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.


| June 2012


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.