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Chinese migrant workers' welcome back to poverty

By Brian Hennessy - posted Monday, 9 March 2009

You can feel the suppressed emotion, despite their blank expressionless faces. It hangs over the entrance to the Chongqing railway station like a Yangtze River fog. A grey pall of despair. A cruel prelude to a return to life as it was 30 years ago before Deng Xiao Ping’s policy of “opening and reform”.

Welcome home folks. Welcome back to poverty.

Back home to the village, the farm, and the never-ending struggle to survive. A return to the static life, and the endless cycle of more of the same. What now, comrades?


The children: despite their migrant worker status, these youngsters benefited from an education received in the second-rate factory schools of the boom cities on the coast of China. Now, however, it is back to the village school and its dull, parochial ignorance.

The isolated village school: a mud brick or rammed earth construction, with a rough stone floor, and a leaky, drafty roof. A teacher who is a high-school graduate, who instructs in the local dialect, and who has never left the district let alone the province.

No textbooks. No grades. Everybody in one class chanting and learning the basics by rote. Facts for survival today at local level rather than knowledge for a future elsewhere.

Twenty million migrant workers have lost their jobs so far. Every day, a few thousand more of them pour out of the Chongqing Railway Station and onto the open square outside where they wait for a connecting train. Family groups squatting on the ground, sitting on their baggage, or standing around smoking those killer cigarettes and staring blankly into space.

What next? The hopes of an extended family depend on each single child. Education is the only way up and out of a miserable life in rural China. This is the primary motive for leaving the farm or the village … to earn enough money to pay for a child’s education.

A good education might secure a government job for their child after graduation. Centuries of Confucian respect for order and status has taught Chinese people that a government job is the best insurance against catastrophe, whether it be fire, famine, flood, war, or a western-style capitalist recession.


Centuries of hard experience has also taught them that the closer you are to a government job, the richer your family will be. The further away you are from the government teat, the poorer you are likely to remain.

A secondary motive is healthcare. Treatment for a serious illness costs an average of two year’s income. This is why so many rural folk suffer from treatable illnesses. If you don’t have access to affordable healthcare, how then can your early stages of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes be diagnosed and treated?

This is the reality. The untreated disease progresses, and the patient dies.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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