Living in the Shadows

Living in the Shadows: China’s Internal Migrants from David Campbell on Vimeo.

Living in the Shadows: China’s Internal Migrants is a multimedia project I produced in April 2009 with Sharron Lovell, who photographed the story and provided the audio and video. It tells the story of three families of migrant labourers in Shanghai, and the struggles they face as undocumented internal migrants.

It has been produced for the Viewing Restricted project organised by the Center for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. This exhibition (for which I was a member of the organising committee) is designed to challenge conventional pictorial representations of global poverty and explore alternative accounts. It was shown in The Atrium at the LSE from 29 April to 13 June 2009, and there was an associated series of talks and lectures related to the project throughout May 2009.

The context for Living in the Shadows is China’s new economic status. China has been the fastest growing economy in the world over almost three decades, expanding at 10% per year until recently. As a result, real GDP in 2005 was about 12 times the level of 1978, when Deng Xiaoping launched China on the path of economic reform.

China’s growth has both created and been fuelled by internal migration, with people moving from the countryside to the city in search of jobs. The numbers involved are staggering. This has been the world’s largest peacetime migration, rising from just 2 million migrant labourers in the 1980s to 200 million now, with internal migrants comprising 40% of the urban workforce.

The life of a migrant labourer is made difficult by China’s household registration, or hukou, system. All Chinese citizens have to register and the hukou has a profound effect on everybody’s life. Designed in the 1950s, this system linked citizenship to residency in a specific place. Its purpose was to keep the rural and urban distinct, restrict migration between regions, and establish the basis for a nation-wide system of public security. Originally the hukou distinguished between agricultural and non-agricultural workers. However, reforms in the 1980s and 1990s did away with this and introduced the different categories of ‘permanent hukou’, ‘temporary hukou’ or ‘guest hukou’.

The problem is that of the migrant labour population, some 60% do not get official status to work legally in the cities. And without a change in their hukou status, these workers and their families cannot access good local education, health care, housing and social benefits. Often working without contracts, they are poorly paid, forced into overtime and denied holidays.

The hukou system limits the benefits of citizenship by discriminating on the basis of origin. The Chinese government has been taking steps to improve the lives of migrant labourers, but change has been slow and poorly implemented. As a result, Amnesty International has called for the hukou system to be reformed to guarantee the human rights of these Chinese workers who have made many personal sacrifices to pursue a better life in their own country.

You can see Living in the Shadows: China’s Internal Migrants (15:12 ) on Vimeo now.

  • Living in the Shadows has been recognised as ‘Multimedia of the Month’ for June 2009 at the RESOLVE photography blog in the US. Many thanks to Benjamin Chesterton for the post and comments.
  • Living in the Shadows has been published on-line by The Global Post, September 2009.
  • Living in the Shadows won a prestigious award in the Society of American Business Editors and Writers 2010 annual competition.