Understanding the Changing Social Fabric of China: ‘Last Train Home’

By – Rahul Karan Reddy and Omkar Bhole;

Last Train Home (归途列车) documents the arduous journey of migrant workers in China struggling to reunite with their children for the New Year holidays (过年). Directed by Lixin Fan and set in the mid-2000s in Guangdong and Sichuan, the documentary captures the emotional and physical turbulence of the largest human migration in the world. It follows the journey of Zhang parents, Changhua and Suqin, who fight to secure seats on a train to their village in Sichuan where their son and daughter, Yang and Qin, live with their grandmother.

At the onset, the documentary mentions that there were 130 million migrant workers in China in 2006; this number has now increased to around 375 million in 2021. Migrant workers have been the main driving force of China’s rapid economic transformation in the past four decades. However, regional disparities in development have caused several skilled as well as semi-skilled workers to migrate to China’s eastern provinces in search of better economic opportunities. For these workers, the New Year holidays are a rare opportunity to meet their children and other family members — often only once a year. In this context, the documentary brings forth several underlying social and economic issues connected with rural-urban migrations in China. 

Lack of Transport Facilities

The opening scenes of the documentary capture the scale of migration in China for the New Year holidays. This year, official estimates believe that nearly 2.1 billion passenger trips will be made across China during 40 days of new year and spring festival (春节) period despite the fear of rising COVID-19 infections. Although transport facilities have significantly improved in China in the past two decades with the introduction of high-speed railways and other connectivity infrastructure, it was not the same case when the documentary was shot in the mid-2000s.

Throngs of migrant workers can be seen scrambling over barricades to squeeze themselves into packed trains as police and other officials look on helplessly. This depicts only one of the problems brought about by the rapid economic transformation of China from an agricultural economy to an industrially-advanced country.  The documentary touches on several negative externalities of frenetic modernisation: the poor working conditions of migrant workers in crowded and polluted industrial cities, shortcomings of China’s transportation facilities, inability of government officials to cope with migration and demographic challenge in villages across China. Beyond this, the mass exodus captured in the documentary also illustrates a complex social phenomenon produced in a country caught between its rural past and industrial future.

Family Tensions

The documentary shows the hardship faced by millions of workers in China’s industrial centres as they struggle to maintain their relationships with family members back at home. The separation of parents from children produces estrangement and frustration that manifests in the conversations between the Zhang parents and their children, who see their parents as absentees obsessed with making money. However, it is hard not to be touched by the stoic sacrifices made by the Zhang parents in the hopes of securing a better life for their children, reflective of many such real-life stories in present day China. On the other hand, Qin and her younger brother Yang do not share the ethic and aspirations of their parents; they are eager to drop out of school and live in a metropolis like Shenzhen where the dream of modernity in a capitalist China a metaphor for a runaway train, threatening to leave a younger generation behind.

These differences often lead to heated arguments amongst family members and sometimes, even disintegration of Chinese families. This changing trend contradicts the Confucian principle of filial piety (孝顺) that talks about strong family bonds and reverence to one’s parents even during the toughest times. Thus, even though leaders of Communist Party of China (CPC) take pride in Confucian values as being the bedrock of present Chinese civilisation, the ground reality is  evolving away from those values, perhaps in an irreversible manner.

Generational Differences and a Flawed Social Security System

The documentary not only brings out the tension between parents and children, but also the differences between generations of the same family. These differences are created by several external factors such as economic aspirations, prevailing political conditions as well as evolving societal values. Qin’s mother, Suqin, born in a radically different China under Mao, struggles to see eye to eye with her daughter. Suqin hopes that her daughter works hard in school, becomes successful and takes care of them in their old age. However, Qin’s aspirations are not the same as her parents, more closely resembling the hopes of a younger generation impatiently waiting to be swept up by a wave of modernity ushered in by the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping.

Juxtaposing this is Qin’s grandmother, who reminisces about the time she wanted to leave the country but was forced to stay by the State in the countryside to fulfil her “duty”. Her lack of choice contrasts the relatively greater freedom of mobility that Qin enjoys, emphasising the generational differences between members of the same family. The thought process of Suqin’s generation is prevalent among migrant workers as a result of multiple factors like a lack of social security benefits and rising cost of living in urban areas. China’s household registration or ‘hukou’ (户口) system has restricted millions of migrant workers from gaining benefits at par with other urban workers. For instance, migrant workers face difficulties in enrolling their children in  urban schools due to lack of urban hukou, which compel them to leave their children in villages for education. As per 2018 figures, there were 6.97 million such ‘left-behind children’ in China’s rural areas. Hence, several reforms in this system have been put in place at provincial level, especially in eastern provinces like Henan, Guangdong and so on. However, lack of national reform policy has caused several disparities, creating new problems for China’s migrant population. Another major issue faced by migrant workers is the lack of old age pensions. Similarly, less savings by migrant workers during their prime working years have raised concerns about the wellbeing of future generations.

As China’s old age population continues to increase, this problem is likely to become worse, leading to a greater burden on future generations to take care of their parents. This burden will be more severe for children of migrant workers due to lack of opportunities and thus, it may lead to more friction within Chinese families as shown in the documentary.

The documentary highlights several socio-economic implications of migration in China. China’s economic liberalization has certainly brought enormous benefits for Chinese society in terms of improved standard of living and better economic opportunities. However, it has also led to some fundamental changes in Chinese society, especially in its family system. These changes are more acutely felt by migrant workers, which has been effectively depicted in this documentary. With time, these changes are becoming an inseparable part of Chinese society and Last Train Home offers valuable insights into the consequences of these alterations.

Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst with a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century.

Omkar Bhole is a Research Associate at Organization for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). He is a Chinese language student and completed Masters in China Studies from Somaiya University, Mumbai. He has completed the HSK 4 level of Chinese language proficiency and works as a Chinese language instructor. His research interests are China’s foreign policy in Asia, China’s economic transformation and China’s domestic politics. He has previously done an internship at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). He has also presented a paper at the 1st All India Conference of East Asian Studies. He can be reached @bhole_omkar on Twitter

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