by Caroline Watson

Developing the potential of migrant workers in China

Go to the people
Love them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
And when it is done
They will say
We did it

— Lao Zi

Migrant workers are at the cusp between China’s growing urbanization and life in the rural areas, they see and know the dynamics of a changing China and have the ability to harness the creativity inherent in the struggle to survive. What they need is the right kind of education and support to claim their rightful inheritance as builders of the new China.

It is all too easy to see what has become the world’s biggest mass migration movement as either simply a source of cheap labour for China’s growing economy, or a symbol of the growing gap between rich and poor in the country. The statistics are huge. The Chinese migrant population numbered 261m in the 2010 census, with the majority consisting of rural-urban migrants.  Children left behind in rural areas whilst their parents work in the cities number approximately 58m. 

Migrants and the children who migrate with them have little access to social welfare (healthcare, education, labour, insurance, housing, and legal protection) due to lack of adequate reform of the hukou system. They have little awareness of their legal rights, lack the skills to increase their employability, lack access to personal and professional development, and face discrimination based on their social status. Depression and mental health are rife and loneliness is a common problem. Migrant women are at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, mental health issues and reduced economic and social opportunity due to cultural expectations of a woman’s role.

Moving from the countryside to a bustling metropolis, migrant children are also under tremendous pressure due to their economic status as well as their social status. Caught in the urban poverty trap, their access to quality education is limited and they frequently face discrimination from their city peers when they do get access. Parents work long hours and have few opportunities to attend to their child’s emotional and intellectual development, contributing to mental health issues, behavioral challenges and the breakdown of traditional family life.

We have also heard of countless stories of migrant workers seen as economic ‘cannon fodder’, mere production line workers or those on construction sites, workers with little knowledge or awareness of their human and labour rights, exploited by greedy corporations eager to maximize profit. But it is these workers who are, quite literally, building the new China, helping to turn her into the economic powerhouse that she is. And it is these workers who, given more opportunities and economic power, can help to stimulate the domestic consumption needed for China to survive and bring prosperity to all.

Critically, we need a new view of this population. Migrant workers are at the cusp of China’s great urbanization process, forging links between the traditions and expectations of the rural areas, and the dynamism and progress of the cities. Their circumstances mean that they are inherently creative, entrepreneurial, risk-taking and forward thinking: the migrant worker population is an opportunity, not a threat. China’s future health, prosperity and social stability depend on the potential of these people to transform the country.

I have a background in the arts, specifically theatre, and came to China in 2003 with a vision of using my skills to develop the creative potential of the migrant worker population. I had read Xinran Xue’s book The Good Women of China and was shocked and appalled by the stories of Chinese women’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution. An interest in women’s issues led me to The Migrant Women’s Club in downtown Beijing where I began to run weekly theatre-based workshops that used the theatre process to explore issues surrounding domestic violence, workplace harassment issues and marital and family conflict.

The stories that emerged were fascinating. I remember one case where a migrant woman in her early thirties, Dong Li (not her real name), was repeatedly pressurized by her husband to return to her village, whilst she maintained it was better for the family if she remained in Beijing to work. We used a role-play technique to set up a scenario of a typical phone conversation between her and her husband. The scene was short and tense, descending into argument, fear and frustration quickly.

Afterwards, I asked her to swap roles with the actor who had played her husband, with one of her colleagues playing herself. We re-did the scene, the theatre process enabling her to ‘put herself in the shoes’ of her husband – and the result was transformative. Her shift in perspective enabled her to understand the pressures he was facing. When she came back the following week, she said that she and her husband had managed to communicate better and their relationship was on a more harmonious footing.

This is one example of the impact of the work of Hua Dan, the organisation I established to deliver theatre-based workshops to women such as Dong Li. We use workshops such as these to unfold the potential of the migrant worker population to develop self-confidence, self-esteem, leadership, communication skills and creativity – all skills that are needed to enable individuals to lift themselves out of poverty and be active agents for change in their communities.

Hua Dan is now a well-respected non-profit that has served over 25,000 people across China, in projects that range from after-school drama clubs for children, women’s empowerment and work-place training skills, and corporate leadership training programmes on team-work and supply-chain management.

Dong Fen is a young migrant woman from Yunnan province who came to Beijing to receive training as a beautician, courtesy of the Rural Women Knowing All School in Changping district, Beijing. Strong-minded and independent, Dong Fen was a keen supporter of Hua Dan from the very beginning and has helped me develop it from a small volunteer base into the organization that it is today.

Dong Fen is by far one of the best businesspeople I know. Although she has little more than a secondary school education, her sheer grit, determination and desire to improve herself has been a constant in getting both her own life and the life of Hua Dan to the point it is today. I remember her telling me that, whenever she sought a new job in Beijing, she made it perfectly clear to her boss that she needed to have Sunday evenings off so that she could attend the Hua Dan workshop. This was non-negotiable to her and she gaily informed me that she had lost several job opportunities because of her demands.

What has impressed me most is witnessing the migrants’ extraordinary skills and capacities in taking leadership over their lives and their communities. It is in this population, I believe, that the future of China really lies.

These stories are now being echoed by the growing demands of migrant workers for better conditions and professional development opportunities when seeking work in factories. No longer content with a basic wage, demands for pensions, leisure activities and further training are becoming the norm and both factories and multinationals in China are becoming more proactive in offering such benefits to worker populations. Migrants are increasingly searching for excitement and new opportunities, rather than economic benefits which have been the traditional driver for migration. Female migrants in particular benefit from the freer circumstances in the cities, far away from rural areas where they face ongoing pressure to marry and produce a son. Indeed, a report by the Migration Policy Institute found that migrants are more likely to emphasise their personal development and demand a greater balance between work and play.

To me, this represents an opportunity. There are now increasing instances of migrant workers who have gone home and started their own businesses or social projects. Xiao Qiang, a young migrant who worked with Hua Dan for several years running our children’s projects, has now set up his own cultural projects in his village. Zhong Na, the first director of our children’s projects, now works as a project manager for the Baadi Foundation and has a vision of starting her own mini-Hua Dan in her village in Shandong. She has succeeded in building a career for herself as an educator, despite pressures from her family to return home and marry. 

Zhong Na is a typical example of the radical change that especially women experiencing, going from very traditional life styles to tasting the freedom and independence that comes with city-living. They have the opportunity to redefine a woman’s role in society and to bring back fresh ways of thinking to the village – entrepreneurial not just in terms of setting up businesses but in terms of also bringing about societal changes.

The global trend of migrants setting up their own businesses is well documented. According to the Centre for Entrepreneurs, migrants to the UK are almost twice as likely to set up a business as a non-migrant and one in seven businesses are operated by a migrant. The resourcefulness, struggle for survival and hunger for new economic opportunity that characterise migrant populations are, and often have been, a major driving force in entrepreneurial activity.

China must develop the right frameworks and policies to support the potential for migrants to take leadership in their communities and within society at large. Investing in the education and training of this population is critical. But not just any form of education. We need education that will educate the hearts and minds of this population, not just giving them technical or academic skills, but education that fosters their self-confidence, self-esteem, leadership and innate creativity.

Education that benefits the whole person and promotes not only academic achievement but also the life skills that enable spiritual and moral development and an understanding of social responsibility. Education that encourages this group of people to build on the skills they have developed through their struggle for survival so that they can also drive economic growth in a sustainable and empowered way.

I grew up in Hong Kong, a city that was built by ‘migrant’ labour. The city was nothing more than a ‘barren rock’ when it was founded but it soon established itself as one of the foremost financial centres in the world. This was in part due to migrants from the mainland arriving with a hunger and desire for self-improvement that fuelled economic growth and entrepreneurship: Hong Kong’s richest man, the tycoon Li Ka Shing, was himself a migrant worker from Guangdong province. As a child, I was surrounded by evidence of success bred from the mobility of those in search of a better life and the potential of turning hardship into opportunity has fuelled my own entrepreneurial journey.

We have seen in many parts of the world that the Chinese diaspora is skilled at making money and running businesses. The reputation of the Chinese for hard work is legendary and I have seen no exception to this in the microcosm of Hua Dan. The Chinese government can take pride in these skills, supporting and encouraging those at the bottom of the pyramid to make larger contributions to the economy and seeing migrants as an asset to true growth and progress, rather than a liability and a risk to social stability.

The Chinese migrant worker was selected by Time magazine as runner-up to their Person of the Year in 2009, in acknowledgement of their importance to the global economy. In that year, about 70% of China’s economic growth was spurred by exports, which was in part from the cheap domestic labour force.

However, as China’s growth has slowed, and there is an increasing shortage of migrant workers and labour costs are rising, it can no longer rely on it’s cheap labour to secure a place in the global economy. The government has already spelled out it’s desire to also be a country of innovation and entrepreneurship and, as such, it is imperative that it’s education system and the way in which it harnesses the potential of the worker population are carefully monitored. Mass upskilling will be necessary.

In our own work at Hua Dan, we are now pioneering a teacher training curriculum that seeks to bring arts-based processes and creative education methods into both migrant and rural schools, bridging the growing wealth gap by creating opportunities in both communities. When I first started Hua Dan, I sought to ‘help’ the migrant population and but I now find myself awed and inspired by the people I have met and their capacity to take leadership in moving the country forward. It is my vision for these extraordinary individuals to take their creativity, optimism and love for their communities forward and I hope to have others in China support us in this endeavor.

China has succeeded like no other country in lifting people out poverty and should be commended for this achievement. It is time for her now to take the next step.

This article was written by Caroline Watson, with the assistance of the Hua Dan team.
Caroline Watson is founder and director of Hua Dan, China’s first social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre-based workshops to unfold individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus working with China’s rural to urban migrant workers, who work in the manufacturing and service industry, at the heart of China’s economic boom. She is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and writes, speaks and consults about China, women’s leadership and arts for social change. For more information, see and



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