China now boasts the biggest migration in human history: some 120 million people so far. It began in the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” (experimentation with free markets and foreign trade) started a tidal wave of migrant workers and entrepreneurs flowing from rural farms to factories in eastern boomtowns — initially focussed on “overnight cities” like Shenzhen, which grew from a small fishing town to a modern metropolis of 4 million in two decades.
The migrants workers are generally young — just out of school — and drawn by stories of making it big in the city. What started primarily as seasonal work for male laborers soon changed to include year-round work and vast numbers of women (so many that some cities like Dongguan are now 70% female). And recently, a number of migrants have started settling in urban areas instead of making their way home after a few years. The laborers typically eat, sleep, and work under one roof — often for negligible wages, working seven days a week. Sweatshop conditions to some; to others, a chance for a better future. The money they send home is now the biggest source of income in many rural villages.
China’s “floating population” is rapidly shifting the country from an agrarian society to an industrialized one — thereby changing the social fabric of the countryside and creating an urban youth culture with strong hints of individualism, materialism, and feminism. We hope to draw the big economic, social, and political picture of how China is changing and also learn the particular stories of individual migrants: why they left home, what factory life is like, how they learn to make their way in the world, and what it’s like to return home to a sleepy village with traditional mores.
Beijing correspondent, The New Yorker
Professor of Economics, Southwestern University
Reporter, Beijing bureau, Wall Street Journal