The Pain and Dream of Chinese Migrant Families

Posted March 18, 2012 from China

The Pain and Dream of Chinese Migrant Families

February 23, 2012, three primary school students in a place called “Fourteen Village” in Zhongshan were kidnapped. Four days before that, a two-year-old girl named Dandan was run over by a dump truck in the same village. Two months earlier, three suspects were arrested in this village because they sold pork with borax, which poisons people. What kind of place is this village? Why is there so much crime? Who lives there? What can be done about this situation?

The Pain of the Fourteen Village In the afternoon February 19, Dandan’s mother saw that Dandan and her 5-year-old sister slept soundly in bed, and then she went to the laundry. However, she did not expect that Dandan and her sister would wake up and go to play on the road. Twenty minutes later, the eldest daughter ran back in horror to tell her that a car had killed Dandan. The dump truck came from a construction site nearby. When Dandan saw the dump truck she may have been fearful and ran around on the road. The dump truck hit Dandan from behind. The rear wheel passed over Dandan’s body.On February 20th,the day after Dandan died, the traffic police arrested a suspect in Zhuhai, a city near Zhongshan. Just three days later, three primary students were led by a man. “When we got out of the school, a strange man stopped us and said he want to take us to the playground,” one of the students said .Then the man spent two Yuan(about 35 cents USD) buying food for all of them. The man took the three students to play at the beach, eat hamburgers, play video games and sleep in the hotel. “The man was a little odd, he often kissed the little girl secretly, more than 20 times,” one of the students said, after they were rescued. After the children had been missing for almost 30 hours, on February 24, police arrested a criminal suspect and rescued the three students near a bus station. All the three students and Dandan were from Hunan; their parents were all migrant workers. According to Yang Zhiming, Chinese Human Resources and Social Security Vice Minister, the total number of national migrant workers in China has more than 240 million in 2010. In Zhongshan, the city's resident population is 3.12 million, the non-resident population is more than 1.65 million, and most of them are migrant workers. Most of the migrant workers are living in the places just like the Fourteen Village, which are like ghetto in modern cities. Tang is a parent of one of the parents of the students. He said they live in Zhongshan Fourteen Village, but works in Zhuhai, another city close by. Hundreds and thousands of migrant workers are just like Tang, shuttling between Zhongshan and Zhuhai. He lives in Zhongshan because the rent is cheaper than in Zhuhai. Even after his kidnapped child was found, he was still in shock. After that, He no longer dared let his children travel home alone. “We pay 200 Yuan(about 35 dollars USD ) a month so that the school takes care of them until my wife picks them up after work.” There are no public recreation facilities in Fourteen Villages. However, “slot machines” game arcades are popular. Many migrant workers and their children throw their hard-earned money into this bottomless pit. The evening of March 2, I saw a student hanging around the game arcade, wearing a school uniform from a Zhuhai school. Although government regulations do not allow minors in game arcade, nobody cares except the student's mother. She walked in and took the child away. The mother seemed angry as she spoke about her son: “There are many minors here, we don’t allow him to come here, but when we don’t pay attention, he sneaks in. We beat and scold him, but it’s useless. We have no idea how to educate him.” Growing up in this environment, many next-generation migrant workers continue to live here. For example, Ye came here sixteen years ago. He earns money by ride a large tricycle, which is the main mode of transportation in Fourteen Village. “My son and my daughter all live in here.” He told me that his wife and he don’t live with them, the living condition of his children is better than where he lives.” Their room has bathroom.” The rent for Ye is about 200 Yuan a month, the room is only big for a bed. For them, the hometown is far away, and the city is hard to adapt to.

Second-class citizens in the city Those migrant workers are second-class citizens in the city.In Fourteen Village, there are 2,000 local residents and 70,000 migrant workers. The former are governers, the latter are the people been governed; the former are landlords, the latter are tenants; the former are bosses, the latter are workers. The biggest difference is that the local residents have a “hukou” migrants do not. Hukou is a little book which can certify that you are belonging to the city and give you the right to enjoy many public services including education of children. In Fourteen Village there is a primary school founded by the government. It is more convenient for people who live there."Why don’t you send your child to this school? ”I asked."We don’t have hukou,"Tang said. All the students in this school are children of legal residents or wealthy families who can afford more mony. As for Tang and Ye, they can only send their children to a private school which is far away, with poorer education yet higher tuition than the public school. “6000 Yuan((about 950 dollars USD )) for half a year,” Ye said. Every month he earns only 2000 yuan(about 316 dollars USD), like most migrant workers. Although China has a policy of nine years compulsory free education, Tang’s son can not engoy it because he doesn’t have “hukou” in Zhongshan. “The living condition is so poor, that many children in migrant families have psychological problems: withdrawn, hate learning, obsessed with internet surfing,” Wei said. Wei is a officer, who is in charge of the management of population without “hukou”, including not only the migrant workers but also many university graduates. “The migrant workers are disorderly, they lack safety and health awareness, are not easy to manage, and commit many crimes,” one officer of Fourteen Village said. Even though legal residents do not like migrant workers, they don’t want to go back to the past without migrants.” Now we can make money more easily,” Chen said, who is a landowner of a building with 20 rooms. Every month, without labor, he can receive 4000 Yuan(about 632 dollars USD) rent from migrant workers. Professor Sunliping from the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University says that, China has become a “fractured society”. The “urban-rural dual structure "is actually one of the largest social fractured zones. It means that migrant workers have difficulty joining the process of urbanization. Thus they can not enjoy social insurance and welfare, and often suffer discrimination and stigma, as second-class citizens. Ignoring and discriminating migrant populations will eventually negatively impact legal residents in the end. As first generation migrant workers, Tang and Ye can endure hardship and are more obedient, but the second generation migrant workers who were born in 1990s and 2000s are more vulnerable and individuaistial. When they face the unfairness in society, they often choose resistance. According to an investigative report by Zhongshan’s First People's Court, in 2006-2010, half of all crime was committed by 18-25 year-old youth, of which migrant youth accounted for 80.0%.

Change first from women Actually, migrant workers are not the enemies of modern cities; they are the strength of urban development. The cities should give them more respect. Sanxiang is near a town called Tanzhou town where Fourteen Village is located. There are hundred of thousands of migrant workers, most o f them are female. In 1992, Yaonv Gan went back to Zhongshan Sanxiang, her hometown, from Wuhan in Hubei. She is in charge of women union. On mother’s day of that year, they organized an evening party. Many female migrant workers wanted to take part in this activity, but only women with “Hukou” were allowed to participate. Yaonv Gan felt so sorry for them. ”Who cares about them? Who supports them?” After the party, Yaonv Gan always thought about this problem. In 1994, one idea comes up: to build a school for them. Two years later, actively running, and vigorously organized by Gan Yao, Sanxiang set up a women's informal school for "female migrant workers”, which was the first one in China.Lessons for the school include political affairs, laws and regulations, health education and family education knowledge and so on. The school also opened a hotline and "working girl-mail” to communicate with the majority of workers. In October 2002, Gannv Yao started a newspaper named ”Sanxiang Female workers” which reported the activities of Sanxiang migrant workers.In November 2002, in support of the Asia Foundation, Sanxiang women's federations started AIDS peer education for migrant workers. This year in Sun Electrical Appliance Factory of Sanxiang, more than 80 new employees are waiting for the first class for health education since the entry.Many of them are female and just out of middle school. Jian Peng asked questions to the employees,then started to interact with the staff. Because small gifts such as toothpaste, mildy wash, facial tissue the atmosphere is active. When it comes to the topic of sexually transmitted, diseases in the classroom, many girls secretly laugh. “This is a school without walls, all programs are set for them, and is free of charge.”This is one of the Sanxiang of the Migrant worker Women's Informal school , Peng is one of the teachers. thirteen years ago Peng went to Zhongshan for internship,at that time, the legal residents were not so friendly to them. She was confused about the future. One time, a colleague introduced this school to her and opened a window for her. Since then, she regularly takes part in the school lectures, and reads books in her spare time. “Class helped me rediscover myself and rediscover my confidence,” She said. In 2007, Peng become a member of the women and children activity centers in the Sanxiang. She went from being a migrant worker to a teacher at the school. Xifeng Zhu was one of her students. In 2000, Xifeng Zhu came to Zhongshan from Guilin. "Not married, do not understand anything." Xifeng said she felt lonely and disturbed. Through her hard work for several years,Now she has a son, and bought an apartment in Zhongshan: "I learn health knowledge, and how to educate children in informal school. The more knowledge I have, the more confident I am. Today, when some workers encountered family disputes, they will ask me for advice.” Now, she won a “hukou” and her son can enter a public school. The informal school has helped women know themselves and understand Zhongshan. Today, this school in the Sanxiang has also has 25 campuses. In 2011, the Migrant worker Women's Informal school won the Sixth China Local Government Innovation Award nomination in China. When migrant workers possess public consciousness after being educated, and are accepted by the cities, they are more likely be builders not burdens on society. Now the factories in Sanxiang can recruit workers easily when many others face shortage of workers because many workers have already settled down. Women are more interested in receiving education about their personal lives than men.Peng says she is one of the beneficiaries; in fact, she is also one of the contributors. “When a woman is educated, the generations benefit. This is the greatest happiness” What can be done about this situation in Fourteen Village and many other places where Chinese migrant workers live? I think the practice in Sanxiang town gives the answer. Even though this is a successful first step, supporting policies should follow it. If we respect migrant workers and help them maintain their hope for better lives, the “fractured society” can be repaired slowly.

This digital story is part of an assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignments: Feature Stories

Comments 6

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Kat Haber
Mar 20, 2012
Mar 20, 2012


Thank you for informing us about the plight of migrant families in China. This phenomenon of the have-nots migrating, generally north, to countries of greater work opportunity is universal now. In the United States we have many from Mexico, Latin and South America immigrating illegally north for greater opportunities for their families. Tension rises when resources are seen as scarce and those who have been contributing traditionally to the financial success of the nation and were born in that nation fear there will be too little to share. However, in a world growing ever closer through being informed by the internet, collaboration, sharing, and compassion are the values which will bring the divides of a fractured society together.

Lisa T
Mar 20, 2012
Mar 20, 2012


I'm grateful that you shared this story of the migrant workers in China. It's encouraging to know that solutions are being presented in places like in Sanxiang. Wonderful work!

Sincerely, Lisa

Tipo Mai
Mar 24, 2012
Mar 24, 2012

It is quite sad to see how the migrants in China are Chinese citizens in different towns from their hometowns yet they are treated like non-citizens, not that that would justify their treatment anyhow. Thank you Redsbird for this piece and I am happy to know that the informal schools are giving an alternative that is safer and more affordable for the migrant families. I still think the Chinese government should do more to ensure that education is affordable and available for all citizens as long as they are within the country



Shirley Clark
Mar 25, 2012
Mar 25, 2012

Thank you, Redsbird, for sharing such an important challenge for the people of China. Your article opened my eyes and improved my understanding of the class system that exists. The problem you describe is universal and education is indeed a key element of equality.

It was heart-warming to see the progress of the hard work, creativity and determination of one person. Education is often taken for granted by those who have easy access. Your article is a critical reminder to all of us of the importance of education and also of how fortunate we are to have access.

Through your writing, you have educated me and inspired me by the story you told. Thank you, Shirley

Apr 02, 2012
Apr 02, 2012

Redsbird, thank you so much for this informative article. I feel that I see a new aspect of life in China through your eyes. I am curious about the "hukou" system, and how long someone has to live in an area to receive this status? Is it a matter of time? Or, is it registering officially as a resident of that area? It seems unfortunate that so many people moving within China have to loose out on essential services like education. I'm glad though that people are stepping in to fill a gap, like Yaonv Gan in Sanxiang.

Thanks so much for your work here, and congratulations on four excellent articles in the program! Best wishes, Scott

Oct 14, 2012
Oct 14, 2012

Nihao Redsbird!

Thank you for sharing this piece about the plight of Chinese migrants! I studied in Beijing 2 years ago and while I was there I taught English at a migrant school called Anmin. Teaching at the school made me intimately aware of the problems migrants face. My students, who were lucky to be in school at all, lacked basic school supplies, had many health problems and couldn't consistently attend school. Their parents were so proud of them for attending school and worked so incredibly hard to get by in the city.

I think the hukou system is a major problem facing China. It dramatically separates society into two groups rather than one harmonious group. Similar to the the United States, the Chinese government isn't ready to truly accept hard-working individuals and families as equal citizens. Seeing the masses of migrants looking for work near construction sights, begging for money in the subway and living in shanty-towns outside the city broke my heart. What shocked me the most was Beijingers' attitudes towards migrants in the city. Even my roommate, an extremely kind women on most accounts, looked down upon migrants with disgust.

Thank you so much for this article. The stories of Chinese migrants deserve to be shared. I'm so happy to hear about schools like the Woman's School! I hope that people follow that example across China!

Thank you again, Elizabeth