Stories of Urbanization in China

Rapid urbanization in China has left Chinese peasants on the outskirts of society, rarely able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
By Michelle Dammon Loyalka
June 2012
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Most news reports out of China come from Beijing (pictured), Shanghai, Guangzhou, and a few other select cities that, while alluring and easily accessible to the Western media, are far from representative.
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Every year over 200 million peasants flock to China’s urban centers, providing a profusion of cheap labor that helps fuel the country’s staggering economic growth. In Eating Bitterness (University of California Press, 2012), award-winning journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka follows the trials and triumphs of eight such migrants—including a vegetable vendor, an itinerant knife sharpener, a free-spirited recycler, and a cash-strapped mother—offering an inside look at the pain, self-sacrifice, and uncertainty underlying China’s dramatic national transformation. Learn about the roots of urbanization in China in this excerpt from the book’s introduction. 

Little more than sixty years ago, China was an impoverished and underdeveloped nation. Though among the world’s most advanced civilizations throughout much of history, in the middle of the nineteenth century it was debilitated by opium addiction and invaded by imperial powers. In the first half of the twentieth century, the nation’s progress was stymied by the collapse of its four thousand-year-old dynastic system, hampered by eight years of conflict with the Japanese, and stalled by an outbreak of civil war. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, the country made initial gains, but those advances were soon disrupted by a wild ride through collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Three decades ago, the government launched a series of reforms to help modernize the country and invigorate its economy. Since then, China has lifted a record 230 million people out of poverty. Its nominal GDP has increased seventy-five times over, and today it boasts the world’s second largest economy. It is also the second largest producer of energy on earth and the third largest manufacturer.

Perhaps nowhere is China’s spectacular transformation more evident than when it comes to urbanization. While most Western nations took nearly two hundred years to transition from agrarian to urban societies, China is on track to accomplish this in little more than fifty. Over the past thirty years the country’s urban population has more than doubled, and over the next thirty it is expected to nearly double yet again, reaching a whopping one billion people and making China’s cities more populous than the entire North and South American continents combined. By 2025 it will boast 221 urban centers with more than a million people; all of Europe, by comparison, has a mere thirty-five. The country’s major metropolitan areas will likely include fifteen supercities that, with populations over 25 million people, are each the size of the entire state of Texas. To accommodate its lightning fast development, the nation will pave five billion square meters of roads and erect five million new buildings, including up to fifty thousand skyscrapers, or ten New York Cities.

Clearly, China is rising at a pace and an intensity never before seen in human history, and that alone is destined to have a dramatic impact on the nation and the world at large. But Eating Bitterness is not about the magnitude of these accomplishments or the fervor surrounding the country’s coming of age; it is about the underlying pain, self-sacrifice, and fortitude upon which the nation’s advances are built. It takes as its focus the smallest, the humblest, and yet arguably among the most vital, participants in the process: peasants hunting for a better life than rural China can provide.

At any given time, nearly 150 million such people leave their families and farms behind and flock to China’s urban centers, where they provide a profusion of cheap labor that helps fuel the country’s massive city-building process as well as its staggering economic growth. Long recognized for making the nation’s factories an international juggernaut, these migrants are also inextricably involved in every aspect of China’s own domestic life. They raise buildings, lay highways, sweep streets, and shine shoes. They clean houses, cut hair, babysit children, and wash cars. They sell produce on busy street corners, peddle clothes in open-air stalls, and hawk all manner of conveniences from the back of bicycles. They snap up the lowest- paying jobs and carve out the pettiest of entrepreneurial niches. They are light on their feet, quick to seize opportunity, and able to continually remold themselves to meet the changing demands of the Chinese economy. As a result, there isn’t a single Chinese city—nor hardly a neighborhood—that functions without them.

Despite their pivotal contributions, China’s rural migrants tend to be overworked, underpaid, and largely without the benefit of labor law protections. In the cities, they typically lack access to affordable health care, education, and other social services and are relegated to the most meager housing. A great number of cultural and economic barriers keep them living on the outskirts of society, rarely able to enjoy the fruits of their labors. To make matters worse, for them, “rural” is not simply an adjective but, rather, a legal designation assigned at birth that makes it nearly impossible for all but the most educated or successful to fully integrate into urban life. Even the term given to them the liudong, or “floating population”—is emblematic of their status as outsiders temporarily residing in the nation’s cities.

In recent years, China’s leadership has increasing hailed the contributions of the country’s rural migrants. Policies to protect their rights and foster their assimilation into urban life are being created, but in practice improvements have been slow to come. That will need to change. Until now, such peasants have been left largely to fend for themselves, relying on their own resourcefulness to survive, but over the next twenty years a full three hundred million migrants are expected to descend on China’s cities. A group of people equivalent in size to the entire American nation cannot be overlooked without serious repercussions. For all the rosy forecasts and sheer exuberance surrounding China’s rise, if the country doesn’t adequately address the inequalities these people face, its current goal of creating a harmonious society and moving smoothly to the next stage of development may be impossible; maintaining social stability itself may even prove challenging. That makes the people featured in Eating Bitterness one of China’s most pressing domestic issues.

Most news reports out of China come from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and a few other select cities that, while alluring and easily accessible to the Western media, are far from representative. After decades of heavy investment and foreign influence, the eastern part of China now brims with boomtowns and business centers that serve as the flashy new face of the nation. By comparison, landlocked western China is still steeped in history and tradition and largely unknown to the outside world. It is synonymous with rural China, poor China, underdeveloped China. And yet it is also the largest part of the country, the cradle of Chinese civilization, and the center of Mao’s Communist revolution.

Whether in terms of earning power, productivity, or urbanization, western China invariably comes in last. This disparity is not an accident; it is, in fact, entirely purposeful. When the Communist Party initiated opening and reform policies in the late 1970s, it did so with the idea of allowing some to get rich first and letting the wealth trickle down from there. The country’s southeastern seaboard was chosen to lead the nation to prosperity, while western China was left to languish behind. In 2000 the Chinese government launched the Xibu Da Kaifa, or “Great Opening of the West,” policy to step up the development of and close the gap between western China and the country’s central and coastal provinces. The ancient capital of Xi’an—home to the Terra Cotta Warriors and known to be the world’s largest and most modern city some 2,500 years ago—became the focal point of this new policy. A torrent of investment money poured into the city, as did plans to double the metropolis’ population by expanding its emerging High-Tech Zone into a “New Xi’an.” As the money flowed in, so too did a flood of peasants, each hoping to snatch up a portion of the region’s newfound prosperity.

Having moved to Xi’an in 1999, a year before this grand undertaking began, I witnessed firsthand the rapid, relentless development that ensued. From my apartment in the High-Tech Zone, I watched as dozens of impressive new buildings suddenly sprang up on the horizon. And yet there, in the middle of all this newness, sat Gan Jia Zhai—a decrepit old village that, though not much more than five city blocks in size, now burst with an estimated thirty thousand migrants who had come to work in the neighboring new district. Its dusty footpaths and sagging concrete block houses stood in marked contrast to the High-Tech Zone’s orderly streets and soaring skyscrapers, as did its mounting crime rate and rough-and-tumble night life.

Like most of my neighbors, I simply avoided the area. But when long-circulated rumors of Gan Jia Zhai’s demolition were finally confirmed in 2006, many of the people with whom I regularly interacted—from the vegetable peddlers and waitresses to the shop keepers and security guards—were suddenly looking to move. That’s when I realized that the entire High-Tech Zone was built and maintained by people who could never afford to live there, people putting in incredibly long hours for a city they could never hope to enjoy. I started asking questions and soon became engrossed in life stories so full of ingenuity and determination—as well as misfortune and adversity—that I felt compelled to share them.

Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration takes readers into the lives of eight rural migrants who have come to Xi’an in pursuit of the newly imported American Dream. By day each of them finds opportunity in the bustling High-Tech Zone, but by night their lives play out mainly in the dilapidated old village of Gan Jia Zhai. The book is structured to show, in rough progression, how successfully these individuals assimilate into city life and how conflicted the relationships between their familiar rural roots and newly minted urban aspirations become. Each chapter introduces a new story and a new set of social issues that, taken together, present a panorama of what it means to embark on the migrant journey.

Eating Bitterness starts with a family of vegetable vendors who would like to return to the countryside but believe only a lifetime of urban labor will open the doors of opportunity for their young daughter. It follows an itinerant knife sharpener who is painfully aware that he represents a rapidly dying breed in the New China; a group of teenage beauty-industry poster girls who are eager to forget all things old in pursuit of their new material dreams but have no idea how or where to begin; a free-spirited recycler who drifts from job to job just waiting to find an opportunity worthy of his heart’s attention; a former farmer who is racked by addiction and plagued with idleness after receiving a huge payout in exchange for his land; a cash-strapped mother who leaves her own children back in the village only to take care of rich people’s kids in the city; and a successful storekeeper who lives with her family of four in the back of her linen shop because she has not yet found a way to attain a normal urban life. Eating Bitterness ends with a second-grade runaway turned wealthy philanthropist wannabe who is consumed by a restless longing for meaning indicative of a growing dissatisfaction with the ultramaterialistic direction in which China is headed.

Though tales of China’s economic miracle abound, as do portraits of its peasant poor, little attention has been paid to this vital and growing class of new urban workers who are caught in between. Their stories present the human side to China’s seemingly unstoppable development machine, and their resilience, determination, and grit all attest to the human spirit’s time-tested ability to persevere. Over and above providing a vast and inexpensive labor pool, by pressing ahead in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and enduring all manner of hardships, this stalwart band of people may well be the unsung hero behind China’s rising success on the world stage. There is no exact term for it in English, but in Chinese this indomitable spirit is called chiku, or “eating bitterness.”

Adapted from Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration, by Michelle Dammon Loyalka, published by University of California Press. © 2012 by the Regents of the University of California. 


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