China’s Lost People: Urban Migration in the 21st Century

Shi Cheng Lim – Singapore

China emerged as a global hegemon starting two and a half decades ago—its place on the international stage was perhaps most notable during its display of excellence at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet, seven years on, China still has deeply vexing worries that come along with ultra-rapid economic growth and urbanization: accounting for its some 250 million rural workers and determining how they fit into the government’s development model. If the Communist Party wishes to achieve its own goal of a 60% urban population by 2020, serious changes need to be made to China’s hukou system. Modifications must be made to allow for more liberalized migration from rural states to urban centers.

In March 2014, the State Council and Central Committee of the Communist Party announced its ambitious strategy (to the tune of nearly USD $7 billion) to bolster China’s boom well into the 21st century. The new plan will encourage population expansion by bringing hundreds of millions into existing urban centers. Accompanying the announcement was a flurry of discussion on how the nation is going to finance the plan, as well as how consumption will be managed. Land wastage is also a legitimate concern; China has a track record of ill-fated construction plans that result in ‘ghost towns’—rather ominous symbols of development strategies that primarily lack foresight.

Absent from the Central Committee’s conversation, tellingly enough, were long-term considerations to handle the inevitable tensions that stem from dramatically altering the demography of such a diverse nation.  The host of issues that internal migrants face when they arrive in adopted cities are often institutionally entrenched through policies like the buy zovirax cream for genital herpes hukou (戶口) system, which casts rural workers as  second-rate citizens in many ways. The hukou is a controversial system of household registration that categorizes Chinese citizens based on their residency, classifying them as either rural or urban. It primarily serves as a method for China’s government to extensively regulate internal migration as well as determine the amount of state resources that are required to be funnelled into public goods, such as healthcare and education. In this sense, the hukou functions as a formalized caste system: urban-rural status and residency are both inherited from families and background, but changing one’s hukou and attaining rights in nearby Chinese states remains extremely difficult.

The entire system is rigid, and is often seen as a barrier to holistic economic development—for good reasons. Inflexible residency requirements mean that citizens face an arduous process when they apply to alter their hukou status (either from rural to urban hukou, or to request a change in municipality): an application process that is vital for many Chinese residents, given that urban hukou is the gateway to accessing many basic services. Yet, this inflexibility results in millions of Chinese with rural hukou illegally traveling to urban centers where they lack basic rights. The system thus creates a situation of dual citizenship, whereby rural minorities are excluded from all state-sponsored social programs that urban hukou holders are privy to, in a bid to limit overall migration and keep the available amount of low cost labor high. This denial of basic services gives rise to new ‘floating populations’; tens of millions of Chinese that migrate without approved hukou status and who are seen as illegal immigrants within their own country. The official state figure that 50% of China’s population reside within cities becomes more obfuscated when considering that nearly a third of these residents float between rural and urban centers, lacking clear status and the legal protections necessary to achieve prosperity in the long run.

Without basic access to pensions, healthcare, and other programs, Beijing cannot expect rural labourers to seek permanent residency in medium and small cities in the coming decades—permanent residency that will be critical in establishing a stable upward trend in development. The restraints that many migrants face when they travel to larger cities in search of economic opportunities make it very difficult to sustain migration over long periods of time, and often lead to temporary migration resulting in families moving back to their original homes.

The Communist Party is beginning to take the initiative towards eliminating these discriminatory policies that are counterproductive for meaningful growth, but the changes are incremental at best and unenforceable at worst. The reforms announced last year do little in the way of tackling entrenched issues, like land rights for peasant workers as well as robust and consistent policy enforcement mechanisms. Most troubling, perhaps, is the fact that the largest cities, Shanghai and Beijing, are exempt from many new reforms designed to tear down barriers to equality, and in some cases have actually made it much more difficult for migrants to prosper. In the grand scheme of things, the proposed reforms do little to nothing in the way of building a comprehensive, people-first policy of liberal migration. Such a policy would involve discouraging further influxes into already overpopulated cities, therein reducing environmental challenges and social tension that come with urban overcrowding. Moreover, abolishing the hukou in all areas, not just in urban ones, would promote freedom of movement throughout China. This would encourage not only ease of access, but also catalyze the creation of more institutions like boarding schools and nursing homes, which would sustain long-term rural to urban migration and allow for permanent family residences. More generous and equitable resource allocation that goes beyond ‘priority regions’ will allow for expansive wage growth and economic empowerment, and will benefit China in the long term by empowering its citizens through renewed social and economic mobility.

Lack of access to education and resources in the rural countryside causes predictable divides between the new migrants and the Chinese middle class that currently reside in bustling cities. In order to promote stability and provide for migrant rights, the Chinese government must actively serve as a guiding force in the flow of workers in the upcoming years, with special attention paid to the quality of life of migrant workers and the many obstacles they face. Allowing the rural poor to access education, health, and transportation is the first step, and facilitating permanent residency in newly established medium and small cities will aid in the long-term transition. Surplus labour that is currently stagnant in rural China is an incredibly powerful resource that could be used to steady the economy, urbanize the country, and maintain development, but only if this human capital is freed from its current constraints. Removing obstacles to mobility and accounting for the needs of internal migrants will be critical in determining if China’s expansive plans for urbanization are to succeed.