Boasting a population of between 110-210 million, many different types of people fall under the classification of nongmingong, or migrant laborer. Despite the group’s size and diversity, however, there are some general characteristics that are prevalent among its constituents.
The vast majority of China’s migrant workers are farmers from the country’s interior and western provinces who were inspired to leave their home villages by a series of factors: push – general economic need, environmental degradation, land repossession by the government; and pull – economic want, the excitement associated with urban life, and freedom from family obligations. The first wave of migrant workers, those who left home in the early 1980s, sought employment primarily in China’s major cities and special economic zones, located in the south and east of the country. While these areas are still attractive destinations, the development of numerous cities in traditionally poor provinces, often municipalities targeted by the “Develop the West” (xibu da kaifa) campaigns initiated by Beijing, has led an increasing number of farmers to migrate to places closer to home. As a result, urban centers such as Chongqing and Zhengzhou are now full to brim with low-wage laborers hailing from the large, impoverished areas that surround them.
For most members of the floating population, moving from the countryside to the cities is made possible by an informal migrant network. Unlike their predecessors, today’s nongmingong don’t typically set off in search of work on their own. Rather, they follow in the footsteps of family members or friends, contacting them ahead of time to inquire as to the availability of jobs in the city and/or staying with them while looking for employment. People from the same village often migrate together, work together, and live together. Some even go into business together, starting small enterprises selling produce, cutting hair, or doing tailor work. The result is a series of urban migrant colonies that are diverse in terms the overall geographic origin of their residents, but that are often organized into mini-provinces, with one block occupied by people from Hebei, another by people from Anhui, etc.
Few nongmingong are sentimentally or otherwise attached to anywhere other than their hometown. Thus, once they have left the village their movement becomes very fluid – frequent and unpredictable. As opportunities materialize and disappear, they will move from city-to-city and province-to-province, often on short notice. Within cities themselves movement is even more common. Indeed, many small-scale enterprises are mobile, designed to be easily moved from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the business trends of the day.
The floating population has been an integral component of Chinese development, providing the cheap labor needed to invigorate the Chinese economy. Nevertheless, its members are far from welcomed with open arms by city governments and the established urban residency. As one scholar noted in a 2006 article, “[r]ural migrants in cities are institutionally inferior and socially marginalized.” Their rural hukou inhibits access to state provided or subsidized goods and services such as health care, housing, pensions, and education for their children, limiting their ability to advance in society. Moreover, rather than assimilating into the social networks of urban areas, migrant workers typically find themselves inhabiting a component of society completely abandoned by city residents. Such social isolation lends itself to discrimination, making it easy for urbanites to blame the invading “country bumpkins” for society’s ills. Among the litany of problems urban residents attribute to the arrival of migrant workers are traffic jams, high population density, and general crime. As scholars Wang Feng and Xuejin Zuo aptly noted, “[t]he stereotype of rural migrants is that they are uneducated, ignorant, dirty, and also have high propensities to be criminals.”
Intra-class discrimination, where migrant workers from different provinces discriminate against each other, is also quite prevalent. Though they occupy the same socio-economic sphere, someone from Sichuan may criticize someone from Guangdong for their failure to speak standard Mandarin while someone from Hubei may vehemently assert that everyone from Henan is uncivilized. Intra-class discrimination is not quite as detrimental to the welfare of migrant workers as inter-class discrimination is, but it can be the cause of social conflict and general unrest.
Despite their low social standing within the cities, migrant workers are typically among the elite in their home villages. On average, they are better educated than their rural peers, often having obtained high school degrees, a rarity in the countryside. They are also the source of a significant portion of their village’s income (up to 40 percent), and sometimes the sole source of their family’s income. Walking through many of China’s more impoverished rural townships, one will undoubtedly bump into a few houses that are surprisingly modern, especially when compared to the drab structures that neighbor them. Striking up a conversation with the owner will typically reveal that they have several children working in the cities and sending remittances home. Such remittances have become so integral to rural development that the China Post branches in most cities now have a window designed specifically for those looking to send money back to the countryside.
The pressure of saving money coupled with the relatively low (sometimes extremely low) wages obtained by migrant workers leads them to live in housing that ranges from draconic to decrepit. Some are provided lodging by the factory, restaurant or company they work at while others reside in the aforementioned urban migrant villages. Regardless of where they live, personal space and comfort are virtually non-existent and hygiene is often tough to maintain.
China’s migrant workers are a diverse and dynamic group. It is impossible to detail who they are, what they do, where they come from, etc. in such a short blog post. Nevertheless, the above information provides a sufficient foundation of knowledge on the nongmingong. Having established such a foundation, we can begin our analysis of how the floating population is being affected by the global economic crisis.