The University of Iowa

Questions and (maybe) answers on China's urban-rural development

November 4th, 2015

By Jeffrey Ding*

​China's urban population is growing rapidly as more rural migrants come to cities. Source: The World Bank

First, a quick glimpse at the Mandarin learning process. Last Monday, I watched a movie in Chinese with English subtitles, and I found myself not even noticing the English. The next day, when ordering Chinese pancakes, I blanked on the names for any type of sauce, so I just mumbled something that sounded like what the previous customer said. Thankfully, it still tasted good. Last weekend, I was walking around the Global Village (international student dorms), and a couple asked me where building #10 was located. Despite living here for almost two months already, I still had no idea. At present, my study abroad is: thinking comfortably in Chinese, muddling through sticky situations, and having no idea about some basic surrounding areas. At least it still tastes good.

This post is going to be structured as a spoken word text. Despite writing and performing spoken word intermittently throughout college, I have no idea (see how subtly a theme is emerging?) what distinguishes spoken word from rambling, story-telling, freeform poetry, or writing in general, so with that…

Questions and (maybe) Answers on China’s Urban-Rural Development

Question 1: Do you have a rural Hukou (household registration system)?

If yes, proceed. If no, no need,

To continue the interview.

Emphasis given by my Development Economics professor,

She researches migrant workers from rural households, and we are free labor.

Question 3: What year did you leave your home to come work in the city?

1990, 2014, 1999, 2013, 2012, 2015, 2015 again, even 1983

China’s Regional Development: Review and Prospect, our teacher calls it “The Book on Development”, states:

  • “Around 1993…the barriers to peasants entering the cities were further cleared.
  • Thereafter, we see progressively larger waves of migrant workers every year.”

Question 5: Are you satisfied with your job?

I’m a policeman, a security guard, a convenience store cashier, a street sweeper, an unlicensed fruit candy vendor who leaves mid-interview to evade the police,

We are the people who clean the classrooms of your schools, sell you the street food full of grease.

The book says: “As large numbers of migrant workers entered cities, urban-rural segmentation began to be reflected in the labor market.”

Though the way they forge a living differ, their opinions on job satisfaction ring similar

bu manyi ye dei manyi: Even if I’m not satisfied, I still have to be satisfied

Question 12: What is Beijing’s degree of social equality?

Some refuse to answer, some fret over the survey’s confidentiality, and an old man from Hebei just scoffs, “what social equality?”

An obscure philosophical law nods in agreement: what does not exist cannot be measured.

The book says: “Since non-locals do not have local Hukou, they are disadvantaged in income, employment opportunities, profession, type of work.”

Question 9: Do you make more money here than back home?


The Yes is unequivocal.

In an elective class on China’s governance, my teacher tells us about a farming family with one set of clothing: not for each but for all.

The book says since the establishment of the UN Millennium Development Goals, China has accounted for two-thirds of the world’s reduction in extreme poverty.

The Yes is universal.

After delivering brilliant lines of monologue in “Hamlet”, Benedict Cumberbatch has ended each performance asking for audience members to donate to the Syrian refugee crisis, pleading:

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.

Question 4: What is your level of education?

I dropped out after junior high. Wo meiyou wenhua. The cafeteria lady keeps repeating this phrase throughout our conversation. She’s saying she doesn’t have wenhua, which is one of those words that encompasses so many other words like

education, schooling, literacy, civilization, and culture

I want to get on my privileged podium and preach that:

  • enlightenment comes from experience not systematic tutelage
  • schooling can happen in the streets and trenches
  • reading people is more important than reading words
  • civility is cultivated outside of the classroom
  • rural farming culture is the foundation of Chinese society

But sermons aren’t meant to make both parties feel better about themselves

They should make truth clearer about their Self.

And we both know that though education may not be the only silver bullet

  • it’s an empirically robust shot at a better life
  • it’s one my parents took in immigrating to the United States, a moving sacrifice

Question 10: If you needed 1000RMB in an emergency situation, how many good friends or family in Beijing would be willing to lend it to you?

Friendships and family are social wealth, a social safety net with unquantifiable worth

They almost all say none.

When you hear that your heart bends a little, but it’s too hardened to break.

You want to offer your help, a gesture would be more for yourself than them. 

But you know you won’t.

  • Because you walk the long way around the homeless squatters on the way to class.
  • You ignore the beggars by the bars as you drink your sorrows away
  • You’ve been well trained in walking past the man who sits outside the Iowa City Pancheros and the people at the entrance of the Ped Mall.
  • You tell yourself that they would waste the money on drugs and that individual acts are meaningless without structural change
  • But you don’t have the calluses to justify that level of callousness.

And you rush through the class couple of interviews, because 15 conversations have cost you 8 hours on a Saturday.

You’ve already almost forgotten that most of the people you’ve talked to work:

  • 12 hours a day
  • 7 days a week
  • 12 months a year
  • 0 visits back home a year

Question 13: Do you expect the level of social equality to go up?

Answer: Shuobuzhun, which translates directly to “it’s hard to say” but could also mean: “I have no idea.”

*Jeffrey Ding is a senior from Iowa City, IA studying political science, economics and Chinese at the University of Iowa. He will be spending this fall in Beijing, China on the CIEE Advanced Chinese Studies program and will continue living there next semester as he pursues an internship funded by a Boren Scholarship