The Struggles and Strengths of China’s Migrant Workers

Arriving in Beijing in 2007, I was struck by the many unfinished buildings and construction cranes that dotted the skyline, and there seemed to be a BMW for every bicycle. At that time, the movement of rural migrants into major urban centers was in full force, with an estimated five million living in Beijing alone. As a newcomer, I felt like the nation’s longstanding rural/urban divide was boiling over before my eyes.

The entrenched hukou system, along with the opportunities it either afforded or excluded, had created—or perhaps revealed—a class-based society. Migrants tended to be poor and sometimes looked down upon, had little access to education and health care, and took jobs no one else wanted. They were the unskilled factory workers, trash collectors, restaurant servers, security guards, vegetable sellers, and the primary construction force behind the building of China’s cities, highways, and rail lines. Over the years, hundreds of conversations and dozens of friendships brought me into the migrant world. I regularly heard stories of financial pressures and the painful struggles of separated families.

Now, fifteen years later, much in China has changed. Factories have closed due to increasing wages and decreasing demand, and construction has slowed. Movement into the major cities has also slowed considerably, and migrants are beginning to move out to smaller cities, often in their home provinces. This issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly looks at the lives and trends of China’s migrant population.

In interacting with migrant workers, what I have found most compelling are the stories of their personal lives. One of our articles focuses on the stories of five migrant women as each one shares from her individual experiences over many years, as well as her aspirations for the future.  

Another story is that of the Living Waters family of churches. Among the hundreds of millions of migrants are the many whom God has called to preach the gospel, make disciples, and plant churches. Migrant church planters have often found themselves with fast-growing churches, planted among people who share similar village backgrounds, and who face common pressures. The 20-year story of Living Waters is one of God’s grace at work through constant societal change.

We also include a perspective on one of the groups most affected by rural-to-urban migration—the tens of millions of left-behind children. Through the stories of a group of church volunteers from Hong Kong who have been serving those children we learn more about their plight. 

To add background to these compelling stories, a pastor and experienced church planter offers an analysis of current migrant demographics and how the church might adapt in these changing times and continue to evangelize migrant workers.

While several “China watchers” have written excellent books on the migrant phenomenon, we review a recent one, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism. The book addresses policies at a macro level and shares the stories of individuals affected by those policies.

I have learned a great deal from my migrant friends’ determination and willingness to sacrifice. I hope these articles will serve to paint a picture of them and their world.

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Reggie Reimer

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