Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Alumni Guest Post: A Letter from Nanjing

Sarah Tynen
Sarah Tynen graduated from The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in 2011. During her time at GW, she served as the Vice President of the Organization of Asian Studies at the Sigur Center and contributed to the Asia on E Street blog (link). As a 2011-2012 Fulbright research grantee to China, she studied sociology at Nanjing University and conducted an ethnography on urban demolition, socio-economic spatial divisions, and place-based identification in a neighborhood of the old city. During her year in China, she kept a blog at sbtynen.blogspot.com. She is now a first-year graduate student studying geography at University of Colorado in Boulder. Her specialization within the sub-field of human geography is political and cultural geography, focusing on demolition and displacement, economic development, ethnic minorities, and borderland regions in China. She was recently published in The China Beat (link) and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (link).

 A Letter From Nanjing: The Chinese Version of the Immigrant “Problem”

“Migrant workers from the countryside have a different way of thinking and it’s not okay. I can’t accept it. They are not very educated, nor are they cultured. They are backward and uncivilized,” explained Uncle Cao, the pot-bellied, chain-smoking, spiky-haired owner of my favorite noodle restaurant in the old city of Nanjing. He shrugged and threw up his hands. “Meibanfa,” he sighed, shaking his head. Meibanfa is a frequently used Chinese phrase that means there is nothing I can do about it.

My face tingled as I slurped my steaming bowl of knife-shaven noodles with beef. His 7-year-old daughter shyly peered out from behind the kitchen door and retreated instantly when we made eye contact. She was curious to catch a glance at the first foreigner that had ever eaten at her father’s restaurant. Uncle Cao added, “I’m not willing to be friends with peasants because you simply can’t be friends with someone who is on a different level economically with you. It’s not balanced. It’s like the old Chinese proverb: ‘Things of one kind come together, and people of one group crowd together’ (wu yi leiju, ren yi qunfen).” He coughed and spit on the ground, blowing smoke in my face.

Social stratification in China is growing. Uncle Cao considers himself to be on a level above the migrant workers as a native to the city of Nanjing, a provincial capital with a population of 8 million about 150 miles west of Shanghai. Migrants, known in China as the “floating population,” are second-class citizens in the eyes of the citizenry and the state. Defined as those holding a rural household registration, or hukou, but living in a city, these temporary urban residents are estimated to total around 160 million. Susceptible to sporadic expulsion, denied basic legal rights, and lacking access to health care and education, migrants are essentially considered to be immigrant guest workers in their own country.

Rural migrants—widely considered by urbanites to be ignorant and bad mannered—are the subject of social discrimination and ridicule. It has become a cruel joke to call someone a nongmin, a label for migrant workers that literally means “peasant”, as it implies boorishness. Comedy routines poking fun at uneducated migrants are popular features on television. The comedic migrant usually carries a plastic, square-shaped, plaid-patterned bag that is at least half their size, a distinct marker of migrants that carry all their belongings with them as they move from place to place. The migrant on television is almost always a short, tan, wrinkled, bucked-toothed farmer that cannot speak standard Mandarin and does not understand various aspects of a modernized urban life, such as public transportation. 

The notion that the rural represents the backward and uncivilized while the city represents modernity and advancement embodies a dramatic ideological shift that took place during market-oriented economic reform in post-Mao China. During the Mao-era from around 1949-1976, the rural represented the heart of revolution and the land of public production. Especially during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, when intellectuals, urban youth, and college students were sent to the countryside to learn about the means of production, the countryside symbolized the quintessential social, political, and economic ideal.

All of that changed in 1976 with Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policies that flung China into the global capitalist market. Along with an ideological shift that established the cities as the epitome of progress and modernity, the state also abandoned economic investment in the rural areas in favor of the eastern coastal cities. According to anthropologist Hairong Yan of University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign in her book New Masters, New Servants (Duke University, 2008), the post-Mao shift in urban-rural relations took place in ideological, economic, and cultural spheres: “The material production of the countryside as a wasteland in the economic strategy of state investment is symbiotic with the ideological construction of the countryside as a wasteland of ‘backwardness’ and ‘tradition’”(41). Indeed, the economic reform policies of the late 1970s that allowed foreign investment, the expansion of the export industry, and the establishment of the service sector were only made possible by an enormous influx of migrant labor into the cities.

As a result of this dramatic paradigm shift and economic restructuring that displaces investment from the rural to the urban, Chinese peasants are flocking to the cities in search of work at astonishingly high rates. According to most estimates, 47% of China is urbanized with a 2.3% annual rate of change. That means that 600 million people are living in China’s cities today, and some even predict that another 300-400 million rural residents will move to the city in the next 15 years. 

When I ask migrant workers about their hometown, they usually describe life in the countryside as very boring and empty. One restaurant worker told me, “There’s nothing left to do in the countryside! The only thing to do there is to cook and eat. There’s no money to be made, no life to lead, and no business to be done. It’s just kids and old people there [in the countryside] now. Except for during the busy time, planting and harvesting, when life is extremely laborious and bitter (xinku), it’s quite a boring, meaningless life. Don’t get me wrong, running this business can be tiring, but when considering the bitterness of life in the countryside, life in the city is a breeze!” For many of the migrants, life in the city is new, exciting, modern, and full of opportunity for self-advancement, while the countryside is a vast wasteland.

Migrants are willing to endure long separation from their family—often their spouse and children—in order to make more money and have more opportunities in the city. The owner of a restaurant who has been in Nanjing for seven years, told me over a steaming plate of homemade tofu: “My wife and son are back at my home farming. Yes, I’ve come across so many hardships, but I have no way to express this to you (wufa biaoda). The pressures and burdens are buried deep inside my heart.” Still, they always remarked that life is better in the city.  

No matter how hard life is in the city, it is better than life in the countryside, as many people attested. Chatting with a 16-year-old friend one day as we window-shopped designer brand handbags in a ritzy mall, she told me about her dream to study abroad one day: "They [my grandmother, aunt, and mother] work so hard so that I can have just a little bit of a better life than they did. I could grow up in the countryside, where we are from, but they know that even though our quality of life here in the city is very poor, it is still much better than in the countryside. Here I can go to a good school and that's all that really matters. They do all of this [selling goods on the street everyday], so I can have a little bit of a better life. They'll do anything to make that happen." When I asked her and her family about their hometown, their eyes would light up as they describe the wide, open fields and they invited me to visit their home someday. "You can study everything about real Chinese society there," they exclaimed. (Link to blog post about my trip to the countryside).   

As China continues to grow as the world’s second largest economy, attention is turning to its political, social, and, economic fragility that is rooted in the widening gap between the rich and poor. According to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s Gini coefficient rose to 0.496 in 2006, beyond the 0.4 danger level. While the economic development gap between the east and the west and the rural and the urban is obvious, relatively well-documented, and acknowledged by the central government, it is the undocumented workers in the cities, most notably the small, independent business owners, that remain under the radar. They remain outside the reaches of their rural jurisdiction, but, holding rural hukou, they are not the responsibility of the city governments where they live.

According to Kam Wing Chan, a geographer at the University of Washington, one of the greatest myths that remains about China today is that its increasing trend toward urbanization will result in a large, consuming middle-class and continued economic growth. He argues, “With meager wages and no chance of legally settling in the urban areas, they [migrants] also lack an incentive to invest in the future in the city. They will not spend on major appliances in a place that does not want them. In fact, most migrant workers have little purchasing power that would position them even to dream of any decent housing in the city”(Link to article by Chan). The massive urbanization occurring in China actually involves temporary residents—the rural hukou holder—as opposed to a permanent resettlement of people. China’s urbanization phenomenon does not bring the development that normally comes along with urbanization. Instead, it could cause increased social instability.

One service worker, who lives in a small bedroom above her place of work and earns 1,000 yuan ($157) a month working everyday for 14 hours, beamed with when she showed me a picture of her son back home in the countryside. “As long as you have food to eat and a room to sleep in, you really can’t ask for anything more in life,” she told me. When the migrant workers realize that there is more to ask for in life, such as basic health care and education, the Chinese state is going to discover a force to be reckoned with.

You can read more about the relationship between migrants and locals on Sarah's blog here.  

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