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Urban Migration for Young Chinese on the Rise

July 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tens of millions of Chinese villagers have moved to the cities in China, but they find living conditions harsh and establishing meaningful relations difficult. Because of the Household Registration System, they have fewer rights than those born in the cities. Sharron Lovell from our partner GlobalPost reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Making a move from the country to the big city, it’s a cultural shift well known in many Western societies, and now it’s becoming common for young Chinese men and women, too.

Our story comes from reporter Sharron Lovell of our partner GlobalPost.

YAO “AHONG” YONGHENG, Chinese Migrant (through translator): Even if I like a girl, she might not feel the same. I’m young and I’m a migrant.

SHARRON LOVELL, GlobalPost: Twenty-one-year-old Ahong moved from Beijing from a rural farm in Central China. In just two years, he’s worked his way up from assistant to a stylist in a trendy hair salon.

Like Ahong, 60 percent of the country’s 150 million rural migrants were born after 1980. Nine out of 10 have never farmed and don’t want to go back to their village. China’s Generation Y of migrant workers face a difficult dilemma. They no longer belong in their rural hometowns, and yet they don’t quite fit into urban life either.

YAO “AHONG” YONGHENG (through translator): Whenever I go home and talk to girls, all they talk about is marriage and kids. We’re not on the same wavelength anymore. I’m not interested in their conversation, and they don’t understand mine.

SHARRON LOVELL: This new generation of migrants is not content to make the same sacrifices as their parents, living on the fringes of urban life, saving cash to take back home. Ninety percent want to stay and make their life in the cities.

But China’s household registration system, the Hukou, makes it hard for them to assimilate. Legally, the vast majority remains residents of villages that they are estranged from. They’re denied the rights and status of city dwellers and struggle to access social services and benefits like health care, education and credit.

Recent research also highlights social and emotional marginalization.

YAO “AHONG” YONGHENG (through translator): People marry young in my hometown. And me, I’m still single. Sometimes, I wonder, how many years do I have to struggle in Beijing to progress? In Beijing, everything is expensive. I don’t want to live in this tiny place which makes me depressed.

SHARRON LOVELL: A report by the China Youth Research Center states that loneliness is a major complaint of this new generation of migrants.

Another survey found that half of young male migrants polled said that low wages made them reluctant to approach potential romantic partners. Long working hours also makes finding and maintaining a relationship difficult.

Ahong did date a girl in Beijing for a few months, a fellow migrant worker, but he says she wanted name-brand clothing and each new version of the iPhone. Ahong simply couldn’t keep up in his $600-a-month salary, and she left him for another guy.

YAO “AHONG” YONGHENG (through translator): You need to think about your life partner, but I’m scared of dating now. It’s a waste of emotions, money, time, and nothing ever comes of it anyway.

SHARRON LOVELL: Waves of strikes and suicides by younger factory workers in recent years have called attention to the problems faced by this new generation of migrants. Frustration caused by the gap between expectation and reality and the inability to assimilate in a city are widespread.

After riots in Guangdong last year, the State Council Development Research Center published a report stating that unless young migrants are absorbed into urban society, with full rights, conflicts would accumulate. It further warned that if mishandled, it will create a major destabilizing threat.

The desire for real urban status is about identity, as well as rights. But while reform of China’s household registration system, known as the Hukou, has been on the agenda for many years, little has changed.

ZHANG YI, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (through translator): First, we need to break the limitations of Hukou system, so everyone starts from an equal footing.

Second, the city government should treat the migrants equally when providing Social Security and services. This will help urban citizens to establish the concept that migrant workers are equal to them.

SHARRON LOVELL: Two years in Beijing have changed Ahong. He now dreams of opening his own salon and owning a car and an apartment.

YAO “AHONG” YONGHENG (through translator): I want to make something of myself, but we earn so little. And with this kind of work, we can’t really become Beijingers or buy a home. You want to make something of yourself, but living like this, it’s hopeless.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can learn more about the Chinese household registration system, which limits the rights of migrant workers and prevents them from assimilating once they get to the cities. You will see a link on our website.