The Exodus

Posted on November 10, 2012


It’s not just in Australia where the words ‘illegal immigrant’ make people uncomfortable. It seems the Chinese hate queue jumpers as much as the average Australian. To borrow the articulate words of Thai street sellers, the situation in China is “same same, but different” (anyone who has been to Bangkok will know what I mean here, so if you haven’t and you don’t, there’s sure to be someone with 100 square metre of you to ask).

While China’s cities develop like crazy, the countryside is being left far behind. This is a nice audio slideshow as illustration. The situation in rural areas is far from the bucolic utopia often associated with country life (or maybe it’s just old-fashioned me who still make this connection).

For those interested in a detailed description of just how hard it is to be a rural Chinaperson, click here, here, or here.

For those who can’t be bothered to click links, I’ll craft you a mental image. Abject poverty, polluted air, soil and water, basic education facilities (and only if you’re lucky – but you probably need your kids in the fields anyway), little to nothing in the way of job opportunities and next to no healthcare. For many rural farmers, if they don’t grow any food, they don’t have anything to eat. It’s pretty bleak.

Faced with this reality, masses of rural Chinese make the rational but undesirable decision to try their luck in the big city. China’s rural to urban migration is so large and so dramatic it could reasonably be called an exodus.  The annual numbers of people leaving the countryside are counted in millions.

Here’s a fictionalised account of what it might be like to be one of these migrants.

You pack what few belongings you have and choose your destination: Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan, whichever of the major cities is closest. If you come from a poor province, like Guangxi, Guizhou or Ningxia, you might try and scrounge together a little more money to get a train further, you want to get closer to the wealthy east.

You arrive at the station. If it’s late at night you’re lucky to have 25-35RMB (AU$3.5-5) to spend on a room in grotty accommodation near the station (hotel, motel or even dormitory would be too generous descriptors).

If there’s one thing you’ve splurged on before you left, it’s a good, thick permanent marker. The next day you hit the streets with your prized possession-your pen. You set about scrawling your mobile phone number anywhere and everywhere you can. Prime places include building sites, elevators in recently erected buildings, and even the footpath.

this is quite a professional one

Then you wait. And you hope that your number hasn’t been covered up by the government employee whose job it is to destroy your chance of succeeding.

There are 1.6 billion people in China, so you don’t wait long. You get a call and a job offer and you breathe a sigh of relief because by now your money is running pretty low. You mightn’t have eaten much more than some rice porridge since you’ve been here, now you can look forward to something more substantial.

You go to work. You don’t know really what to expect. You’re told a time and a place to be and you make sure to get there on time. You’re herded on to a truck and head for a construction site, most likely. You spend a long day carrying out back-breaking physical labour and are compensated a pittance. But it’s more than anything you could have made in a day in your village, and this makes it all worth it.

After you manage to accumulate some resources, you give yourself a promotion.

You get yourself a sticker.

It’s a big step up from the permanent marker pen. Not only will it save you a lot time, but it makes you look more trustworthy, more professional to potential employers. You work hard. You send money home. You are a success.


As mentioned at the top of my piece, this is a fictionalised piece. It may well be completely incorrect. I patched it together from various things I’ve seen, heard and read, and from what I imagine when I see the scrawled numbers at scuffed stickers all over the place. Olive.

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