In the traditional values of an agricultural community, the home and land are the centre of one's being. Leaving one's homeland means forsaking one's roots; the call for a migrant to return to the homeland is described as "falling leaves return to their roots".
But in the past three decades, these values have changed drastically and irreversibly in China, as millions of peasants are forced to leave their villages to seek new ways to make a living and travel to wherever work takes them. They have become rootless.
Peasants have been transformed by China's reform and opening up into a mobile proletariat, taking up jobs in manufacturing, service industries, construction, mining, brick-making and many other industries in the cities. And wherever they go, they live a ghost-like existence.
Migrants are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of freedom of association, and their strong sense of alienation and rootlessness often expresses itself in "mass incidents", which have increased sharply over the past decade. In late June, for instance, a riot broke out in Zhongshan following a clash between a local man and a migrant youth. Up to 300 protesters threw stones at government buildings and burned police cars; this was cited in the local media as "the latest in a stream of violent protests in Guangdong linked to migrant workers against unequal wages and discrimination". Feeling totally outside the local society, migrant protesters can feel they need to resort to more drastic measures to be listened to.
In Beijing, migrants make up a third of the capital's 19 million population, and they build the city's wealth and guard its security. Yet they have been subjected to ruthless segregation in every aspect of their life. In Daxing district, southern Beijing, where thousands of migrant workers reside, I met Xuan, a security guard in his 30s. When I asked him where he comes from, he said: "I am a Shandong native from Heilongjiang working in Beijing, who has neither a Shandong nor Beijing hukou." He said he belonged nowhere.
Making a living in the poverty-stricken Shandong village where he was born became impossible as corrupt village cadres increased their influence, randomly distributing land under the new household responsibility system.
Villagers had to seek work elsewhere; Xuan and his seven siblings all had to leave home to make a living. They moved their hukou to Heilongjiang and found manual work there. Once they'd made some money and wanted to move their hukou back to their home village years later, they realised they would have to pay thousands of yuan in "fees" to the village administration. They couldn't afford to and, so, Xuan and his brothers remained nonexistent, unregistered "black households" (heihu) in their home village.
Xuan carried on migrating for work: he and his family couldn't live on their 0.2 hectares of peanut-growing land, which produces an annual income of 1,500 to 1,800 yuan (HK$1,850 to HK$2,200). Yet after working in Beijing for nearly a decade, he still doesn't qualify for a hukou transfer. That's no surprise; it's the reality of millions of migrant workers. What affects him most - more than the lack of rights, low wage and overcrowded housing - is what this second-class status means in day-to-day interaction with others - the loneliness and isolation.
Without a common language and experience, Xuan has found it difficult to integrate into the local urban communities. He felt that Beijingers hold in contempt people of rural origin, and he has never had a proper conversation with the urban dwellers. This sense of alienation is widespread in Daxing's migrant slums.
Migrants' lack of organisation and freedom of association prevents them from developing a feeling of belonging, and their frustration has few avenues for release. The few civil society organisations set up by migrants themselves struggle to survive. And migrant workers are very aware of their isolation in the cities. "We are like scattered sand," Xuan said. "There are millions of us, but without power, and belonging nowhere."
Hsiao-Hung Pai is a freelance journalist. She is the author of Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour, and Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants