A Floating City of Peasants: The Great Migration in Contemporary China

A Floating City of Peasants: The Great Migration in Contemporary China

Just Enough for the City: the Great Chinese Migration
By William J. Evitts

Review: A Floating City of Peasants: The Great Migration in Contemporary China. Van Luyn, Floris-Jan, translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold (New York: The New Pre…

Just Enough for the City: the Great Chinese Migration
By William J. Evitts

Review: A Floating City of Peasants: The Great Migration in Contemporary China. Van Luyn, Floris-Jan, translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold (New York: The New Press, 2007).

A Floating City of Peasants begins and ends with numbers — the astonishing (and astonishingly unremarked) statistical outpouring of peasants leaving the Chinese countryside. The U.N. calculated that 200 million Chinese will exchange farm for city in this decade, making this migration, in van Luyn’s words, “the largest in the history of humanity.” (p. 5.) (For comparison, consider the estimated 12 million Africans spirited away to slavery in the wider world. That process took four centuries.) This mass on the move is the “Floating City” of his title. This metric, though, is just the setup for van Luyn to introduce individual Chinese and their lives in transition.

For as van Luyn says bluntly, “Chinese statistics are as soft as butter,” in part simply because “China is not eager to tell the truth.” (p. 2), so van Luyn looks for the deeper truth in stories of specific individuals and villages, stories he accumulated as China correspondent for a Dutch newspaper from 1995 to 2001. He concentrated on meeting everyday Chinese and became intrigued by the peasants flowing into the cities. Among others, he introduces us to the motorcycle-riding construction hustler in the New Territories, the madam who plies her trade in order to finance her son’s school tuition, and the activist who so enraged village authorities that after five weeks of imprisonment he emerged a bruised pulp, 55 pounds lighter and missing the tip of his tongue. The book vividly depicts venal bureaucrats, the desolation and hopelessness of the rural villages, and the exploitation that awaits the peasants who follow their desperate dreams to the cities. In one typical chapter, van Luyn begins with a descriptive and statistical portrait of agrarian poverty in a parched and stony region, then shifts focus to Ni Shenghai, who lives in such a place, and his son, Ni Jianjun, who left. There are photos of both. The elder man, a peasant farmer who realizes the futility of his efforts, indeed of his life, shrugs, “What else can I do?” (p. 55) He misses his son but is pleased that the young man fled to the city of Changping at age 16, where, now 22, he struggles as a cook. Van Luyn traces the son’s story, too. Despite grinding hardships, Ni Jianjun dreams of owning his own restaurant and someday sending for his parents.

Van Luyn finds that for all their pursuit of a better life in the city, the new urban poor still have strong ties to rural families left behind. At peak harvest time and at the New Year tens of millions return to the countryside en masse, clogging transportation, momentarily quieting the overflowing cities, and reminding the permanent urbanites that vital service work depends upon the disparaged peasant immigrants. Whether this seasonal shift will outlive the first generation of migrants is unclear.

As the reader gets deeper into Floating City, the realization dawns that the economic imperative behind the peasant migration into Chinese cities, the dislocations and alarms this migration raises about crime and societal standards, and the uncertainty about who can do the economy’s distasteful grunt work within the framework of law, all bring vividly to mind U. S. debates over undocumented (or as some prefer “illegal”) immigrants. In both cases we see the same economic need driving the migrants, the same lingering ties to home (where money is often sent), the same objections raised about immigrants debasing culture and draining public services, and the same stubborn fact that without immigrant labor entire sections of the economy would be impaired.

Tags: china

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