Since 1980, at least 262 million Chinese people have left China’s countryside for its cities. Most moved to work in manufacturing or construction, and today, one in three people living in a Chinese city is a migrant worker. A third live in cramped, company-owned dormitories, while one in six sleep on construction sites or factory floors 10. Few have access to healthcare and other benefits due to hukuo, a civil registration system that rules people can only claim welfare in the place they were born.
“We brought all the furniture, the bed and the TV,” says Tao Jiang, 26, of her 2009 move with her husband, Zhenhui, and their two children into a repurposed shipping container in Shanghai. Their landlord lives in the container next door, and charges tenants 500RMB (US$80) rent every month. Though the steel walls of the container offer zero insulation, they give families a degree of privacy they could never get in dormitories. Jiang says the worst problems are the lack of a toilet or running water, but a more conventional apartment is out of the question: “With our limited income we could never afford it.”
In December 2013, the Chinese government outlined plans 11 to relocate a further 250 million people to cities by 2025, but few in this second wave will live like Jiang. Farmers are being lured with free government apartments, generous offers for their land and a promise to reform hukuo. In the wake of the low-wage laborers, a generation of urban consumers is being groomed, ready to buy what the factories build.