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Chinese Songs of Dignity

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Urban village houses (chengzhongcun) surrounded by modern apartment buildings in Shenzhen. Photo by Peter Bengtsen.

‘Music is our voice to Chinese society. The voices of migrant workers are rarely heard’, says Cheng, a rock bandleader and activist. We met in the backroom of a small shop in a suburb of Shenzhen, China’s manufacturing metropolis. Music gear was scattered around the dark room; the band members were meeting to practice when they got off work in nearby manufacturing and construction sites. All are migrant workers from distant provinces. They make music to let off steam, in gigs in bars, festivals and even the odd TV appearance.

‘We are calling for dignity and decent lives for migrant workers’, says Cheng. ‘Too many face degrading conditions at work. In most aspects of life, really. We cannot access basic welfare such as doctors or schools for our children. Many feel lost. My songs are about that.’ Cheng, 37, spent his childhood in the countryside of central China before leaving home to work in construction and factories manufacturing electronics, toys and umbrellas. Some jobs lasted a few years, others just weeks or months. ‘I did what millions are doing. I moved around for a better life, a better job. But the toil left its mark, so I started writing songs about it.’ It helped him move on, confront his feelings of loss and recover a measure of dignity.

President Xi Jinping also calls for dignity: ‘We must ensure that everyone is free from want, has access to development and lives with dignity’, he told the United Nations in September 2015. A few days earlier, Xi Jinping had celebrated the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty, and their ’prosperity and unprecedented rights and dignity’.

The migrant workers and labour NGOs I meet don’t recognise these unprecedented rights and dignity. Without questioning China’s economic progress, they point to its unequal distribution.‘We are second-class citizens. Migrant workers produce mobile phones and so many other consumer goods for the middle class, and build their apartments too, but we cannot afford any of it ourselves’, says Jing, an activist.

The inequality pervades all of Chinese society, not just the labour market. Take public service. If your registered birthplace isn’t the city you live and work in, you are not entitled to medical help or public schooling for your children because of the hukou, the household registration system. Though eased in recent decades to allow rural migrants to enter the workforce of the manufacturing coastal provinces, reform efforts are superficial.

Take housing. Many of China’s 277 million migrant worker population live in ‘urban villages’ (chengzhongcun) found in all major cities. While some rural migrants arriving in cities like Shenzhen or Guangzhou are accommodated in factory dorms, many more find their first room or flat in an urban village such as Baishizhou, centrally located in Shenzhen. ‘I rented my first room in Baishizhou two years ago when I came here looking for work, because it was so cheap’, says Chin Chun, a migrant worker from Hubei province.

Urban villages, often with buildings of two to three floors, stand out amid the 20-storey highrises. Sometimes they are enclosed by walls or gates so they can’t be seen. In spite of the building boom, housing is expensive; urban villages are cheap solutions, but their homes are old, dirty and poor quality.

Cheng’s songs tell about the visible and invisible social inequalities in the new China built by migrant workers. Some songs have a beat that conveys strength; others are without cheer:

Under the setting sun
She walked with exhaustion
Step by step toward the urban fringe
To depart from the world she helped to build
She had only the evening glow
Yet the scorches on her face by the burning sun had never gone

Liquors she drank from this strange town
But her sorrow could not drown
Looking at the lights shining in ten thousand homes
Castles in the sky forever appearing in her dreams
Even the sea changed into high-rises during past decades
Yet she feels only loss.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

This essay originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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Peter Bengtsen is an investigative journalist based in Copenhagen (peterbengtsen.com).

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