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Millennial Migrants


While living in Beijing, I came to know well a migrant family. They had arrived in Beijing in the mid-1990s and had managed to find good jobs and earn enough money to buy an apartment and start a family. Even though they did not have a Beijing hukou, they managed to get their children into a decent school. It was interesting to watch the children grow up, because clearly they saw themselves more as urbanites, even though they technically weren’t.

I thought of them when I read this interesting piece in Foreign Affairs titled "China’s Twenty Percent Problem," It is about the younger generation of migrants (“millennial migrants,” as the author calls them) who often share the same dreams and aspirations as their urban counterparts.

The author, Damien Ma, starts out with some statistics, and they are staggering:

For years now, China has faced the daunting challenge of managing its roughly 260 million “domestic immigrants,” or migrant workers. They flow itinerantly from countryside to cities, where they dwell as second-class citizens and temporary guests with no formal urban status because of a system, known as hukou, that prevents them from settling and easily accessing basic services such as health care, social security, primary education for their children, and decent housing.

At nearly 20 percent of the population, China's migrants, if they were to form their own country, would constitute the world’s fourth most populous nation. It is a demographic that has grown 30 times over the past 30 years, according to figures from an official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) journal, Seeking Truth, even as total population growth has increased by less than one percent over the same period. Relative to the overall population, the migrant demographic is younger, more mobile, and not particularly smitten with the status quo.

But the key issue, he says, is in their shifting attitudes:

What’s more, a rising generation of “millennial migrants” aspires to the same lifestyle and opportunities afforded their urban contemporaries. As a result, their expectations are shifting rapidly, increasing the possibility that their accumulated discontents will turn into a volatile force that catalyzes social instability.

After going into the background of the hukou system and the establishment of an urban/rural classification by the government in the early 1950’s, Ma takes a closer look at these so-called millennial migrants, and the dilemma the government faces in dealing with this segment of the population:

Dealing with migrants is all the more challenging because they tend to be younger, especially the new generation. For instance, the average millennial migrant (about 50 percent of the whole migrant cohort) is under 35 and holds a college degree, according to a Nankai University survey of migrants in seven cities. Those in the top 20 percent income bracket made about $1,000 per month; those in the bottom 20 percent took in just $270. As a point of comparison, an undergraduate from a top-tier school such as Tsinghua University can expect to earn a monthly salary of $2,000 five years after graduation, according to another survey.

The Nankai University survey also revealed that many migrants view the cities as their home, not the rural towns from whence they came. In fact, 44 percent of the migrants surveyed planned to permanently settle in the cities where they work, while only 29 percent considered returning to their hometowns. A quarter of them have already lived in cities for over a decade, and many were likely even born there, yet they still are not officially counted as full-fledged urban residents.

Indeed, with better education and youthful exuberance come expectations and ambitions that make these millennial migrants not so different from their urban counterparts—except that the CCP has sought to appease one group at the expense of another, in part because the urban elites with hukou would not gain much from the enfranchisement of migrants. Rather, these elites tend to fear the potential fiscal costs of granting the floating populations equal access to already scarce social services.  

Dealing with these millennial migrants is not only an issue for the government, but for the Chinese church as well. Brent Fulton highlighted this in a post last year when he wrote:

The children of China's first-generation migrants, meanwhile, will want a better life in the city than what their parents had. The "rural church in the city," as it is sometimes referred to, will need to adopt forms of worship and modes of ministry that are suited to this new generation. Since many of these second-generation migrants will find themselves frustrated by a lack of educational and employment opportunities, particularly as China's manufacturing sector shrinks, the church will be challenged to bring hope in practical ways to a generation facing a bleak future.

How, and whether, the more affluent urban churches and the second-generation migrant churches are able to work together in meeting these challenges will be key to the church's witness in the city. Should the church be seen as offering innovative solutions to the problems of a widening social gap, its ministry will likely be welcomed, but if the same polarizing divide between advantaged and disadvantaged is found within the body of Christ then its witness will be hindered.

Go here and here to read both pieces in full.

Image credit: Stepping Out, by Slices of Light, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio


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