Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The great migration

This discussion (available both as stream and podcast) is one of the best I've heard about what may be the greatest migration in history -- the movement of over 100M Chinese from rural villages to coastal cities over the last 20 years. Discussants include Peter Hessler, the New Yorker writer (and former English teacher in China) whose dispatches have appeared periodically in the magazine, Leslie Cheng, who covers China for the WSJ (I've posted some of her articles here), an academic economist and an anthropolgist who study migration.

Parallels with the industrial revolution in the UK and US are discussed. The plight of migrants in cities where they have limited legal rights... the myth of the sweatshop vs the dreary life of traditional agriculture... the transformative effects on rural China... all are important factors underlying modernization and globalization.


1) 100M is a lot of people, but there are plenty more. Over half a billion people still work in agriculture. Although efficiency has improved in the post-Deng era, Chinese agriculture still has a long way to go. Efficiencies approaching modern levels would mean an order of magnitude fewer agricultural workers -- meaning hundreds of millions more migrants to the cities.

2) Factory work may seem unpleasant by US standards (although probably similar to what workers endured here only a century ago), but trainloads of young people in seach of work arrive in coastal cities every day. They obviously *prefer* factory work over life on the farm. The economist in the discussion notes that once migrants are in the city they often want to work as many hours as possible to make more money.

3) Independent city living may be the single greatest pro-feminist force in China. Once young women have made it on their own they are unwilling to submit again to traditional patriarchal conditions that persist in the countryside.

The World, a recent film by Jia Zhangke, does a wonderful job of capturing the urban-migrant zeitgeist -- especially the feelings of dislocation and loneliness. I recommend it highly. (Times review.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm, so maybe a factor of 3... no, doesn't sound right... three times as fast... still not quite there.

So it sounds like China's Mexico is China?

Blog Archive