Migration in China: Invisible and heavy shackles

The Economist

Copyright The Economist
ON THE hilly streets of Chongqing, men with thick bamboo poles loiter for customers who will pay them to carry loads. The “stick men”, as they are called, hang the items from either end of the poles and heave them up over their shoulders. In a city where the Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, likes to sing old revolutionary songs, these workers should be hymned as heroes. Yet few of them are even classed as citizens of the city where they live.
Most of the stick men were born in the countryside around Chongqing. (The name covers both the urban centre that served as China’s capital in the second world war, and a hinterland, the size of Scotland, which the city administers.) Since 1953, shortly after the Communists came to power, Chinese citizens have been divided into two strata, urban and rural, not according to where they live but on a hereditary basis. The stick men may have spent all their working lives on the streets of Chongqing, but their household registration papers call them “agricultural”.
The registration system (hukou, in Chinese) was originally intended to stop rural migrants flowing into the cities. Stick men were among the targets. In the early days of Communist rule in Chongqing the authorities rounded up thousands of “vagrants” and sent them to camps (vagrants, said Mao Zedong, “lack constructive qualities”). There they endured forced labour before being packed back to their villages.
Rapid industrial growth over the past three decades has required tearing down migration barriers to exploit the countryside’s huge labour surplus. Hukou, however, still counts for a lot, from access to education, health care and housing to compensation payouts. To be classified as a peasant often means being treated as a second-class citizen. Officials in recent years have frequently talked about “reforming” the system. They have made it easier to acquire urban citizenship, in smaller cities at least. But since late last year the official rhetoric has become more urgent. Policymakers have begun to worry that the country’s massive stimulus spending in response to the global financial crisis could run out of steam. Hukou reform, they believe, could boost rural-urban migration and with it the consumer spending China needs.
In early March 11 Chinese newspapers (it would have been 13, had not two bottled out) defied party strictures and teamed together to publish an extraordinary joint editorial. It called on China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which was then about to hold its annual meeting, to urge the government to scrap the hukou system as soon as possible. “We hope”, it said, “that a bad policy we have suffered for decades will end with our generation, and allow the next generation to truly enjoy the sacred rights of freedom, democracy and equality bestowed by the constitution.” Not since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 had so many newspapers simultaneously cast aside the restraints imposed by the Communist Party’s mighty Propaganda Department, which micromanages China’s media output.
The editorial said that “gratifying” progress had already been made with reform, but the system’s “invisible and heavy shackles” were still causing distress. Reform could inject “more dynamism” into the economy and help counter the effects of an ageing population.
Party leaders resented the newspapers’ boldness. Zhang Hong, a deputy chief editor of the Economic Observer, a weekly newspaper, was stripped of his title (though allowed to keep working) for his role in organising the editorial. Within a couple of hours of its appearance on newspaper websites, the authorities ordered its removal. Hukou reform was fine, but the government did not want to be hassled.
Urban citizens benefit from the hukou system, but those who migrate between cities are also irked by it. In 2003 some Chinese newspapers, independently of one another, pressed for reform after a college-educated migrant was detained by police for failing to produce a required identity document, and was beaten to death. The outcry led to the scrapping of regulations that allowed the police to detain people and deport them to their home towns for similar misdemeanours.
This time, says an editor involved in the hukou editorial, the impact was the opposite. Among many of the party-picked delegates to the NPC, he says, hukou reform became “a taboo topic”. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, told the session in March that the government would carry out reforms and repeated that requirements would be relaxed in towns and smaller cities. But he offered few details.
The complexity of hukou reform daunts Chinese leaders. It would have a huge impact on crucial aspects of the economy, from the system of land ownership in the countryside to the financing of public services. But the downsides of an unreformed system are much more obvious. The influx of migrants has caught local governments badly unprepared. Budget pressures have made them highly reluctant to spend money on helping the incomers. Registered urban residents are none too keen either. Few want their children sharing classes with kids they regard as country bumpkins.
In a cold classroom
In urban and rural China alike, the first nine years of schooling are supposed to be free. But not for rural migrants. In Beijing, as in other big cities, hundreds of privately run schools have sprung up in recent years to cater for them. At the Xiangyang Hope School in Huangcun township on the southern edge of the capital, the basic fee is 1,100 yuan ($165) a year: a snip for many urban residents, but the equivalent of several weeks’ wages for many migrants. There is an extra charge for heating; children complain that they are cold in the bitter winters. One parent says she is preparing to take her child back to her village, because conditions are better there.
The authorities have tried to muzzle the principal, Luo Chao (a migrant himself). Mr Luo was until recently the headmaster of another school to the north-east of Beijing. He says local officials told him just before the lunar new year holiday in February that the school would be demolished to make way for a private development project, and could not reopen after the break. Officials briefly detained Mr Luo and the head teacher of another condemned migrants’ school to prevent them petitioning higher authorities. Officials promised that the children would be found new places, but Mr Luo says there is no way that the local government-run school would have enough room for them.
In education, the hukou system’s absurdity is particularly glaring. Migrant children, though classified as “agricultural”, usually have no more than one brief exposure to rural life every year when they are taken to their parents’ home towns for the lunar new year festivities. School places in urban areas are so scarce that some pupils will drop out and others, though old enough for secondary school, will have to stay in primary classes. Tens of millions of children of migrant workers are, in effect, forced to stay in the countryside for schooling, looked after by other relatives. If they do move to urban areas with their parents, they may not sit exams for senior high school in the city where they live. They must return to their place of registration.
Until the late 1990s, a child’s hukou could only follow its mother’s. This meant that even a child who grew up in Beijing with a father registered as a Beijing citizen might have to travel hundreds of miles to sit the exam in his mother’s registered home town. Hukou can still affect a student’s chances of getting into top universities, for which each province has a quota of places. The quotas for provincial-level cities like Beijing and Shanghai are disproportionately large. Such privileges fuel a lively black market in highly priced hukous of favoured cities.
The relaxation of hukou rules in recent years has been half-hearted. Chongqing last year offered urban hukou to any rural resident who had graduated from senior high school and who was prepared to give up his entitlement to farm a plot of land and own a village homestead. Those are big provisos. Shanghai announced with fanfare last year that seven years’ work in the city—along with the required tax and social-security payments—would entitle a resident to hukou. But rural migrants often work without contracts and do not pay tax or contribute to welfare funds; only 3,000 of Shanghai’s millions of migrant workers would qualify, said Chinese press reports. On May 1st Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province and a magnet for migrants, began phasing out the “agricultural” distinction in its hukou documents, but the effect of this is mostly cosmetic. Beijing has been among the slowest to change. One Shanghai urban hukou-holder who has lived in Beijing for well over a decade says he still cannot get registered there.
Click to read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *