• Valentina Saavedra and Vincent Liu

Chinese Migrant Workers: Contemporary Conditions and Representation


Globalization, according to Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (2006), is the “reorganization of time, space, people, and things”. Under such context, the unprecedented advancement in technology and economy enable mass movement of population. The border and the distance across places are no longer limiting individuals like they used to. China, with a population of 1,370,536,875 (National Bureau of Statistics, 2011), has taken a major place in the manufacturing segment of the global market. In every corner of the world, it is not hard to see products labeled with “Made in China”. However, while many people benefit from the low prices and good quality of Chinese products, few people are aware of the stories and issues behind them. Most of the products are made by migrant workers, who account for nearly one fifth of the entire Chinese population——286,520,000 people (National Bureau of Statistics, 2017). However, seeking a living in cities is not an easy task for migrant workers. To understand the challenges and issues with migrant workers, one must connect the history of Chinese migration and the current state of the representation of labor.

Easily ignored, migrant workers and their representations are rarely topics of discussion in contemporary media and can often be overlooked by the majority of the population. Therefore, it is important to ask these two questions: What are the contemporary conditions and representations of Chinese migrant workers, seen through the Chinese government’s perspective and the perspective of the migrant workers themselves? What are the stakes and implications involved in these modes of representation?

Exploring the hukou system and its effect on the migrant experience lays a basis for understanding the rural migrant experience. However, their representation is not one dimensional. Instead, it is multifaceted, with representation coming from both the Chinese government and the migrant workers themselves. The discrepancies between the representation of Chinese migrant workers by the government and the migrant workers themselves highlight the insufficiency in their representation within their citizenship, workplace, and community, revealing the inherent power hierarchy and presenting challenges in changing their circumstance.


Before an understanding of representation can occur, there must first be an understanding of the situation being presented to Chinese migrant workers, coming from rural to urban districts. The main reason why large numbers of workers are traveling so far is because of China’s economic boom occurring over the last three decades, mostly in the manufacturing sectors (Holdstock, 2017: 5). The abundance of cheap labor from the countryside made China an attractive place for multinational corporations to open factories (Holdstock, 2017: 5).

Migrating to a large city and buying a home is not an option for most workers because every Chinese citizen has a hukou, a document that ties them to a specific place (Holdstock, 2017: 6). A person’s ability to claim rights to basic services such as health care, education, subsidized public housing, a pension, and unemployment benefits are limited to the area where they are registered, and the same applies for their children (Holdstock, 2017: 6). This system grew out of a method of family registration in Ancient China used to impose taxes and conscription (Holdstock, 2017: 6). Now, it has become the main reason why people travel so far for work, leaving their children at home because they do not have access to public education.

The only way for migrants to become permanent city dwellers is if they can switch their hukou to the city, which is a rarity, or for the system to be abolished all-together (Holdstock, 2017: 7). In 2001, the People’s Daily blamed the hukou system for the widening gap in urban and rural wealth (Holdstock, 2017: 90). In 2014, the Chinese government began to clarify the ways the system would be amended (Holdstock, 2017: 89). While in theory migrants would be able to apply for permanent residency in any urban setting, in reality there was a daunting set of requirements that would exclude them from receiving residency (Holdstock, 2017: 86). For medium and large cities like Beijing, the requirements are prohibitive, involving a point system that rewarded people who held college degrees or those who studied abroad (Holdstock, 2017: 89). Yet people admitted on this point system were limited as well because of the quota put in place (Holdstock, 2017: 89).

The hukou system has turned into a system of apartheid where rural migrants are second-class city dwellers (Holdstock, 2017: 6). Sylvie Démurger investigates migrants as second-class workers and the income gap by using statistical microsimulation on a nationally representative sample of incomes from 2002 (2009: 610). The growing number of rural migrants in the Chinese labor market raises the possibility for discrimination and difficulties, receiving low income and delayed payment as well as working longer than legal working times in low-end jobs (Démurger, 2009: 611). The Chinese Household Income Project 2002 survey data indicates that 70% of rural migrants perceive discrimination in terms of wage paid for equal work, type of work, and working hours (Démurger, 2009: 611).

Démurger assesses the sources of the strong income differences between urban residents and long-term rural migrants in contemporary urban China (2009: 622). The main finding of the statistical distribution revealed that the population effect is robust (Démurger, 2009: 610). This implies that the main source of difference between migrant workers and urban residents comes from pre-market situations, such as educational opportunities (Démurger, 2009: 610). The strongest sources of earning differences is found to be related to differences in population structures, the rural migrant population being much less experienced and much less educated (Démurger, 2009: 624). Decentralization in education has increased educational costs for rural households, while at the same time it has increased opportunity in urban areas (Démurger, 2009: 624). This data begs the logical conclusion that public policies reducing the cost of education for rural people could help bridge the income gap between rural and urban citizens (Démurger, 2009: 624).

This complex issue cannot simply be examined through historical and quantitative perspectives. Instead, one should also examine the life of migrant workers, which has been explored through photographs. Through analyzing the photographs of migrant workers and interviewing the photographers, Lee explores the discursive power and ideology inherent in Chinese social structure (2012: 5). First, Lee selected random photographs of low-income Chinese migrant workers from galleries and libraries, and he further contacted the photographers and gave out questionnaires on the photographers’ thought process during the making of the images (2012: 14).

The photographs display the representations of migrant workers in their living quarters through China’s Rat Tribe by C. Sim, on-the-go through Chinese on a Train by F. Wang, and the families they leave behind through Empty Chairs by J. Liu (Lee, 2012: 16). A survey with these three photojournalists reveals the motivation behind taking these pictures largely comes from prior experience or exposure to migrant culture. For example, F. Wang used to work in a railway company, and J. Liu’s parents were farmers who migrated to the city (Lee, 2012: 21). With the attention from these people, the stories of migrant workers are able to be told to others.

“China’s Rat Tribe” portrays a listless woman sitting in a shabby room, with the bed spanning almost the entire room (Lee, 2012: 22). The discomfort and dankness in from the image reflects the economic struggle of migrant workers and raises concern on their living condition (Lee, 2012: 22). “Empty Chairs” depicts a father and two children sitting on chairs in the countryside, with one empty chair next to them. This visual cue highlights the conflict within a migrant worker’s family, where the mother works in the city while the husband takes care of the children back home (Lee, 2012: 22). This conflict further emphasizes the adversity and hardship faced by migrant workers’ families across China (Lee, 2012: 23).

Although photographs present vivid imageries of migrant workers’ circumstances, their meanings are dependent on the viewers’ interpretations. Through personal interactions and face-to-face interviews, researchers could understand these workers from the workers’ perspective. In 2012, a group of researchers led by Bao-Liang Zhong conducted a study with 23 migrant workers in four factories in Shenzhen, China (2016). By asking them questions in group discussions and individual interviews, the researchers came to understand the acculturative stress experienced by these rural-to-urban migrant workers (Zhong, 2016: 4). The intrinsic contradiction comes from the cultural different in the countryside and the city. Modern Chinese cities operate on market value rather than human values, while Chinese farmers are often labelled as “diligent, hardworking, honest, and kind-hearted” (Zhong, 2016: 3). Thus, migrant workers are more often easily exploited by their employers. For these 23 interviewees, working 27 to 28 days a month and 12 to 14 hours a day is common, and 16 out of 17 workers complain about the long hours and heavy workload assigned to them (Zhong, 2016: 8).

Besides adversity in their workplace, they also face much insecurity regarding family, finance, and belongingness. Due to the lack of Shenzhen native hukou, their children are not permitted to attend public schools in Shenzhen, but they also could not afford the expense to attend private schools (Zhong, 2016: 9). Financially, all 17 respondents said their wage is too low and the cost of living in Shenzhen is too high (Zhong, 2016: 9). Even when one of them spends only 35 USD for monthly meal, she still could not afford to buy a new cloth for herself (Zhong, 2016: 9). Despite many people them have been to Shenzhen for over a decade, 16 out of 17 respondents consider themselves as “temporary people in the city” (Zhong, 2016: 9).

ANALYSIS - Valentina: Representation by Government

Exploring the representation of migrant workers made by the Chinese government becomes increasingly important when there is an understanding of the power relations between the two entities. The dynamics of media representation reproduce forms of symbolic power, and when looking at a country like China, where all forms of media are either regulated or produced by the state, the symbolic power associated with representation belongs almost exclusively to the Chinese government (Hall, 2002).

The first form of representation that is being analyzed comes in the form of a television show. “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids” is a show aired on Jinan TV, a network that covers the Shandong and Jinan province areas and portrays the life of a married couple who are migrant workers struggling to find their place in Beijing (Teng, 2015). In the beginning of the series, Tian Beilei gets pregnant with a second child and her husband Guo Yiming supports her decision to get an abortion because of the financial burden of a second child (Teng, 2015). When Yiming’s parents find out that Beilei is pregnant, they rush to the hospital to stop the termination of the pregnancy (Teng, 2015). After this, both the Guo parents and Tian parents decide to live with the young couple to ensure that Beilei doesn’t get an abortion, leading to conflict and tension in the home (Teng, 2015).

The premise of the television series portrays multiple ideas of progress. Progress, as defined by Keohane, can come to mean many things. Progress can be the idea that humanity is steadily moving forward, becoming better than it once was (Keohane, 1982: 27). Yet, it can also be defined as a willingness to take responsibility, improving oneself morally leading to the improvement of the entire species (Keohane, 1982: 32). It is also interpreted as a steady development in technology, the economy, and economic security for the majority (Keohane, 1982: 25). Beilei and Yiming’s stance as migrant workers implies an economic progress in the country, where a necessity for labor and migration signals a healthy economy. In this way, the series portrays progress in the life of the migrant worker.

In addition to economic progress, “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for my Kids” portrays a moral progress even when only looking at the title. Becoming a migrant worker for the good of a child and of a family, as stated in the title shows a willingness for self-sacrifice. The couple puts themselves in a difficult situation to give opportunities to their child, taking a sobering responsibility for their actions and the consequences their child will face because of them (Keohane, 1982: 32). The filial piety of both Beilei and Yiming shown by their generosity in allowing both sets of parents to live with and off of them throughout the series paints a moral progressiveness that emphasizes the good of others over selfishness. This portrayal of progress feeds into the representation of the family, and by extension families of migrant workers in China.

The representation of this extended family in Beijing is very specifically tailored. Stuart Hall states that a representation is not only standing in for the true meaning of the object represented, with a gap between reality and representation, but that representation distorts reality (Hall, 2002). When looking at “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids”, there is a clear representation of what a migrant worker’s family and life looks like. Already, Beilei’s character is presented as being from Beijing, her parents living there, which means that she has a hukou belonging to Beijing (Teng, 2015). This means Beilei and her family are entitled to healthcare, education, pension, and unemployment benefits in Beijing, something little to no migrant workers are afforded. This representation shapes the perceived reality of a migrant worker’s life, creating the idea that all life for migrant workers is this fundamentally easy.

In Episode two, Beilei is seen working at a high-level company and in Episode five, her company throws a party that the extended family attends (Teng, 2015). Episode four shows the Tian family able to afford a surgery for Beilei’s father, who suffers from a heart attack, and Yiming drives around the city in a car to reach the Tians (Teng, 2015). The house that Yiming and Beilei lives in is big enough for the whole extended family and the fridge is always stocked with food (Teng, 2015). These facts by themselves mean nothing, but they are used to represent the average experience for the Chinese migrant worker. According to the Chinese government, this is what the life of a migrant worker looks like, with these afforded amenities and luxuries. This is what is being shown to the citizens of China, which is why it is important to look at the picture that is being painted of this family and of the way they can live their lives. Because representation is not separate of an object, but instead weaved into the constitution of the object being represented, this television show becomes reality (Hall, 2002). Yet, this created reality is not representative of migrant life and the misleading image that the government is presenting through this show invalidates the majority experience. The representation presented by this television show enables the distortion of the reality faced by migrant workers and is reinforced by TV censorship and the total control of media presented to the public.

ANALYSIS - Vincent: Representation by Migrant Workers

Besides governmental representation of migrant workers that prevails in the media and underplays their hardships, the representation by migrant workers themselves are rarely seen by the public due to social marginalization. Seeing such a problem, Xiaoyu Qin, an author and poet, searched for and found many “worker poets” across China and made a non-fictional movie, “The Verses of Us” (Anon, 2018). He also helped publish a poem collection by uprooted workers through crowdfunding and made salient the social issues with migrant workers (Anon, 2015).

Among these poems, “Arriving Late” by A’You Jike reflects strong conflicts with China’s current form of representation of labor, and thus it was chosen as the subject of analysis for this paper (Team, 2015; Appendice). A Yi ethnic minority person from an autonomous prefecture, Mt. Daliang, in southwest China, Jike migrated to a city in eastern China, Jiaxing (“Arriving Late”, 2). He worked for a down coats factory, filling duck feathers into coats (“Arriving”, 2). In the poem, Jike describes his visit back home after many years of working outside.

The first part of the poem relates to his alienation from his work. In the beginning of the first four stanzas, he uses “For years” without specifying the exact number of years, which emphasizes his insensitivity towards time while working away from home (“Arriving”, 1). Such ambiguity, one the one hand, could emphasize the duration of his separation from home. On the other hand, it could suggest the loss of meaning from his work. As mentioned in Zhong’s work in Literature Review section, the concentration on market value in modern Chinese cities conflicts with the human values possessed by Chinese farmers (Zhong, 2016: 3). Consequently, such conflict leads to alienation of labor. According to Marx, capitalist production alienates labor from the product and the process of production. (1844: 15-20). Performing repetitive and tedious work in an assembly line, Jike is defined by his work as a “duck head” (“Arriving”, 3). Such name dehumanizes his identity as a person, a migrant worker, and an ethnic minority, contributing to his separation from his Yi tradition, which he hinted by stating “I lost the Book of Guidance of the Yi” (“Arriving”, 3).

Gradually, as Marx argues, the nature of capitalist modes of production would penetrate Jike’s identity and alienate him from other humans, such as those in his indigenous community (1844: 20-24). As explained in the Literature Review, the hukou system fails to provide uprooted workers with sufficient welfare and infrastructure, contributing to the loss of belongingness among uprooted workers (Holdstock, 2017: 6). Therefore, Jike describes himself as being drifting “farther than a feather” (“Arriving”, 1). Even when he returns to his hometown, he feels the resistance from the road and the village (“Arriving”, 6-9). Additionally, Jike is alienated from his family, especially his mother, who passed away when he was absent at the village. In the last stanza, Jike captures a harmonious scene of his father smoking his “long orchid pipe” by the fireplace while describes his mother laughing in his heart (“Arriving”, 16). By juxtaposing his alienation from his family with such an imagery, Jike reinforces the tension and difficulty being a migrant worker, who has no choice but keep working in the city and miss offering sacrifices to ancestors (“Arriving”, 19).

Jike’s disconnection with his workplace and loss of connection with his indigenous community reveal an insufficiency in the representation of his citizenship, which complicates the previous discussion on the hukou system. Hukou not only offers individuals physical belongingness such as rights to basic services but also symbolizes individuals’ spiritual belongingness. For example, seeing the village grow older, Jike still describe it as “the center of the earth” (“Arriving”, 11). For migrant workers like Jike, hukou system fails to reconcile the contradiction between physical and spiritual belongingness. However, facing mass migration from the countryside to the city under the context of globalization and urbanization, the Chinese government has not yet established a mature framework for people to move around freely.

Instead of taking actions to alleviate these issues, Chinese government tends to conceal them in media, which we have examined from the Teng’s TV show example (2015). In fact, the multidimensional alienation portrayed in Jike’s poem is contradictory to the constructed image of migrant workers from the government’s perspective. With governmental representation being the dominant form, the meaning of representation is manipulated by the government. According to Hall, through power and ideology, one could attempt to fix the meaning of images (2002). State’s narrative, therefore, creates an illusion for the public that uprooted workers are doing fairly well in the cities. Because of this, migrant workers’ voices are extremely necessary in counteracting government’s misrepresentation. Only through uncovering the truthful conditions of migrant workers, either through themselves such as in “The Verse of Us”, or through the effort of others such as in the photograph collections from Lee’s analysis. However, as Hall also indicates, once one form of representation dominates, it is hard to reverse it (2002). Despite the increasing publicity of migrant workers, they still face many challenges in presenting themselves to the public and changing their circumstances.


This paper has gone through the historical and contemporary context of migrant workers within China by exploring the hukou system and the how it has shaped the migrant workers’ experience. Holdstock showed the complexity of moving to the city to work without a hukou and Démurger investigated the income gap the migrant workers face once they reach the city and its causes. The current conditions experienced by these workers were portrayed through Lee’s photojournalistic display and interviews conducted by Zhong showing, on average, that migrant workers are overworked, underpaid, and taken advantage of.

In addition, through the research of the primary sources “I am a Beijing Migrant Worker for My Kids” and “Arriving Late”, the representation of migrant workers was analyzed through both the perspective of the government and the perspective of the migrant workers themselves. Though representation is conflicting and multifaceted, it is clear that these works have shown the discrepancies between the representations of both perspectives. Overall, the portrayals presented by both the government and the migrant workers themselves highlight the tensions felt in real life.


Anon, 2018. The Verse of Us. Wikipedia. Available at: [Accessed December 10, 2018].

Anon, 2015. 我的诗篇当代工人诗典. 百度百科. Available at:我 的诗篇当代工人诗典 [Accessed December 10, 2018].

Team, T.V.F.E., 2015. 《我的诗篇》微记录系列:彝族羽绒服厂充绒工吉克阿优. Available at: [Accessed December 10, 2018].

Démurger, S. (2009) Migrants as Second-Class Workers in Urban China? A Decomposition Analysis. SSRN Electronic Journal.

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Holdstock, N. (2017) Chasing the Chinese dream. Stories from modern China, London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Keohane, N. (1982) “The Enlightenment Idea of Progress Revisited”, in Progress and its Discontents, edited by Gabriel A. Almond, Marvin Chodorow, and Roy Harvey Pearce Berkeley: U. of California Press. pp. 21-40

Lee, Z.M., 2013. Understanding representations of low-income Chinese migrant workers through the lens of photojournalists. Available from: 012/87.pdf

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Zhong B-L, Liu T-B, Huang J-X, Fung HH, Chan SSM, Conwell Y, et al. (2016) Acculturative Stress of Chinese Rural-To-Urban Migrant Workers: A Qualitative Study. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0157530.


English Version (Translated by the documentary producer):

Arriving Late - Jike A’You (Yi ethnic worker poet)

1 For years, I drifted farther than a feather

2 From Mt. Daliang to Jiaxing, I put feathers into down coats

3 and when I was called a “duck head”, I lost the Book of Guidance of the Yi

4 For years, the village grew old in my absence

5 And now, it uses a muddy road in Little Xingchang

6 to fight against my new shoes, and welcome my stinging tears

7 For years, my universe still took the shape of a tiger

8 As though quoting what Bimo says in the ancient “Magor” myth

9 The shivering stockaded village jumped before my eyes to worry me

10 For years, childhood friends had already built homes

11 And I’ve also returned to the center of the earth, and my earthen house

12 having three-stone hearth, and three main pillars

13 My father laughs, at the fire pit and smokes his long orchid pipe

14 Like a warm book of the classics, I could read it aloud forever

15 And his walking stick has grown much taller

16 And my mother laughs, in my heart

17 Tonight I want to sleep in her old bed

18 Tonight I must dream

19 Because I missed the time to offer sacrifices to the ancestors

Chinese Version:

迟到 - 吉克阿优 (彝族工人诗人)

1 好些年了,我比一片羽毛更飘荡

2 从大凉山到嘉兴,我在羽绒服厂填着鸭毛

3 我被唤作“鸭头”时,遗失了那部《指路经》

4 好些年了,村庄在我离去中老去

5 此刻,它用一条小兴场的泥路

6 反对我的新鞋,迎接我的热泪

7 好些年了,我的宇宙依然是老虎的形状

8 一如引用古老《梅葛》的毕摩所说

9 颤抖的村寨跳进我的眼瞳,撕咬我

10 好些年了,儿时的伙伴已建起小楼

11 我也回到了大地的中心,我的土掌房

12 三块锅庄石,三根顶梁柱

13 父亲笑呵呵,在火炉旁抽兰花烟

14 像温暖的经书,让我念诵不已

15 他的拐杖又长高了不少

16 而母亲笑呵呵,在我心里

17 今夜我要睡在她的旧床上

18 今夜我必须做梦

19 因为我错过了祭祀

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