View from the Media: A Long Way Home for Migrant Workers

As Chinese prepare for the massive annual chunyun (Chinese New Year migration), a number of incidents reported by mainstream media have generated a public debate concerning the role and responsibilities of the government and private citizens in providing aid to migrant workers.

The controversy centered around three Guangdong huangniu, or scalpers, who were arrested earlier this month for purchasing train tickets for migrant workers. Although scalping train tickets is against regulations, the use of a huangniu is common practice during the chunyun period, and these huangniu had a charitable intention– they charged fees of only RMB 10 – 20, well below the usual exorbitant fees charged by those in their profession.

Further, migrant workers’ relied more on huangniu this year due to the recently-instituted User Identification System (实名制), which allows users to buy their tickets online. A majority of migrant workers lack a computer or internet access, and thus were not able to benefit from the new system. Even worse, as railway station ticket counters reduced the pre-sale period of train tickets with the implementation of the system, migrant workers found that they had no choice but to turn to huangniu to assist them in purchasing tickets.

The news that a number of these huangniu had been arrested led to a public outcry. The public was extremely sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers, many of whom return home only once a year to participate in the Chinese New Year festival (for a great documentary about the Chinese New Year migration of migrant workers, check out Last Train Home, by filmmaker Lixin Fan). With coverage in a number of major and local newspapers, the huangniu found that they had become media darlings overnight.

While the railroad public security bureau’s allegation that these huangniu were in violation of railway regulations is undoubtedly correct, the sentiment prevails that the government failed to adequately consider the needs of migrant workers in their drive to modernize the railway system. In this way, a huangniu who served migrant workers was (perhaps unwittingly) making a subtle critique of the government’s management of a sensitive situation, placing him or herself at odds with the government and often landing the scalper in detention.

Once the arrests turned into a public controversy, however, the government shifted its approach, releasing the detained scalpers and doubling the emphasis on (and publicity of) state-led measures to assist migrant workers. These have included information hotlines to assist workers, special lines at the trains stations, and even dedicated trains transporting only migrant workers. As this issue continues to attract public interest, it will be interesting to observe whether these measures will be deemed adequate.

For more information check out these (Chinese-language) articles:


CDB (English) Associate Director

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