Tag Archives: Migrant workers

Dust and sweat

dust and sweatIn 2012, Liu Xinwu’s novel Chén yǔ hàn (尘与汗, in English Dust and sweat) was translated into French and I recently read it with great interest. Liu Xinwu (刘心武), one of contemporary China’s most gifted writers, wrote this novel in 1998, and gave us an insight into a migrant’s life in the late ‘90s. In this book we discover how Lao He (the main character) and his companions adapt to their urban life. As suggested by the novel’s title, this life is tough. We discover the hard living conditions of migrant workers, and their strategies for “muddling through”.
These ex-farmers are searching for new opportunities, new ways of earning their living. They are led down very different paths: in this novel, they encounter a triad member, a man who rents trampolines and a Daoist soothsayer.
For some of Lao He’s colleagues, buying lottery tickets is another way to transform their lives, and sometimes it works…

This novel also reveals the gap between the older generation of migrants, who do not fit in this new China (to the point of losing their mind), and the younger generation, who already feel urban.
This book can be seen as a snapshot of the late ‘90s in China, like Lao She (another great Chinese writer)’s novels in their time .

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Pickle Index of China’s urbanisation

榨菜The Pickle index was founded in 2013 by an official of the National Development and Reform Commission. The creator of this index indicated that measuring and observing the sale number of pickles in different provinces can help understand the moving trends of migrant workers. The Pickle index then became an unofficial way to observe population movements in China.

That official found that from 2007 through 2011, the number of pickle sales in Southern China declined from around 50% to 30%. This showed the fast population outflow in Southern China. It was also observed that the sale number increased in Central China by 8%, in the Central Plain region by 3% and in the Northwest region by 2%. These numbers fit with the 2012 annual monitoring report on the observation of migrant workers, which was released by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China in May 2013.

The Pickle index is an intriguing way to decipher the movements of the migrant worker population. Its findings were discussed widely in China.

Chi-Han Ai

Ph.D. candidate of EHESS ( École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) focusing on regional economic development in China and Taiwan.

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The hukou and land tenure systems as two middle income traps: the case of modern China

Wen, Guangzhong James and Xiong, Jinwu (2014). The hukou and land tenure systems as two middle income traps : the case of modern China. Author’s post-print. Final version published in Frontiers of Economics in China 2014, 9(3): 438-459. DOI: 10.3868/s060-003-014-0021-1.

China’s prevailing hukou (household registration) system and land tenure system seem to be very different in their applications. In fact, they both function to deny the exit right of rural residents from a rural community. Under these systems, rural residents are not allowed to freely exit from collectives if they do not want to lose their entitlements, such as their rights to using collectively owned land and their land-based properties. Farmers are neither allowed to sell their houses to outsiders, nor allowed to sell to outsiders their rights to contracting a piece of land from the collective where their households are registered. For migrant workers from rural areas, it is extremely difficult for them to obtain an urban hukou with all its associated entitlements at an urban locality where they currently work and live. The combined effect of the two systems leads to serious distortions in labor and land markets, resulting in discrimination against migrant workers, sprawling yet exclusive urbanization, housing bubbles, and depressed domestic demand. These distortions further entrench the existing and much widened urban/rural divide. Unless these two systems are thoroughly reformed, the rural residents in Chinese mainland will be trapped in their comparatively much lower income and remain unable to share the gains from the agglomeration effects of urbanization.


  • Wen, Guangzhong James and Xiong, Jinwu (2013). Which type of urbanization better matches China’s factor endowment: a comparison of population-intensive Old Puxi and land-capital-intensive New Pudong. Frontiers of Economics in China, 2013, 8(4): 516-534.
    Full text available at publisher’s website.



Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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The musician who became a champion of migrant workers

Chan, Bernice. The musician who became a champion of migrant workers. South China Morning Post, 1 July 2014. Retrieved 2 July 2014 from: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/1543617/musician-who-became-champion-migrant-workers

Like many young people on the mainland, Sun Heng left his hometown to pursue his dreams. He loved music and had vague ideas about travelling across the country to sample different ethnic sounds and becoming a performer. He achieved that goal, forming the New Worker Art Troupe, a band which gave a voice to the country’s millions of migrant workers.

In the process of making music, Sun, now 39, became their champion: he set up a school in Beijing for the children of migrant workers who were not allowed to attend public institutions, a community centre, a museum and, in 2009, a centre where workers can go to pick up skills that could lead to better paying jobs.

Particularly concerned about second-generation migrants who were born in cities but stuck in low-paying jobs because they had little education, Sun and his friends figured one solution was to provide practical courses in areas such as computer literacy and graphic design.

“Once they begin working in a factory, they rarely have a chance to retrain in new skills, so we founded this training centre. It is not a formal academic university, but rather a social knowledge platform,” says Sun.

Founder of NGO the Beijing Migrant Workers’ Home, Sun was invited to Hong Kong in May by Oxfam to help raise awareness about the plight of the estimated 263 million mainland migrant workers whose contribution to China’s remarkable growth in the past 20 years is rarely acknowledged.

It wasn’t quite the role Sun envisaged when he arrived in Beijing about 15 years ago.

Read the full story on the South China Morning Post 


Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Mobile phone use among migrant factory workers in South China

Peng, Yinni  and Choi, Susanne Y. P. (2013). Mobile phone use among migrant factory workers in South China: technologies of power and resistance. The China Quarterly, 215, pp 553-571. doi:10.1017/S0305741013000738.


Comparing ethnographic and interview data in three contrasting production arrangements in a labour-intensive factory in South China, this article argues that while the mobile phone constitutes a new contested terrain on the shop floor and facilitates control and resistance between capital and labour simultaneously, the dynamics of control and resistance is contingent upon the exact arrangements of production. While the management strictly prohibit line operators in the assembly line department from using their mobile phones, they turn a blind eye towards mobile phone use among workers in the hardware department, and mandate mobile workers who are not fixed at work stations in both departments to use mobile phones. Diverse managerial control tactics have generated different patterns of worker resistance. Workers in the assembly line department employ strategies to evade managerial surveillance and continue to use mobile phones at work covertly. They also contest the double standards of mobile phone use displayed by the management. Workers in the hardware department challenge the boundaries of legitimate mobile phone use, and mobile workers use tactics to escape being tracked down by the management via their mobile phones. Mobile phones also facilitate the strategy of resistance through exit among all workers.

Read full text on Cambridge Journals online (restricted access or purchase option)

About the authors

  1. Peng Yinni (彭铟旎) is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, Hong Kong Baptist University
  2. Susanne Y. P. Choi (蔡玉萍) is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong



Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Who Am I (II)



Crédit : Miguel Elosua

Following a spate of demolitions of migrant children schools in Beijing in 2011, Bao Caolin (报曹林), a journalist of the China Youth Daily commented:

“Beijing has shut down some 30 private schools for migrant children. In contrast, nearly all the officials’ offspring have access to top quality kindergartens, primary and middle schools. They probably will never understand the predicament of the migrant workers’ children after their schools were closed. Why are all the affordable and accessible schools for migrant workers’ children illegal? Why are all the legal ones unaffordable and inaccessible?”

When the Ministry of Education announced a plan this year to allow migrant students to take the national university entrance examination (gaokao – 高考) in the city they reside, it sparked a heated debate.1 At the moment, most migrant children have to return to their hometowns to take the test. Very few are able to take the entrance exam in the city they live in as they need to meet strict criteria. Parents of children with local hukou oppose the plan fiercely and fight to maintain the status quo. They argue that opening the exam to rural children would put more of a strain on local education resources (according to the national census approximately 7 million migrant workers live in Beijing, accounting for more than 35% of all residents).

The exam has already been criticised for its bias in favour of urban children (chengshi qingxiangxing – 城市倾向性). Students who take the exam in Beijing and Shanghai can qualify for entrance with lower scores than those who take it in other places. In 2010, rural students represented just 17% of total students at Tsinghua University. The proportion of rural students gaining admission to Tsinghua and Pekin University oscillated between 15 and 22% on average during the 1990s.2

The Constitution guarantees primary education for all citizens (article 19 and article 46). Article 9 of the Education Law establishes that “citizens shall enjoy equal opportunity of education regardless of their nationality, race, sex, occupation, property or religious belief, etc.” Whatever the law says the reality is that migrant children suffer institutional and non-institutional discrimination. If the aim of the central leadership is to promote urbanisation of migrant workers, then it seems essential to facilitate migration of the family as a whole. Children left behind in the village often lack emotional support and care from their parents. They only have the chance to reunite once or twice a year. Migrant workers integration and identification with the host city would be easier if their children travelled with them. In order for that to happen, migrant children need to be given the same opportunities for education as their urban peers.


  1. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/201212/07/content_15993891.htm []
  2. Karita Kan – La nouvelle “generation perdue” – Perspectives Chinoises 2013/2 []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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Who Am I (I)


秦继杰 (Qin Jijie)《我是谁》 Who Am I12
要问我是谁 If you asked me who I am
过去我总羞于回答 before I was ashamed to answer
因为我怕 because I was afraid,
我怕城里的孩子笑话 I was afraid city kids would make fun of me.
他们的爸爸妈妈 Their parents
送他们上学 drive them to school
不是开着本田 in Hondas
就是开着捷达 and Jettas,
而我坐的三轮大板车 while I go to school on a tricycle,
甚至没有装马达 that doesn’t even have an engine
要问我是谁 If you asked me who I am,
过去我总羞于回答 before I was ashamed to answer
因为我怕 because I was afraid,
我怕城里的孩子笑话 I was afraid city kids would make fun of me.
他们的教室宽敞明亮 Their classrooms are bright and spacious,
大操场上有跑道,还有足球和鞍马 the playground has a running track, a football field, a pommel horse,
而我低矮昏暗的教室 yet mine is small and dark
像鸟笼,困住我自由活泼的心灵 like a birdcage, trapping our free and lively minds.
要问我是谁 If you asked me who I am,
过去我总羞于回答 before I was ashamed to answer
因为我怕 because I was afraid,
我怕城里的孩子笑话 I was afraid city kids would make fun of me.
他们渴望的二零零八 They are eager for 2008,
被音乐老师谱成了歌 their music teacher even wrote it into music,
被英语老师译成“very good” their English teacher translated it as “very good”
而我只能用加减法 yet I can only add and subtract
算出自己还没到十八 to calculate that I won’t be 18 by then.
要问我是谁 If you asked me who I am
现在我可以回答 now I can answer (proudly),
因为爸爸盖的高楼很高 because my father builds very high buildings
妈妈扫的马路很宽大 and my mother sweeps very large avenues.
刚刚开过的人代会 The just opened NPC
要把我们的教育写进宪法 wants the Constitution to guarantee education.
老师说,打工子弟和城里小朋友 The teacher says migrant workers and urban kids
都是祖国的花 we are all our motherland’s blossoms,
中国的娃 we are all China’s children,
都生活在城市的屋檐下 we all live under the same urban roof.

Many things have changed since Qin Jijie wrote this poem in 2004, notably the expensive cars that many urban parents drive. The school for migrant workers’ children (nongmingong zidi – 农民工子弟) he opened in Beijing in 2000 now has more than a thousand children enrolled. Local governments have introduced some policies to guarantee better access to compulsory primary education for migrant children. However, the hukou system continues to act as a stumbling block for access to public schools in cities, as well as a social stigma that thwarts migrant’s urban integration.

Since the children of migrant workers don’t have a local hukou, they are not taken into account by the local government when calculating the education budget. Therefore, public schools continue charging additional fees to migrant parents. On top of the temporary student fees (jiedu fei – 借读费),3 migrant parents have to deal with extra fees such as the “school selection fee” (zexiao fei – 择校费) that for some popular schools can be as high as 230,000 yuans.4 Although not exclusive to migrant parents, it puts a lot financial pressure on low income households. The zexiao fei is still widely used by public schools to increase revenues. It refers to activities parents undertake to gain entrance for their children to the school of their choice.

Moreover, migrant parents have to produce some official documents such as work permits, proof of residence, temporary residence permit, or household registration booklets, a requirement that effectively leaves many migrant children excluded from public schooling. Since many parents are self-employed, it is very difficult for them to obtain a work permit. In some places, a tax certificate can replace it, making this hurdle easier to overcome. Apart from the difficulties in getting access to public schooling, the discriminatory hukou represents a social stigma. According to a survey in 2012, among the approximate 2500 migrant children who responded, 86% of them said they did not mingle with local children5.

Those migrant children left out of the public school system have to attend private schools. Private schools are affordable but lack proper facilities and even the necessary licence. According to a report carried out in Beijing from 2011, out of 300 schools surveyed, only 63 had a licence.6. The demolition of unlicensed schools has been commonplace during the last few years. Sometimes it is carried out without prior notice and migrant children find themselves without a place to learn from one day to the next. Many children end up enrolling at private schools located far from where they live or are sent back to their hometowns.

  1. This is the original version of the poem, not the edited version recited during the broadcast of the Chunwan(春晚)of 2007 []
  2. Author’s own translation []
  3. Although this fee has been banned by the central government, some local governments continue to charge it to migrant parents under a different label. []
  4. The Children of Migrant Workers in China. China Labour Bulletin. May 8, 2009. http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/children-migrant-workers-china-0. Last accessed November 4, 2013. []
  5. Zhuanjia cheng lianghao jichu jiaoyu shi liudong ertong jiankang chengzhang de guanjian – 专家称良好基础教育是流动儿童健康成长的关键. http://www.chinanews.com/edu/2012/12-18/4418208.shtml. Last accessed November 4, 2013 []
  6. Migrant Workers and their Children. China Labour Bulletin. June 26, 2013. http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/migrant-workers-and-their-children. Last accessed November 4, 2013 []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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China’s urbanization chart and its accuracy

Urbanization chart

The progression of urbanisation in China since 1982. In purple: the increase in population in cities and villages. In blue: the corresponding decrease in population in the countryside.  The rate of increase accelerates after the year 2000, when the real estate market begins to soar. After that, the rate of increase per year surpasses 1%. The figures should be called into question because only 35% of those defined as belonging to the “urban population” by the chart of the bureau of statistics have an urban hukou (registered permanent household). Thus, the chart shows the rate of urbanisation measured by the factual resident population. This means that out of the total population defined as urban, i.e. 650 million people, there are about 200 million migrant workers who still haven’t been fully urbanised. Although they might have non-agricultural jobs, they do not enjoy urban welfare benefits. This is what Chinese scholars call   “half-baked” urbanisation  (ban chengshihua – 半城市化).



Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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China’s Li Keqiang about urbanization

Economy, Elizabeth C. 2013, September 10. China’s Li Keqiang on the urbanization warpath. Asia Unbound. http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2013/09/10/chinas-li-keqiang-on-the-urbanization-warpath/ (accessed 19 September 2013)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is on the urbanization warpath. For Li, urbanization—transforming rural Chinese into urban dwellers—has become perhaps the most important issue of his early months as premier. Most recently, on September 7, in advance of November’s Party Plenum to lay out the country’s economic blueprint, he met with a group of experts to discuss urbanization strategies. Scarcely a month goes by where he does not give a speech or offer some commentary on the issue. For Li, successfully urbanizing China is at the heart of the country’s ability to continue to grow economically. He notes that urban residents spend 3.6 times more than rural residents, for example, underscoring the importance of urbanization to China’s economic rebalancing from an investment and export led to   consumption-based economy. His remarks in March 2013 make clear his fears that if China does not find the correct urbanization path forward, it will fall into the trap of many Latin American countries with “dual” urban structures characterized by “urban slums” and “other social problems.”

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Informal sector – Xiao Wang (小王)

Informal sector - Xiao Wang (小王), Elosua Miguel


This photo was taken in Shanghai in September 2013. Motorbike drivers wait for customers at the entrance of the Shanghai Exit-Entry Administration Bureau. A ride to the nearest subway usually takes five minutes and costs between 8 and 15 RMB, depending on the negotiation skills of the client.

Xiao Wang (left) has been doing this job for seven years already. In one day he can make more than 150RMB, around 4500RMB per month, well above the average salary of a migrant worker (in 2009, 30% of migrant workers did not earn more than 1100 RMB per month)1, and the equivalent of a taxi driver’s average income, although net of taxes. He came to Shanghai from the neighbouring Anhui province 10 years ago with his wife, who works as a domestic helper (baomu – 保姆,or ayi  阿姨,which means “aunt”, a common term for domestic helpers in China).  Xiao Wang worked in a factory first, only to become an entrepreneur when he made enough savings to buy a motorbike. Since he could not afford to buy a Shanghai licence plate (the Government of Shanghai runs auction sales and the auction price of a plate reached more than 90,000RMB in 2013), he bought and registered the motorbike in Anhui (vehicles registered elsewhere cannot circulate on elevated highways during peak hours). Among his fellows, there are also many Shanghai locals who joined the informal sector after the massive layoffs that took place as a consequence of the restructuring of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in the mid-1990s.

The couple have a daughter, who is eight years old now and lives with Xiao Wang’s parents in Anhui. They send money every month to pay for her education. For a long time they could only travel back home for the Chinese New Year, but they can afford to do it twice a year now. Communication with their daughter is done through weekly telephone calls. New technologies and smart phones are still absent from their lives.

Back in Anhui, they had land to cultivate, but income from land was meagre. The agricultural tax had not been abolished yet, and agricultural allowances were paltry. Therefore, they decided to leave the land idle and migrate to the booming coastal city of Shanghai, like many other farmers from this province. After a few years, they rented out the land to another villager for 300RMB per mu (1 mu = 1/15 ha.) a year. This does not represent an important sum to the household economy but its significance is tied to the interest in keeping the land. Leaving land idle may cause them to lose it in the next round of land distribution in the village, something they cannot accept. As it is often the case with migrants in China, their heart still belongs to their hometowns. There is no sense of identity with the host city. This mentality contrasts with other inflow cities like New York, where migrants tend to identify with the city almost instantly. One of the main reasons for this lack of identification with the big city lies in the hukou system, which remains as a stumbling block to the full integration of rural citizens. Since migrant workers do not have access to urban welfare benefits, they are trapped mid-transition from rural to urban.

Xiao Wang is part of this group of migrant workers – approximately 150 million – who work in the informal sector: they lack a formal job, formal housing, and formal citizenship. They have to prepare for any eventuality, something that has made them China’s biggest savers group. Granting full citizenship to migrant workers would remove an important obstacle for upward social mobility and respectability. It would also increase tax revenues and would help the country stabilise the economy, encouraging migrant workers like Xiao Wang to reduce savings and increase spending.

  1. 2009 Nian nongmin gong jiance diaocha baogao, National bureau of statistics of China, http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjfx/fxbg/t20100319_402628281.htm (accessed 3 September 2013 []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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Urban Village

Urban Village (chengzhongcun - 城中村), Elosua Miguel


Urban villages have proliferated in almost every Chinese city as consequence of the urban sprawl commanded by local governments, sometimes with the purpose of financing their budgets. They expose the imperfections of the double property system, where the government has a monopoly of the primary land market. The term “urban village” (chengzhongcun – 城中村)refers to the situation where the city ends up encircling the village. Most of the farmland has been expropriated and urbanized, and only the villagers’ original homesteads remain. Soaring real estate prices in the surrounding city reduce the possibility of an eventual expropriation and redevelopment of the area.

Urban Village 2 (chengzhongcun - 城中村), Elosua Miguel

In the meantime, the original residents make a good profit from renting rooms, mostly to migrant workers who have restricted access to urban formal housing, due to the high prices, and the lack of stable jobs and tax returns. Housing conditions are precarious and villagers are not keen to invest much money, hoping for an eventual expropriation. Buildings like the one in these photos date from the 1950s.  They are made of mud bricks and have dirt floors, water leakages are frequent, and some lack running water. The average rent is around 50€ for a 15 square meter room. Migrant workers adrift on the fringes of citizenship.


Urban Village 3 (chengzhongcun - 城中村), Elosua Miguel

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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