Eating More Bitterness: China’s Urban Immigrants

At Miller-McCune, China Beat editor Maura Cunningham surveys a number of books focusing on the flow of workers into China’s cities. Michelle Dammon Loyalka’s ‘Eating Bitterness‘—featured on CDT earlier this month—tells the stories of eight such rural migrants who, while in many cases finding themselves increasingly alienated from the countryside, are denied a secure future in the cities by the registration system. Cunningham compares their situation with one described in Janet Chen’s ‘Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953′:

Chen weaves a fascinating story, detailing the attempts of successive governments to “clean up” the city by eliminating straw-hut shantytowns, and the resistance those efforts sparked. Hut-dwellers formed an association and submitted petitions arguing for their right to preserve the community, even offering to pay taxes and thereby making their residence legitimate. In one late-1930s confrontation with the Municipal Council (composed of British and American representatives overseeing their countries’ territory in the city), the hut-dwellers accepted that some shanties would be demolished, but successfully negotiated that their owners would be compensated for their loss.

In the 1930s, observers of the shantytown dispute recognized that “The city’s prosperity had been built on the backs of these rickshaw pullers, peddlers, and laborers” and it was therefore unfair to treat them so dismissively. Today, we see that once again, China’s cities have filled with who occupy a precarious place in the urban hierarchy: while urbanites appreciate their labor, they are less enthusiastic about the migrants’ presence in their cities.

But as in the 1930s, rural-to-urban migrants are unlikely to give up easily. The hukou reform that would facilitate this push to build a better life in the city will almost assuredly be hard-won, but judging from the life sketches that Loyalka draws, China’s migrant workers are up for the fight. They are, after all, quite familiar with what it means to eat bitterness.

See more on China’s migrant workers via CDT.

April 24, 2012 12:27 AM
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