Urban Migrants

Building the Infrastructure

A major component and driving force of China’s rapid economic development has been urbanization on a scale never seen before in human history. Yet according to the McKinsey consulting firm, the growth of China’s cities to date will pale in comparison to what is yet to come. By the year 2030 it is estimated that China’s urban population will reach one billion.

Visitors to China often remark at the speed with which cities, or large portions of cities, seem to suddenly appear. Pudong and Shenzhen have risen literally out of nothing to become urban showpieces and major financial centers. The “Bird’s Nest” stadium that became the much heralded centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Games was erected at unprecedented speed, along with dozens of other Olympic venues, several new subway lines and major beautification projects across the city.

None of this would be possible were it not for hundreds of millions of migrant workers streaming into China’s major urban centers. They are the silent, or at least unacknowledged, partners in China’s rush to lead the way in global urbanization.

Not only are these urban migrants building the infrastructure of today’s and tomorrow’s cities; they have become integral to the very functioning of urban life. To them are relegated jobs most city dwellers would be unwilling to take themselves. Those who make it a bit higher up the social ladder find employment in the burgeoning service industry, waiting on tables, cooking, cleaning or working in the homes of China’s growing middle class. In the Pearl River and Yangtze delta regions tens of millions of young migrants labor on the world’s factory floors, making the goods that have fueled China’s meteoric economic growth for the past decade. Take away the migrants and—as city dwellers are reminded every spring during Chinese New Year—the city ceases to function.

Despite their central role in creating the China of today, most urban migrants enjoy very little of the wealth and prosperity they have helped make possible for others. Their presence is, at best, tolerated by city dwellers who acknowledge the need for them yet still look upon the migrants as out-of-place peasants. Since providing needed services would legitimize their presence in the city—up until now a legal gray area—government has been loath to guarantee migrants access to proper housing,  healthcare, and education. New labor laws and a willingness in some quarters to provide long-term vocational training suggest that the business sector may play a more positive role in the future, but the migrants’ employers have traditionally taken little responsibility for the migrants’ welfare.

Who, then, will build the social, economic, emotional and spiritual infrastructure for this significant yet extremely vulnerable segment of China’s population, which in many ways represents the future of urban China? In this issue of the ChinaSource journal we suggest that the Body of Christ has an important role to play by standing in the gaps left by government, business and other institutions, and by calling these institutions to account. Such an investment in China’s urban infrastructure today will reap long-term benefits as Christ’s love is made visible in the city and as these new citizens of the city find their true identity as citizens of a city that is yet to come.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio