Thomas D. Armstrong is a history and international relations double major at USC with concentrations in East Asia and international politics and security studies. He is currently writing a history honors thesis on Sino-American relations during World War II under Professor Brett Sheehan. Thomas has spent three summers in China studying language and history. First, in 2009, he travelled the Silk Road from Beijing to Kashgar through the “Where There Be Dragons” program. In 2012, through the USC-led Global East Asia Program, Thomas studied modern Chinese history and economics at Fudan University in Shanghai. In 2014, Thomas received a Critical Language Scholarship from the US Department of State to intensively study Mandarin at Suzhou University. Thomas currently serves as a Campus Ambassador for Teach For China, recruiting exceptional USC students to teach in rural China, and as the Editor of Glimpse from the Globe, an undergraduate online publication in international affairs.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is at a crossroads: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thirsts for economic modernization and growth, but is hesitant to cut the binds of Maoist policy that threaten social development and the future success of the party. Since the market-based economic reforms of 1978 under Deng Xiaoping, China has experienced remarkable growth, in many years exceeding ten-percent of GDP per year.[i] Cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have ballooned in size, becoming world financial centers and home to 23 million and 19.6 million people respectively.[ii] Shenzhen, once a small fishing village on the South China Sea, boasts a population of 10.4 million and drives China’s export manufacturing industry.[iii] “Made in China” tags can be found on neck collars and purse pouches from Phnom Penh to Philadelphia. By many economic metrics – with the notable exceptions of a potential housing bubble and growing government debt – China is thriving.
However, there is a darker side to China’s transformation from a failed agrarian state economy to a thriving industrial market economy. Who is assembling hard drives in Suzhou and packing pork in Luohe? Who is feeding this economic boom? The answer is a forgotten subclass of Chinese society: internal migrants. These 261,386,075 laborers (as of the 2010 National Census) are the forgotten “foot soldiers of the labor reserve army.”[iv],[v] The vast majority of them march from the fields to the cities in search of greater economic opportunities. Many find higher paying work, but they are nearly all underserved by the state’s social welfare program. They work without labor contracts, unemployment insurance, or work injury insurance. They lack many other social protections. Their children are underserved by the state education system. Internal migrants also suffer discrimination from urbanites and local officials alike and are often unlawfully fined and incarcerated by government bureaucrats.
Internal migrants are treated as second-class citizens by the state and local Chinese. Why would a state so keen on development leave twenty-percent of its population behind? What citizenship policies have created class apartheid in modern China? The answer requires an investigation into China’s household registration system (referred to henceforth as hukou)—the focus of this essay. In short, hukou is an internal passport system that ties one to the land on which one was born. Chinese citizens are designated as “rural” or “non-rural,” and one’s social entitlements are wholly dependent on that designation. Those who move, either intra- or inter-provincially, from their hometowns are considered China’s “floating population.” They inhabit China’s urban centers without the entitlements afforded to urbanites.
The following investigation will be divided into several subsections. First, this essay will outline an abridged history of the hukou policy, with an emphasis on the pre-1978 period. The essay will then address the social inequality in Chinese society and the quality of life of internal migrants, specifically the experiences of women and children. Finally, the essay will conclude with an analysis of CCP policies on internal migration post-1978 and policy recommendations to achieve greater social equality and economic prosperity in China.
HISTORY OF HUKOU TO 1978
Before Mao Zedong grasped power in 1949, a policy of household registration existed, but migration within China was voluntary and unrestricted.[vi] Qing Dynasty and Republican officials issued hukou for registration and tax purposes only, as many countries in Asia do today (e.g., Vietnam’s ho khau and Japan’s koseki systems).[vii] The government issued each household a hukou book; written inside were the names of each family member and their place of birth.[viii] Any family member was free to relocate as he/she pleased. While the dynastic and then republican government did guide migration flows by providing financial incentives to move to a certain district and discrimination between the urban elite and the “country bumpkins” filling the cities was prevalent, the severity of state control and social inequality was incomparable to the Communist era—the irony of which is not lost on critics of the CCP.[ix]
After the CCPs victory over the Guomindang (aka Kuomintang) in 1949, Mao sought social stability and prevention of famine above all else.[x] In order to prevent uprisings and feed his subjects, Mao adopted a more rigid hukou policy inspired by the propiska system of Stalin’s Soviet Union.[xi] The propiska system served as an internal passport, granting formal citizenship rights only to urbanites until Leonid Brezhnev reformed the policy in 1974.[xii] Only Soviet urbanites were free to move, while peasants, representing the vast majority of the Soviet population, were bound to their communes.[xiii] Mao’s hukou policy, enacted in 1958, offered each household in China an internal passport designated as “rural” or “non-rural” (referred to henceforth as “urban”).[xiv] Neither class of Chinese citizen could move, and those who were caught were ruthlessly punished.[xv] Mao intended to oppress the masses into obeying CCP rule and keep the cities free from overcrowding. He also intended to subjugate the peasants into feeding the nation. Mao arranged a forced exodus of urbanites to farms, innocuously dubbed “the repatriation of peasants back to the countryside.”[xvi] The total relocation was estimated at 20 million in 1961 and 30 million in 1962—high numbers designed to stop a devastating famine.[xvii] In the wake of the 1958-1962 famine that claimed an estimated 45 million lives, Mao believed even more strongly in restricting the peasantry to the land.[xviii] Despite being a peasant himself, and fighting on behalf of the Chinese “proletariat” in the Civil War, Mao’s hukou policy was decidedly city-centric.
The hukou system was also unambiguously sexist. A child’s hukou status was inherited from the mother, in contrast to the paternalistic citizenship policies of states such as Lebanon and Taiwan.[xix] Why a maternalistic system? Hukou passed through the mother in order to limit urban population. In China, even today, it is “socially acceptable for men to ‘marry down’ in Chinese society but much less so for women.”[xx] Mao reasoned that no filial daughter would marry a wealthy urbanite man, but a wealthy urbanite son could marry a peasant woman. Thus, the majority of Chinese couples would have at least a wife with rural hukou and the maternalistic system would ensure that their child would inherit rural hukou and its limited privileges, as opposed to urban hukou and its costly entitlements. Therefore, the hukou policy stymied the potential social mobility of the child and discouraged men from seeking greater educational or occupational opportunities.
Additionally, one’s social entitlements were tied to one’s hukou status as urban or rural. Those in urban areas lived on state land (all land is owned by the state and leased to people and businesses in 70-year terms), but had full ownership of their property.[xxi] They also received a more robust social welfare package including prized safety nets such as pension insurance, work injury insurance, and unemployment insurance, as well as critical rations including grain, fuel, and cloth.[xxii] In contrast, peasants in rural areas were forced to work the land both as payment to the state and to obtain nutritional sustenance because the state did not provide rations.[xxiii] Any peasant who migrated to the city risked both state punishment and starvation. In sum, one’s hukou state affected “not only the quality of the goods supplied, but the transportation conditions, the range of cultural entertainment, the nature of education offered, and the type of health care one received.”[xxiv]
Mao’s hukou system created a “caste-like system of social stratification” in China.[xxv] Those with rural hukou were bound to the land. They became victims of high rates of disease and illiteracy, and they lagged behind in several other human development metrics. The peasant family had been central to the Chinese historical narrative, and lauded during the Civil War of 1945-1949. Yet, Maoist policy was feudal:
Despite the collectivization of rural life and socialist promise of welfare for all, Maoist policy privileged the cities in the distribution of resources, leaving the peasant family to continue playing central roles in the provision of old-age support and in production on private plots.[xxvi]
Those with rural hukou were forced to support the development and well-being of the urban population:
The state as the monopolistic purchaser of agricultural products paid the peasants very low prices for their crops, while charging them high prices for industrial goods. This made it possible both to supply the urban population with cheap grain and to squeeze funds for the industrialization effort out of agriculture.[xxvii]
Those who benefited from Mao’s city-centric citizenship policy enjoyed cheap public goods such as food and water, and greater access to quality education, health care, and insurance. The two castes rarely interacted, and quickly an “us versus them” mentality developed, feeding off of the dichotomy between the life of the peasant and the life of the urbanite. The peasant became the “country bumpkin,” “stupid,” “backwards,” and most pointedly: “high in quantity, low in quality.”[xxviii]
Following Mao’s death and the economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping-era, more migrants began flooding into the cities. They set up produce stands on Beijing streets, worked in Chongqing factories, and slept in Shanghai alleys. These peasants, who were dehumanized by urbanities and state media, were not welcomed. One urbanite described his xenophobia:
Their thinking, morality, language, and customs are all different, their quality is inferior. The places they inhabit are very likely dirty places…They lack a concept of public morality…so that behavior that harms prevailing social customs occurs time and time again. City residents are dissatisfied because they disturb normal life and livelihood.[xxix]
The prejudice against internal migrants echoes anti-Mexican sentiment in America or anti-North African discrimination in France. The “other” in China, as in any state, is foreign in appearance, speech, and behavior, and is therefore a threat to “our” way of life. The floating population became the scapegoat for often imagined increased rates of social instability, crime, and disease.[xxx] The urban population often vents their anger against these “perpetrators:”
When they ask the way, Beijing people intentionally send them in the opposite direction; if they carelessly bump someone getting off the bus, it can lead to a brutal attack. When they enter a restaurant, the waiter creates difficulties. When they knock on the door and ask for old things to buy, the owner might fiercely spit![xxxi]
The floating population is caught in the dichotomy between urban anti-peasant hatred and the state’s genuine need for their labor. The result was, and is, an unwelcomed, but indispensable, life in the city.
QUALITY OF MIGRANT LIFE
What is the impact of internal migration on the migrants themselves? In order to fully understand the hukou system, we must delve into the narratives of the migrants[SP1] , particularly women and children.
Women were traditionally discouraged from migrating. The logic is clear; men have greater access to education and employment, and receive higher wages. Thus, sending the young men to the cities was more financially prudent than sending the young women. Furthermore, women were expected to tend to the children (or singular child in recent decades), the home, and the fields while men earned money as a construction worker or scrap collector in a distant city.[xxxii] The man would potentially spend his entire working life away from his family, only returning once a year during the Chinese New Year to bring home cash remittances and goods if he could afford to do so.[xxxiii] While in the city, the man often wasted wages on prostitutes or found city mistresses, further marginalizing (and insulting) the wife.[xxxiv]
However, the demographics of internal migrants are changing. In fact, China is currently experiencing a “feminization of migration,” whereby more and more women are involved in “migration decision-making” – defined as answer questions such as when and where to migrate, what to do with the child, and how to tend to the land – and migrating themselves.[xxxv] In 1949, women accounted for 7.5% of the Chinese labor force, whereas by 1978 they represented 32.9% and by 2000, 46.7%.[xxxvi] In recent decades, young woman, free from any relationship responsibilities, have flocked to the cities. They are prized for their diligence and deft fingers—perfectly suited for assembling computer chips and Christmas toys.[xxxvii] Through migration, they have been experiencing greater independence in a heavily paternalistic society. Even those who remain at home while their husband migrates enjoy increased autonomy in household duties.[xxxviii]
Yet, there are two negative aspects to increasing female migration. First, young female migrants compose a staggering percentage of urban prostitutes. Unskilled women gravitate towards the lucrative prostitution business, or are conned by pimps roaming China’s urban slums.[xxxix] Many women can earn more in one night than one year farming, but they suffer from abuse at the hands of clients and pimps who expect a greater performance.[xl] Second, if both the mother and father migrate for greater opportunities, their child is forced to live a difficult urban life or be left behind at the farm with the paternal grandparents.
When both breadwinners in the family migrate to the city and the child is left behind, they experience both a lack of economic and emotional support.[xli] The child attends rural schools far inferior to those in urban areas, and is forced to cultivate the family farm with the paternal grandparents.[xlii] They may grow to working age—and migrate themselves—having only seen their parents once per year. As a result, these estimated 60 million migrant children experience emotional deficiencies due to the care vacuum left by their parents.[xliii] Said emotional deficiencies—experienced by an estimated 28% of China’s children—often manifest themselves as delinquency, low self-esteem, and trust issues.[xliv]
Those who accompany their parents to the cities are likely worse off. The some 37 million migrant children in cities are neglected by the state and abused by corrupted urbanites.[xlv] Migrant children have three educational choices: attend the urban public school (free for urban hukou residents) for a steep registration fee, a private school, or a migrant school created by “sending provinces” or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 73.6% of those who enroll in formal education attend the local public school, 15.1% attend private, and 11.3% attend a migrant school.[xlvi] Each option presents multiple hurdles. Public schools require several legal documents to simply apply, such as temporary work permits and proof of residence—documents that many migrants do not have.[xlvii] Then, school administrators charge miscellaneous fees that preclude many children from ever enrolling, despite laws banning such practices.[xlviii] In one Beijing school, administrators charged $70 in tuition and $140 in registration fees, but then anywhere from $125-3,770 in “compulsory sponsor money,” an arbitrary amount “dependent on the quality of the school and the disposition of those in charge.”[xlix] Private schools are ironically inexpensive, but are overcrowded and unregulated (because they cannot afford the municipally-mandated $124,000 endowment), leading to frequent closures.[l] Migrant schools, often unregulated or in the bad graces of the government, are demolished without notice (in one case, to make room for a shopping complex).[li] But attending school is not guaranteed, despite the Compulsory Education Law mandating nine years of schooling for every child regardless of hukou classification.[lii] By most estimates, 5% of migrant children living in cities never receive schooling.[liii]
Those who do not attend school are victims of pimps and gangs who seek refuge in migrant villages.[liv] And, those who do attend school are ostracized by their peers. By one study, 86.3% of migrant children were not friends with any urban hukou children, and 7.1% testified as having no friends at all.[lv] Urban children grow up bullying migrant children; thus migrant children develop a deep distrust of urban people and the government that forced them into such a life. As a result, a new generation is raised believing “us versus them,” complicating the prospects of future reform.
In both the case of women and children migrants, as well as other demographic categories not touched upon in this essay, life as a peasant presents few opportunities, and life as a migrant is potentially isolating and dangerous. Why is state policy resistant to easing migrants’ transition to the city? What reforms, if any, have been passed? And what reforms are still needed? These questions will be addressed in the sections that follow.
HUKOU AND STATE REFORMS POST-1978
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping became the leader of the PRC following the death of Mao and the power struggle that ensued. He inherited a nation reeling from failed Mao-era programs such as “The Great Leap Forward” and “The Cultural Revolution” that left millions dead and millions more underserved. Deng sought to transform China into a socialist market economy by introducing market reforms and encouraging China’s growth into a global manufacturing center. Despite hesitations over civil unrest and overcrowding, he recognized that in order to fuel an industrial revolution in China, he would need a massive peasant labor force. Thus, he began to institute hukou reforms.
The hukou regulations were being so widely ignored that they were in danger of falling into disrepute, and the state lacked the machinery to administer and supervise the migrant population. Moreover the state’s claim that it should control the movement of labour looked increasingly anachronistic when in most spheres the market was being pronounced sovereign.[lvi]
Cognizant of failing social policy, Deng promulgated several reforms, namely the introduction of temporary registration in 1985.[lvii] Before the Ministry of Public Security passed the bill, migrants were only allowed to leave their hukou-designated hometown for a period of three days.[lviii] After three days, they could be forcibly deported.[lix] Following the 1985 law, migrants who were over the age of sixteen and provided proof of identity and their birth planning card (applicable for young female migrants) were eligible for a temporary urban registration card.[lx] The permit was issued for six or twelve months and was renewable.[lxi] However, municipal officials frequently charged spurious “registration fees” and “urban amenity fees,” discouraging the majority of migrants from ever registering.[lxii]
Deng also implemented a series of democratizing reforms, including elections and the decollectivization of land[FK2] [SP3] . In 1982, Deng turned China’s collectives, which were stalling agricultural output, into 200 million family farms.[lxiii] Peasants were allowed to sell anything they produced in excess of state quotas.[lxiv] During the 1980s, the rural economy surged as a result of greater peasant capital.[lxv] In 1987, Deng permitted Chinese citizens to vote for their village, township, or city leaders.[lxvi] However, the potential good of each reform was thwarted by corruption. As cities expanded, swallowing arable land in the suburbs, municipal officials illegally seized peasant family farms “in the name of industrialization.”[lxvii] Peasants were robbed of their only financial asset: their land. Additionally, elections were rigged, as ballots were not counted or candidates would buy out voters with empty promises.[lxviii]
Peasant Dissatisfaction and Civil Unrest
The vast majority of internal migrants in China are peasants, and thus are greatly affected by government land and labor policy in the rural regions. Peasants are increasingly empowered to protest against what they consider unjust policy. Since Deng’s leadership, China has witnessed an evolving relationship between the state and its people, articulated as “a conversion from comrade to citizen.” The peasant class, those oppressed by the CCPs two-tiered citizenship policy, have displayed a growing social consciousness. Peasants have protested, rebelled, and filed civil lawsuits. In 1994, the state reported 10,000 social disturbances, a number that ballooned to 74,000 by 2004 and nearly tripled again by 2010 to 180,000.[lxix],[lxx] The peasantry appears to be fed up with illegal land seizures, inadequate compensation for land, and frequent government abuses.
Two events in particular have sparked rebellion and government reaction. The first occurred in 2007 in Henan province when 400 fathers published an online petition claiming that their children had been sold into slave labor at brick kiln factories in neighboring Shanxi province.[lxxi] They claimed that “some children had been isolated from the outside world for seven years, and some were beaten and maimed when they tried to escape. The backs of some were burnt by supervisors with burning red bricks.”[lxxii] The story received international media attention, and President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a 35,000-person security team to dismantle slave labor operations in Shanxi and Henan province.[lxxiii] The story, and powerful images of modern slavery in the media, sparked protests throughout the country and prompted the Politburo’s discussion of labor rights.[lxxiv]
The second incident occurred in the village of Wukan in Guangdong province in 2011. The coastal village of 13,000 protested an illegal land grab by corrupt local officials to sell peasants’ land to real estate developers without proper notice or compensation.[lxxv] Irate over a history of land abuses, the villagers rebelled, driving the local government out.[lxxvi] The local security forces, in an attempt to quash the rebellion, murdered a beloved local representative named Xue Jinbo who was attempting to broker a peaceful arrangement between the village and the local government.[lxxvii] The security forces than removed his body and reported that he had died of a heart attack.[lxxviii] Resentment [FK4] caused by the brutal attack and the cover-up incited greater outrage. Eventually, the central government took notice, admitted to abuses and promised to crackdown on corruption and institute fair elections.[lxxix]
Peasants employed in urban areas were also tired of state abuses. They worked the “3Ds” jobs (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) without insurance and protection[FK5] as they[SP6] supported the livelihood of the urban elite. From the CCP,
The unspoken message was that the peasants were embraced just so long as they remained “peasants” and did the work in the cities that only peasants would do, and so long as they refrained from expecting the treatment in the cities that “belonged” only to full-fledged urbanites.[lxxx]
Understandably, migrants have objected to such discrimination with protest. Yet surprisingly, a more socially conscious public has taken the side of the migrants. On the eve of annual parliamentary meetings on March 1, 2010, thirteen prominent newspapers appealed to the government to accelerate hukou reform: “China has suffered under the hukou system for so long! We believe people are born to be free and should have the right to migrate freely, but citizens are burdened by outdated policies born in the era of the planned economy!”[lxxxi] China’s increasingly active and well-informed population pushed the government for a new series of social reforms.
Second Wave of Reforms
In response to growing dissatisfaction and unrest in the 1990s and 2000s, the CCP instituted a second wave of social reforms. In 2006, the CCP State Council contemplated instituting a minimum wage, enforcing labor contracts, offering employment services, increasing insurance coverage, improving public housing, and protecting the political and land rights of those with rural hukou.[lxxxii] In response to the incidents in Henan, Shanxi, and many other provinces in China, in 2008, the National People’s Congress promulgated the Labor Contract Law which required contracted work, and the Employment Promotion Law, which mandated equal labor rights and equal access to training and public services.[lxxxiii]
Further, individual municipalities instituted experimental hukou reforms. Of note, hukou enforcement and policy financing is the responsibility of local governments—a troublesome power distribution that will be highlighted in upcoming paragraphs.[lxxxiv] Municipalities experimented with four types of social security schemes, each with complications. (1) Equal contribution and equal benefits: in Guangdong province as of the 1990s, migrants could contribute the same sum and receive the same level of benefits as urban hukou residents.[lxxxv] This policy led to higher rates of insurance coverage, but pensions and insurance payments could not be transferred back to the migrants’ home province.[lxxxvi] Therefore, peasants were forced to spend the rest of their lives in the city in order to receive benefits. (2) Low thresholds and low benefits: in Zhejiang province migrants could pay less and receive fewer welfare benefits.[lxxxvii] The price of minimum welfare coverage was greater than the sum of migrant contributions, and the program was deemed financially unsustainable.[lxxxviii] (3) Separate social security schemes: in Shanghai and Chengdu, contributions are funded by mandate by state enterprises or private employers and therefore are portable and transferrable.[lxxxix] This plan is potentially too expensive, but provides migrants with a holistic welfare package.[xc] (4) Trade-in hukou: in Chongqing, migrants were allowed to exchange their rural hukou (and family land) for urban hukou (and public housing and welfare).[xci] From 2010-11, the city granted three million migrants urban hukou.[xcii] From 2012-2020, city officials hope to transfer another seven million farmers to the city in an effort to increase industrial production.[xciii] However, migrants were distrusting of such a promising offer; only 26% of migrants in the region have expressed interest in trading for urban hukou.[xciv] They fear that the program is a disguised land grab, and that life in the city will be hampered by poverty and discrimination.[xcv] Further, the Chongqing public housing boom is financed through loans, and the estimated initial cost of turning a rural migrant into a full city resident is high (a sum of $10,000 per head, which does not include long-term pension costs), which may drive the municipal government further into debt.[xcvi]
Common Policy Pitfalls
The government is listening to calls for reform. However, wide scale policy reform is tempered by the troublesome power relationship between the central and local governments, corruption, and entrenched fears of the rural class.
The central government has called for greater social equality and substantial hukou reform. They have passed equal labor laws and granted local governments great leeway in hukou reform. But they refuse to take charge and institute sweeping reform, or at the very least finance local reform projects. There is a saying in China that “the central government invites the guests, and the local government pays the bill.”[xcvii] The central government pushes social reform, but allows local governments to fall into serious debt doing so. A Western journalist visiting China in 1994 best summarized the crux of the problem:
After 15 years of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China remains stuck halfway between the command economy and the market. The result is a painful neither-nor existence that combines the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, there are no central controls; on the other, bureaucrats wield strong administrative powers…[xcviii]
The central government has abandoned the local government, leaving them vulnerable to both failure and corruption. Bureaucrats embezzle funds from municipal budgets, illegally seize peasants’ land, and orchestrate fraudulent real estate investments.[xcix] The result is a further oppressed rural population and stalled social development.
Another barrier to social reform is hardened attitudes against migrants. Migrants are viewed as a burden to urban life. Yao Yilin, a Politburo member in the 1980s and 1990s, said: “each time we add one person in the city this increases the state’s burden, from the point of view of subsidies.”[c] Zhu Rongji, former Vice Premier, argued: “nowadays about 20 million peasants are migrating to the cities each year. This cannot be tolerated…Today, we still need to…make peasants stay in the rural areas.”[ci] From the point of view of state officials and urbanites, cities were congested and public infrastructure inadequate before the mass influx of migrants in the last twenty years. Cities are heavily polluted (migrants are blamed for contributing to haze by cooking outdoors), short on water (in 1990, 180 cities in China lacked adequate potable water and Chinese citizens received 3.6% of the global water per capita average), food, electricity, transportation, and most critically, jobs.[cii] Migrants are believed to steal local jobs and contribute to the denigration of urban life. In the mid-1990s, urbanites founded protest groups, such as the Union Front, which protested migrant populations in cities and threats to decreased welfare packages.[ciii] In reality, migrants work jobs few urbanites would tolerate, consume very little meat and vegetables (the foods urbanites crave), and commit far fewer crimes than imagined.[civ] According to one Sinologist: “The paradoxical upshot was that those places most thoroughly partaking in the new market economy were also the ones most loath to let it operate where the mobility of peasants was concerned.”[cv] Despite great economic contributions and meager social provisions, the perception of the “filthy peasant” has slowed the pace of policy reform.
In order to ensure healthy economic and social development, and the survival of the CCP, the Politburo must institute the policy reforms in the following sectors: agricultural, bureaucratic, and financial.
Peasants migrate for two reasons: there is a labor surplus in the countryside (China only needs 100 million farmers, but has about 500 million peasants), and a life in the countryside is economically intolerable.[cvi] The first is solved only through rural-urban migration or a development of rural industry—a popular option for those in the CCP who hope to bolster town and village enterprises (TVEs) to keep peasants out of the cities.[cvii] The second is fixable through substantial agricultural reform. First, the central government must eliminate trade barriers on grain. Peasants are banned from selling grain on the free market as part of a Mao-era anti-famine and collectivist policy.[cviii] The inability to profit off of grain harvests, combined with rising food prices since China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, have made farming unsustainable for many peasants.[cix] Opening up the grain market would increase household incomes and could discourage many migrants from leaving the countryside. Second, the government must allow peasants to have full ownership over their land. Many peasants struggle to survive in the cities and cannot afford proper housing, education, and food because they migrate without sufficient capital. Miller argues: “The key is that farmers freely transfer their land rights, rather than get pushed off their land by rapacious officials and corporations. This will be extremely tough for China to achieve, given the incentives local officials have to abuse the system.”[cx] If successful, not only would the local government make money, but the peasants would have the income to afford a higher quality of life in the cities. Third, the government must institute a property tax, especially on rural land. A tax would lower surging housing costs and provide municipal governments with a source of revenue. Thus, there would be a reduced need for land grabs and imprudent real estate projects if the local governments had a steady stream of revenue.
Bureaucratic and Financial
Once in the cities, peasants face miserable social and working conditions. There are two potential solutions. First, the central government must fund major public services like education to relieve the financial burden on local governments. Recently, the central government has called for stricter enforcement of the Compulsory Education Law, but “city governments spend the minimum needed to prevent social instability.”[cxi] Local governments have limited budgets, are more susceptible to corruption, and are thus less likely to provide migrants with urban-hukou level entitlements. The central government has the means and the responsibility to provide migrants with the same standard of life as urban residents—rights written in national law. Second, the central government must mandate and enforce (the more difficult phase) state enterprises and private employers to provide social security packages to their employees. Currently, only an estimated 30% are covered by social insurance plans.[cxii] Migrants are the victims of 90% of all work injury deaths, yet many are unprotected.[cxiii] Pension programs are nonexistent or non-mobile. A single illness or pregnancy may be enough to lose one’s job. If employers coordinated social security programs, migrant employees would have a far safer urban experience, and their social security net would be portable, affording the economy a more flexible labor force.
China’s development, particularly over the last thirty years, is remarkable. Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms provided the policy framework for economic maturation, specifically in the export-manufacturing sector. However, the lifeblood of China’s rapid growth has been a forgotten subclass of Chinese society: China’s floating population, or those with rural citizenship who internally migrate to urban areas. They comprise 50% of China’s urban population, but suffer from a discriminatory citizenship policy known as hukou, as well as irresponsible agricultural and financial policies driven by an anti-rural bias, fears of a strain on urban resources, and political clumsiness.[cxiv]
The government has shown a willingness to reform, thanks in part to growing liberalization and growing social consciousness of migrants who rebel and urbanites who support social equality. Progress has been made, but migrants’ quality of life still lags behind that of their urban neighbors. According to the CCP State Council in 2006, only 53.7% of migrants had signed a labor contract and only 13.7% worked an eight-hour day.[cxv] The remainder worked overtime, and only 24% of them received compensation, in clear violation of recently signed labor laws.[cxvi] Additionally, only 40% of migrant children aged five to twelve attended Beijing schools compared to 100% of local children.[cxvii] Cities have welcomed the labor contribution of migrants, but denied them social equality:
By denying the ruralite the right to urban citizenship, the chengshihukou, the state was able to resolve the contradiction that had befuddled it since the 1950s: peasants could now enter the cities and contribute to the productivity there, but the state need not provide for them.[cxviii]
Yet, as recent rebellions show, the public is unsatisfied with the pace of hukou reform and social development more broadly. Releasing the Chinese public from the hukou system will improve public perception of the CCP. There are certainly numerous obstacles in releasing the final vestiges of a failed state-economy and adopting social development in tandem with recent economic development. And, hukou reform faces the ever-present issue of size. China is massive, and therefore any top-down reform requires time to disseminate. The CCP must do all it can to achieve social equality—and fast—or face the consequences of an increasingly unhappy public willing to challenge monolithic rule.
[i] Asia Education Foundation, “China’s internal migration.”
[ii] Chinese Communist Party, “Communiqué of the National Bureau of Statistics of People’s Republic of China on Major Figures of the 2010 Population Census  (No. 1).”
[v] Dorothy J. Solinger, Contesting citizenship in urban China peasant migrants, the state, and the logic of the market (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 195.
[vi] Ibid., 28.
[x] Ibid., 41.
[xi] Ibid., 33
[xiv] Tom Miller, China’s urban billion: the story behind the biggest migration in human history (London: Zed Books, 2012), 33.
[xvi] Solinger, 41.
[xviii] Frank Dikotter, “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine,” The New York Times, December 15, 2010.
[xix] Ingrid Nielsen and Russell Smyth, Migration and social protection in China (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2008), 20.
[xx] Delia Davin, Internal migration in contemporary China (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 6.
[xxi] Miller, 65.
[xxii] Davin, 7.
[xxiv] Solinger, 36.
[xxv] Davin, 8.
[xxvi] Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler, Governing China’s population: from Leninist to neoliberal biopolitics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 219.
[xxvii] Davin, 10.
[xxviii] Greenhalgh and Winckler, 42.
[xxix] Solinger, 106.
[xxx] Davin, 152.
[xxxi] Solinger, 106.
[xxxii] Davin, 6.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 87.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 134.
[xxxv] Nielsen and Smyth, 124.
[xxxvi] China Labour Bulletin, “Working women in China – second class workers [Note 1].”
[xxxviii] Davin, 127.
[xxxix] Ibid., 134.
[xli] Liang Zai, “Recent Migration Trends in China: Geographic and Demographic Aspects and Development Implications,” Lecture, December 3, 2012.
[xliv] China Labour Bulletin, “Migrant workers and their children.”
[xlv] Liang Zai, “Recent Migration Trends in China: Geographic and Demographic Aspects and Development Implications.”
[xlvii] China Labour Bulletin, “Migrant workers and their children.”
[xlix] Floris van Luyn, A floating city of peasants: the great migration in contemporary China (New York: New Press, 2008), 143.
[l] Ibid., 147.
[lii] China Labour Bulletin, “Migrant workers and their children.”
[liv] Solinger, 137.
[lv] China Labour Bulletin, “Migrant workers and their children.”
[lvi] Davin, 42.
[lviii] Solinger, 44.
[lx] Davin, 42.
[lxiii] Miller, 67.
[lxvi] van Luyn, 173.
[lxvii] Ibid., 46.
[lxviii] Ibid., 173.
[lxix] Linda Wong, “Chinese Migrant Workers: Rights Attainment Deficits, Rights Consciousness and Personal Strategies,” The China Quarterly 4 (2011): 875.
[lxx] Alan Taylor, “Rising Protests in China,” The Atlantic, February 17, 2012.
[lxxi] Zhe Zhu, “More than 460 rescued from brick kiln slavery,” China Daily, June 15, 2007.
[lxxiv] Guy Arnold, Migration changing the world (London: Pluto, 2012), 203.
[lxxv] Michael Wines, “Chinese Protesters Seek Return of Villager’s Body,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011.
[lxxx] Solinger, 50.
[lxxxi] Miller, 42.
[lxxxii] Nielsen and Smyth, 62.
[lxxxiv] Ibid., 178.
[lxxxv] Ibid., 60.
[xci] Miller, 15.
[xcii] Ibid., 51.
[xcvi] Ibid., 56.
[xcvii] Nielsen and Smyth, 47.
[xcviii] Solinger, 52.
[xcix] van Luyn, 125.
[c] Solinger, 52.
[ci] Ibid., 53.
[cii] Ibid., 120.
[ciii] Ibid., 100.
[civ] Ibid., 127.
[cv] Ibid., 73.
[cvi] van Luyn, 206.
[cvii] Solinger, 53.
[cviii] van Luyn, 46.
[cx] Miller, 74.
[cxi] Ibid., 34.
[cxii] 参考消息, “港报：流动人口福利关乎社会稳定 (Hong Kong Newspaper: Floating Population Concerns Social Stability),” August 9, 2012.
[cxiii] Nielsen and Smyth, 249.
[cxiv] People’s Republic of China, “人口计生委发布《中国流动人口发展报告2012》(China’s Population and Family Planning Commission: ‘China’s Floating Population and 2012 National Development Report’), August 7, 2012.
[cxv] Wong, 876.
[cxvii] Solinger, 266.
[cxviii] Ibid., 55.
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