Outside the family’s 'stewed meat' shop in Shennongjia: (back row, from left) Xiang Lihong, Xiang Ju, her mother and her sister-in-law. Front row, from left: daughters Xiang Qinqin and Xiang Qianqiu, Xiang Ju’s nephew and Xiang Dong, her brother
Outside the family’s 'stewed meat' shop in Shennongjia: (back row, from left) Xiang Lihong, Xiang Ju, her mother and her sister-in-law. Front row, from left: daughters Xiang Qinqin and Xiang Qianqiu, Xiang Ju’s nephew and Xiang Dong, her brother © Graeme Nicol

With just a week to go before the Chinese lunar New Year, Xiang Ju is packing her bag in the small, cold room she rents in a slum outside Beijing’s east fifth ring road.

She rubs her hands together and stamps her good leg for warmth as she reaches for the crutches that will carry her back to her home town 1,500km away on the banks of the Yangtze River, near the massive Three Gorges dam.

After more than five years working as a nanny and domestic servant in the capital, an accident on an icy patch of pavement has cost her almost a year’s salary for reconstructive knee surgery — and she still has to get home for the most important festival on the Chinese calendar.

“I’m excited to see my daughters and to go home to my village — everything tastes better there, even the rice!” she says. “But it’s such a long way and such a hassle when I can’t walk; I’m a big target for thieves and cheats along the way.”

She limps out into the alley, where dried fish and a sack of desiccated pig trotters are hanging next to someone’s laundry. The cacophony of accents and dialects around her matches the billboards advertising delicacies from the far-flung provinces of Fujian, Henan, Sichuan and Manchuria.

Passing the sign for “Old Zhang’s flame-grilled donkey meat”, Xiang Ju looks up at the eerie whooping sound as a flock of pigeons with clay whistles tied to their legs swoops overhead. Everyone here is from somewhere else in China and this ramshackle, makeshift neighbourhood will probably be gone in a year to make way for the new high-rise apartments that are already encroaching on its edges.

Not that Xiang Ju cares. She is about to join an annual ritual that is not only the biggest human migration but probably the biggest mammalian migration on earth each year. In 2015, an estimated 170 million people caught trains or flights out of China’s biggest cities heading home for the lunar New Year. The government counted about 3 billion “passenger trips” nationwide during the 40-day travel rush, including cars and buses.

Like Xiang Ju, most of these people were born and raised as peasant farmers in the countryside and later moved to China’s megacities to work in low-paid manufacturing, construction and service jobs. In 1978, on the eve of economic reforms that first unleashed this flood of humanity, less than 20 per cent of China’s population lived in a city. Today, 55 per cent of people in the world’s most populous country live in urban areas.

But about 275 million, or more than a third of China’s entire labour force, are migrant workers from the countryside, without the right to settle permanently or access the education, pensions or healthcare provided to those with hereditary “urban” status.

Some experts have likened these barriers to South African apartheid because of the way those born into “rural” households are automatically treated as second-class citizens. The World Bank says the average migrant worker in China stays in the city for just seven to nine years, and although more than half would eventually like to settle there, only 20 per cent have brought their families to live with them.

Xiang Ju, as she sets out to travel from Beijing to the village of Xiangjiawan
Xiang Ju, as she sets out to travel from Beijing to the village of Xiangjiawan © Graeme Nicol

Partly because of these policies and partly because of economic factors and demographic changes exacerbated by the decades-old one-child policy, the tide of migrants in China is now turning. Official figures show annual growth in migrant numbers has slowed to less than 2 per cent from much higher rates in the past. However, these data are not very reliable and some economists believe the number is already shrinking, as evidenced by labour shortages in many places and the rapid rise in migrant wages in recent years.

Many prominent economists believe China has reached the so-called Lewis Turning Point, a theory developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis that explains the moment when the supply of cheap rural labour to the industrialised economy runs out. This has huge implications, not just for China’s economic model but for all of modern Chinese society. “Migration of peasants to the cities is what created China’s economic miracle,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared in March this year.

As that migration ends and potentially goes into reverse, many are worried that the miracle will end with it. And, since the ruling Communist party’s legitimacy is now based primarily on its ability to provide rapid economic growth, the end of the miracle could threaten the stability of the regime.

The end of the previously unlimited supply of cheap, pliant workers from China’s countryside also provides an opportunity for other, poorer countries in Africa and elsewhere in Asia to take away the low-cost manufacturing that China took from the west. “China’s existing growth model is running out of steam,” the World Bank said in a recent report. “Rapidly rising migrant wages in cities and shortages of low-skilled labor suggest that fewer people than before — and fewer than warranted on economic grounds — choose to leave the countryside to move to the city.”

So far, the government’s response to this momentous epochal shift has been to try to encourage more migration to smaller cities and less to the giant metropolises. It has tightened the “household registration” apartheid system when it comes to places like Beijing, while loosening it for migrants wanting to move to less desirable cities. Beijing has also been encouraging rapid industrial upgrading and trying to foster technological innovation as a way to improve productivity, even as the benefits of China’s “demographic dividend” fade.

Xiang Ju en route to her village
Xiang Ju en route to her village: 'It’s such a hassle when I can’t walk – I am a target for thieves' © Graeme Nicol

Having experienced discrimination and depredation as migrants, many people like Xiang Ju are deciding they do not want that life for themselves or their children. Her story may not be entirely typical but it does represent the kind of ambivalent experience many find in the cities.

Becoming a migrant was a matter of necessity for her and her husband as they attempted to save their family from a crushing debt. She is now materially wealthier than she could ever be from working her family’s tiny plot of land. But the things she has lost, including her marriage and the chance to watch her two daughters (now aged 14 and 21) grow into young women, make it hard to convince herself she made the right choice. For her and her family, the things they held most precious have been destroyed in the process of trying to save them.

Xiang Ju’s fellow passengers jostle and shove as they emerge from the Beijing train in the dirty grey dawn of Yichang, the industrial city with the closest train station to her ancestral village. The chemical-laced smog strips the back of her throat raw but it also makes for a pretty pink sunrise.

She is soon settled on a rattling long-distance bus meandering along the bank of the Yangtze River. Her route home on a series of buses and ferries takes her right past the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest, which took more than a decade to build and involved the forced relocation of about 1.5 million people, including Xiang Ju and her family.

Once past the dam, the bus starts to climb up narrow roads snaking higher and higher above the river and the scenery gradually changes from industrial monotony to picturesque orange groves and tea plantations. This area is the ancient home of Qu Yuan, the greatly admired patriotic poet and minister from the fourth century BC, whose suicide by drowning provided the origin of dragon boating and the dragon boat festival.

Xiang Ju's 1,500km route

Xiang Ju’s home village is called Xiangjiawan — Xiang Family Bay — and virtually everyone there shares her surname. But the only one of Xiang Ju’s close relatives left in the village of about 210 people is her aunt, a sprightly 82-year-old who reminisces about the elation everyone felt at the communist victory in 1949. Neighbours and distant relatives come to the door of her aunt’s narrow, three-storey brick house to hear Xiang Ju’s news and ask how she hurt her leg.

According to the village’s Communist party secretary, 60 per cent of the village (virtually every adult under 40) spends the year working as a migrant elsewhere, only coming back around now for the lunar New Year spring festival. “Usually, only the very young and the old live here. But everyone moves back after they turn 50. Who would want to live forever in the big city — the air is so horrible and life is too hard,” says the secretary, Wang Jianguo. Xiang Ju says her ultimate goal is to return and live in bucolic tranquillity in her family’s thatched mud-brick house just up the hill, growing her own food and living the simple life of a peasant farmer.

She was born here in 1970, the year of the dog, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution — a time when food was scarce and endless political campaigns were rolling across the country. When she was small the family ate meat just once a year at Chinese new year and survived mostly on sweet potatoes, cornmeal, peanuts, cucumbers, chilli peppers and potatoes they grew themselves.

Her father, a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army from the time of the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea” (known elsewhere as the Korean war), was away most of the time building roads for a state-owned enterprise. His government job meant the family never starved like some others in the countryside but it was tough work, and when he was in his early forties he suffered a stroke that paralysed half his body.

Xiang Ju was a bad student and dropped out of the village school at 15 when her father got sick so she could help around the house and work on the small family vegetable plot with her older sister and younger brother. When she was 22 some friends introduced her to Xiang Lihong, a young man from a nearby village whom she married in 1992 after six months of courting. When their first daughter, Qinqin, was born the young family moved to a larger town by the river in search of opportunity.

Xiang Ju's family watching TV and eating fruit and nuts in the family apartment in Shennongjia
Watching TV and eating fruit and nuts in the family apartment in Shennongjia © Graeme Nicol

For the first couple of years they sold vegetables on the side of the road — cabbages and radishes grown in their village by relatives — before switching to selling shoes. Lihong would travel 430km downstream to the metropolis of Wuhan to buy shoes to bring back and sell at a roadside stall. But when the construction of the Three Gorges dam was completed in 2001 and the giant reservoir started to fill, the town they were living in was demolished and submerged and they were forced to move to a new town on higher ground.

Around this time their second daughter, Qianqiu, was born and Xiang Ju’s father died. The one-child policy in this part of the country has been modified to deter female infanticide and allows any couple whose first child is a girl to have a second child after seven years.

Even as their family expanded, their little business venture was under assault from powerful forces. Many of their customers were employed by state-owned enterprises that were going bankrupt and shedding workers who had always assumed they would have an “iron rice bowl” job for life.

As those newly unemployed people went off to be migrant workers in the big cities they were able to buy their own shoes — and bring back pairs for family and friends rather than buying them from Xiang Ju and Lihong. By 2007, the couple were out of business with a debt of Rmb30,000 to a local credit co-operative.

For the first year or so, Lihong tried to earn money hauling goods on a three-wheel flatbed motorbike while Xiang Ju stayed home to look after their daughters. But in 2008 their precarious situation convinced her to go and work in a lightbulb factory in a town several hours away. “We really needed to pay back this loan and we were worried about being able to pay for our daughters’ education, so to save my family I became a migrant worker,” she says.

Xiang Ju’s family celebrating Chinese New Year with fireworks
Xiang Ju’s family celebrating Chinese New Year with fireworks © Graeme Nicol

By working 12 hours a day, six days a week, she earned Rmb800-Rmb1,000 a month. But the air in the factory was so toxic that she had to spend a chunk of this on Chinese medicine, and most nights she could not sleep from coughing. “I was there for a year, but it was so poisonous I honestly think I would have died if I worked there much longer,” she says.

While sitting at home recovering from that ordeal, she saw an advertisement on television for a government-organised job-placement programme for domestic servants in Beijing. After a full body check and 10 days of training in a regional city she was sent to Beijing, where 5,000 women from across the country were greeted as “model workers” in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square and then sent for 15 days of military training.

She got her first job immediately: cooking, cleaning and caring for a one-year-old boy whose mother was a professor at one of China’s top universities and whose father stayed home all day trading shares on the stock market. “When I first arrived I could really ‘eat bitterness’ and so I worked very hard,” she says. “They were very nice to me and when I left to go home for Chinese new year after about a year they told me not to be so honest, dependable and exploitable in my next job.”

Her monthly salary in that first job in 2009 was Rmb1,700. By late 2014 she had worked successively for five different families and her monthly salary had increased to Rmb7,000.

Economists say the best evidence they have for the arrival of the Lewis Turning Point has been the rapid rise of migrants’ wages in recent years. “These increases reflect real supply and demand in the labour market and show that the whole condition in China has changed,” says Huang Yiping, a professor at Peking University and one of the first economists to identify the arrival of the Turning Point in China. “The Lewis Turning Point has arrived earlier in China than in other economies and earlier than we would expect, partly because growth has been so fast but also because of the distorting effect of the one-child policy.”

Xiang Ju's family sharing a traditional feast
Traditional feast © Graeme Nicol

When she first arrived in Beijing, Xiang Ju’s only goal was to earn enough money to pay off her family’s debt and put her daughters through school, but somewhere along the way her expectations changed and her dreams expanded. From a girl who worried about where her next meal would come from she is now a middle-aged woman who frets about putting on weight and follows fad diets.

Even the way she speaks has changed. Like someone from Manchester, Leeds or Glasgow who moves to London and gradually softens their accent until they sound like they could have been born by the Thames, her thick rural brogue has been transformed into fairly standard Mandarin.

“When I was small I didn’t have hopes and dreams — I was just focused on having enough to eat and having clothes to wear. And when I first went to Beijing I just wanted to make enough money,” she says. “Now I realise that is not enough. I am not satisfied. My dream now is to have my own company one day. I’m not sure if I will be able to achieve it.”

But even as her horizon has widened she has lost much of what she had, and what made her become a migrant to begin with. Both her daughters say their studies have suffered from not having their parents around — and she herself says her marriage is basically over. She and her husband see each other just once or twice a year, usually around Chinese new year. Although the rise of mobile chat apps has allowed her to keep in regular contact with her daughters, she refuses to speak by phone to her husband Lihong.

The day after she visits her aunt in the village, her husband arrives unexpectedly. Their first communication in more than six months is an enormous fight.

The rooftops of Shennongjia, home to Xiang Ju’s mother and brother
The rooftops of Shennongjia, home to Xiang Ju’s mother and brother © Graeme Nicol

Lihong, 45, is short and wiry with a sharp, dark, handsome face and barely a grey hair on his head. The seventh of eight brothers, his father committed suicide when he was two and his younger brother was just 40 days old. In a matter-of-fact way, he explains it was in 1973, in the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution, and many people were starving; he says his father just went mad from the pressure of trying to feed eight young boys in the midst of a near-famine.

When he was 11 he dropped out of the village school to help grow food and look after the few chickens and pigs the family could afford. Less than a year later his mother died in her sleep and he and five brothers were forced to look after each other in their family hut, surviving on the couple of acres of land allotted to them by the village, until each eventually married and moved away.

“When I first saw her I thought Xiang Ju was the most beautiful girl I’d ever met, so I chased her until eventually she agreed to marry me,” he says.

Since 2010 he has also been a migrant worker on construction sites across China — including a nuclear power station on the southern tropical island of Hainan. In August last year he flew to Cameroon with several hundred other labourers to work for a Chinese state-owned enterprise building a hydropower dam.

It was the first time anyone from his family had ever left China or been on an aeroplane and the salary was supposed to be very good — Rmb12,000 a month on top of board and lodging.

3 billion

‘Passenger trips’ made during the 2015 New Year migration

He hated the place from the moment he arrived. The Chinese workers were mostly confined to the construction site but on the one occasion he was granted permission to leave for a day-trip to the capital Yaoundé, he says he realised what a nice, prosperous place China is. “Their capital city is not even as good as one of our small rural towns!” he says.

After two months he was incapacitated with malaria and a month later the company docked his pay and sent him home to China with less than two months’ wages. On his return last October he was hired to build apartments in Yichang but, amidst a nationwide real estate slump, the company said it did not have enough money to pay him when he was ready to go home for Chinese new year.

Over a dinner of spicy fish hotpot, seaweed soup, stir-fried snow peas, potato strips with chilli and a fiery grain liquor that tastes like Chinese medicine, he pours out his anguish while never directly addressing his wife, who looks at him with barely concealed contempt.

“She won’t even talk to me, so I can’t find out what I’ve done wrong. I’ve apologised to her many times for not being able to give her what she wants, for being unable to provide her with a prosperous and stable household,” he says in a quiet, mild-mannered voice. “We only see each other for a week or 10 days a year and then we have no shared language, nothing that connects us.”

While she has spent years refining her Mandarin in the company of her upper-class Beijing employers, he has spent that time with labourers from similarly humble backgrounds and his accent is almost unintelligible to people who do not speak the local dialect.


of Chinese people now live in urban areas

The next day, on a six-hour drive over mountain gorges in a late winter snow flurry, Xiang Ju still refuses to speak to him and the two of them sit at opposite ends of the bus. Their two daughters are waiting at the bus stop in Shennongjia, the mountain town where Xiang Ju’s mother lives with her younger brother and his family and where they will all spend Chinese new year together.

Barely a grunt passes between them as their younger daughter Qianqiu helps Xiang Ju hobble off the bus. Their older daughter Qinqin does not acknowledge her mother and walks off to hail a taxi to take them to the family’s “stewed meat” shop.

There is a festive atmosphere in the back of the shop, where Xiang Ju’s hunchbacked 70-year-old mother and sister-in-law are busy preparing food for the Chinese new year feast. While the family sits in the back, her garrulous brother serves the stream of customers lining up to buy the stewed and seasoned chicken feet, duck necks, pig feet, pig tails, beef tendons, pig ears and duck gizzards displayed in the shop window.

The lunar New Year spring festival in China is roughly equivalent to a secular Christmas in the west and involves family time, a lot of eating and drinking and the added excitement of vast quantities of fireworks. The town and surrounding hills shake with a fusillade of explosions as the family settles down for a traditional midday feast on the eve of the New Year.

After lunch, Qinqin, 21, a chubby and thoughtful girl who is studying factory management at a technical college in Wuhan, explains how her and her sister’s studies deteriorated dramatically after her parents left to be migrant workers. “We are abandoned children,” she says only half-jokingly.

She also says she and her mother fight constantly, and although she feels both her parents must be at fault for their relationship to get this bad, she at least sees her father trying to make things better while her mother cannot or will not even say what the real problem is.

People wait in line to board their trains ahead of Chinese new year
People wait in line to board their trains ahead of Chinese new year © Reuters

During lunch, Lihong indulges in a bottle of baijiu — the fiercely potent Chinese liquor — and afterwards, on a walk through the hills surrounding Shennongjia, he opens up about the state of his marriage.

“This should be the happiest time of the year but I’m so miserable I’ve even considered suicide,” he says. “When we were married I told Xiang Ju, even though I have no education and I’m not very smart, as long as I have two hands I will make sure they are working to look after my family and build a better life. But after she went to Beijing her expectations changed and she decided she wants much more out of life than I can give her.”

Then he confesses he thinks she is having an affair in Beijing. He is even suspicious of her explanation for the torn ligaments in her knee and thinks a patch of frozen pavement is not the real culprit. On an old mobile phone of hers that he took with him to Africa he found recorded arguments between her and a man he thinks may be her lover and who he believes may have broken her leg.

Several days later, sitting on the high-speed train back to Beijing, Xiang Ju is evasive about the circumstances surrounding her injury. She insists she twisted her leg when she slipped on a patch of ice while getting off a bus but can’t quite recall where the accident happened. She angrily denies that anyone broke her leg on purpose. As for what the future holds, she is adamant that her ultimate goal is still to return to Xiangjiawan, her native village, to grow her own food and live a simple rural life.

But since she is a migrant worker, and her leg surgery was done in an “urban” military hospital in Beijing, she is very unlikely to be compensated by the government for the nearly Rmb70,000 she has spent on medical bills. This has pushed her back into debt and means once her leg has healed she will have to keep working for a long time to pay that off and rebuild her savings.

On some level she also realises she is caught in a limbo between the romanticised rural life of her childhood and the big city that has changed her so much. “Once a personality and expectations have changed there is no way back,” she says. “Whatever happens, I will do my best to make sure my daughters get a good education, settle in one place and never end up as migrant workers in the big city.”

Growing numbers of migrant workers are reaching the same conclusion and the great tide of Chinese migration is now starting to reverse, especially as life has improved in the countryside relative to the overcrowded and polluted cities, thanks in part to years of government investment. When combined together, the poignant individual stories of hundreds of millions of people are bringing an end to the economic and social model that has powered China’s economy for more than three decades.

What comes next for the world’s most populous nation and its economy will depend on the choices and stories of the many millions like Xiang Ju and her family, who have grown weary of searching for a better life in the cities.

Additional reporting by Gu Yu

Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief

Gu Yu is a former FT news assistant

Photographs: Graeme Nicol; Reuters

A series of FT reports on China’s great migration continues in the newspaper and online on Tuesday May 5

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Demographic shifts drive change in China’s economy / From Chris Rowley

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