In December 1978 the leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Deng Xiaoping launched a series of economic reforms (known as gǎigé kāifàng (改革开放 ) in Chinese). Some of the most significant newly implemented measures were the decollectivization of agriculture and the opening up to foreign investments. The establishment of this new economic structure based on market economy principles emphatically drew the line dividing China’s rural and urban landscapes. In urban areas, particularly coastal future megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, foreign investment stimulated the local economy – wages of residents increased and living conditions improved. Yet, these economic reforms were ineffective in alleviating problems in the lives of China’s huge rural population. While coastal cities were growing into future Londons, and New Yorks, rural China was and still is waiting.

With the desire of improving their lives, millions of Chinese farmers have been migrating to fast developing urban China – new hubs of capitalism and free market. Since the end of the 20th century the number Chinese migrant workers (known as floating population or liúdòng rénkǒu (流动人口) in Chinese) has been increasing. Reaching 230 million people in 2011, China’s floating population adds up to 17% of China’s total population – making their annual journeys the greatest migration of people in the world’s history. The migration happens on two different scales. At the national scale, farmers move from central China to the east coast’s urban centers. At the provincial scale, farmers from rural areas move to their province’s capital or other provincial fast developing urban spaces.

No matter if we take the economic, social, or cultural perspectives, rural and urban China are very distinctive spaces. Whereas cities like Shanghai embody a super-capitalist, western way of life, parts of rural China still consider electricity a luxury. Thus, it is hard to imagine what it is like for a Chinese farmer to be forced, out of need, into becoming a migrant worker and to move between these two different worlds. Maybe, it is the first time that he takes the train. Departing from her family’s land with little money and a few clothes, she leaves her life behind for a new one. Hours or days later, they both arrive in Shanghai’s railway station, Guangzhou’s underground bus terminal, or Kunming’s South Station – some of China’s most crowded places, without really knowing what comes next. They see so many cars, lights and people for the first time, and they hear street vendors shouting over an unstoppable background of honking taxis. They smell the dark exhaust of buses as they accelerate to get to the next stop, and observe stress on every street and in everyone’s eyes. That is how I had imagined the first day of a farmer in a Chinese city. I had a chance to fill in the blanks of my story in China during the fall of 2013 when I was studying geography at Yunnan University in Kunming, a Chinese second tier city.

At Middlebury I had already had an opportunity to deepen my knowledge about the geography of migrant workers. But physically being in China gave me the chance to approach and interview them and uncover the real stories behind the Chinese rural exodus. What were their reasons? How did their lives change? Are they happy? Happier? As they move between the very contrasting rural and urban spaces, I originally assumed that migrants’ definition of their own identity would face some changes, be contested, or even profoundly transformed. I thought that to integrate into urban society, Chinese migrant workers would have to relinquish some of their farmer’s identity and trade it for a partially assimilated townsman or townswoman’s identity. The reality is all so different. Based on existing research and my own interviews, I found that an overwhelming number of migrants have a very clear idea of their own identity: while they live and work in the city, they do not regard themselves as urban citizens but still entirely conceive themselves as farmers.

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I am walking down QiánJú Street. Bus 54 is racing up in zigzags between cyclists, scooters, and honking taxis. In front of me a group of cheerful children in school uniforms are walking back to their homes. Sitting on my left is an older man who plays a traditional Chinese string instrument called the jīnghú. I notice him everyday as I stroll by, the tranquility of the man stands out in this turbulent environment. Another two hundred meters and I will arrive at the local food market. I turn left, pass an ordinary restaurant, circumvent a family driving on their electric scooter, and there it is: mangos, pomelos, melons, apples, bananas, pears, chestnuts, walnuts, 等等 are pilling up arranged by size and quality. Behind the fruits are the vegetables. After the vegetables the meat stands, and in the rear of the market are the fish still swimming in the accommodated basins.

At the end of the first series of stalls I meet with two migrants selling clementines and steamed sweet corn. Qín jiànjūn (秦建军) and Huáng méi (黄梅) are originally from Xuānwēi in northwest Yunnan and moved to Kunming in 2001. Their children’s education was the principle reason for Qín and Huáng to abandon their farmer’s life and move to Kunming. They married a few years later in 2005, and their first child was born not long after. Their son is now 7 years old and goes to an elementary school in the city. Like most of the other migrant’s children, the couple’s son cannot afford to attend the expensive better public schools. Their second child, a girl, is still in Xuānwēi where she lives with her grandparents. Qín and Huáng have not seen their daughter for almost a year now, but they hope she can come to Kunming in a few months; this way she too will be able to receive a better education.

Across from the busy street a young woman is selling shoes and dresses in a small shop. I often see her sitting outside observing people and life as it passes by. Her name is Zhānglì (张黎 ), 19 years old. She comes from a rural town situated in the south of Sìchuān (四川). Sichuan is the province north of Yunnan; it is also the province that has the largest outflow of migrants in China. Zhāng was 2 years old when together with her parents they moved to Kunming eager to find a less tiring job. Since the family arrived in Kunming 17 years ago, Zhāng has not gone back to Sichuan. She has no farming experience, and yet when I ask her how she would describe herself she tells me without hesitating: “I am a farmer.” When I query her opinion on locals she asks me to wait until two clients leave the shop. She then says: “when they speak the local dialect I do not really understand. Some of them are a little weird too; they will buy meat for their dogs and cats but they cannot afford any for themselves. They treat their pets like their own children. People do not act the same in Sichuan.” As a foreigner I cannot grasp the difference that Zhāng so strongly senses between her hometown in Sichuan and Kunming. Even though she spent nearly all her life in Kunming, she does not feel she fits into the local landscape. I am surprised that Zhang, who has only spent the 2 youngest years of her life in Sichuan, speaks so vividly about it.

To understand why Zhāng and in fact the majority of other migrant workers do not feel they belong in the city, it is important to realize that Chinese cities are divided spaces. On one side are the locals, and on the other side are the wàidì rén (外地人), or outsiders. The division is visible at all scales. Even a simple map of Kunming reveals the spatial separation between these two groups. In Chuánfáng (船房), a community in the southwest of Kunming, there reside only 4300 local people but there are between 80 to 90 thousand migrants. This heterogeneous distribution of locals and migrants reflects the economic inequalities: migrants tend to cluster in cheap, illegal, and unsafe housing such as the ones in Chuánfáng. The existence of this spatial separation is further strengthened by a general unwillingness of members from both groups to interact with each other, an unwillingness fuelled by diverse factors such as the communication barrier growing from migrants and locals speaking different dialects. During one of my interviews a migrant who worked as security guard at a public school told me that he did not feel at ease in the home of a local. “My outfit, my shoes, my background, my culture, they all don’t fit the apartments of local people” he says: “I don’t feel welcome in that environment. I only interact with them when I have to, when I work, but it stops there.”

The main culprit behind this social and spatial urban division is the Chinese household registration system, or Hùkǒu (户口) in Chinese. China’s government established this new system in the late 1960s in order to better control population flow. From then on, every Chinese is, according to birthplace and family background, assigned to either the agricultural or non-agricultural status. Before the 1978 Reform and Opening up many migrants were actually sent back to their rural homes from the cities because their household registration status was “agricultural.” This way Chinese cities would not become overly crowded, and rural China would keep a necessary labor force to work on the farms. After 1978 the function of the household registration system changed. To fulfill the need of a large workforce in the fast developing coastal cities, Chinese officials turned a blind eye on illegal migrants working in cities with the agricultural status. There were good reasons why the Chinese government did not choose to simply abolish this law that was not any longer fulfilling its initial role. An “illegal” migrant in the city has only limited access to working, medical, welfare, housing, and education rights. Under these circumstances Chinese migrants have thus become a highly exploitable and very cheap labor force. There have been numerous analysts attributing much of the recent Chinese economic success to the national household registration system and its significant success in producing over two hundred million highly exploitable workers.

It is sometimes possible for migrants to change their household registration status from the agricultural to the non-agricultural status, but the process is tedious and selective – reserved to the wealthier and better educated. The ones unable to change status are subjected to the manifold consequences of this law. Economically speaking, the average income of a migrant worker is three times less than that of a local resident. Moreover, most migrants can only find employment in the 3D sector: Dirty, Demanding, and Dangerous. From a social perspective, for employment and economic safety in the city, migrants rely on a unique social network of migrants coming from the same hometowns. From a cultural standpoint, because migrants work, eat, and sleep only surrounded by relatives or individuals from their hometowns, a cultural bubble is created in which communities of migrants can keep their own religious, linguistic, culinary, and other cultural landmarks. Thus, the household registration system remains the structural force in place alienating migrant workers from the urban society at the economic, social, and cultural level.

Wángguó fā (王国发) is the exception that confirms the rule. Coming from a rural town in the North of Guìzhōu (贵州) (Guizhou is the province east of Yunnan province) he tells me that he feels half farmer and half urban citizen. According to him his sense of personal identity was affected by his economic situation. Wáng is self-employed as a wood carver, and with an average income of ¥5000 a month he earns significantly more than most migrant workers. He tells me that he even has time to go hiking with friends, friends whom he proudly says are from all backgrounds: Chinese and foreigners, locals and migrants. For Wáng being successful economically meant locals conceded his belonging to Kunming’s landscape and enabled him to broaden his social network. His many friends also had an impact on his own cultural identity. He now believes his two children should marry who they want and study what they are interested in; viewpoints which he says are not common in his hometown. But more importantly Wáng’s household registration agricultural status has lost all its meaning for him. He says agricultural or non-agricultural status “they are all the same thing.” Nonetheless for most migrant workers, agricultural or non-agricultural statuses are not the same and keep playing a primary role in their day-to-day life and long distance future.

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Over the last decade, because of pressure from diverse parties, minor changes have been made to the household registration system. Most notably (and recently), during the CPC’s Third Plenary Session that took place in November 2013, changes were made to give individuals from both agricultural and non-agricultural status equal rights in third-tier cities. But the Chinese government still hesitates to give full rights to migrants in the bigger second and first-tier cities. Economically speaking it could lead to a disaster. What would happen in Guangzhou to the 420,000 migrant workers employed by Foxconn, a multinational electronics manufacturing company, if they suddenly had working rights? Would prices of our iPhones and iPads suddenly increase? Or would Foxconn and other multinational companies move to different places offering a more exploitable workforce?

As I walk back up the QiánJú Street, I see all these people who have left their farmer’s life in the hope of finding a better one in Kunming: the servant working in the ordinary restaurant and the workers with their yellow helmets that she is serving, the taxi driver who passes by and the man at the street corner who repaired my shoe for ¥3 this morning, the old couple that sells dumplings outside of the Yunnan University, and the security guard that sits in front of the hotel I stay at. Most foreigners do not notice that they all come from very different places. They seem to all fit too well in this urban landscape. Yet when you ask them, they will tell you they do not.