“Where do we belong?” The painful dilemma for China’s urban migrants

As globalisation has taken hold of China in the last thirty years, millions have moved from rural areas to big cities in pursuit of a better life. But, as many realise, greater prosperity doesn’t always lead to a sense of belonging.

1.4 kilometres, this is the distance from Xu’s home in Chengdu to his shoe repair shop. He rides a bicycle to work every day and opens up at nine o’clock.

140 kilometres, this is the distance between Suining (population around 658,000) and Chengdu (population around 16.3 million). Every year, thousands of workers make the journey from Suining to Chengdu.

Twenty years ago, Xu was one of these hopefuls. He was young, strong and brimming over with ideas for business. He thought he had all the skills needed to make good in this bustling city in western China.

His shop is located behind the busiest commercial district in Chengdu. This street is next to the Chengdu Regional Military base and comes under its authority. Over time, this boulevard has gradually been expanded into a multi-lane highway as part of the urban construction. The shops on both sides of the driveway have been relocated or replaced. After twenty years, only Xu and his shop remain.

Xu’s shop several years ago
Credit: Xu

In fact, this store has its own twists and turns.

During the past decades, the Chinese military has taken charge for some commercial districts or streets in Chengdu, and it allows people to rent shops in its charging areas to make money. Xu is one of those tenants. However, the business services were suddenly announced to cease by the military since 2016. Many tenants had to move out of their shops to find another one to continue their business.

Xu’s shop was the first one to bear the brunt and then was ordered to take it back by the army. Suddenly, the glory of its past disappeared. Xu didn’t know where to go.

Standing in the centre of the city, with his back facing the busiest neighbourhoods, he faced an unknown destiny. He is like a tiny stitch in the huge curtain of the city. Because of its low value, no one will notice if it’s there or not. As a result, Xu often faces embarrassing situations. He thought that he was integrated into Chengdu but in the end, he finds himself isolated and alone.

Xu and his shop now

“When I first came here, I treated my customers as friends. I thought we had a pure friendship like what I used to have back home in Suining. But something happened, and I don’t think so now.” he says.

One winter, people were preparing for the Chinese New Year. During that time the Chinese always buy new clothes and shoes before the Spring Festival. If they can’t get new shoes, they must polish the old ones to make them clean. So, Xu usually worked overtime to provide services to customers.

As the number of customers in the store suddenly increased, Xu became extremely busy. At this time, a couple who he had thought of as “friends” also came to give Xu a pair of shoes, saying they would come by tomorrow to pick them up.

The next day, the man came and took the shoes. Unexpectedly, the woman came to Xu after the man left. Xu said that the shoes had been taken by her husband, but the woman didn’t believe him. She hung around and refused to leave. She said that Xu had misplaced her shoes and must return the money to her.

Although Xu felt wronged, he didn’t have time to argue with the woman since there was still so much work to do. He simply gave the woman two hundred yuan but resented it. He said, “My credibility had been challenged.”

After the Spring Festival, Xu ran into the couple on the street. When he confronted them, the couple admitted that they had taken the shoes, and collected the money as well. Xu forgave them with a resigned shrug but felt empty inside. “I was slandered like this in vain. Maybe it’s because they think I’m still a stranger in Chengdu.” He couldn’t help but think of the countless times he and his neighbours back home in Suining had helped each other out. Suddenly, he realized he was still an outsider.

At the macro level, rapid development of transport systems has shortened the distance between city and village. On the ground, it’s clear that new migrant destinations like Chengdu have been injected with new blood.

But at the micro level, the psychological hurdles and culture clashes the migrants face once they get to the cities are not so easily overcome. Homesickness and continued marginalization leave migrants feeling like square pegs forced into round holes.

According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of migrant workers in China reached 290.77 million in 2019, an increase of 2.41 million in the previous year.

Also, China’s urban-rural population ratio has also undergone tremendous changes since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. According to government reports, the urban population today accounts for 60.60% of the total population. Back in 1949 it was barely 10%.

Meanwhile, the national relocated population, which means the population living in different places, and people who have been away from their registered residence for more than 6 months, has reached 280 million, which is a decrease of 6.13 million from 273.87 million last year.

Changes in different population
Credit: Chinese Government

With the changes of China’s national policies, fewer and fewer migrant workers see moving to the city as just a means of earning a living. More of them are choosing to settle down. This phenomenon not only reflects the development opportunities brought by the increase in the number of migrant workers but also points towards the potential risks of ‘culture clash’.

People’s Daily reported that migrant workers who have lived in a city alongside local residents for a year or more still do not identify themselves as citizens. Building and maintaining interpersonal relationships and living conditions are ongoing problems.

Deng is the owner of a beauty parlour, who has also come to Chengdu from Suining for years. Compared to Xu, she has not established such a deep connection with customers. She said that it is hard to retain all of her old customers since her shop has been moved for many times. “But of course, I lived in countryside before. Most of my customers are locals. The friendship between the customer and I didn’t last long.”

It sounds reasonable that a shop owner could only have a pure business relationship with customers, instead of friendship. After thinking for a while, Deng added that she also moved the place where she lived along with her shop. She had lived in both new and old communities in Chengdu. “When living in the new communities, everyone kept themselves locked up at home. I lived there for half a year and even didn’t know who was living in the opposite door. I used to have a lot of friends when I was in the village. If it’s an old community, there are more elderly people. There will also be more community activities for the elderly. I feel that it may be easier to meet neighbours in the old community, and I feel more at ease.”

But when asked if he had participated in community activities, Deng shook her head and said, “I’m busy and don’t have time to go. Besides, they all have their own friend circles. How can a tenant be able to join their activities?”

According to research carried out by the Sichuan Provincial Party, the sense of isolation amongst urban migrants is mainly derived from the two-pronged approach in local government where policies are specifically designed to distinguish migrants from local residents. For example, cultural activities in the community such as social activity registration often use people’s official identity, whether local or migrant, to determine who are able to get access to it primarily. Migrants are usually lack of priority. These policies obviously exacerbate discrimination and prejudice against ‘newcomers’, which not only makes it difficult for migrants to increase their self-recognition as part of the city but also strengthens the conflicts between migrants and local residents.

“I have been here for many years and I don’t have any close friends,” Xu says.

Unlike the ordinary native urban residents and ordinary rural villagers, these new types of urban migrants lack a true understanding of urban life; meanwhile, since they leave their homeland for a long time, neither the urban society nor farmland activities are welcomed for them to integrate. To some extent, they will be rejected by some systems that only target urban residents; at the same time, because they are far away from traditional agricultural industries, they are also difficult to be recognized by the unique value system of rural areas.

Yilin Liu, a psychologist from the Psychology Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences, believes that the reason why some urban migrants find unable to integrate into urban society even they have lived in cities for decades is that their scope of knowledge and attitude towards life is difficult to change.

“Because of the different lifestyle and attitudes, the farming culture of diligence and frugality will inevitably conflict with the materialistic and petty bourgeoisie urban life; this also caused resistance and dissatisfaction,” he says.

China’s modern society is based on the development of the peasant economy and collaboration with foreign cultures. However, fundamentally, Chinese society still revolves around the family. That is because farming in China has a particularly long history, and family is a basic production unit in farming culture. That inevitably intensifies the persistent pursuit of “family” from all Chinese people, especially those who move from one place to another.

“Most Chinese people strive to return home no matter how far they have reached for their entire life, just like the fallen leaves will finally go back to their roots,” Dr Liu added. “Although migrant workers have gained knowledge, skills and remuneration through participating in cities, they will never forget to return home.”

40 years of change for China’s Spring Festival travel rush
Credit: New China TV

“Some migrants return to their hometown during the Spring Festival and other traditional holidays, not only taking gifts and money but also progressive ideas from the city back to towns and villages.” Liu said.

Indeed, this return of the migrants to their hometown symbolizes the spiritual connection between modern society and ancient civilization. Regarding this, Xinhua News Agency said that “the return to home” is an important cultural signal in China that will never disappear. People’s Daily also stated that the “Spring Festival travel” is an important window through which one can observe the changes in modern Chinese society.

These migration phenomena all confirm that urban migrants are finding a balance between their hometown and a better quality of life in cities. At the same time, it also symbolizes the impact and integration of the two different cultures in the countryside and the city. Whether it is returning to their original hometown or settling in the city, urban migrants never give up the idea of going home. Because of this, when they encounter the injustice of urban development policies or the hostility of some urban residents, they all want to find a peaceful “home” through their own efforts.

This is certainly true for Xu. He came from a small town to a big city, from being alone to starting a family there. This reflects his desire for family connection, but challenges outside his control make his life more difficult. He often feels that he does not belong in the city but, at the same time, he is full of hesitation when he talks about life in the countryside.

Ten years ago, Xu took out all the money he had saved over twenty years and bought an apartment in the city. He said this will be used as his son’s wedding house. Whenever he talks about this, there’s both joy and sadness in his eyes.

“I’ll be relieved to see him getting married.” He sighs and continues to mend the shoes in his hands. July is one of the sultriest months in Chengdu. Standing outside even for a few minutes leaves one feeling hot and sweaty. This thought must dismay Xu who will have no place to continue his business after his store is taken away by the army. He might be able to build a stand outside the place where his shop now stands. The dust that rises up as cars speed past mingles with the sunlight, to drown Xu in a cloud of smoke.

After all he’s been through in the last twenty years, Xu finally sighs and admits, “It is hard to decide whether to stay or to go.”