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Can’t Take a Snapshot of China and Expect it to Remain the Same

A rough rendition of a rant that I gave a reporter of a major financial magazine. May contain some bullshit.

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I was talking with a reporter from a major financial newspaper tonight for a story he’s doing about what he dubbed the end of China’s urban migration miracle. Somewhere in the middle of talking about the rise of smaller inland cities as migration centers, the social phenomenon of hundreds of millions of people urbanizing, left behind kids, ghost cities, and the drive to disperse the economic success of the eastern seaboard cities over the entire country, I hit my point:

What we are seeing now is a very temporary transition period, a single generation where the pot has been stirred to the point of no return, but it’s not going to last.

“Look, what we are seeing now won’t continue for very long into the future. This is only going to last for a single generation. We’re not going to see left behind kids having left behind kids. This is a one generation transition.”

Like how roving bands of workers once traveled between the new boomtowns of the USA during its expansion period, China’s 250 million migrant workers will eventually settle down. Most already have; their “migrant” status meaning nothing more than the fact that they are living in a city they are not registered to live in rather than an indicator of a mobile lifestyle. Each city will soon have its own local or regional stock of construction workers and factory hands. Work opportunities will shift away from serial temporary epicenters and will be dispersed more evenly around the country on a longer term basis, and people will stay in their cities with their families. The hometown in China will be reborn.

A second generation of migrant workers isn’t really rising up — the urban literate youth that the first wave of migrants worked so hard to put through school and/ or move into cities are not prone to going on the road to do the crap jobs and make the sacrifices their parents did. The construction workers who built the great cities of China’s east are already not being replaced by younger upgrades. If you go out to one of these work sites you’re going to see a camp full of old men.

We are always fed these projections of China that basically say, “If the country keeps doing what it’s doing today then this [insert catastrophe here] will happen.” For better or worse, this is a country that rarely keeps doing what it’s doing. It’s true, China’s urbanization drive is unsustainable, but I don’t believe anybody ever said it was supposed to be.

China is a place without foreshadowing, like a movie where you don’t know what happens until the end. You can’t take a snapshot of the way the country looks right now and use it to make projections on the future. The place is churning, changing, becoming something else so quickly that you can literally watch it happen. What we see now is a phase, a race as the country catches up with itself, not something that’s going to last indefinitely or is meant to be in any way sustainable.

The floating population, left behind kids, leftover women, bare branch men, sex ratio disparity, mass urban migration, the uprooting of rural life, ghost cities — China’s colossal pernicious social phenomenons — are without longevity. In 10 years, 20 years they will be but footnotes in the country’s epic rise to modernity, something that few will even remember as they are replaced by a new set of phenomenon, movements, and upheavals as the country enters its second act of globalism.

Filed under: China, Urbanization

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3591 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

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