Standing on a bustling street in Shanghai, it is hard to ignore the feeling of constant movement and intensity. The mantra seems to be: keep moving and keep progressing. And at both the individual and state level there is an insatiable desire to be the best.
But at what price? The pace of development in China is incredibly impressive and yet, despite the new and efficient subways, trains, and buildings, a contrast of wealth still exists.
As a whole, China has been on the forefront of poverty reduction in the last couple of decades, raising nearly 300 million people out of poverty. However, it is not hard to find the instances of impoverishment that still exist even in some of the most developed cities, like Shanghai.
The population of Shanghai in 2013 was 23.9 million, making it the largest and most populous city proper in the entire world. Furthermore, it has experienced double digit growth nearly every year since 1992, falling below double digits only temporarily during the 2008-2009 recession.
According to the 2010 census, more than 39 percent of Shanghai’s residents are migrant workers who have flocked to the city from the nearby provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Henan seeking better economic opportunities. These migrant workers in Shanghai, who have made up the largest percentage of the city’s growth in the past few years, often live in the poorest conditions.
As development has increased in China, upwards of 250 million people have left the countryside for the east coast in the hopes of finding more lucrative work. Migrant laborers often work in labor, construction, factories as well as the service sector. Their wages tend to be lower than those of Shanghai residents and their living conditions incredibly poor. Just down the street from the newest high apartments and office buildings, it is not unusual to see old neighborhoods crowded with huts full of migrant laborers.
It’s important to note that poverty for migrant laborers is relative. In China, poverty and inequality differ dramatically in different parts of the country. Many laborers, who migrate to Shanghai for work, come from even poorer rural villages. While their wages are low, the income is often still better than what could be made back home.
Despite this, without a Shanghai hukou, a registration card that is used to classify where individuals are from, migrants are unable to live in subsidized housing, access basic health care and unemployment benefits, or enroll their children in local schools.
Marginalized and discriminated against, the poorest of Shanghai struggle to find social acceptance as well as economic security in their new lives. Yet, these migrant workers are the drivers of China’s tremendous economic growth. If this growth continues, the people of Shanghai will have to find a way to better accommodate their ever-evolving workforce. One of the biggest obstacles Shanghai faces is housing. Real estate prices are extremely high, leaving many people with low wages unable to purchase or rent homes.
Addressing this issue, as well as reforming the hukou system to allow for migrant workers to access health, education and other public services, will help further reduce the poverty and inequality that persists in Shanghai and China as a whole. It is easy to let the gleaming towers and trendy streets distract from the reality that most of Shanghai’s current population is still very much struggling to move beyond impoverishment.
– Andrea Blinkhorn