Sat, August 25, 2012. The Guardian UK By: Hsiao-Hung Pai
The people who make up half of China’s urban workforce are marginalized and patronized, yet they are indispensable
On China’s Valentine’s Day (the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar, which fell on 23 August this year), 30 migrant workers were taken by surprise when they were invited to a business networking dinner by several college students in Shanghai who, during their summer internships, had happened to see the migrants’ miserable working life on the city’s construction sites. The move by the students, who wore T-shirts saying “Invite a Migrant Worker to a Meal” was televised as a primetime entertainment.
This says much about the social attitudes towards migrant workers, who often come from the vast interior of the country. They make up half of China’s urban workforce and account for half of the country’s GDP. They are indispensable, and yet are the most socially marginalized group of workers in China.
Yet rural migrants continue to suffer from deep-seated prejudice and discrimination. Not only are they denied access to public services in the cities due to the hukou (household registration) system, they are also subjected to day-to-day exclusion and abuse. You see them being talked to and shouted at like children in public places; you see them banned from hotel lobbies and posh restaurants. And as an angry blogger pointed out when observing open discrimination against rural migrants, he said that the “No Dogs or Chinese” signs put up by western colonialists in the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by the “No Dogs or Peasants” signs at shopping malls in the cities. How have these become acceptable?
Since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up (gaige kaifang) era, the media has led the way in manufacturing images about rural migrants and reinforcing prejudice against them. The word “peasant” (nongmin) has always had negative connotations, either implying ignorance and lack of education or carrying a patronizing tone, addressing passive masses receiving benevolence from the rulers. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the media began to widely use to the term “blind flow” (mangliu) to describe rural-to-urban migration, portraying an irrational, senseless and out-of-control migration of labour into the cities. This negative language has long shaped public views and sentiments towards rural migrants and further Nongmin deepened the prejudice against them.
Nongmin is a permanent social status that entails someone’s inferior educational and cultural background as well as economic capabilities. As a segregated social class, nongmin carry the subordinated status with them wherever they migrate. I had a Chinese publisher questioning me about the dialogue I wrote for a rural migrant when he discussed politics. She said: “How can a peasant speak like that? They aren’t intelligent enough to analyze things that way.” I also had a Chinese reporter saying to me: “Don’t trust what the peasants tell you; they would mislead you.” Neither of them has had any experience working with anyone in the rural communities.
This raises the question about the media’s distance and lack of knowledge of the “rural” of which social imagery they have been shaping. Interestingly, Owen Jones, in his Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, talked about a similar process where the media lacks contact with and knowledge of the class they are belittling. The media take on the role of demonizing the working class, Jones says, and providing moral justification for the state to deny that class of entitlements.
Similarly, the Chinese media manufacture “inherent” moral deficiency and characteristics of the nongmin in order to justify their lack of rights and entitlements. Thus the idea that nongmin are inherently much less intelligent and unable to make sense of their own reality; thus the idea that nongmin are “a blind flow of labour crowding into the cities” and they “create social and economic problems” for the urbanite. It is the equivalent of the Daily Mail in the UK – Jones quotes the Mail’s remarks on the “council-estate working class”: “These are the people who are getting sentimental about a vicious killer; they have no values, no morality and are so thick that they are beyond redemption.”
And then see Chinese bloggers condemning migrant workers in Yunnan who held a protest with their children holding placards “Hand over my parents’ sweat and blood money!” in order to claim back owed wages. One blogger sneered: “What kind of parent would let their kids beg money for them?”
As China’s rural migrants have had this class distinction stamped on them permanently, the only way their demands for social justice and equal rights can be justified is through the promotion of national economic interests and the greater good. One way to advance the rural migrants’ case for better access to public services in the cities is to argue that they could power consumer spending growth in China. As China Daily reports this week, “The 230 million-strong migrant workforce drives China’s economy, but a lack of access to education, health and other services … forces massive saving, restraining Beijing’s efforts to shift growth’s focus to consumption from investment.” No media are able to talk about migrant workers’ basic rights.
Social attitudes will take a long time to change in China, and the media is guilty of delaying that change. Rural migrants need to be treated as citizens, like everyone else, not as passive nongmin to be receiving occasional goodwill and charity. Much more needs to be done than taking migrants to a Chinese Valentine’s dinner.
“China’s Rural Migrant Workers Deserve More Respect from City-Dwellers”
The Guardian UK
- Where do migrant workers come from?
- How many migrant workers are there? How do they contribute to China’s GDP?
- What does the life of a migrant worker look like?
- What is hukou?
- How are migrant workers treated by other Chinese?
- What is gaige kaifang?
- What is nongmin?
- Who is responsible for giving peasants such a bad image?
- What is mangliu?
- What are the perceptions of mangliu?
- What does life look like for the nongmin/Chinese peasants?
- Why would the media want to portray the nongmin so badly?
- How can the nongmin get social services and equal rights for themselves?
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