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.