Both Ends of the Long Road

China, February 6, 2008

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It is a long road between southwestern China’s myriad green hillocks and the congested outskirts of the country’s teeming cities. But it’s along these thoroughfares — village paths that give way to local roads, leading to national highways or congested railway stations — that millions of migrant workers travel to chase China’s economic dream.

At least 150 million Chinese have taken to these roads as migrants. Perhaps they grow tired of backbreaking subsistence farming that fills their bellies, but puts little money in their pockets. Or maybe they envision catching a better life for themselves and their families in thriving, ultra-modern cities like Beijing or Shanghai. The speculative answer is likely in between the two, but the reality is that thousands more join their ranks every day.

Rural villages are emptying. Thirty years ago, China’s urban population was 234 million. Within the next two years, that number is expected to reach 650 million — half of the country’s total population, the world’s largest at 1.3 billion. That shift, among the biggest in history, has enormous cultural, economic and environmental implications.

The loss of rural residents, especially youth, to cities depletes local economies of the manpower needed to keep markets going. The death of markets results in more people leaving the countryside for urban centers. And migrants’ local customs and identities are usually swallowed whole by huge cities.

China’s rural landscape faces further poverty and the wilting of culture, while its already-hulking cities struggle to cope with the social issues and environmental impacts from millions of migrants.

Mercy Corps is helping Chinese families on both ends of the long road.

In hundreds of rural villages — like Xinfa, a tiny hamlet nestled among Guizhou Province’s knolls and forests — we’re partnering with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA). The resulting program, Rural Community Development for Poverty Alleviation, is helping create viable income opportunities to keep families from drifting away from their homes and local economies.

Since 2001, we’ve helped more than 60,000 Chinese citizens with small loans and business training. They’re turning those opportunities into stores and cottage industries that revitalize villages — and, in many cases, offer jobs to keep even more villagers from joining the burgeoning wave of migrants.

But millions of families have already left rural China’s fields and farms for the bustle of China’s mega-cities. They go in search of plenty, but often find themselves with even less than they had at home. Thousands end up in places like Daxing District, a poor section of Beijing where multiple families squeeze into tiny, often-crumbling buildings in the shadow of smokestacks.

China’s thriving economy doesn’t mean opportunities for everyone: the country’s system of hukou, or household registration, controls who gets jobs, who is entitled to benefits and who is able to attend public school. Hukou identifies families as residents of where they’re from, not where they move. As a result, a family who moves from a rural area to Beijing may not receive the health insurance or free education they are entitled to in their home village.

And, since these families aren’t on the official record in cities, they are often subject to challenging working conditions for the jobs they can find: shifts that average 11 or 12 hours a day, seven-day workweeks and below-minimum-wage pay are commonplace. Thousands of workers even sleep on the floors of factories where they work.

In a migrant economy children suffer most; they are usually unable to attend school and sometimes are forced into factory work themselves. It’s estimated that 300,000 school-aged children in Beijing aren’t receiving an education. What, then, are their opportunities for a better future?

Mercy Corps is addressing that question through an innovative alliance with the Dandelion School, Beijing’s only middle school for the children of migrant workers. Begun in 2005 and privately funded, the Dandelion School’s 31 teachers currently serve almost 400 students. Students here start with the basics — courses like mathematics, science, history and English — but also begin learning the skills to immediately contribute to China’s skyrocketing economy.

Mercy Corps’ School to Work project identifies vocational training and apprenticeships for students, giving them the chance to compete in Beijing’s labor market or start small businesses for themselves. It’s a competitive advantage that, just three years ago, these young men and women simply didn’t have.

There are at least 150 million different stories about why Chinese citizens decided to migrate, who came with them, which road they took and what they found at their destination. I have heard just a few, each sobering and inspiring in their own way.

Here are some words and insights from those we’re serving — and some who are helping — along that long road.