Migrant labour and deserted villages in China

August 10, 2023
China in one village book review

China in one Village
By Liang Hong
Verso 2021

China today is the world's biggest manufacturing centre. But its rapid economic expansion in recent decades has been based on the ruthless exploitation of workers who have migrated from the countryside to the cities. Whether working for transnational corporations, private companies or the state, they endure long hours, unsafe working conditions and low pay.

Most of these workers continue to be classified as rural residents, even after working in cities for decades.

China has a system of household registration, known as hukou. Each person is registered as a resident of a particular city, town or village and this determines their rights in a particular area. For example, a person with rural hukou is entitled to a small plot of land in their home village. But if they work in a city, they will probably not be able to bring their children with them, because they are not entitled to child care or school education in that city.

Liang Hong is a professor of Chinese literature at Renmin University in Beijing. Her book looks at the impact labour migration has on village life, and is based on her interviews with people from Liang village — where she was born and grew up — and the surrounding area.

Ninety percent of the working age population have left Liang village. Those who remain are mainly old people and children. Grandparents very often look after their grandchildren.

Migrant workers cannot take their children with them to the cities they work in. Most do not have access to childcare in their workplace or elsewhere and only see their children once or twice a year, during holidays.

Liang Hong argues that this situation causes “emotional damage” to children, with “long-term loss of parental love, which is harmful to the children's growth”. She says that this situation contributes to juvenile crime and high educational dropout rates in rural areas.

Many children who are supposed to go to school stay away. Apart from lack of parental supervision, this is because children who expect to work as migrant labourers do not see education as useful.

The migrant labour system is emotionally and sexually oppressive, writes Liang Hong. “Even if husbands and wives work in the same city, only very rarely are they able to live together, simply because construction sites and factories are not required to provide married housing. And because it is very difficult to rent a place on their salaries, they often live at their respective workplaces. So even on the weekends, where can they meet? Where can they be intimate?”

The absence of most of the adult population leads to a breakdown of community organisation and community spirit in the villages: “Everyone lives elsewhere and only comes back at Spring Festival. They don't really care about the village political situation or public works, including elections, road repair, brick factory closures or new schools.”

There is also a crisis of elderly care in rural China: “Sometimes, one elderly grandparent will be left caring for several children at once, and they feel lonely, exhausted, taken for granted.”

Liang village also suffers from environmental damage, including from chemical pollution and sand mining. Summing up her feelings about the situation in her home village, and rural areas generally, she writes: “Our villages are increasingly deserted, many left almost in ruins. This has led to a sense of ‘psychological homelessness’ and a deep, steadily building sorrow.”

In recent years the government has attempted to alleviate some of the problems of rural areas, and of migrant workers.

There has been some easing of hukou rules. Some workers of rural origin have been able to obtain urban hukou (mainly in smaller cities, not larger ones such as Beijing and Shanghai). But there are still large numbers of migrant workers who cannot, and therefore can't get access to the services they need.

For those who remain in the village; a tax on crops has been removed and some subsidies given to farmers. A small amount of aid is given to extremely poor people. An insurance scheme has been established whereby people pay into the scheme until the age of 60 and receive a monthly payment after that. Liang Hong says that, while this is a “significant improvement”, the amount of the monthly payment is “a drop in the ocean”.

Cultural teahouses have been established in the villages. These have books and other educational materials available, and are intended as an informal way of promoting education and culture. But Liang Hong says that people ignore the books and play cards instead. Education is not valued. People don't need much education to work in most of the jobs available to migrant workers.

Liang Hong is critical of what she sees as a one-sided focus on “modernisation” and disregard of traditional village culture. She quotes a scholar who said: “Modernisation is a classic tragedy. For every benefit it brings, it asks the people to pay with all they hold of value.”

But in my view, the problem is not modernisation, but capitalism.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Chinese government set out to attract transnational corporations by giving them access to cheap labour. Rural migrant workers were seen as the ideal solution. Because they had no rights in urban areas, and could be sent back to their village if they caused trouble, it was expected that these workers would find it difficult to organise and fight for better pay and conditions. Chinese capitalists as well as foreign companies would benefit from this system.

Migrant workers have not been completely docile, however, and have often rebelled against low pay and mistreatment. Nevertheless, a lot of foreign companies have transferred production to China, contributing to the country’s rapid economic growth.

However, economic success has come at a huge human cost, as the book shows.

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