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Migrants in the big city

China has achieved spectacular economic growth in the last two decades. But what is life like for the rural labourers flocking to the big cities in search of work?

"I don't earn much, but in my village I would earn even less," says Dai Xiuqin, a 40-year-old woman living in Beijing, where she makes a living collecting and selling bottles, plastic, paper and anything else that can be recycled.

A few years ago Xiuqin and her family left their village in the eastern province of Anhui, one of the poorest parts of China, to make the 1,000 kilometre journey to Beijing. In doing so they joined the mass exodus of the last decade, which has seen around 114 million Chinese leave the countryside to find work in the cities – nearly a quarter of the total rural population.

Packing up their meagre possessions, the family left their farm because they could not earn a decent living selling their produce. "Our farmland is so limited… every year we suffer from big floods from the Huaihe River. So we came to Beijing to find a job. I'm used to the life here now."

Dai Xiuqin and her family live in a two-square-metre plot of land next to a piece of wasteland where bottles and newspapers pile up waiting to be recycled. Her husband rides a bicycle collecting paper and bottles from the surrounding neighbourhood, earning about US$200 a month.

In Beijing there are around 150,000 recycling areas and recycling has become a lucrative form of self-employment for rural migrants. Today, the Xiuqin family makes more money collecting rubbish than they did farming. But despite their higher income, the family is poor, and they do not feel they are benefiting substantially from the economic boom they can see happening around them.

"China's economic growth since 1979 has been extraordinary, and certainly one of the great stories of the 20th century and likely to be one of the biggest in the 21st century as well," says Bill Fischer, a business expert and former-president of the Sino-European International Business School in Shanghai. He claims the overall quality of life in China is better for more people now than it has been at any other point in recent history.

But Fischer says China should not become complacent in its newfound economic power – rather, it should be aware of the new problems this can bring. "China needs to be sensitive to the growing disparities between the rich and the poor." He says there is a gap between urban and rural areas which could be a source of social problems if left unaddressed.

The Dai family's decision to move to Beijing typifies what Fischer describes as the attraction that urban living holds for rural populations. The Dai children can find jobs and earn the kind of money that they could only dream about in their villages. "However, the continued construction of China's urban areas is dependent upon these migrant workers. They have become 'institutionalised' into the saga of China's modern growth. This creates a bit of a mystery, as these same migrant workers are probably the most socially vulnerable group to wealth injustices," says Fischer.

According to the United Nations, China has more than 100 million people living in poverty. Mao Tianyu, second secretary at the Chinese Mission to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva points out, "China needs to provide 24 million jobs a year, but in fact, it only provides 12 million."

China has not ruled out future hikes in unemployment, with many of the new jobs vulnerable to global forces and much of the increased wealth created by rural migrants staying locked in the insecure formal sector.

Some economists hold that China's experience must be viewed in the larger global context rather than in isolation.

Mao says: "It is not fair to say China has grabbed jobs from Europe or America, or even Asia and Africa. In any case, China's development will be conducive to the stability of the Asian market and the realisation of the UN Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]."

If China and India could reduce poverty and achieve the MDGs, he says, then a large proportion of the world's population will have reached the targets, which in turn would mean that the whole world benefits.

Fischer agrees. "The point is that nearly a quarter of the world's population is building a new future for themselves and by default for the rest of us as well. We should want to be a part of that," he says.

China's experience in achieving economic growth and reducing overall poverty shows that there are no easy solutions. Dai Xiuqin left her village to make money in Beijing but the insecurity for her and her family is clear.

Although she and her husband are working in Beijing, the family has not settled down and a part of the family remains in Anhui.

"My second son is studying at middle school in Anhui. His grandparents take care of him. But I have to send money back to them regularly for his study and their daily life. In rural areas, he also needs money to pay for gifts for relatives and town fellows, for weddings or funerals. It's still a large part of the family's budget."

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