 million. The six provinces of Sichuan, Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi, Henan and Hubei accounted for sixty percent of the country’s transient population. In 2004, the floating population in Beijing had reached four million.

The peasants entering the cities become mingong, but the vast majority of them can only live as the underclass of urban society. They cannot obtain household registration and, as a result, cannot enjoy the social welfare accorded to urban residents. In order to save some money from their labors to send back home to the countryside, they have to endure the following kinds of suffering.

First, working hours are long, and living conditions are poor. They work over eight hours per day, sometimes as long as twelve or more hours. They put in endless overtime without overtime pay. For these peasants who work day and night, weekends and traditional holidays are nonexistent. The work is hazardous to the health and even dangerous, but the workplace lacks safety equipment. No matter which city or whether it is the manufacturing or service industry, in order to keep costs down, employers provide only the most inferior accommodations with several tens of workers packed into an old room with no sanitary facilities. They eat the cheapest food. For most mingong this is typical treatment.

Next come low pay and delayed wages. Even though the government has a minimum wage standard, this is meaningless to these workers because they just want to find a job. A sample survey conducted among fourteen enterprises in Dongwan, Guangdong Province, found that all except one paid lower than the minimum monthly wage of 450 RMB, or only 15 RMB per day. In that area, a very simple boxed lunch costs three to four RMB.

What is even more intolerable is that even with this low pay companies sometimes delay paying the workers’ wages. As a result, many mingong go a whole year or even several years without getting paid. According to sociologist Li Chiang, in 2002, in Beijing one out of every four migrant workers did not receive his pay or had it delayed. At the end of 2003, there were 124,000 construction projects nationally that had withheld a total of 175,600,000,000 RMB in wages. The national construction bureau announced in August of this year that the accumulated withheld construction wages amounted to 367,000,000,000 RMB. Even though the government continues to advocate for the legal rights of peasant workers, this phenomenon of “It’s hard to find a job; it’s even harder to get paid,” continues to rise. Delayed wages for mingong has become a serious social problem.

Third, they have no social status and lack social security. Because of the household registration regulations, mingong cannot transfer their registration to the cities. Children cannot attend school where their parents work, so the workers cannot enjoy the social benefits of the city or the protection of workers’ compensation, retirement, unemployment insurance and medical insurance. If they get sick, no one looks after them. If they are injured or become sick or disabled on the job, they are kicked out and spend their remaining years in sadness. As for the political treatment of the mingong, there is even less to be said, as any sort of organization to protect their rights is illegal. There are hundreds of thousands of construction projects involving these workers, but as soon as the projects are finished, they are simply let go. Their life or death depends only on fate. Some workers, with nowhere to turn, resort to begging, prostitution, drug use and drug dealing, becoming criminals in order to survive.

Last, it is difficult for the children of mingong to receive an education. The constitution requires that every child receive nine years of free education. Yet, because the migrant workers’ children are not residents of the city, they do not enjoy equal access to education. Public schools will not accept children of nonresident parents, and private school tuition is so high there is no way for the children to attend. Thus, tens of thousands of mingong are faced with the harsh truth that, whether public or private, education for their children will cost an exorbitant amount of money. For these workers this is unrealistic. They pour out their blood, sweat and tears to build the glorious and rich city, but their own children have no school to attend. The education of mingong children is a serious problem not only in Shenzhen but for any city with a large number of mingong. According to Southern Daily, within Guangdong’s floating population of 20 million, over one million children do not receive any education. Shenzhen alone has over 100,000 children who do not receive a proper education. Migrant children in Beijing and Shanghai face the same situation.

As a result, the mingong in many areas have started their own “workers’ children schools.” Most of these schools are found in the border areas between countryside and city where there are high concentrations of mingong. They have rudimentary facilities, inexpensive tuition and a low quality of education. They lack regular classrooms, laboratories, computers, reading materials, books, audiovisual equipment, dormitories, cafeterias and sports facilities. Sanitary conditions are poor, and the quality of teachers is in general below government standards. The biggest problem is that because these migrant schools cannot compare with public schools in terms of staffing, administration, educational model, quality of education and in other areas, there are many problems, and this kind of school will never receive official recognition or legal status. While under the same blue sky, these migrant schools do not enjoy the same radiant sun. With rundown facilities and unqualified teachers, students without household registration and schools without legal status, the Chinese society’s discrimination is directed not only toward the peasants themselves but also toward their next generation.

This is the picture of the peasants, the so-called “masters” of China, now that they have moved into the city. How did the farmers fall from being the “masters of the country” to this embarrassing level? Analyzing the cause one can only say that it is the result of Chinese society’s long-held, systematic and integral class discrimination against the peasants. The roots of the mingong are in the rural areas, but the processes of industrialization, urbanization and modernization have brought about the continued decrease of arable land and increase of excess labor in the villages, forcing the farmers to leave the countryside. However, the Chinese policy of eryuan shenfen (separating into two classes those who live in the cities and those who do not) does not recognize the equal rights and status of mingong.

Government policies still treat the mingong as if they were peasants living in the countryside, denying them any kind of social security. The worth of the mingong has been artificially and systematically degraded. The growth and development of the city is, to a certain degree, precisely dependent upon taking advantage of the degraded worth of the masses of mingong. An indisputable fact is that once the mingong enter the city, no matter what they do, they are still considered peasants. Although their children grow up in the city, they still have peasant status. In China, where “the workers and peasants are the masters,” regardless of where the peasant lives, in reality, he is still on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In the city that does not offer peasants any mercy or tender feelings, peasants and mingong feel a humiliation and exploitation that have been legitimized by the system. To change this system implies that one must change the current order of things, which implies that the “masters” of the republic must struggle anew for their own status as masters. For the Chinese peasants who were already liberated more than half a century ago, this is a huge irony and tragedy.

Only when the millions of peasants who have left the land, traveled through the villages and entered the cities can truly stand toe-to-toe with city dwellers will the two-class system be finished, the problem of migrant workers solved, and the modernization of China have a future. We believe and anticipate this day will come soon.


  1. ^ The term here traditionally refers to a laborer working on a public project.

Image credit: 02448-NM-DSC02544 by Neville Mars via Flickr.

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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio