ABSTRACT

The economic reforms of 1978 also contributed to “the world’s largest  ever peacetime flow of migration” (Tunon 2006:5) after almost three decades of  stringent restrictions that prevented farmers from leaving the land. The “floating  population”1 that migrated from the countryside grew from 2 million in the 

mid-1980s to 70 million in the mid-1990s to 120 million in 2002 (Ping and  Pieke 2003:6-7), to as many as 150 million in 2006 (Tunon 2006:5)2. According to the latest Chinese census in 2000, some 20 million Chinese farmers leave  the land annually. Although “[n]o one can say exactly how many Chinese have  exchanged their land for one of China’s 670 cities,” the migrants “arrive by the  thousands at the train stations in the big cities to find their way as construction workers, factory workers, cooks, waiters and waitresses, hairdressers, au  pairs, or prostitutes in the countless construction sites, factories, restaurants,  beauty parlors, city families, and brothels” (van Luyn 2008:xiv, 2). These tidal  waves of migrant farmers (mingong chao) correlate with the rapidly rising rate  of urbanization: from 17.6 percent in 1977 to 40.5 percent in 2003 (Ping and  Shaohua 2005:68). This scale of internal migration in the PRC compares only  with the magnitude of international migration of 191 million in 2005.3 With  fast widening rural-urban income gaps since the mid-1980s, extensive interprovincial income disparities fostered by coastal development strategies and over  150 million surplus rural laborers in agriculture, the current pace of rural-urban  migration may be expected to continue at least over the next two decades (Ping  and Shaohua 2005:68).4 The floating population of migrant workers is “the  flip side of the shiny façade that China so often presents.” Driven by a deep  desire to escape rural poverty and the huge demand for cheap labor in the cities, more and more farmers leave the countryside. Although relatively larger  proportions of rural migrants are male migrants, female migrants constituted  44 percent of all migrants during 1985-1990 and 55 percent between 1995  and 2000 (Fan 2004:243). Thanks to this huge floating population, “China’s  skyscrapers  are  becoming  taller,  its  highways wider,  its  airports  greater  in  number, its computers more modern; and its market increases constantly. But  the strength of this renewal derives from the peasants who, on the land, in the  factories, in construction . . . respond to China’s need for modernization. Without the peasants there would be no modernization” (van Luyn 2008:xiii-xiv).  In April 2006, migrant workers constituted 58 percent of China’s industrial  labor force and 52 percent of the tertiary sector labor force (Ngok 2008:56).  They make up 70-80 percent of the total workforce in the garments, textile,  and construction industries (Lee 2007:6). At the same time, migrant farmers  also share their new prosperity with rural China. In 2004, according to the  Ministry of Agriculture, migrants’ remittances were estimated at $45 billion  (Tunon 2006:16). According to one estimate, the value of migrant farmers’  remittances  to  rural areas  is 15 percent of China’s agricultural GDP (Chan  2003:127). To this we should add Ping and Pieke’s (2003:15) observation that  between 1995 and 2003 rural-urban migration contributed 16 percent of total  GDP growth in China. If the emergence of the “China Circle” during and after  the mid-1980s promises “a broader and more integrated East Asia” (Naughton  1997:289), it also underlines the crucial role played by migrant workers in the  political integration and economic expansion of the region.