China’s 150m migrant workers are treated as second-class citizens. A new scheme is aimed at changing perceptions
Dish after dish arrives at the tables: succulent lamb, cloud-ear mushrooms, steaming corncobs and whole roast fish. Bottles of beer are quickly replaced as glasses clink and empty.
The 30 guests of honour in this cheery Beijing restaurant are taken aback less by the abundance than by the fact of the dinner itself. After all, these are labourers from the province, and they have never met their host before. The wealthy entrepreneur is treating them as part of a new scheme to bridge a social gulf: Invite a Migrant Worker to Dinner. Organisers hope 10,000 fellow urbanites across China will follow suit.
“I didn’t believe it at first. We all thought it was a joke,” said Wang Wenyuan, a foreman who moved from rural Shanxi province to the capital three years ago. “It’s impossible for us to be asked to dinner. This is the first time I’ve been invited by a city person.”
China’s 150 million migrant workers are the force that has powered its economic miracle, yet they are treated as second-class citizens. The country’s hukou, or household registration system, divides people into urban and rural dwellers and allocates their rights to services such as education and health accordingly. Migrants have little choice but to keep moving. The real income ratio between town and country is more than 5:1, according to recent research – a gap around 26% wider than in 1997. But those who construct the cities’ buildings and clean their streets are condemned to poorer services, greater vulnerability and, often, the disdain of established residents.
Tonight’s diners talk not just about the punishing hours and the years away from home and family, but about the petty indignities: the glances from urbanites when you climb onto a bus with a bundled quilt or, still grimy from the day’s labour, pass them on the street. “If there are 10 people, maybe two of them will treat us like equals. The rest still look down on us,” said builder Li Yunfei. Though some think attitudes are improving, with city residents admiring their work ethic, the stereotypes are oddly familiar to western ears: migrants are dirty and uncouth. They undercut wages and overwhelm services.
Yang Pei, the young woman who devised the dinner programme, says she hopes that sitting down to eat together will allow the two groups to get to know each other. “I hope the word nongmingong [rural or migrant worker] can fall out of use and people will feel ashamed to use it,” said Prof Wang Zhenyao of Beijing Normal University, one of several scholars backing the scheme. “People tend to think cities can get rid of them. But without those migrant workers, cities cannot function properly.”
Older workers, who always intended to return home, may not care so much. But younger ones want to become urban citizens, yet see no hope, said sociologist Lu Huilin of Peking University. “They feel the disparity between their lives and those of city dwellers,” he said. “They are unsatisfied. They hold grudges against and even show their contempt for urban citizens.”
Last year, a report by an official thinktank warned the new generation would become a threat to stability unless given the rights they deserve. Clashes have already occurred between migrants and longer term residents. Such friction has fuelled growing calls for drastic reform or outright abolition of the hukou, designed for a planned economy that no longer exists. Trial schemes have allowed migrants to register as urbanites within their home region. But officials worry about the strain on cities, potential instability and the mammoth cost of expanding welfare. The pilots have had mixed results, with migrants reluctant to give up their farmland, fearing inadequate compensation and the loss of their safety net. When substantial programmes falter, it is hard to imagine a meal – or even 10,000 – overturning entrenched discrimination.
It is easy to be cynical; the dinners were launched by recruitment site Gongzhongwang, where Yang Pei works, and several have been hosted by celebrities, with television cameras at hand to record their generosity. Tonight’s dinner is hosted by Victor Yuan, a well-known media personality. But supporters say high-profile figures and publicity are exactly what’s needed to shift wider attitudes. And Yuan – who grew up in a family of pig farmers – gives each guest his mobile number.
Such connections can matter. The construction crew’s last boss hired them to work 10-hour days for three months, then refused to pay. When they protested, he sent thugs to beat them and warned them not to take things further: he had relationships with people that mattered, they didn’t. The workers were about to head home when they were invited to dinner. “After this, I’m trying to persuade them to stay. I will try my luck again,” said Wang Wenyuan.
Additional research by Kathy Gao
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