Migration Patterns Change, Children Still Left Behind

An article in Foreign Policy provides an intimate encounter with the family of 38-year-old Huang Dongyan, one of the 200 million migrant workers helping to fuel China’s economic miracle by bearing its brunt:

When Huang Dongyan visited home to celebrate the Lunar New Year in 2011, her son refused to call her “Mom.” Huang, 38, tried coaxing him with baby talk and tickles. But five-year-old Zhang Yi ignored her and buried his face in his hat. For the rest of her visit he avoided her, favoring the attention of his 17-year-old sister, Zhang Juanzi, instead. Huang’s every attempt at intimacy — games, shopping trips, cuddles — was rebuffed. “I was a stranger to my son,” Huang recalls, blinking back tears.

Fourteen years ago, Huang left her village of Silong — and her children — to find factory work in Guangdong, 500 miles away from her home province of Hunan. Huang eventually settled in the smoggy city of Shenzhen, the heart of the Pearl River Delta manufacturing boom known for its easy access to Hong Kong and insatiable appetite for cheap labor.

Huang tries to parent from afar, but the phone calls bore Juanzi, a playful, self-assured teenage girl who calls her mother a chatterbox. The only time Juanzi seems engaged, Huang says, is when she needs money to pay for new clothes or more minutes on her cell phone. Huang’s son Yi often refuses to speak with her unless his grandmother gives him coins to buy candy at a local store. When he gets his money, he picks up the phone, says hello and then hangs up right after. “Now I only call when I’m in a good mood,” Huang says. As for her husband, Huang sees him about once a week, but the reunions are no longer exciting. “Now that we’re older,” she says, “we’re no longer romantic.”[…]

Stories of migrant labor, family estrangement, and urban injustice are anything but rare in the midst of China’s rapid development (see Lixin Fan’s 2009 film Last Train Home, or Michelle Dammon Loyalka’s new book ‘Eating Bitterness‘ for more documentation). A video by The Economist steers clear of the personalized and emotional to offer a statistical account of the changing patterns of migrant labor in China since 1978:

China Daily also has statistics on the changing migration patterns of rural laborers. While The Economist points out that major coastal cities are simply getting too expensive for the meager salaries of migrant workers, China Daily puts spin on their desire to “stay near home”:

China is now home to 158 million migrant workers and their salaries increased by 21.2 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

A bureau survey looking at Chinese migrant workers showed the country’s rural workforce increased by 4.4 percent in 2011 year-on-year. In the same period, the number of migrant workers rose by 3.4 percent while those who chose to work in hometown climbed by 5.9 percent.

Nearly half of migrant workers, the survey found, still work in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong. But the two biggest manufacturing centers in the country, the Pearl River and Yangtze River deltas, saw their workforces grow at a slower pace in 2011 than the year before.

As the central and western parts of the country develop and the wages paid in coastal and inland areas become more comfortable, the deltas have begun to lose their appeal to many workers, the survey said.

The poll interviewed nearly 200,000 rural workers in 31 provinces. It found rural workers who chose in 2011 to work in their home provinces outnumbered for the first time in years those who went elsewhere for employment.

For more on China’s left-behind children, see China Labor Bulletin’s detailed study of the issue. Also see prior coverage of migrant workers and the children they leave at home, via CDT.


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