Review: A Floating City of Peasants

One of the most profound migrations in history is taking place today. Cities are swelling all over the world with the influx of farmers and peasants. But it is in China, the world’s most populous country, that this great migration has the potential to remake geopolitics. The numbers are staggering. There are 182 Chinese cities large enough and connected enough to qualify as international metropolises. Of these, 89 have populations larger than a million (compared to only 37 in the United States). This migration in China will not only affect energy use, climate, and agricultural production. It will inevitably shift global power from West to East as these Chinese cities become the center of finance, politics, and art.

So, who are all these peasants becoming urban dwellers? Dutch journalist Floris-Jan Van Luyn has traveled around China to interview urban newcomers, young factory workers, and the families that they have left behind in the countryside. He teamed up with a number of photographers who provide intimate portraits a wide range of people, including two little girls named Lulu and Congcong who sell flowers in the bars and discos of Changsha in Hunan province. They’re cute. They sell beautiful flowers. And they are essentially indentured servants, loaned to an “older sister” in the city to make money for their parents in the countryside. Compared to the adolescents who end up as prostitutes or the servants who are practically enslaved by their city cousins or the young workers who work long hours and risk numerous occupational hazards, little Lulu and Congcong are relatively well off. They eat well off the tables of their customers. They say they’re well-treated. But they’re still child laborers with uncertain futures.

Van Luyn’s book, A Floating City of Peasants, collects many powerful stories. But it also chronicles the gradual shift in Chinese policy toward migrant workers, who have become indispensable to the economic growth of the country. In Tianjin, for example, 1.1 million migrant workers contribute $1.2 billion to the economy of the city. Beijing has begun to address the civic limbo in which most migrants live — by providing resident status and health care — as well as reducing agricultural taxes that have prompted so many to flee the countryside for the city. How China manages its great migration will likely determine its fate in the world order. If Beijing negotiates this path to modernity adroitly, today’s peasants and migrant workers will become tomorrow’s global leaders.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.