Stories of Resilience

ASHLEY RIVENBARK details the experiences of Chinese migrant workers and highlights the possibilities for hukou system reform.

am sitting in a restaurant by the Beijing Zoo, staring in anticipation at the waitress seated across from me as I wait for her to answer my question. When she answers me, it is in heavily accented Mandarin. Her name is Min Guangdeng, and she is from the small town of Kaixian in Sichuan Province in southwestern China. While the deep sibilance of her consonants are difficult to understand, the warmth of her smile radiates from across the table. She is a migrant worker, and she tells me that she came to the city to earn money and learn new skills. I ask her if she feels that there is a stigma attached to being a nongmingong, or a rural worker living in the city. Her smile disappears.

“Let me give you an example,” she says. “Older Beijingers, usually around 50 years old, will come here to drink. When they are done, they will shout, ‘Half price, half price!’ The price will be¥145, but they will only give 100. When they speak to us, they are very rude.”

spoke with Min Guangdeng and other migrant workers living in Beijing in the summer of 2013. My goal in having conversations with these extraordinary men and women was to better understand their motivations for joining the historic influx of China’s rural residents into the country’s urban centers. I wanted to share a glimpse of the intricacies and complexities that underlie their varying experiences. To better understand the tension that weaves through each conversation I had with a migrant worker in Beijing, though, it is important to first look at the seed from which all these experiences grow: China’s hukou system.

Mao Zedong’s implementation of the hukou or household registration system in the late 1950s tied rural Chinese to their lands in an attempt to avoid a mass exodus to the cities. While the hukou system has prevented typical third-world urbanization effects, such as the appearance of extensive shantytowns and urban slums, this system has also barred migrant workers and their families from accessing basic necessities for a full and prosperous life.


If a migrant worker’s hukou is in Kaixian, for instance, and he or she moves to Beijing, then health care, educational opportunities for his or her children, job options, good housing, insurance, and legal protection are generally inaccessible. With the denial of these necessities follows increased social discrimination, which adversely affects personal development and the ability to secure employment.

Yet, despite the existence of the hukou system, China’s 2010 census reported that over 261 million Chinese migrated from rural communities to major cities. This mass exodus of workers and their families continues to this day and constitutes the largest human migration in the world.

So why do rural residents make this journey despite the odds against them? Mr. Zhou and Ms. Xu, owners of Beijing’s Eastern Health and Prosperity Pedicure and Foot Massage Parlor, provide the standard answer given in most of my discussions. As he sits hunched over on their stools, fervently massaging two patrons’ feet, Mr. Zhou looks up at me and says, “Our salary wasn’t enough in the city of Harbin, so we came here to take the jobs that no one else wanted.”

Underneath the umbrella of increased economic opportunities are individual, nuanced reasons for migrating to Beijing—proving that there is not just one narrative that captures the entire migrant experience. For example, Mr. and Ms. Wang, owners of a convenience store on Wenxing Street in the western part of Beijing, care deeply about financing their children’s education.

“We came to Beijing because you can’t save very much money from doing farm work in the countryside, so there was no certainty that our kids would be able to attend school there,” they say. However, since members of the Wang family do not have a Beijing hukou, educational opportunities for their children continue to be limited. “Our daughter goes to school here in the city,” said Ms. Wang, “but she is only allowed to attend the ones that aren’t very good. If we wanted to send her to a good school, we would have to pay a lot of money.”

For Dong Fen, who came to Beijing from the village of Sanbao in China’s southern Yunnan Province, the journey was about discovery. “Around the time that I left my village,” Dong Fen explained, “there was not a lot of information and the culture was very traditional. I really wanted to change something, to do something different.”

While waitressing in the city, Dong Fen discovered Hua Dan, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization that uses interactive theater and community workshops to improve confidence and soft skills of Chinese migrant women and children. She became more and more involved in their programs and, after several years of involvement, rose to the rank of General Manager of the organization. For Dong Fen, migration to the city opened a door to new possibilities.

“When I went outside of my hometown, I found a lot of differences. It opened my eyes, changed my view of the world, and I knew I could never go back.”

Despite differing motivations for migration, the consequences are nearly universal. When I ask twenty first-year students at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University what they believed the biggest drawback of migrating to the cities was, they all chimed in a unanimous chorus, “Discrimination!”

“[Migrant workers] are considered lower class,” explained one student, “because they have some smell on their shirt or something, and then they go on the subway or the bus and no one likes them.”

The story of Wen Qiang, a migrant worker who shared her experience in Hua Dan’s “Dumpling Dreams” community theater performance, illustrates the harmful effects that arise from these prevailing stereotypes. While serving as a sanitation worker on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road, she recalled an interaction that left a painful impression on her.


“One day, I was carrying out the trash when the owner of the building I was working in emerged from the elevator in front of me. He immediately covered his nose and said, ‘How foul! Let me through now, you lousy sanitation worker, don’t block my path. It stinks to death in here!’ With a heavy heart, I blurted out, ‘Who are you calling a lousy and smelly sanitation worker? Who do you think is the one who throws away these dirty and smelly things? Not me! I have a name, and if it wasn’t for the hard work of us sanitation workers, do you think this place would look so nice?’”

Wen Qiang’s experience with discrimination is representative of the large-scale mistreatment of migrant workers in Chinese society, which is why in July 2014, Xi Jinping’s administration announced its intent to reform this outdated system by switching to a points-based method. According to an article by Gaurav Daga, a public policy analyst for The Diplomat, points are achieved by meeting certain criteria, such as previous educational and professional experience, which lead to greater government benefits. However, the system only applies to younger migrants in second-tier cities, which consist of provincial capitals and special administrative cities in China.

This initiative appears to be a step in the right direction for new migrants seeking improved economic opportunities. According to a 2015 study by the Brookings Institute, “over the past five years, the 10 fastest growing economies [in China] have all been from this second-tier of metro economies,” while “growth in the largest metro areas lagged behind.” However, as Daga keenly noted in his article, “the reform policy doesn’t touch on cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where a third of the population are non-urban hukou holders.”

Additionally, many migrant workers resist hukou reform because it would mean losing their rural plot of land. As Dong Fen explained, “Because I have a rural hukou, I have land in the countryside, unlike a city hukou which has no land. It’s really small, but I have it. I’m okay with keeping my farmer hukou because when I go back, I will have land.”

So what is the solution? According to one of the Tsinghua University students I spoke with, the answer is simple: “Give more social services to the countryside, just the same as the cities.” Gaurav Daga seems to agree with the sentiment behind the student’s suggestion, despite the added financial burden that it entails. “One way the Chinese government can tackle this problem,” he writes, “is by separating out the link between household registration and welfare benefits within the hukou system,” allowing these benefits to be focused on the urban poor, including rural migrants.

As policymakers sift their way through the maze of possible solutions, it is critical that they recognize that this system and its repercussions are ultimately centered on migrant workers and their unique narratives. Their stories and motivations cannot be lost in the entanglement of economic discussions and policy reforms, and as Mrs. Wang demonstrated to me during our conversation, their resilience should not go unrecognized.

“Beijingers can’t bear hardships like we can,” said Mrs. Wang, eying the mattress squished against a cash register, a makeshift bedroom for a family without access to affordable housing. “Look at us. We wake up at 5am to open our shop and we close at 12 am. People from Beijing are not hardworking like that.”

After my conversations with each migrant worker, I thanked them for their time and willingness to share their stories of hope and heartache. Yet my farewell with Dong Fen was different. As I began gathering my belongings to leave, I looked up to find her staring at me with a piercing look of purpose.

“Every person in the world has the power and responsibility to care about these issues,” she told me, her voice filled with persistence. “Some people may say, ‘I come from China, you come from the US, they are different countries,’ but the world is just one world. You need to support anyone if you can, help anyone if you can.”

ASHLEY RIVENBARK is a Master’s in Management candidate at the Wake Forest School of Business and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at