One of the major themes in Hessler’s Country Driving is widespread migration from rural villages to large cities. On multiple occasions he comments that the degree of withdrawal from villages is so extreme that he may be witnessing the last generation to inhabit such areas. All of the near-abandoned villages had the same story: younger generations were leaving in hopes of opportunity that would lead to a higher standard of living.
The massive exodus that Hessler observed years ago is still relevant today (over half of China’s general and working populations now live in cities) and has created multiple adverse effects on the Chinese population. The gap between China’s wealthy and poor citizens has increased with the country’s overall GDP and has left little room in between – only 18.2% of the population is considered middle class. The hukuo system – a structure which restricts migrants’ access to a city’s public services –impedes equality among China’s citizens and has contributed to the increasing economic gap in China’s recent years.
Since the hukuo system forces Chinese migrants to pay for things like health care and their children’s’ education, it greatly diminishes the economic benefits of moving from rural areas to a city. However, Chinese migrants are still much better off than those in rural areas. The difference in income between urban and rural areas has increased greatly over the years – the gap between them is now “26 percent higher than in 1997 and 68 percent higher than in 1985.” This is only exaggerated by the fact that the standards of public services are much lower in rural areas than the standards of urban counterparts.