Internal migration alters China's face Opportunity: Millions of rural workers pour into large cities in search of jobs. Successful ones may send money home to their villages.

January 29, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZIRAN, China -- After more than 24 hours of grueling train and bus rides, Chen Enwu returned to the family farm last week to see his 3-year-old daughter, Hong-hong, for the first time in nearly a year.

As he walked across the muddy yard toward her, the little girl scurried away, scattering chickens and roosters.

Chen had spent the past 11 months in Beijing earning money for his family; Hong-hong did not recognize him.

Moments like this are part of the price Chen pays for a better life.

In the past decade, he and tens of millions of others have left China's farms in a human deluge that is changing the face of the world's most populous country and much of the rest of Asia.

The government's residency permit system that once strictly limited movement here has been swamped as migrants pour into cities looking for better jobs and incomes made possible by the late leader Deng Xiaoping's market reforms.

While Chinese migrants strain infrastructure and are often blamed for rising crime, they also send millions of dollars to their relatives back home, helping to reduce a growing income gap between rural and urban families that could destabilize the country.

Then, once a year, the tide turns. In recent weeks, Chen and millions of city workers have returned to the land to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the nation's major holiday that migrants usually stretch into several weeks or more.

The tale of Chen's homecoming illuminates one of the great trends sweeping across this largely rural nation of 1.2 billion people as it evolves into an increasingly urban society.

To appreciate the disparity between life in China's cities and countryside, one need only visit the tiny room on the outskirts of Beijing where Chen lives with his wife, Li Qingling.

Part of a traditional Chinese courtyard house, their room measures about 10 feet square. There is no kitchen, no bathroom and no running water.

A teakettle wheezes on the only source of heat, a tiny coal-burning stove. Space is so tight that the couple keep their clothes in plastic grocery bags that hang from nails in the plaster walls.

And yet, as Chen prepares one night for his trip back to Anhui province in East China, he says: "Life here is much better than in the countryside."

Back home, he had neither a job nor land to farm. Here, he has opportunity.

Chen does light construction work on apartments while Li spends seven days a week working as an "ayi," or maid, for several families. They earn more than $2,400 a year -- about 20 times what Chen says he could make back home.

Although life is better in Beijing, the couple still can't afford to educate their daughter there. A year of school costs more than $400, compared with about $70 in the village. So, Honghong lives with Chen's 70-year-old parents nearly 800 miles away.

Chen and Li begin their journey back to Anhui around 10 o'clock one morning at Beijing's West Railway Station, the largest in Asia. The couple melds into the crowd of 2,000 other passengers who push and shove their way through a cavernous waiting room onto a train for the 19-hour ride to Hefei, Anhui's capital.

The trip is an ordeal.

Men battle for space on the luggage racks, jamming them so tight that a suitcase falls onto a passenger's forehead, where it leaves a bloody gash. By evening, the train's toilets have clogged and the air has become saturated with cigarette smoke.

Passengers toss sunflower seed shells, orange rinds, beer bottle caps and even cooked rice into the aisle as though it were a communal compost heap.

Yet the circumstances are luxurious compared with trips in years past, when trains have been so crowded that people slept on luggage racks, sat on tables and lay in the aisles.

Two bus rides and more than a day later, Chen and Li arrive in the village, pale and beleaguered but smiling. The homecoming is initially bittersweet.

Not having seen his son for a year, Chen's taciturn father drifts aimlessly about town for hours before he feels comfortable enough to sit down and chat. Li drops her bags inside and rushes over to nuzzle Honghong.

"Call me 'Mama,' " she reminds the little girl.

The family farmhouse is made of stone, bamboo and cement. Although the temperatures dip into the mid-teens at night, it is unheated.

In recent years, however, living conditions have improved. The family has bought a propane stove to supplement their wood-fired woks. They have a ceiling fan, a television and a karaoke machine, all thanks to the $360 Chen sends home from Beijing each year.

Two decades ago, the family did not have enough clothing or food, says Chen's father, Chen Xianda. The extra money has transformed their lives.

"If I didn't have a son, I would go to a nursing home," says the elder Chen, who came of age in a Communist China that promised every worker an "iron rice bowl" -- a job for life with cradle-to-grave benefits -- but now offers little in the way of a social safety net.

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