Sunday, September 12, 2004


From the NYT's Week in Review section, China's poor, rural migrant workers swarm to the cities:

its scale already dwarfs the migrations that reshaped America and the modern Western world. China, by official count, has 114 million migrant workers who have left rural areas, temporarily or for good, to work in cities, and that doesn't include tens of millions of family members who moved with them. Government experts predict the number will rise to 300 million by 2020, eventually to 500 million. Today, Shanghai alone has three million migrant workers; by comparison, the entire Irish migration to America from 1820 to 1930 is thought to have involved perhaps 4.5 million people.

"This is the largest movement in human history," said Cheng Li, a government professor at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., who specializes in China. "It is far bigger, and the speed is unprecedented."

For now, the government is encouraging migration to promote its immediate goal of providing cheap factory and construction labor and its long-term goal of urbanization. Every wealthy modern nation has had to shift from a rural-based economy to an urban one in order to prosper. China is trying to make this transition - which involves a fifth of the world's population - in record time. How well, or poorly, the government handles this migration will determine whether these workers help create a middle-class society or just form a permanent underclass in a country that has already become sharply divided between rich and poor.


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