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China Internal Migration

project

Over the last twenty five years the People’s Republic of China has seen incredibly rapid economic growth, the fastest in the world. The social and human consequences of this economic boom, however, have been huge. During the last quarter of a century, the largest movement of people ever over a similar period in any individual state or, indeed, on any continent has occurred in China – more people have moved their homes in China than were displaced in the entire world during both World Wars combined. Nobody, including the Chinese authorities, has accurate figures, but the general consensus is that at least 200 million people have moved home in China since Deng Xiaoping started introducing economic reforms in the late 1970’s. This phenomenon of internal migration, far from decreasing, is still growing and at an ever faster rate. Over the next twenty years even the Chinese government, which traditionally releases conservative estimates, calculates that at least a further 200 million individuals will leave rural areas for the booming towns, cities and metropolis.
The Chinese Communist Party, despite retaining a monopoly of power in the form of a single party central government, finds it increasingly difficult to monitor, let alone control the phenomena and mechanisms of internal migration. One result of Deng’s economic reforms is an ever-increasing gap in wealth and quality of life between those living in the country and the urban population. While individuals are encouraged, through the mediums of mass communication, to accumulate wealth, it is becoming increasingly obvious to the majority of those living in rural areas that their chances of doing so are limited. The result is inevitable: those who are not satisfied with their lot and dream of a better future pack up their meagre belongings and head for the city.
China’s internal migration problems and their consequences are not limited to a mass of individuals moving to big cities to discover urban streets “paved with gold”. Being traditionally a village/rural society, China’s cities have developed from market towns located in the most fertile areas. Despite being a huge landmass, only 8% of China’s surface is highly fertile. Therefore, as China’s cities grow in size they are steadily reducing the areas that can be exploited by modern industrial-style farming (still undeveloped in China), thereby diminishing the country’s ability to be self sufficient in food.
Another characteristic of China’s internal migration is the development of its western provinces where the indigenous population are not from the Han majority. The populations of both Tibet and Xingjiang have doubled in the last ten years, not because there has been a baby-boom among the Tibetans and Uighurs, but because the Beijing central government has been actively encouraging (through economic and other incentives) a movement west away from the over-populated provinces of central China by Han communities and families.

Making comparisons between two very different cultural and historic realities is always a very risky business. However, there are many similarities between the changes China is facing today and those faced by European nations in our past (during our now “distant” industrial revolution and the more recent post WW II boom years), but there these changes are even more exacerbated and frenzied then they ever were here. Countless errors that Westerners know only too well are being repeated and amplified, constituting yet another example of the fact that historia non est magistra vitae; that the mistakes made by others or even by ourselves rarely stop us from repeating them. What I personally find more alarming still is that travelling in China today increasingly gives me the sense of having a glimpse at the world’s probable future course. In China the ideology of “God Profit” is at least one step ahead of us. The individual and collective social rights and values gained (over centuries and with great sacrifice) by our forefathers in Europe are slowly disintegrating while in China they are already totally absent. Increasingly, we in the West are having to adapt to China’s mode of development rather then visa versa; which I find, frankly, frightening.

Internal migration in the P.R. China is an extremely complex phenomenon all too often simply approached by listing statistics involving huge numbers that de-humanise the individuals involved. This photographic project attempts to approach some aspects of the phenomenon while putting a human face to some of those individuals supposedly represented by the statistics.

This project was completed between 1995 and 2007.

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Cyclist, Shanghai

Cyclist under an intersection, downtown Shanghai. Recently arrived migrants are often easy to recognize.
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Youth practises martial arts in Fushun city centre

Over the last 25 years the Peoples Republic of China has had an economic boom unequalled in history. There have obviously been social consequences due to this boom, mass internal migration is one of the most striking.
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Pudong, Shanghai

Manual labourer in the New Economic Zone in 1998. Most labourers in big cities are newly arrived migrants, it is considered the first step on the ladder's rung.
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Shepherd, Kunming

Shepherd on the outskirts of Kunming. Yunnan Province. The rapid growth of Chinese cities has seen a lot of agricultural land lost to construction, while ever more farmers and small holders move to the city.
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Bean harvest, Heilongjiang

Bean harvest near Nenjiang. Heilongjiang Province. Making a living on farms is becoming increasingly difficult and the wealth gap between those living in the city and those in the country is also growing. Many young people are eager to move to the cities.
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Potatoe harvest, Ningxia

Potato harvest, Central Ningxia, one of the most arid and poorest areas in China. Making a living on farms is becoming increasingly difficult and the wealth gap between those living in the city and those in the country is also growing. Many young people are eager to move to the cities.
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Market, Shibaozhai

A rural market on the Yangtze river at Shibaozhai. Scenes like this will never be seen again as Shibaozhai was flooded by the "Three Gorge Damn Project". The people in these areas (total estimates range between 1 and 3 million) have all been moved to different areas, some as far as Xingjiang in N.W. China. Sichuan Province.
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Fetching water

Fetching water for the home, Hebei Province
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Village scene, Yunnan

Village scene in North East Yunnan, one of the poorest areas in the P R of China. Making a living in rural areas is becoming increasingly difficult and the wealth gap between those living in the city and those in the country is also growing. In some villages one only sees children and old people as many young adults have left for the cities.
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Rural health clinic, Yunnan

Rural health clinic in one of China's poorest areas. North East Yunnan Province. The social services such as health and education that existed up to 15 years ago are practically non existent today. Many rural inhabitants find it difficult to pay for health care and education on their meagre earnings, another motive for moving to the cities.
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Children with grandparents, Yunnan

Children are often left in the villages to be taken care of by their grandparents, their parents meanwhile seek work in the cities. North East Yunnan Province (one of the poorest in P R China).
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Pensioners, Hebei

In the new P R of China, pensioners are the responsibility of their offspring, who are by law, also responsible for their upkeep. This old couple want to take their children to court for neglecting their duties. Their children, however, have moved to Beijing and cannot be found. Hebei Province.
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Leaving the village, Guizhou

Peasant family start their journey for the city from N.W. Guizhou, one of the poorest regions in the P.R. of China.
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"Chulan" settlement, Xingjiang

Uighur family arriving in the Chulan Settlement where 30000 volunteers were being moved. The houses, seen on the left, were little more than brick boxes (7x3m) with no windows and only one door. The canal on the right is the communities only source of water (coming from over 600km distance) and served for drinking water, irrigation and often sewerage. Xingjiang.
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Leaving Fengjie

Packing up to leave Fengjie before the town on the Yangtze river was flooded by the Three Gorges Damn Project. The people in these areas (total estimates range between 1 and 3 million) were all moved to different areas, some as far as Xingjiang in N.W. China. Sichuan Province.
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Mother and Sofa, Kunming

A young mother, recently arrived from the country takes her children and sofa to their new home. Kunming, Yunnan Province.
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Travelling migrants

Migrant workers from Hebei return to work in Beijing
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Sleeping on Train

Migrant couple find the only space available on a train to sleep on their journey to Beijing. Heilongjiang Province.
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Migrant, Beijing

Newly arrived migrant from countryside in Beijing city centre.
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Migrants, Shanghai

Newly arrived migrants walk past an ad in downtown Shanghai.
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Market porter, Guizhou

Most market porters in big cities are newly arrived migrants. Guizhou Province.
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Migrant asks directions, Beijing

Newly arrived migrant asks for directions in Beijing city centre. Many city inhabitants despise the migrants, others, perhaps once migrants themselves, are both kind and considerate.
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Job hunters, Guizhou

Migrants looking for work hang around in the city centre, xxxxx, Guizhou Province.
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Unemployed migrants, Beijing

Unemployed migrants advertise their skills in Beijing.
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Rickshaw driver, Beijing

Most market porters in big cities are newly arrived migrants. Rickshaw driver takes a rest in Beijing city centre.
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Workers in Fushun

Most labourers in big cities are newly arrived migrants. Road repair workers in Fushun, Liaoning Province.
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Construction worker, Beijing

Most labourers in big cities are newly arrived migrants. Construction worker, Beijing.
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Electrician, Beijing

Laying new electrical lines. Central Beijing.
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Migrants and Pandas

Migrants building new water supply, Chong Qing
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Factory worker, Qingdao.

Factory worker in the Haier plant, Qingdao. This type of job is considered a skilled trade, the next rung up on the ladder
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Oil Worker

Worker fixing an oilrig in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province
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Window cleaners, Shanghai

Cleaning the windows of Shanghai’s new concert hall.
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Refuse Collector, Hong Kong

Many female migrants also have the most menial jobs; a refuse collector. Kowloon quay. Hong Kong.
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Mobile Kitchen, Shanghai

One of the many female migrants to have improvised a new trade. In this case a mobile kitchen for other migrants working on one of the numerous construction sites in Shanghai.
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Prostitutes, Beijing

Prostitutes in a demolished “hutong” (traditional residential quarters). Beijing. The sex trade in China is growing fast many prostitutes are young women who have been lured to the city with the promise of a regular job.
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Wedding Dress, Jilin

Female migrants often follow their husbands to the city and work as street traders and shop assistants. The girl with the umbrella works as a live mannequin advertising wedding dresses in the street. Jilin, Jilin Province.
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Beauty Parlour, Beijing

A beauty parlour in the "Zheijang village", a suburban area of Beijing with a particularly high concentration of migrants from the coastal province of Zheijang.
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Factory workers, Qingdao

In China, the fast growing manufacturing industry is totally dependent on the continual arrival of new migrants to the cities. Workers fitting computer components at Haier, one of the most successful companies in the country. Qingdao, Shandong Province.
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Shanghai Stock Exchange

Prestige jobs remain little more than a dream for the vast majority of migrants. Receptionists at the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
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Cartier, Hong Kong

Prestige jobs such as working in boutiques selling foreign luxury goods remain little more than a dream for the vast majority of migrants. Hong Kong.
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Mother Begging, Urumqi

The big cities attract all types of migrants, a " Huei" mother begging on the streets of Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xingjiang
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Disabled Beggar, Kunming

The big cities have attracted all types of migrants for years, a disabled beggar who makes a living through his street calligraphy is passed by an American limousine on a street in Kunming, Yunnan Province in 1995.
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Disabled Beggar, Shenzhen

The big cities attract all types of migrants, a disabled beggar in central Shenzhen.
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Disabled Beggar, Shenzhen

The big cities attract all types of migrants, a disabled beggar in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
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Washing, Fushun

The living conditions of newly arrived migrants are often atrocious. Washing on the line outside the makeshift home of migrants built under a bridge in Fushun, Liaoning Province.
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Breakfast, Beijing

A migrant construction worker eats his breakfast in a Huei restaurant, Beijing.
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"Zheijang village", Beijing

The cramped working and living conditions (often migrants live in the same premises in which they work) in the "Zheijang village", a suburban area of Beijing with a particularly high concentration of migrants from the coastal province of Zheijang. Since this photograph was taken, the area has been “sanitized” and largely developed as an affluent commercial zone.
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Dormitory, Fushun

Living conditions for migrants are often cramped and uncomfortable. the Beds are shared in this workers dormitory; while one lot of workers are on shift, a second group get to sleep in the beds. Fushun, Liaoning Province.
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Washing hair, Chongqing

Living conditions for migrants, even those working for government institutions, are often atrocious. A migrant washes her hair next to the living quarters on a construction site in Chongqing, one of the cities with the highest migrant populations in China.
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Playing chess

Not all the migration in the P. R. China is towards urban areas. The country is highly dependent on coal to support its growing energy demands and dozens of new mines open each week attracting labour from the countryside both locally and not. Working and living conditions in the mines are atrocious and extremely dangerous (more then 10000 miners die in accidents every year), further more the miners are only employed when needed. These coalminers playing Chinese chess in their living quarters in a privately owned coalmine in Northern Ningxia Province have to share beds between shifts.
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Mother and child

Not all internal migrants are poor. Some like Fanny Qiu, pictured with her daughter at her new home in Ninghai (one of the new “satellite cities” in the Ningbo region of Zhejiang Province), are part of the emerging Chinese middle class (currently approximately 15% of the population but growing fast). Both Fanny, who was originally from a small village in Zheijiang Province, and her husband (who she met via internet and from a village in neighbouring Shandong Province) are university-educated professionals working for private companies.
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Factory workers

Factory workers take a short midday break in the male dormitories in one of the three Stella International shoe factories in Dongguan that has become the most productive municipality of consumer goods in China. Dongguan is in the Pearl Delta area that has seen the most spectacular economic development since Deng Xiaoping began economic reforms in the early 1980s and as a consequence it has also seen the greatest influx of migrants. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, however, in the last twenty years both Dongguan municipality and the neighbouring Shenzhen Special Economic Zone have seen their populations grow by over twenty million people each. The Taiwanese company “Stella International” has a total of 65000 employees (mainly in the Pearl River Delta) and produces shoes for major international brands like Nike, Reebok, Clarks etc as well as products for the internal market. Working and living conditions in the Stella International factories are considered good by Chinese standards (employees only work the legal maximum 72 hours per week and have 2 weeks fully paid holidays per year), however, employee turnover remains high with most workers staying for two to three years only.
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Health Clinic, Beijing

Clandestine health clinic for migrants in the "Zheijiang Village", Beijing (a large community of migrants originating from Zheijiang). As many migrants in the cities do nott have resident permits themselves let alone for their families they cannot, among other things, use local hospitals and other social services . In many suburbs migrants have organized parallel structures (such as schools and medical clinics) by themselves. The nurses are often also migrants brought from the villages. The authorities generally turn a blind eye to these structures as they need the migrants and are, in fact, one of the largest employers of migrants (both legal and illegal). Since this photograph was taken, the area has been “sanitized” and largely developed as an affluent commercial zone.
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Clandestine School, Beijing

Clandestine school for migrant children in Beijing. As many migrants in the cities do not have resident permits themselves (let alone for their families) they cannot, among other things, send their children to the local schools. In many suburbs migrants have organized parallel social services (such as schools and medical clinics) by themselves. The teachers are often also migrants brought from the villages. The authorities generally turn a blind eye to these structures as they need the migrants and are, in fact, one of the largest employers of migrants (both legal and illegal). Since this photograph was taken (1998), the area has been “sanitized” and largely developed as an affluent commercial zone.
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Family, Chongqing

All migrants dream of bringing their family to the city once they have settled and found a steady job and some form of accommodation. A migrant family in Chonqing in 1998.
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Internet couple

The phenomenon of migration has had many grave social and personal consequences, one of which is the increasing generation gap in lifestyle and values. This twenty year old who works in a supermarket in Guizhou Province’s capital, Guyiang, returned to her village home to announce her marriage to the Taiwanese bus driver (left of photo) she met on an internet chat-line. Her decision to emigrate to Taiwan with her new husband was taken without parental consent which greatly upset her mother (right).
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Performers, Shanghai

Performers on the streets of Pudong, Shanghai New Economic Zone. Over the last 30 years the Peoples Republic of China has had an economic boom unequalled in history. There have obviously been social consequences due to this boom, mass internal migration is one of the most striking.
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Exercise in Park, Urumqi

Han Chinese exercise in Urumqi park, Xinjiang. For decades Han have been encouraged (mainly through economic incentives) to move to the "Frontier Provinces". Some of these areas (like Xingjiang and Tibet) have more than doubled their population as a consequence.
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Tienanmen, Beijing

Not all the internal migrants are poor. These Chinese tourists in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1999, told me that they were thinking of moving to the capital.
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Tienanmen Square, Beijing

Two young migrant couples pose for photos in front of a poster of Kim Yatsun (founder of the first Republic, 1912) in Tiananmen square, Beijing.