In 2017, there were approximately 137 million Chinese from the countryside living and working in the country’s cities. These individuals left their homes — sometimes with their families in tow — in search of opportunities for work, individual advancement, and social mobility. Many of them now live in what are known as “urban villages” — densely packed neighborhoods that grow out of nearby villages after they have been incorporated into a rapidly expanding city.
These areas’ older and sometimes illegally built housing stock offers poor and low-income residents an affordable place to stay, but their dense clusters of low-rise buildings and narrow alleys also make them targets for urban planners looking to modernize and expand China’s cities. In recent decades, urban villages across the country have been torn down and redeveloped, with the rural migrants who call these areas home evicted en masse.
Curious about how these mass dislocations have been affecting second-generation migrant youths — meaning either the children of rural migrant workers who relocated with their parents at a young age or those who were born in the city after their parents’ migration — I spent 14 months conducting fieldwork in “Yellow Field,” an urban village located at the edge of a large city in northern China. (To protect the subjects of my research, I have changed the village’s name.) What I found suggests that — in contrast to the stated goal of these projects — village demolitions have the potential to cause social problems down the road.
When an urban village is demolished, the focus is most often on whether villagers native to the area have been given reasonable compensation or how the city government is responding to petitions and protests initiated by nail households — families that refuse to move out of their homes. Often overlooked is the demolition’s hidden impact — decreased social mobility for the children of the low-income rural migrant workers who call these areas home. Migrant parents work hard to provide better lives for their children, but all it takes is a single demolition order for all their efforts to be undone.
Three years after dropping out of middle school, 17-year-old Ning — a pseudonym — now spends his days toiling on a construction site demolishing squatter apartments. The job is part of a citywide government campaign to tear down illegal buildings and “ensure the city’s safety.”
Three months ago, Ning and his migrant worker parents lived in Yellow Field. There, the family managed a small store selling water cooler refills to customers in the nearby skyscrapers, which Ning and two fellow migrants would deliver. If Yellow Field had not been demolished, Ning might have one day inherited his family’s business.
When I asked him how he felt about his career prospects, he seemed resigned. “The village’s demolition changed my life,” he said. “If it had not been demolished, my parents would have kept running the store until we earned enough money to move somewhere else. I have no skills or education. People like me have no choice but to work on construction sites.” According to him, his family is stuck working in the city until they can pay back the loan they took out to buy an apartment in the county seat near their rural hometown.
After years spent working odd jobs or peddling in the city, migrant workers are sometimes able to save a little money and make valuable social connections. Some — like Ning’s parents — then use their savings to open small stores. But demolition can leave migrant workers out in the cold, as the attendant rise in rent makes it more difficult for them to reopen, accumulate capital, and set down the more permanent roots in the city necessary for their children to move up the social ladder. In most cases, migrant youth have to start over from scratch.
Interestingly, this may be easier for the older generation to do. Used to moving around in search of opportunities, in my interviews they seemed far more willing than their children to simply try their luck elsewhere. For young migrants, however, these cities are their homes — the only lives they’ve ever known — far more so than the villages listed on their household registration papers. To those who — like Ning — hope to find a role in the informal economy in the city where they grew up, the destruction of urban villages closes off paths to a better future.
Sometimes even just the threat of demolition can have an adverse impact on the lives of young migrants. It is widely known within China that many schools for migrant children — who, as nonlocals, are frequently ineligible to attend publicly funded schools in the cities where they live — are staffed with inexperienced and unqualified teachers, and often offer rural migrants a low-quality education with few classes, a monotonous curriculum centered around copying texts, and an undemanding school atmosphere. What’s less known is that the risk of demolition often deters school operators from investing in their quasi-legal — or sometimes illegal — schools, many of which are run on a for-profit basis.
One migrant school owner I spoke with pointed to this uncertainty as a reason for the schools not investing in better equipment. “For ten years, people have been saying that this place is going to be demolished,” he said. “I may not be able to get back my funds if I invest in new equipment or better facilities.” He claimed he was saving that money to build a boarding school for migrant youth after the village was demolished. When I followed up about this plan, however, his wife told me that while they were indeed investing in a new school, it was aimed at the children of white-collar migrants — a far more lucrative market.
Over the course of my fieldwork, I found that most migrant youngsters were disinterested in formal schooling and frequently cynical about the low-quality education they were receiving. At one school, the computers were so old that computer class had to be cancelled. According to a seventh-grader at the school, however, donors had contributed a dozen replacement computers the previous summer. Rather than restart the computer class, the principal had locked the computers in a storehouse and had planned to sell them to fund other projects. When I asked the principal about it, he said he might use the funds from the sale to help build a new boarding school, or perhaps just invest them in real estate.
Still, during interviews, many students said they were determined to get an education and join the ranks of the country’s white-collar workers. To differing extents, they viewed educational attainment as a way to establish urban residence and elevate their social status. It is unfortunate, then, that their dreams of upward mobility through education are often quashed, as the threat of demolitions and a lack of oversight inspires those around them to pursue short-term profits over long-term gains.
In his book “Arrival City,” Doug Saunders wrote about life in 20 urban neighborhoods around the world — each home to large numbers of immigrants or migrants. He concluded that the most important things that these urban areas can provide to their new residents are opportunities for individual advancement and social mobility. These so-called arrival cities serve as springboards for migrants to jump up the social ladder — giving them hope, encouraging them to start businesses, and maximizing their opportunities for networking. In other words, according to this argument, China should be providing its urban villages with better governance and services, not bulldozing them.
Maintaining a healthy urban ecosystem is crucial to China’s socio-political stability. Declining social mobility among young migrants will cause their anger and indignation toward social and educational inequalities to bubble to the surface, and potentially fuel social unrest in the future — ironically, exactly the kind of outcome demolition programs were designed to prevent.
The rural migrant workers and their children who call the country’s urban villages home are the very people who have made China’s rapid development and economic growth possible. It is time to stop overlooking them and start thinking about how to build not just better cities, but a better life for all of their residents.
By Li Miao