Chinese migrants struggle to find urban dream

High rents and long commutes seldom discourage migrant workers from living in big cities, but many lack a sense of belonging

Li Xin remembers her first day in Beijing vividly. It was a bleak day in February. The acrid smell of sulphur from firecrackers burnt during the Spring Festival made her cough. Her bulky cotton padded coat, a gift from her rarely seen parents who left their village a few years ago to work in big cities, still wasn’t warm enough.

Despite that, she was thrilled. “I couldn’t believe that I was in our great capital city and starting a new life here. It was like a dream that I’d never dared to dream,” she said, wearing an almost unnoticeable smile.

Li, a village girl from Shandong, is one of the millions of migrant workers who have been lured to big cities, hundreds or even thousands miles away from their hometowns. Statistics from China’s 6th census shows that more than 7 million migrants now live in Beijing, meaning that about 35% of Beijing’s residents are migrants. Nationwide, the number is 236 million, 17% of the country’s entire population.

The influx of migrant workers into the Chinese capital started in the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping’s reform policy freed up workers from agricultural activities. In the following two decades the average annual growth of Beijing’s migrant population exceeded 20%. However, the influx reversed in the late 1990s, when migrant labour demand decreased and the last financial crisis severely hit Asian countries. As the economy picked up in the new millennium, migrant workers came back to look for work in Beijing.

Like many other young people living in rural areas, Li left school to try and make a living in the metropolis in 2005. According to a report on China’s migrant population development, published by the National Heatlh and Family Planning Commission this year, young people now make up the biggest group of migrant workers. The average age of migrant workers is 28 and about 75% of them left their homes to find work before they were 20.

But little do these young migrant workers eager to start life in big cities know that to live in the metropolis is anything but glamorous. Having barely finished their high school education, most find themselves unable to apply for jobs that require higher education qualifications. Nearly 65% of migrant workers work in manufacturing, retail, catering or the hotel industries, the same report has found.

Unable to afford the high rents in Beijing, many live in group-leased flats or in basement flats to save housing costs. Liang Ming, a 23-year-old fast-food delivery driver from Hebei Zhangjiakou, now shares a small room with a colleague in a three-bedroom-flat in downtown Beijing. The landlord has turned the flat’s living room into two extra bedrooms and 10 people live in the flatshare. Liang’s room, less than 10 metres square, costs him and his colleague 750 yuan a month each.

“The rent in Beijing is too high for us migrant workers. About a quarter of my monthly income goes to rent. In my hometown, for that much money, you can rent a whole flat instead of just sharing a small room. The rent is the biggest item of all my expenses,” Liang said.

Though housing costs already account for 25% of an average migrant worker’s living expenses, they are likely to increase. In July, statistics showed that rents in the capital had been rising for 52 months in a row and the percentage of flatsharing had gone up to 60% from 45% in 2011.

“Rents go up much faster than pay increases do,” Liang Ming joked. He said that if the rent kept going up he would seriously have to consider moving further from the centre.

In fact, a very significant number of migrant workers have already moved out of the capital’s downtown area. In an interview with the China Economic Weekly Zhang Lei, a Beijing real estate analyst, said that the outer Fifth Ring area had become “the main battlefield of the housing rental market.”  

For migrant workers living outside downtown Beijing, commuting becomes a bigger headache. 52-year-old parking officer Aunt Qin, lives with her family in the North Fifth Ring area, and works near the Renmin University of China. To get to her workplace on time, she has to set out from home before 6am and take two buses. Everyday she spends roughly three hours on commuting. She said “commuting is tiresome” but given that the rent of a similar room near her workplace in downtown Beijing would have cost at least twice as much of her current one, the long commuting hours seem more tolerable.

The burden of city living, high rents and commuting, are not dissuading people from working and living in big cities. In fact, more than 70% of young migrant workers who have the intention of permanently settling in urban areas see big cities as their preferred choices.

However, big cities themselves have yet to truely embrace their migrant population. According to a report on urban development in China, published in July this year by the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, the public cost of citizenisation, including the costs of maintaining public buildings, services, social security, education and housing, is about 131,000 yuan per capita. In Beijing and other metropolises, the cost of citizenisation roughly amounts to 200,000 yuan. Local governments already burdened by fiscal deficit are not likely to be able to afford such public cost, and hence migrant workers rarely have access to equal social service.

What’ more, prejudice against migrant workers plagues urban society. The recent row around one Tsinghua professor’s controversial argument that “while Beijing belongs to the whole nation, it’s not a place for everyone to live and work” exemplifies the deep-rooted prejudice. “If migrants want to get Beijing hukou, we can consider give them a test first,” said Wen Guowei, a city planning expert and professor at Tsinghua University, in an interview with Beijing Evening News.

Marginalisation has left many migrants disenchanted. Despite living in Beijing with her family for more than 15 years, Aunt Qin said she still thought of herself as an outsider and was ready to return to her hometown in Anhui.

“When I retire, I will leave. Back home at least I have a cottage and don’t have to cram the whole family into a small room,” she said. “Our hukou’s do not belong here. No matter how long we live and work here, Beijing could never be our home.”

But for young migrant workers like Li Xin, to give up urban living is anything but easy. “I have grown used to the life in cities. What else can I do if I return home?” she said, briskly.