Between City and Village | Alice KWAN

[ ‘SHARE’ Mar-Apr 2013 – Between City and Village ] FOCUS: SPECIAL TOPIC

Does city life meet migrant workers’ expectations?

Author> Alice KWAN Education and Promotion Officer

‘Running to’ the cities

Each Lunar New Year we hear news and see images of migrant workers in China cramming into public transport to get home to their families. This has been going on for nearly thirty years and this annual travelling back and forth is continuing. For the first time in 2011, China’s 690 million city dwellers outnumbered the rural ones, accounting for 51.27% of the country’s total population. [1]

Why do rural people flock to work in the cities?

40-year-old Mr. Liu, a deliveryman in Yunnan, says, ‘I came to the city for a better life; conditions here are better than the village’s.’

23-year-old Jin works in a convenience store in Kunming, ‘Home is a small place and prospect was not good… I live here each day as it comes… I want to see more and experience things while I am still young…’

Like other migrant workers, 40-year-old Mr. Liu, a deliveryman in Yunnan, seeks work in the city for many reasons, such as having a poor family, hardship in farming, backward rural economy and a desire to see the world.

Travelling in cities and villages

After graduating in late 1990s, I researched on labour studies in China. I waited outside factories in the Guangdong Province catching migrant workers coming out for lunch breaks to talk about their work and life there. They told me how they were forced to work long hours but wages were held up or often deducted by trickery, or how labourers injured at work were neglected and ignored. Questions came to my mind ‘Why did you come here? Wasn’t it a better life in the village? At least you would not be taken advantage of!’

After joining CEDAR in 2000, I went to Hubei, China, and visited different project sites; then I lived for a few years in a Gansu village working on a development project. As I got to know the people, I gained a better understanding of the tension they faced between village and city lives.

Once a villager pointed out to some newly repaired brick houses and told me that they were financed by migrant family members who earned money in the cities. As my informant lives in a ramshackle wooden shack; he looked both jealous and envious.

Village life has become even less secure in recent years because of uncertainties of climate change. When farmers sow seeds in springtime they cannot be sure if there would be much harvest in the autumn. Young people have all left the village and the remaining adolescents wish they will soon look old enough so that they, too, can leave and travel far.

Travel between cities and villages helped me see the tension villagers face.

‘Staying behind’ in the villages

So is there nothing in the villages to keep the people there? There is such a great urge in them to leave!

Not necessarily. I chatted with a young mother who came home for Lunar New Year. Soon she was in tears because her two-year-old did not recognise her and clung to the grandparents only. She could not believe that while she had left home to improve the family’s situation, she would in the end lose her family. There are those villagers who have tried by all means over a long time but still failed to recover hard-earned wages owed to them.

As a development worker, I always hope that whether the villagers have decided to stay or leave, CEDAR’s rural community development projects will give them timely help and more room for choice. I believe that urbanisation is not the only way for development and parents need not leave their children behind to go and work elsewhere. Even in villages people can explore possible development plans through projects such as husbandry breeding, organic farming, making fair trade handicrafts and setting up farmers’ cooperatives.

In winter women earn money making fair trade handicrafts.

It has been over 30 years since China’s reforms and opening up, and the first generation of migrant workers are now middle-aged; many of them have chosen to return home because of their age, family, and the government’s new rural policy.

49-year-old Gansu villager Zhang Zi-sheng says, ‘I worked in the city for over twenty years and I am now back home to devote myself to developing breeding and farming.’

48-year-old Hu Yun-jie from Hubei says, ‘I had been to many places and in the end I feel that home is the best place for my future; I can both look after my family and develop my village, here I can fulfil my parental responsibility of raising my children. Now that the Chinese government has quite a good rural policy and there is prospect for rural development; I am very hopeful for the future.’

35-year-old Tan Feng says, ‘I had gone away to work before, but I have decided to come back because my parents are getting old but my child is still young and needs looking after.’

Zhang Zi-sheng, a returnee, wants to restart farming.

‘Watching over’ migrant workers

As there is still a difference in the wages and development prospects between cities and villages, despite the hardships involved many are still migrating to cities.

30-year-old Ms. Li, now a waitress, followed her husband from Hubei to the city. ‘I left home for the sake of my children and family… I made the decision but I do not like it… I am not happy, there is no freedom working here, I don’t have my dreams and I have to listen to people’s orders.’

35-year-old Mr. Liu works in a supermarket in Kunming, Yunnan, ‘I had little choice but to work here. If something happens I will be left with nothing and no protection.’

As a socialist country, China’s labour regulations are very comprehensive but enforcement is slack. Apart from exploitation and unfair treatment, China’s household registration system also makes migrant workers second-class citizens, which means that regardless of how much they have contributed to the cities they are not eligible for medical treatment or children’s education benefits. Many migrant workers cannot adjust to the urban lifestyle, often homesick, and missing family. It is difficult for them to enjoy living in the city in cramped conditions.

Alone and away from home, it is very important that fellow villagers can support and watch out for each other when challenges, difficulties and disappointments arise. Currently CEDAR is actively promoting migrant workers projects, providing pre-departure training, teaching them labour rights based on past cases to raise their civic awareness. CEDAR also plans to set up networks so that migrant workers from the same or a neighbouring village support and help each other.

Today I do not get to walk around industrial sites or visit villages often, but I still bless those who travel between city and village. There are numerous possibilities between the two and I hope that they actually have the freedom to choose, and have a fair share of the fruits of development. I hope their lives will be happy and enriched, whether they be in the city or village.

For Further Action

If you care about migrant workers in China, you can:

Special thanks to CEDAR’s staff stationed in Hubei, Yunnan and Gansu for their help with the interviews.


China Ministry Highlight

[Annual Report 2011-2012] Focus Countries


Review of 2011 to 2012

The setting up of farmers’ cooperatives in Gansu last year was an important achievement of our ministry in China. The transformation of farmers from being voiceless and helpless to participating actively, and even initiating organisation, is one main indicator of community development. In Sichuan, we have contacted many churches serving the communities actively. In Yunnan, we also have developed close partnership with the Yunnan Provincial Christian Council and been mobilising and supporting local churches to be concerned with responses to their community needs. We are happy to see that local churches are willing to go out and serve their communities and the achievement they got in past few years.

Prospect in the Coming Year

Hubei was the first province where we started community development in China with the most experienced team. Last year, our Hubei team started an organic farm project run as social enterprise. This year, they have just started a new project on labour empowerment, aiming to build up the awareness of labour rights and supporting network among villagers who are going to leave their homeland for work.

CEDAR has been implementing development projects in China over ten years. It is time for us to gather past experience on project implementation, church mobilization, community development and to put these experiences together to develop a set of teaching materials to strengthen church education and training works in Sichuan and Yunnan as well as to support local churches to better respond to needs of impoverished communities by walking with the poor and disadvantaged.

Pui Si’s Sharing

‘China is changing. Two decades ago, she was still one of the main countries helped by the international society. But now she has developed as an economic giant and has accumulated rich knowledge and experience in the field of poverty alleviation. Even though there are still many poverty issues have yet to be settled in China, I believe it is time to conclude the community development work in China and share the experience on alleviating poverty with other resource poor nations.’


After the exposure monitoring trips and discussions in the past two years, according to a series of measurement, such as the human development index (HDI), Gini coefficient, political and social stability, uniqueness and the possibility of monitoring project, we have finally chosen Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, India, Nepal, Myanmar and China to be the focus countries for our projects.

Challenges and Breakthroughs in Development Work | LEE Po Ki, Kate

[ “SHARE” Sept-Oct 2012 – An Eye-Opening Experience of Poverty ] CEDAR’S BLOGGER

Author> LEE Po Ki, Kate, Project Supervisor (Disaster Management & Risk Reduction)

The happiest thing about engaging in development work is witnessing lives being changed. The Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire pointed out that education is the way to individual and social construction. Similarly, development work challenges the existing thinking of society and individuals, including the development workers themselves.

In recent years I have been working in projects in Gansu, China, and have seen the changes in the women there. These women are seldom in control of family wealth and possessions. They are illiterate and stay in their home-village all their lives. Their talents are buried by the social culture of male superiority. What we do is to nurture the women’s talents and build their self-confidence. After many years of unrelenting effort through literacy classes, leadership training, small loans, and health & hygiene education, the women have grown in their capabilities and self-confidence. They have even represented the village in negotiations with the government, successfully set up farmers’ cooperatives.

‘A year does not pass without some disaster’, many villagers used to say. A few years ago I met a minister from Nujiang, Yunnan, at a disaster prevention project. He felt it impossible for his poor minority community to deal with natural disasters. The disaster management workshop changed his thinking–-he recognised that they suffer mostly from fires and rainstorms which occur at particular times of the year. Further, he learned to make use of community resources for disaster prevention, e.g. during the dry season, volunteer mountain rangers watch out for forest fires; in rainy season, villagers who understand Putonghua will relay news of impending rainstorms. He told us, ‘Disasters can actually be prevented by enhancing disaster combat ability and eliminating the weak links.’

As a development worker, I can also be restricted by my own presumptions. The destitute households in Chinese villages are mostly aged and diseased, and I naturally thought that the most we could do for them was to give them rice and cooking oil during Chinese New Year. But workers at the Gansu project site showed me otherwise. They specially invited these destitute householders to be the changemakers to learn and then demonstrate how to corral sheep. An elderly couple told us, ‘We are the demonstration unit, so naturally we are to lead the villagers in corralling.’ They do not see themselves as receiving help but being a part of facilitating development. Their empowerment makes me understand that it is not the projects that build ability but we already have it in ourselves, and it can be applied to change for good if we give it space and opportunity.

I thank the women, the ethnic minority groups and the rural destitute householders for opening my eyes to their development. I hope to continue learning to challenge the old in me and in society, and that I will walk with the poor more appropriately.

CEDAR’S BLOGGER allows members of CEDAR staff to talk about their work, life and reflections.