Migrant workers have often been identified as the unsung hero in China’s economic miracle, as the low-wage workforce underpinning the many years of export growth.
But might their existence now have become more of a hindrance to China’s plans for the next phase of its economic development?
The background is the hukou system, and the associated problem of the migrants’ unofficial employment status.
Adopted in the the 1950s, and modelled partly on the Soviet Union’s passbook system and partially on imperial China’s “baojia” system of family responsibility, hukou status still wields tremendous influence over people’s lives (it’s a topic we first touched on in WiC39). Hukou holders have access to a basic social security system, as well as public healthcare and education for their families. Migrant workers – who may have lived and worked in the same city for years – do not.
The injustice of this two-tier approach to citizenship is something that has occupied human rights activists for a while. But opponents of the hukou have found a new and powerful champion in Guo Shuqing, the new chairman and Communist Party secretary of the China Securities Regulatory Commission.
No matter that Guo’s take on the topic was economic in tone, and shrouded in jargon.
“The essential production factors from the countryside [by which Guo means people and land] have long been given special labels, such as ‘farmer-workers,’ or ‘farming-construction land,’” he told an industry gathering in mid-November, shortly after being appointed. And the problem with this arrangement, he told the meeting, was that the labels can be discriminatory. Those that hold them soon discover that “their exchange power is unequal” – in layman terms, they are missing out on the opportunities open to others.
“Workers from the countryside who live in the cities experience large economic and psychological pressure without a city hukou. They don’t receive city people’s salaries or employment opportunities, education, social welfare or housing. They have to scrimp and save to pay for children and parents left at home on the farm,” Guo acknowledged.
Again, he drew an economic lesson from much of this. Importantly, hard-earned savings are often being spent on building homes for family members who also then leave the countryside, meaning an investment essentially wasted, Guo said.
The Beijing Business newspaper agreed. Migrant labourers are second class citizens, it lamented, and this was starting to have a serious economic impact. To develop in a more sustainable way, China now needs to shift its economy towards domestic consumption. Abolishing the ‘two-tier system’ will help that happen, the newspaper thought.
The article points approvingly to changes in Chongqing, where three million migrant workers who have lived in the city for over 10 years are now being given city residency; 200,000 of their children are also to be allowed to become city folk each year over the next 10 years. Differently designed measures are also underway in Guangdong province.
Guo’s comments soon earned approval online. One commenter, from Fuzhou, wrote: “To think about migrants, now that’s a good official! … Support Chairman Guo!!!” Another, from Guangzhou, insisted that “ordinary people” agreed with Guo: “It’s a great shame that China’s migrant workers are second-class citizens but the government doesn’t care about that.”
Whether Guo’s new role as stock market regulator means he’ll be able to do anything practical on the issue remains an open question. And not all share his view. On the ifeng bulletin board the most popular comment struck a more jealous note: “Migrants lack citizens’ rights in the cities? Today, many unemployed urban workers don’t have things as good as some of them do,” wrote one Dalian resident. Rather than welcome migrants into the hukou system, the advice from Dalian was more that they should be sent home.
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