300,000 ghost migrants toil on land that was abandoned by others, now they might lose it

By Nandu Daily Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-24 19:33:19

Some 300,000 ghost citizens live in South China's affluent Pearl River Delta. Having migrated from poorer regions to toil on lands abandoned by local farmers who moved into cities, these people are not registered with the local government and enjoy no State welfare. Even the villages they settle in are not to be found on official maps. Now their plight is compounded as the indigenous farmers are coming back thanks to government agriculture incentives. The surrogate farmers (daigengnong in Chinese), as they are called, are facing a harsh life in which they can call no place home.

A farmer ploughs a field in Foshan, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

Cheng Wufu woke up at the crack of dawn, as he does every day, and sat quietly in his 5-square-meter bedroom.

Cheng, 58, is the head of a village in Leping Town, under the Sanshui district of Foshan, Guangdong Province. The villagers followed Cheng here 24 years ago from Dali village in Guangdong's Yangshan Township to make a living by farming land abandoned by locals, who at the time had flooded to cities to work in factories.

Cheng named this village Yangcheng, but this name has not yet been recognized by the government, nor can it be located on any map.

Some 360 people dwell in this village, and they are all daigengnong, Cheng said.

Daigengnong are the product of the economic changes that took place in late 1970s and early 1980s in South China's Pearl River Delta region. The region saw fast growth after China's opening up and reform while at the same time, due to the old agricultural production responsibility system which then forbade farmers from abandoning their land and required them to give the authorities a certain amount of food each year, many farmers chose to rent out their farmlands to daigengnong. 

However, daigengnong cannot acquire a hukou (household registration) in the place to which they have migrated, which means they cannot use local government services. If their land is taken back by its official owner, they then face not having any means of support. After a lifetime living in their new homes, they are reluctant to return to villages in which many of them have never lived.

Migrating for a better life

The village Cheng used to live in, Dali, is the poorest village in Yangshan.

"The only way for people to earn some money is to make brooms and sell them at weekend markets to buy salt," Cheng told the Nandu Daily.

As hundreds of thousands of people started to migrate in 1989 due to the fast economic development of Guangdong, Cheng was inspired to leave his village and take a chance in a big world.

A year later, Cheng and several other villagers went to Longyanyuan village in Leping Town and rented about 26 hectares of land.

Compared with Dali, which is surrounded by steep mountains, Longyanyuan has a mild climate and flat land. Due to Dali's barrenness, residents were not bound to meet food production quotas and could therefore abandon their land.

Cheng's plan was supported by the other villagers. About 48 of Dali's 49 households followed him to Leping in December 1991.

There, they spent one month building their houses on a small patch of land Longyanyaun officials assigned to them.

Cheng's village is not alone in leaving Yangshan to shake off poverty. According to a website run by the Qingyuan government which supervises Yangshan Township, from May 1993 to December 1995, 46,294 people from 9,935 households in Yangshan migrated to other places.

Statistics released in July by the municipal government of Zhuhai, a city in Guangdong, showed that the Pearl River Delta region currently has more than 300,000 daigengnong. 

Changing dilemma

The daigengnong lived in Yangcheng for eight years before they got electricity, and six years after that they got tap water. "I don't know how we survived those years," Cheng said.

However, 2001 was seen as a turning point in the "daigengnong era," when China began to experiment with agriculture tax reform.

In June 2002, China cut the nine taxes farmers needed to pay at the time to just one, and then that tax was officially abolished in 2005. This reform turned farmland from a burden to an asset for farmers.

Longyanyuan natives have since taken back 21 hectares of the land they had contracted to the daigengnong and only left them with 5.3 hectares to support themselves.

But no daigengnong chose to leave and their number has actually increased from a little more than 200 when they first got there to 360.

Since the lands were taken back, Cheng's job is just to collect water and electricity fees and rent for the farmlands that is left.

There is very limited contact between Yangcheng's daigengnong and Longyanyuan residents and there are no signs pointing to Yangcheng along the township's roads. "The only people who are familiar with Yangcheng are couriers," Cheng said.

As most daigengnong villagers don't have land anymore, they have started working in surrounding factories.

Daigengnong Wang Meilian works in a nearby ceramics factory, and her husband, 45-year-old Feng Guoxiong fishes in surrounding villages to make a living.

Feng and his wife have four children and the whole family lives in a 30-square-meter house.

As the second and third generations of daigengnong grow up, the small village is getting increasingly crowded.

Feng Zhide, 23, was born and grew up in Yangcheng. He regards himself as a local. But his identity card still says his household registration is in Dali.

Feng is not happy about this. He has never lived in Dali and regards Yangcheng as his hometown.

Because of the contract signed with the Longyanyuan authorities, Yangcheng villagers' children like Feng have the opportunity to enter the local school and they carry the hope of changing their family's destiny through education. But throughout the 24 years, no one in Yangcheng has managed to use education to leave this type of life behind.

Without land and education, most Yangcheng villagers become migrant workers. Elderly people like Cheng have to depend on their children.

Gao Qinglian, lecturer at the College of Public Management at South China Agricultural University, said daigengnong in the Pearl River Delta region generally live in poverty and lack livelihood capital, which consists of material wealth, financial resources, skills and education, and social capital.

"Long-time poverty has led to a lack of the livelihood capital, resulting in the inter-generational transference of poverty," Gao said.

They are marginalized, and their social circles are often limited to their families and other daigengnong. Due to their hukou problems, they have trouble obtaining an education, she said. 

Struggling for a bright future

Every year, people in Yangcheng return to Dali to worship their ancestors, which for many is the only connection they have with the village.

Cheng is not sure whether it was a right decision to lead the villagers to Yangcheng. "History will tell whether I've made a right decision or not," he said.

Dang Guoying, a research fellow with the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that because of the complexity of the problems and policy reasons, issues including the legal identity of daigengnong, their household registration, housing and children's enrollment problems, have not been properly solved.

"Governments should not avoid responsibility in addressing the daigengnong issue. They should look at it from the social stability perspective," Dang said. "Daigengnong problems can't be solved only by cooperation between county and county, village and village, it should be dealt with at the upper governmental level. And the government should support this group with policy and finance."

Take Sanshui district as an example. Dang pointed out that daigengnong have been working in Sanshui for a long time and have contributed a lot to the local economy, so the Foshan government should acknowledge their identity and let them enjoy the same rights to services as local people.

The task of helping marginalized people to shake off poverty has drawn the central government's attention.  

At a two-day conference on poverty alleviation and development held in November, China's top leaders pledged resolute measures to help 70 million people in China to escape poverty.

President Xi Jinping told the conference that "no single poor region nor individual living in poverty will be left behind" when the country accomplishes the goal of "building a moderately prosperous society" by 2020, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xi urged governments at all levels to take more precise measures to make sure that poor people in rural areas can get food, clothes, education, medical care, and safe homes.

Daigengnong in Zhuhai have seen the first glimmer of success. The Xinhua News Agency reported in July that from July 15 to December 2016, Zhuhai will tackle daigengnong household registration, housing and social welfare problems.

But for Cheng, there is still a long way to go. In July, Cheng led several villagers to negotiate with the Leping government. But when they entered the government building, they realized for the first time that there is no department responsible for them.

Although they have been living on this land for 24 years, they felt that they have never been here, nor belong to this place. 

Nandu Daily

Newspaper headline: Surrogate farmers

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus