When Liu Yanchang quit his factory job in Hebei province and took the four-hour bus ride to Beijing to become a courier, it was the farthest the 18-year-old had ever been from home. The new job, part of the booming e-commerce industry, offered him more money than he had ever made before, and he hoped to learn English and one day travel overseas. All in all, he was happy.
Just a few months on, though, his optimism has been deflated. “I don’t belong in Beijing,” he complains. “I just work here.”
Grueling 10-hour workdays spent ferrying packages bought online across China’s capital affected his performance, and several lost packages resulted in a disciplinary fine and an angry boss. He still finds the giant city hard to navigate, and has had less opportunity to explore than he expected. Isolated in the small room he rents, Liu says his initial enthusiasm for the adventure seems like a distant memory.
China has freed more than 850 million people from absolute poverty in recent decades, a period in which the ruling Communist Party made a simple pledge to its population: Avoid interfering with the political order, and prosperity will be yours. This contract worked for China’s middle class, which grew from 29 million in the 1990s to some 531 million in 2013. In 2019, however, Beijing’s mission has become more complicated, and Liu’s story is typical of the 228 million migrants who work in China’s cities today. These workers, known as nongmingong, have seen their wealth increase, but their place in Chinese society is largely unclear. China’s cities are becoming more and more hostile to the people on whose backs they were built, and the nongmingong are not feeling the gains of the government’s promise.