Migrant workers in China are mostly people from impoverished regions of the country moving to more urban and prosperous coastal regions in search of work. An estimated 230 million Chinese in 2010, roughly equivalent to two-thirds the population of the U.S., have left the countryside and migrated to the cities in recent years. About 13 million more join them every year. Many are farmers and farm workers made obsolete by modern farming practices and factory workers who have been laid off from inefficient state-run factories. Men often get construction jobs while women work in cheap-labor factories. So many migrants leave their homes looking for work they overburden the rail system. In the Hunan province, 52 people were trampled to death in the late 1990s when 10,000 migrants were herded onto a freight train. To stem the flow of migrants, officials in Hunan and Sichuan have placed restrictions on the use of trains and buses by rural people. In some cities, the migrants almost outnumber the residents. One young girl told National Geographic, “All the young people leave our village. I’m not going back. Many can’t even afford a bus ticket and hitchhike to Beijing.” Overall, the Chinese government has tacitly supported migration as means of transforming China from a rural-based economy to an urban-based one. From the New York Times: “As a result, China’s rulers face a dilemma: the very policies that cater to the urban middle class come at the expense of the rural poor. The revised law on property ownership pushed through despite objections from old-line conservatives, the law for the first time gave equal weight to both state- and private- ownership rights. But a look at the fine print shows that the law only protects things dear to the rising middle class: real estate, cars, stock-market assets. Farmers, on the other hand, will still be unable to purchase their land and instead will be forced to lease plots from the government.
- Randy Olson
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- China's Bling Dynasty_National Geographic Magazine 5/2008