Making Capitalism in Rural China
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Making Capitalism in Rural China

Michael Webber

This stimulating and challenging book explores the duplicitous nature of development in China. On the positive side, it brings longer and healthier lives; fewer children dead before they are five years old; more comfort and security from famine and disaster; more education; more communication; more travel; less war. But from another, darker perspective, development brings violence to some people – those who are in the way of the new things, those who cannot adapt to the new ways – and it threatens old knowledges, habits and societies as it disrupts old power structures.
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Chapter 8: Ethnicity, Poverty, Migration

Michael Webber


1 Rural–urban migration is one of the principal forces for change in rural China. Sometimes peasants are forced to migrate to cities when they lose access to land – as at Three Gorges and on the steppe. But rural–urban migration is commonly a response to differences in living standards between urban and rural areas. It is a response manifest through the market: people’s allegiance to paid employment is bought rather than forced, as they decide to give up independent commodity-producing agriculture in favour of casual, urban jobs. Most migrants are the sons and daughters of peasants in villages like Beidaolaban who for personal reasons or household strategy give up on struggling to earn a living from agriculture and instead seek their luck as industrial workers or small traders. They become a ‘floating population’.2 Chinese data on migration, particularly rural–urban migration, are unreliable.3 Officially, perhaps 150 million rural citizens had migrated to China’s cities by 2004, and as many as 225 million just before the financial crisis caused so many to be laid off in late 2008 (Table 8.1).4 However, birth and death rates in rural and urban areas imply that up to 330 million former rural residents now live in cities. The various sources do agree that annual rates of rural–urban migration have increased rapidly. By the early 2000s, the rates were three times those of the early 1990s. Much has been written about rural–urban migrants and their conditions of work as China’s new urban...

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