At a conference I attended a few months ago, a Chinese professor described rural villagers as “sacrificing their youth, for the sake of the cities”. It struck a chord with me as I pictured the rural villages I had grown familiar with during my bike rides down dirt roads in Guangxi.
Every village was full of children and grandparents, but was missing nearly everyone from 20-60 years old. It’s as if this entire group left to work in the cities, giving their best years to a develop a region where they cannot reap the full rewards of their work.
While the left behind children are a pressing topic of discussion, the other family members are no less effected by the social hole left by migrant workers.
Even though it is very common for wives to leave the countryside with their husbands to find work in the cities, there are hundreds of thousands left behind. While this group is rarely mentioned in discussions, because it is the smallest segment, this group is one of the most vulnerable. Rapists have been known to target the wives of migrant workers, as they are often socially isolated, and there is little chance that the crime will be reported.
These women are expected not only to tend to the farm work, but also have to raise their child, and help their husband’s parents in old age. In every relationship, they are expected to sacrifice for the good of the family. They also face the uncertainty that comes with being married to a person who now essentially lives in another world.
Migrant male workers in China are more likely to be alcoholics and visit prostitutes than those who live with their wives. This is so common globally that Muhammad Yunus built his Nobel prize winning micro-credit system around making small loans to women instead of men. This means though that women in China see fewer of the fruits of their husband’s labor.
Elderly Chinese are often left behind to look after their grandchildren, when in many cases they need help themselves. China’s rural areas have incredibly limited resources, such that services for the elderly are restricted to only those who have no living children. According to the elderly care facilities I visited in Henan, if the children are alive, but provide no support for their parents, the parents are supposed to sue them. This would be an incredible loss of face for the elderly parent, and rarely happens.
Rural hukou holders are also not included in pension systems that urban residents enjoy, and so they are required to work for their entire lives. This lack of stability in the later years of life is part of what is driving so many from the countryside. Elderly farmers have endured decades of hardship to support China’s economic growth, like the great famine and the cultural revolution, yet have received the fewest benefits of its rise.
Until the hukou system is abolished (or drastically revised) rural dwellers will continue to be denied their basic rights. These people have been asked to sacrifice for the nation time and again, while being legally reduced to second-class citizens. When Mao called for a peasant led revolution, they heeded his call, they haven’t forgotten this, but perhaps the party has.