Features

Rural retreat

International | SPECIAL REPORT: As the farm economy tumbles, poor migrants by the tens of millions flock to China's cities

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

IF CHINA'S ECONOMY IS BOOMing, Chinese family life is busting. One-child families cannot sustain traditional rural life, where most Chinese families live. While average incomes are growing, so too is the gap between country and city life, drawing poor farm families into already crowded urban centers.

"Beijing has 100 million middle-class Chinese with disposable income, but outside in the country are people who live with no indoor plumbing," said Holly Gerberich of Operation Blessing Beijing.

"Land to those who till it" was the promise from first-generation communist leaders. Fourth-generation leaders are more likely to promise "a market to those who fill it." They show up for ribbon-cutting at automobile factories in the countryside; otherwise the government presence in the hinterlands is in retreat. With it has gone the infamous iron rice bowl: employment guarantees, housing, food rations, schooling, health care, and pensions once guaranteed to China's landlocked laborers.

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For these reasons, rural migrants crowd Beijing and other cities, 100 million strong, drawn by promises of contract work in nearby factories, employer-provided housing, and other benefits. Sixty-dollars-a-month wages, with room and board, is a going rate.

But increasingly, those jobs fail to materialize. Unemployment in some parts of interior China is soaring to 70 percent, say private charities that work in these regions, while officially it is listed at roughly 10 percent nationwide.

Migrants who cannot find work have little for a safety net. Their national identity card is useless once they move outside their designated region. In Beijing most migrants cannot obtain housing or send children to state schools so long as their card shows a rural address.

So they live in shantytowns on the edges of the city and send their children to "shanty schools" specially designated for migrants.

Hua Ao school is nearly an hour's drive through traffic from Beijing city center and among some of the better shanty schools. It began in 1997 with 22 students and one teacher. Today it has 20 teachers and 700 students, according to principal Wang Gui Yun. She too is a migrant, from Jilin province, where she taught math and English before her own job there was eliminated. Most of her teachers are retired from provincial jobs and work for little or no pay. According to the principal, teachers "live in shanties they build themselves."

The school building is drafty if spacious, two stories with ample classrooms and peeling plaster. Upstairs a charcoal stove vented out one classroom window is the only heat source. Year-round the students sow crops themselves-bok choy, kohlrabi, and other staples-in cracks in the pavement outside, tucking them under canvas in the winter.

Hua Ao's staff holds out no hope of its migrant students attending regular schools. But they do hope the school can be registered with the government within a year. Then it would receive public aid and could more readily accept donations.

In the meantime, the school survives on the work of volunteers. Operation Blessing Beijing, a tentmaking nonprofit set up by evangelist Pat Robertson after he courted Chinese Communist Party approval to work in China, provides assistance to school volunteers. Project coordinator Christina Lu said Operation Blessing cannot technically provide direct aid to the school until its government status is secure.

She has worked to draft a corps of volunteers from Beijing People's University to tutor and befriend the students. University volunteers have helped the school secure 20 second-hand computers, cast-off desks and chairs, even school uniforms. Law students have provided legal advice to the migrant families.

But students and officials are in a Catch-22, according to People's University volunteer Bei Da. "The kids cannot get an official education unless they are officially registered with the government. And the government doesn't want to encourage more migrants, so they are reluctant to register the school." So the school remains like its students and their parents: on the margins and in the shadows of society.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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