Who Built Beijing? The Human Stories of China's Rise
By C.Cindy Fan
All eyes will be on China in August 2008 as the Olympic Games opens in Beijing, and in May-October 2010 as Shanghai hosts the World Expo. Behind the glamour, millions of migrant workers have been toiling for decades to make, build, and serve. The floating population – people not living in places where they are registered – amounts to 150 million at present and can increase to 250 million by 2025. Beijing alone has four million peasant migrants, of whom a quarter are construction workers, many brought in to build the “Bird’s Nest” and other Olympic facilities.
The majority of China’s population remains rural. Persistent poverty, large labor surplus, and removal of socialist protection in the countryside have left rural Chinese with few options other than out-migration. Thus, to rural Chinese, labor migration is a way of life, perhaps even a culture. To the Chinese city, the value of peasant migrants is in their cheap, tolerant and disposable labor. They are socially excluded, discriminated against, and at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. Despite the important role peasant migrants play in fostering urban development, they are persistently seen as outside labor and are relegated to inferior, quasi-illegal, statuses in the city.
It is circulation, not moving for the purpose of staying, that defines rural-urban labor migration in China. By employing a split-household strategy, which entails gender and intergenerational division of labor – the wife and/or the elderly staying in the countryside – peasant migrants are able to obtain the best of the origin and destination.
While playing double roles as both urban workers and farmers, most peasant migrants still consider themselves peasants rather than having double (peasant-urbanite) identities. Yet, a new generation of peasant migrants is emerging. These young migrants are more determined to put down roots in the city. Their chance of becoming full-fledged urban citizens will depend on their long-term value to the urban economy and their incorporation into the political and social fabric of the city.
Excerpt from China on the Move: Migration, the State, and the Household, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
[keywords: migrant workers, construction workers, Olympic facilities, rural-urban labor migration]