Reduced to Rubble: Examining the Changing Economic Fortunes of China’s Migrant Workers

Christal Cheng is in her second year at the University of Toronto, majoring in International Relations and Economics, minoring in Contemporary Asian Studies.

“The whole airplane factory is a huge eyeball, labour is its deepest part.” This poem by Ouyang Jianghe epitomizes the zenith of Chinese socialism where manual labour is praised, and valued. However, the workers’ relevance to China’s manufacturing prowess is diminishing as China begins to embrace the principles of capitalism to develop its economy. 24 City is a film that captures the challenging outlook for China’s migrant workers. The demolition of the factory for the redevelopment project signifies the rise of capitalism and the fall of socialism. As China divorces itself from its communist roots and embarks on the course of capitalist development, multiple barriers have inhibited migrant workers from climbing up the social ladder. Migrant workers are socially and economically marginalized through the distinction between urban and rural hukous, marketization of housing, and intensity of competition in capitalism. The creation of an egalitarian society becomes a utopian ideology in contemporary China with pauperization looming, and the wealth gap widening.

24 City, a docufiction film directed by Jia Zhangke, bears witness to the demolition of the state-owned aeronautical factory, codenamed ‘Factory 420,’ in anticipation of the luxury real-estate development of ‘24 City’ in the city of Chengdu. By interviewing the older, middle-aged, and younger generations of workers, Jia has captured the radical changes taking place in China through the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, and into the present era of economic reform. The changing economic fortunes of Chinese workers and their families are brought to light as the narrative unfolds. There is a visible devaluation of the once glorified profession; industries are being laid off, and workers have succumbed to the economic inequality. The film accounts for the supplanting of Maoist class figures of the worker, rural peasants, and soldiers with the emergence of the middle class. The Maoist class figures, perceived as the quintessential pillars of nation-building, have yielded to the prospect of a capitalist system. This feeling of displacement is further accentuated by the title of the film. The film is named after the residential complex ‘24 City,’ which originated from an ancient poem quoted in the film: “The cherished hibiscus of 24 city, in full bloom / Chengdu shone and prospered.” The poem reveals the prosperous nature of cities, and envisions a society whereby its economic growth is maximized through urbanization. The film is not only a commemoration of blue-collar workers who are becoming redundant, but more importantly, an exemplification of the widening wealth gap between the urban resident and the migrant worker that ensued from China’s transformation away from socialism.

There were three colossal state-led programs that restructured urban and rural population distributions: the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the Cultural Revolution (1967-76), and the Third Front Construction (1965-71). The Great Leap Forward’s unrealistic expectations for economic growth through heavy industrialization resulted in an influx of peasants into cities to work in factories. The demographic underwent yet another tumultuous change during the Cultural Revolution, where 26 million rural migrants and 17 million urban youths were sent down to the countryside for re-education. Once again, China saw large-scale rural-urban migration during the Third Front Construction, whereby factories and industrial workers were relocated from eastern China to the west. The massive fluctuations in rural-urban population urged for better control overpopulation movement – the hukou or household registration system. The hukou system enforces restraint on urban-rural migration, largely regulating internal migration from rural to urban areas, and limiting the size of cities to maintain social stability. Another function of the system is the bifurcation of the population into the economically privileged and the working-class. The socio-economic differentiation of citizens entailed different opportunities, obligations, and status. The relocation of ‘Factory 420’ contributed to the internal migration of workers. Migrant workers, holders of outside hukou, were instrumental in speeding up the urbanization process, but were nevertheless subjected to institutionalized inequality. Historical events have consequently shaped the nature and structure of Chinese urbanization through the establishment of the hukou system, generating economic disparity between native urban dwellers and migrant workers.

Under socialist China, urban housing was not a private asset but rather a public-welfare process intended to provide urban residents with equal access to housing. From the 1980s to early 1990s, the state-financed collectively owned flats, which were then distributed to the urban population through workplace-benefits programs. However, the socialist housing system was abolished when the central government implemented market-oriented reform in 1998. The commodification of housing assets has been more favourable to managerial cadres than production workers. The cadres working in the upper echelons of government were previously assigned residence space with higher value and acquired substantially greater wealth in the process of privatization. It is ironic that workers and their families who resided in the neighbouring area of the factory could no longer afford the apartment complex built on the factory site. Su Na has even made the purchase of a flat in ‘24 City’ for her factory-worker parents as her aspiration in life. The commercialization of urban housing and the preferential policies heightened the inequality between urban elites and blue-collar workers. Evidently, cadres have made use of their bureaucratic privilege to maximize their private benefit, leaving the workers in a pitiable state.

Deng Xiaoping’s ideology behind Chinese economic reforms revolved around “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” China believes that capitalism would fuel economic growth, but because the capitalist culture contradicted with communist values, it needed modifications. China gradually shifted to a market-based economy by constructing special economic zones with close proximity to Hong Kong’s capitalist economy. Although China has often attributed its economic success to Confucian values, characterized by “dedicated, motivated, responsible and educated individuals,” this is undermined by the film’s third interview with Hou Lijun. Hou was laid off at the age of forty-one, not because of her poor performance, but because the factory was downsizing. Firms downsize in order to increase the productivity of workers, and promote a more efficient workplace. A significant portion of the working class is becoming redundant in a profit-driven system of capitalist enterprise. Hence, Confucian values may have complemented China’s economic growth, but it was capitalism that accelerated it. Even though China’s economy as a whole benefited from its capitalist economy, individuals with a lack of knowledge, and resources are less able to seize the opportunities presented by capitalism. 

Although China maintains its reputation as a socialist country, it has evolved to become one of the most intricate, and developed capitalist systems in the world. The seemingly contradictory economic-political systems nevertheless contributed to China’s rise to an economic powerhouse. Urban areas are perceived to be engines of growth, and mass internal migration of workers catalyzed the urbanization process. Urbanization coincided with China’s shift away from a planned economy to a market-based one. In order to grow the economy and maintain social stability, China assigned residency status to its people through the hukou system. The hukou system has contributed to rising inequality in China, where urban dwellers were given priority to social security benefits over migrant workers with rural hukous. China further reformed the economy through the commodification of socialist welfare housing. The privatization of urban housing proved to be lucrative to the cadres, yet not so much for the blue-collar workers. Capitalism has its merits, but it is also a source of inequality. China’s economy as a whole prospered from capitalism, but the competition in the capitalist system rendered a proportion of workers redundant. Low-skilled workers are low-paid due to a surplus of workers, and the risk of layoffs looms as the company strives to maximize efficiency. Evidently, China’s transformation from socialism to capitalism came at the expense of economic pain and severe hardships of the workers. In this case, how can the state diminish the wealth disparity among Chinese urban residents? Is there an inevitable positive correlation between the growth of inequality and the development of capitalism? The government should strengthen its social security program, as well as improve opportunities for economic mobility through education, training, and increased access to better jobs. Before China takes pleasure in its economic powerhouse status, it should work to address the widening gap between ordinary people and the privileged ones.

Image Source: Clicked in Guilin, China.


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 24 City. Directed by Jia Zhangke. 2008; New York, NY: Cinema Guild, 2010. DVD.