A Floating City of Peasants

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Floris-Jan van Luyn, The New Press, £21.99

China's economic boom is largely powered by migrant workers, peasants who have moved to the cities in the largest migration in human history. Currently there are between 120 and 150 million migrants in the cities, yet very little is known about their lives and ambitions, which makes this book particularly welcome. A Floating City of Peasants is reportage rather than history, taking the life stories of some 20 or 30 people to give a vivid sense of the migrant experience.

Migrants get the worst jobs and housing while being excluded from education and healthcare and blamed for street crime. Although this sounds familiar, there are big differences with the West. Migrants in China mostly don't face outright racism (apart from Muslim migrants from the western provinces, but van Luyn doesn't include any of them in this book). What they do encounter is widespread prejudice about "backward" peasants, which can make integration both more and less difficult than in the West.

Another major difference is that as many women migrate as men (if not more). In the new industrial zones they are preferred as factory workers for their greater dexterity and (supposed) docility. In the cities they become domestic workers or are drawn into the ever-growing "entertainment" industries, often meaning thinly disguised sex work.

But while van Luyn is explicit about the dangers and hardships of migrant life, he is careful to show migrants as actors, rather than just victims. This is partly done through a series of accounts of the migrants' home villages, showing how rural life has become increasingly difficult over the last ten years. Equally important, though, is what the migrants want for the future.

Almost none of them are content with their lives, and all want better for their children. They see their current work as making that more likely. Migrant workers do strike, riot and organise collectively, though those experiences aren't reflected here. But even when speaking of their personal ambitions, there's a powerful sense of the confidence and changed horizons that the experience of migration has brought to people.

They know that, even if they are disposable individually, collectively they are essential to the Chinese economy. Van Luyn illustrates this by describing Chinese New Year:

"When the peasant workers leave the city en masse - which they do once a year - a large part of public life is completely at a standstill... coal is no longer delivered, no one picks up the garbage in the narrow alleys, door to door deliveries of milk, vegetables and beer are halted... all construction projects are interrupted, and factories close temporarily. Without the peasants, the city functions at half power."

Since this book was written, the number of migrant workers in southern China has fallen. It is too soon to tell if this is permanent or just a blip, but one government survey found that in the majority of villages they studied there was no one left to migrate. If that's true, the future of the Chinese boom seems even more uncertain.