An Urban Underclass In The Making?

As I spoke with a migrant peasant near Shanghai's Fudan University, I noticed a taxi speeding straight toward us. Pedestrians and cyclists scattered, but the peasant's 1-year-old son suddenly ambled across the street, heading for where his mother sat making a blanket. Tires screeched, and the taxi slid uncontrollably toward him. Snatching up the child, I raced away from the swerving car, which ran over the spot where the toddler had been, finally halting just a foot from me. Heart pounding, I handed the screaming baby to his grateful mother and then scolded the driver.

"Children shouldn't be in the road," he replied--unperturbed that he had nearly killed a tiny human being.

"No one would have cared much if that child had been run over," said a former colleague from Fudan, where I taught journalism three years ago, when I told him my story. "He's a waidiren [a term for rural migrants--meaning `person from outside the area'], an axiang [the Chinese equivalent of `hick' or `hayseed']. If the driver had killed him, he would have gotten a fine at worst. Like killing a dog."

Two years ago, this suburb north of Shanghai, Wujiaochang, had few waidiren. Today, though, they are everywhere--part of a flood of 2 million peasants looking for work in China's biggest metropolis--whose population is now 14 million. Living in homemade curbside shelters, they're scorned by hardened natives, who blame them for the city's crime wave.

One such new arrival, Ma Jiandi, 28, who brought his wife and child here to escape the poverty of Hunan, says living near Fudan University is good. "People here are much nicer to us than in other parts of Shanghai. These intellectuals don't laugh at us or tease us."

All the way from Hunan, Ma dragged the heavy, homemade, pedal-powered wooden machine he and his wife use to turn cotton into batting for blankets. While he pedals, his wife uses string and a five-foot wand to make a net on a large loom. The net completed, Ma's batting is laid on. Then, the two weave another string net over the top, press it all flat using heavy, two-foot-wide disks of tree trunk, and stitch the edges together. The price for six person-hours of work: 14 yuan (about $1.60). After bargaining, their take could drop to $1. "Our life is hard here, but it's better than in Hunan," says Ma, explaining that his extended family, unable to make ends meet on the limited land assigned to them, had urged him to go to the city.

Newcomers are not the only ones caught up in the Shanghai boom. Wujiaochang, now a hotbed of development, was farmland less than a decade ago, and many of its residents were once peasants. Even today, some with strong roots in the area still till their shrinking plots and sell produce locally.

SHRINKING FIELDS. Ermei, 45, is one such urban peasant. She has spent her entire life here and is now faced with being uprooted. "My mother wasn't educated," she says apologetically, explaining her typical peasant name, which means "second daughter." The beautifully maintained one-acre plot that her family shares with several other families is surrounded by new buildings. Knitting in the shade of her one-story house while her mother-in-law weeds, she says. "Every year, we watch our land get smaller. Now, the field is too small for us to live on."

Like most other peasants who get displaced, Ermei and her family will be provided with jobs to replace their lost land. When their houses go, the authorities will relocate them in housing miles from their ancestral home--and far from others who speak their distinct local dialect. "We probably have at most another year or two here," Ermei tells me wistfully. "I will miss the land and the feeling of a community."

As she speaks, her 20-year-old daughter arrives home from her office job in a steel mill. "The peasants here had a good life," she says. "Selling crops in the local market, you could make a lot of money. Workers' wages are not as good." (Workers in Shanghai typically earn 400 yuan a month--about $44--or perhaps double that in a good joint-venture factory.)

Zhang Feng, another Shanghai peasant, left the land long ago to become a worker. "When I was born, my family's field was right next to Fudan," she recalls. "Then, the school took that land and moved us over toward Wujiaochang. Later, they took that field, too, to build campus housing."

Zhang was made school janitor, but her industriousness soon got her promoted to office clerk. Now, she answers phones and runs errands. "I miss farming," she says, "but the housing is much cleaner, and my children go to better schools. Besides, I like living around intellectuals."

CURBSIDE CLASSES. Wujiaochang, like most other parts of Shanghai, is a sprawling construction site. The name means means "five-cornered square" and refers to an odd-shaped intersection in the district. Massive structures sprout like weeds. At a 10-acre site near where I once lived, concrete and steel rise where I remember only gardens. To date, the city has been providing for its displaced peasantry.

But the loss of farmland contributes to inflation--since produce has to come from farther away, through a chain of wholesalers. Indeed, Beijing sees the loss of crops as a major crisis for a country that has always had trouble feeding its teeming masses.

As refugees, with families in tow, continue to flock from rural China to cities such as Shanghai, local and provincial officials face the nightmare prospect that a generation of uneducated, unemployable children might become a new underclass (or to use the Marxist term fast losing favor in China, a lumpenproletariat). As unregistered residents, the waidiren cannot use city services without paying impossibly large sums of money. Recently, some migrants established curbside classrooms, causing embarrassed officials to announce plans to establish one public school for migrants--a pathetically small gesture.

The problem is attitude. China may be one country, but despite years of propaganda, there is little sense of brotherhood between regions or classes. "Be careful of those axiang," warns the urban peasant Ermei, pointing to a young couple fresh from rural Anhui province who are delivering charcoal to a neighbor. "When they're around, you need to keep an eye on your bicycle." The strange thing is, I've been to Anhui and would feel far better leaving my bike unlocked in a village there than shackled to a Shanghai bike rack.

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