Urbanization and Equal Opportunity in a Seemingly Homogenous Society

My experience in Shanghai was uniquely colored by my Black womanhood so I am writing about my experience through a minority’s lens. There I was, standing 474 meters high, on the 100th floor of the Shanghai Financial Observatory, the second tallest building in Shanghai, admiring the view and taking photos of The Bund. It was not long before I felt seemingly innocent stares and fingers pointing at me. I began wondering what the Chinese visitors were talking about. I looked at my friend, a blonde haired white woman, who was not in the least bit reluctant to pose in a photo requested by the Chinese visitors. I was forewarned about this behavior before I made the 15 hour trip to China so I wondered if the Chinese stares were innocent.

What happened next solicited a delayed response and blank stare from me. A Chinese visitor pointed at me, smiled brightly and said “photo?” In that moment, I had a choice to make. I could politely decline or oblige. This reaction is purely psychological. I am a black woman from America, a country that has a heavy history of hate and oppression, and I am, at this point in time, a foreign national in China. My appearance very different from those I was with. I was one of few minorities and I did not want to be the spectacle. Despite this, I chose to smile, open my arms high in the air and seize the moment. I shrugged off a happy “Yes!” and in that moment, I had made the choice to live freely and to embrace every situation to come with an open mindset and heart. I made the decision, that day, to continue to respond with love and positivity each day thereafter.

The excitement continued throughout the trip. While in a store at Yu Garden, I felt a tug pull my head back a bit. I turned around surprised and a Chinese lady, an employee at the store, was holding one of my braids in her hand. She spoke Mandarin so we could only exchange smiles. This was quite the experience for us both. While visiting an urban village, a lady proudly connected with me by excitedly speaking “Ob-a-ma!” Another did not believe I was American. Humorous. The best interaction happened when I was standing in line at the Shanghai train station to pick up my train tickets for my weekend trip to Hangzhou. There was a young girl, no more than 5 years old staring at me. She was genuinely captivated. After a few minutes, I decided to combat the awkwardness. I walked up to her with my hand in the air signaling a high five. Her hand met mine and her eyes lit up the way a child’s eyes light up when they meet their favorite Disney character. As the distance between our hands grew, she slowly pulled her hand back while looking at the underside, the part of her hand that touched mine, with joyful bewilderment.

Ultimately, what was most fascinating for us all, was that the Chinese were not just intrigued by me. After all, this behavior was expected. The Chinese wanted photos with everyone that did not look Chinese. For my white friends, this was the beginning of new journey. One that would help them understand what it is like to truly be different simply because of the way you look. This experience, painted itself over and over throughout my 2 week stay in China. Whether I was at the train station, the market, the slums or in the classroom, people were intrigued. After all, my skin is dark, my hair is in braids, and according to two graduate urban planning students from East China Normal University’s (ECNU) urban and regional economics department, Zeze and Brave Heart (translated from Mandarin), I am “pretty and cool.” My second to last lecture in China was facilitated by Dr. Dan Guttman. He said “every foreigner that goes to China is a VIP” very important person.

Despite it being difficult to accurately compare Shanghai to other cities due to differing systemic calculations for share of agriculture, registered population, sewage coverage, gross domestic product and urban area size, there are clear similarities between it and other cities. America defines its ethnic groups by race. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “our notion of what constitutes "white" and what constitutes black" is a product of social context.”[1] Urbanization in America and so many other countries, at one point, was heavily dependent on divisive laws that exploited minorities. Race has been used in laws to control wealth, land, resources and people. In America, these laws birthed a racially stratified society where inequality and injustice are widespread. The inequalities and injustices experienced are inherited based on ones’ race. Initially, I thought China was different from America because it seemed to lack racial diversity. It seemed homogenous. Contrary to my assumption, “China is a “large, united multi-national state, and it is composed of 56 ethnic groups.”[2] China is very diverse.

Discrimination rears its ugly head when differences amongst people exist. Money, power and greed are a key driver behind many debated policies that promote urbanization in China. Peter Alexander and Anita Chan said that Hukou, China’s household registration systems’ purpose is to “maximize output whilst relying on labor-intensive production.”[3] So many countries are built on the backs of a level of society that has been exploited and oppressed. While it might be hard to see this at first glance, China is no exception to the rule. Based on an article from the Economist, many Chinese “feel excluded from the benefits enjoyed by the ethnic Han Chinese, who make up more than 90% of China’s population. Neither Uighurs nor Tibetans enjoy ready access to the job market that has drawn tens of millions of Han to cities in recent years. They are unwelcome, and they know it.”[4] It is worth noting that when “taken together, the regions of China that are dominated by non-Han people constitute roughly half of China’s territory and that if non-Han Chinese citizens formed their own country, it would be the 11th largest in the world, just behind Mexico and just ahead of the Philippines.”[5]

China divvies its land between rural and urban territory. Per the graphs in figure 1 above, it is clear that a significant income gap exists between urban and rural households. Annual per capita income in Shanghai’s rural households is 21,192 yuan ($3,065) which is less than half that of its Urban counterparts income at 48,841 yuan ($7,076). This remains consistent across provinces. According to the latest census in America, the real median household income by race and Hispanic origin shows that Asians are earning significantly more in the US than they would in their native country, making on average $81,431(562,778 yuan) annually.[6] “McKinsey expects these urban households in the most successful Chinese cities to make between 60,000 ($8678) and 229,000 ($33,121) yuan a year within the next eight years.”[7] It is interesting to note that Blacks are at the bottom of the totem pole in the US, earning on average less than half that of Asians in America, only $39,490[8] (273,855 yuan) per year. What is ironic, is that if blacks were to go to China, they would be considered better off there if they could find a way to keep their US income.

Policies exist not just to oppress but to advance sector(s) of society. Whether it is ones lack of access to quality housing, lack of access to adequate healthcare, lack of access to decent education, or lack of access to jobs paying livable wages, it is clear that no matter the country, the government and the law determine who gets what. In China, the government provides benefits to urban residents. Per Dr. Dan Guttman, China is more a socialist country than it is communist, but contrary to this, the urban and rural Hukou designation in China “has been the source of much inequality over the decades since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, as urban residents received benefits that ranged from retirement pension to education to health care, while rural citizens were often left to fend for themselves.[9]

China’s migrant workers have rural Hukou so they are not represented in the data collected in Figure 2. It is seemingly more difficult to find income data on China’s migrant workers. If they were to be included, I suspect the percentage of poor in China would increase. The percent of the population in the poor class of Chinese society, meaning that they earn less than $9,000 annually is 29% (this excludes migrant workers with rural Hukou). This number in America is 14%, and that is inclusive of people located in both rural and urban settings. Additionally, in America, health insurance and other benefits are normally the financial responsibility of the individual or the employer at or above the working class level so annual income is likely much higher than disposable income. “China’s striking policy shortcomings and lack of responsiveness to its weak institutional effort to redistribute income reflected in the emergence of a highly unequal society.”[10]

Migrant Hukou holders end up spending long periods of time away from home because they are able to earn a better living in the urban setting. The main policy issue here is that the migrant workers rural Hukou does not transfer to urban Hukou. “The Hukou system was supposed to ensure that China’s rural population stayed in the countryside and continued to provide the food and other resources that urban residents needed. However, as the economic reforms of the 1980s gained pace, what the cities needed most was cheap labour. And so began what is often described as one of the greatest human migrations of all time, as hundreds of millions of young men and women from the countryside poured into the factories and construction sites of China’s coastal boom towns.”[11] Per Professor Guo’s lecture on day 1, we learned that Shanghai had 23 million people, of which only 13 million people had Shanghai Hukou. 10 million do not.

American citizens, despite race and financial standing have the freedom to move across state borders, from one city to the next, urban or rural; it doesn’t matter as long as you pay your taxes to the right municipality. The only way for Chinese to obtain urban Hukou is through property, eminent domain, marriage investments or college. All of these options are difficult to attain for migrants and so it is very unfortunate not that all Chinese people have equal opportunity to obtain urban Hukou because the requirements are so stringent.

China’s education system also favors those with urban Hukou much like America’s education system favors white Americans. According to Professor Guo’s lecture on May 30, 2018, only 57% of migrant children make it past 9th grade. “Migrant workers have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades but they remain marginalized and subject to institutionalized discrimination. Their children have limited access to education and healthcare and can be separated from their parents for years on end. ” Because migrants’ education is inferior to their rural counterparts it becomes increasing difficult for them to advance throughout all levels of society. Instead of education providing opportunity, it creates a barrier because it is unequal. Migrant workers are forced to work laborious jobs in inhumane environments, much like the work places immigrants have been subjected to in America. Figure 4 below is a chart of employment of migrant workers by sector (2017). Most migrants work in service level jobs.

I recall walking into a Sock factory excited to experience what was to come. Honestly, at the beginning of this tour everything seemed fine. We were welcomed and given the freedom to walk around and observe people working. Their working conditions seemed fine at first, until I realized how hot it was. Then I realized no one was talking to me when I smiled and said hello. It’s as if the workers were mannequins on display, or worse, it seemed they might be reprimanded if caught taking even a one second break to interact with me. I quickly realized there was a rectangle on the sock, half of it filled in red, the other half white. I’d seen this brand before. And then, it hit me, I felt like I’d solved the mystery. This was Tommy Hilfiger’s factory.

Towards the end of the tour the guide welcomed questions. One of my classmates asked how often and how long the shifts and breaks were. He replied stating that staff worked 12 hour shifts and did not offer much information on breaks. This sounded inhumane, but it all makes sense. Tommy Hilfiger, is an American company. America is a capitalist society. So here I was witnessing the impact of capitalism on a global scale. Tommy Hilfiger socks can sell as high as $10 a pair in the United States. They likely cost less than $2 to make, material, labor and shipping. I did a quick Google search for American made socks. The least expensive pair I found cost roughly $15 a pair, 50% higher. I feel like I’m in a bit of a catch 22. Most, if not all, of the stores I shop at order their items from factories around the world. After witnessing it first hand, it is not an industry I want to support, but I like to look nice at an affordable cost.

To make matters worse, I was later told that this was likely one of the best factory conditions in China. This factory was in Shanghai and the workers had no protective gear on. I can only imagine how inhumane and environmentally problematic the factories in other parts of China, such as Beijing and Hong Kong, are. “Factory workers near Hong Kong lose approximately 40,000 fingers annually working on the job.”[12] In Beijing, the smog is worse, thicker, and one has to wear a mask to breathe.

By 2025, China wants to lead the world with technology, specifically with solar power, wind power and electric car development. It will be interesting to see what investments are made in both rural and urban areas to accommodate the economic changes that are to come. With the amount of land available for developers decreasing, it will also be interesting to see if the government will begin investing in migrant villages.

Knowing what the governments goals are, minority villages have a huge incentive to innovate and strategically position themselves to create and build solutions to existing problems, much like the Huaxi Village people did. It is good that China is becoming more socialist and that restrictive divisive policies are slowly improving. There has been a lot of bloodshed in countries across the world because people were tired of being oppressed and they wanted future generations to have equal opportunity to succeed and live a more prosperous life than what was afforded to them. Nelson Mandela said “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” Buying a pair of socks will forever serve as a reminder that there are groups of people across the world experiencing what my ancestors lived in America. Laws and policy’s govern us all, but there has to be a more balanced median between money, power, greed, equality and social justice. It is encouraging that China’s future will be in the hands of passionate students like Zeze and Brave Heart because they truly desire to and deserve to have the opportunity to create a more equal Chinese society.


[1]Coates, T. (2018). What We Mean When We Say 'Race Is a Social Construct'. Retrieved from

[2] Chinese Ethnic Groups: Han People and 55 Ethnic Minorities. (2018). Retrieved from

[3] Alexander, P., & Chan, A. (2004). Does China have an apartheid pass system?. Journal Of Ethnic And Migration Studies, 30(4), 622. doi: 10.1080/13691830410001699487

[4] Don’t make yourself at home. (2018). Retrieved from

[5] Tuttle, G. (2018). China’s Race Problem. Retrieved from

[6] (2018). Retrieved from

[7] China Is Still Really Poor - Geopolitical Futures. (2018). Retrieved from

[8] (2018). Retrieved from

[9] Hukou system. (2018). Retrieved from

[10] AEA Web - Home. (2018). Retrieved from

[11] Migrant workers and their children. (2018). Retrieved from

[12] The Life of a Chinese Factory Worker. (2018). Retrieved from

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