The troubled love lives of China’s rural migrants

The troubled love lives of China’s rural migrants

For the past decade or so, the Western media has been critical of the Chinese state, the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. This criticism has been made in the context of a small number of issues, such as human rights in Xinjiang, political dissent in Hong Kong and Western citizens detained in China.

But the Western media tells us very little about how ordinary people in most parts of China live and think and how Chinese government policies impact on their everyday, even intimate lives.

The experience of intimacy among China’s rural migrant workers (nongmingong), for example, reveals how socioeconomic inequality in contemporary China impacts the love lives of underprivileged individuals and how emotional loneliness affects their sense of identity and self-worth.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics defines nongmingong, as someone “who still holds a rural hukou [residential registration permit] but who, for the past six months, has either engaged in non-agricultural work or has left home to seek non-agricultural work elsewhere.”

Nongmingong have become ubiquitous in Chinese cities, especially since the economic reforms of the 1980s. In 2016, China’s internal migrants numbered around 278 million and in 2020 that number reached 286 million.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, about half of the migrant population were young people born in the 1980s and 1990s. These younger workers are usually referred to as the “new generation of rural migrants”, in contrast to first-generation workers who sought urban employment in the 1980s and 1990s and who are now aged in their 50s and 60s.

While the majority of first-generation rural migrants were married before migrating, more than half of those in the later cohorts are still single. Many of these younger workers are the children of first-generation migrants and have little or no experience in farming.

Sociologists of emotion are concerned with the impact of class inequality on the emotional well-being of individuals. Studies have found that people who occupy different positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy have different emotional experiences and that those in low socioeconomic positions tend to experience more emotional hardship.

A Chinese laborer at a brick factory in China. Photo: AFP
A Chinese laborer at a brick factory in China. Photo: AFP

It is also understood that access to intimacy and rituals of romantic consumption is stratified along class division.

How does socioeconomic inequality in contemporary China impact on the love lives of underprivileged individuals? And how does emotional loneliness affect their sense of identity and self-worth?

Interviews with around 50 Foxconn workers and four years of longitudinal ethnographic interactions conducted for fieldwork between 2015 and 2018 reveal much about the lives and experiences of rural migrant factory workers in Shenzhen and Dongguan.

Some young rural migrants steal moments of intimacy between factory shifts, incurring outrage from some and sympathy from others. Others, when visiting their village homes, emerge empty-handed from blind dates in which the size of the bride’s wealth is assessed more assiduously than conjugal compatibility.

Some rush into weddings that are sometimes followed by an equally quick divorce. While most young rural migrant men and women wait for conjugal happiness, some make sexual choices that the state deems immoral and transgressive.

Young migrant workers are typically better educated and more engaged with urban consumption culture than their parents. But they also feel more stuck, angry and disillusioned because, unlike their parents who always intended to return to their villages, they generally want to remain in the city despite having little hope of doing so.

How socioeconomic inequality impacts on the intimate lives of China’s rural migrants is a complex question and the answer is multi-faceted. The hukou system is a key factor influencing the intimate lives of rural migrants. It is also a contributing factor to rural migrants’ marriage problems.

Most young rural migrants, uprooted from their village homes, have no permanent housing to their name, no secure employment or income and low social status. Given their low income, they cannot afford the time, money or energy to go on dates, let alone save enough money for an apartment, a car or wedding gifts, all of which are considered essential by their urban resident equivalents.

A study conducted in 2014 indicates that most rural migrants spent the largest part of their time working. Their main forms of recreation were sleeping and engaging in online activity. Their average monthly income was around 2,918 RMB (US$430). They also spent little on meals and most did not own an apartment or a car.

While the marginalized socioeconomic position of these rural migrants shapes their love lives, some bear the brunt of this inequality more readily than others. Migrant women who subject themselves to unequal or exploitative sex due to their economic circumstances, for example, face relentless stigmatization. Rural migrant men and women also face difficulties in achieving equal and intimate relationships with spouses within marriages.

The most prominent social problem, however, is the generation of “leftover men” often found among rural migrants born in the 1980s. The key cause for this phenomenon was China’s one-child policy, which led to an imbalance in the ratio of men to women, the tradition of women preferring to “marry up” and the widespread practice, especially among rural households, of the bride’s family making exorbitant betrothal demands.

While the state and public express anxiety about migrant men’s inability to find wives, the anxiety arises from concerns about social order and stability. Policy discussion of the marital problems of rural migrant men assumes that there is a link between sexual frustration, crime, moral disorder and social instability.

Migrant workers come early every morning to look for job opportunities, in Jinan, South central China’s Shandong province, August 2, 2021. Photo: Wang Feng / Imaginechina via AFP

These narratives fail to understand a gender- and class-specific kind of masculine identity that is characterized by emotional pain, desperation and low self-esteem.

Situated at the sharp end of China’s inequality, these men typically harbor modest dreams of finding a life partner, starting a family and living with more dignity and less discrimination. But the road to emotional fulfillment is paved with compromise, disappointment and emotional hardship.

More than four decades of economic reform and population control policies have transformed China into one of the more unequal countries in the world. And while the world is fond of talking about “China’s rise”, its phenomenal economic growth and its fast-growing middle class, the emotional cost of these impressive developments is little remarked.

Without such knowledge, a crucial piece of data is missing from our understanding of China and the problems its people and those in countries undertaking a similar transition are forced to cope with.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Technology Sydney.

This article, republished with permission, was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.