The next generation peasant worker

Migrant workers in the U.S. are most frequently not US citizens and, sometimes, not legal residents, migrant workers in China, however, are typically “rural” Chinese working in less well-paying and less desirable positions in the cities of the PRC.

One of my graduate students is doing research on migrant workers. When she first introduced the subject of her research as “the next generation peasant worker” I interpreted her statement to represent only differences in vocabulary. The choice of ‘peasant’ reflected the Marxist history and developmental realities of the country, I thought. I learned in pretty short order, however, that “peasant workers” are an official class of people in China. China has an internal passport (hukou) system which, based upon ancestry determines whether or not you are an urban or rural citizen and what town or region is considered your legal residence. You have education, social security, and property rights only in your home district. Urban dwellers generally have higher standards of living than their rural counterparts.

Industrial development means the Chinese people are on the move – many able-bodied adults leaving the family farm for the factory. However, in the cities where they are employed, peasant workers are not
full-citizens. As this article in The Economist
( makes clear, the urban/rural divide and the passport system that keeps it in place may prove problematic to the economic health of the country and is a politically sensitive subject. All the same, there is no agreement on how to move past the system. Further, peasants do not seem eager to give up their rural hukou for an urban one. My student studies a local program which offers urban hukou to “model peasant workers” – another official designation. She finds, as The Economist suggests, that the urban hukou is not considered desirable – that peasant workers hope to return to their land and their home villages when finances allow and prefer to leave their children at home with grandparents and other relatives in lieu of transplanting their families to expensive urban areas marked by expensive school and hospital fees and limited job security.

In my book, I ask how American community is constructed in the face of increasing linguistic, cultural, religious and racial diversity. At heart are the strategies that people use to create the “we” and “outsiders” of their local and identificational communities and, ultimately, the nation. So much of the discourse in the U.S. hinges upon the reification of the border between Americans/non-Americans (e.g. citizen vs. illegal; hard-working “real” American vs. latte-liberals). How does the discursive justification of inequality and exploitation play out in the Chinese system, where almost everyone is Chinese but most people are relegated to a life or rural hardship and hard labor in cities where they do not belong?

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