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Confronting Discrimination and Inequality in China

 | 
Errol P. Mendes
, 
Sakunthala Srighanthan

Part one. Discrimination against Rural and Migrant Workers

Chapter One. Prosperity at the Expense of Equality

Migrant Workers are Falling Behind in Urban China’s Rise1

Wenran Jiang

Texte intégral

  • 1 The author would like to thank Hong Nong and Yu Simin for their research and translation assistanc (...)

1In rapidly modernizing China, one of the major population groups that is not getting ahead is the huge army of 130 million migrant workers. China’s booming cities are very impressive: new skyscrapers, new apartment high rises, new roads, and ever-improving services and marketplaces. But without migrant workers, none of these are possible. Yet, migrant workers get low wages, work long hours, live in inferior conditions, receive little social welfare support, and are often subject to discrimination and unjust treatment. Since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power, they have put more emphasis on building a harmonious society. Premier Wen has personally intervened in the treatment of migrant workers. Thus, in recent years, the state of migrant workers has begun to receive substantial attention and to become an object of research.

2In this paper, I approach the state of migrant workers and the discriminations they suffer from the following angles. First, I look at the potential for a social crisis in China. This part does not address the migrant workers in particular; rather, it addresses the overall situation of Chinas modernization process and its impact and how social tensions may or may not increase. With high mobility, high expectations and large numbers, migrant workers will play a crucial role in shaping China’s social stability in the coming decades.

3Second, I put the status of migrant workers in the broad context of the economy of China and its urban life. There are a lot of available materials, surveys and statistics available. I argue that there is enough evidence to show that migrant workers are being exploited, mistreated, discriminated against and marginalized. There are also a lot of proposals for how to improve the situation of the migrant workers. There are even policies and measures taken by the central and local governments to change the situation, address many of the grievances of migrant workers and implement some pilot projects to further improve their social and economic conditions. But none of these has so far made any qualitative change in the position of migrant workers in the Chinese economy and society.

4Third, I argue that in order to win in the fight for migrant workers’ rights and to accord migrant workers the treatment they deserve, more profound changes are needed. It is not only in some concrete policy areas that more efforts shall have to be made; rather, China must go through a paradigm shift in its overall development strategies. In the past three decades, the Chinese government, for the purposes of rapid modernization and “catching-up” with the West, has pursued a traditional development paradigm involving capital-intensive, resource-intensive, labour-intensive, pollution-intensive and low value-added manufacturing-intensive industrialization based on China's abundant supply of cheap labour. For China to narrow the growing income gaps between the urban centres and the countryside, between urban residents and migrant workers, Beijing should make strategic adjustment in all the above areas, as it is only by so doing that China can finally solve its “migrant workers problem.”

I. THE DYNAMICS OF CHINA'S SOCIAL CRISIS

5China continues to impress the world with its high GDP growth, staggering trade volumes and surging appetite for consumption. Most figures out of Beijing are remarkable, indicating that the Middle Kingdom is reclaiming its great power status at a speed faster than most had previously forecast. Yet evidence is mounting that its development paradigm focused on high GDP growth shall be too costly to sustain indefinitely: rural, urban and environment-related protest movements are coalescing from local and isolated events into a more widespread and serious social crisis.

1. What do statistics, or the lack of them, indicate?

  • 2 “China's national power is expected to exceed that of Germany and rank third in the world” (“yu ji (...)

6Some may point to Beijing's high-ranking GDP figures as proof of Chinas successful modernization: its national economy is about to overtake that of Germany to become the third largest in the world,2 and it is projected to overtake that of Japan in the coming years; its economic structure seems to be more balanced than it had been previously with a larger service sector; and Chinas foreign trade grew by double-digits in recent years and its foreign reserves are now the largest in the world. Yet other recently released numbers, which have received less coverage, indicate another, more troublesome trend.

  • 3 China Human Development Report2005: Towards Human Development with Equity, Human Development Repor (...)

7As revealed by the China Human Development Report 2005, regional disparities are threatening the country's overall growth potential, and the widening gap between urban and rural wealth and well-being has reached a dangerous level. Compiled by a group of Chinese researchers for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the report demonstrates that in all major categories of the human development index (HDI) – from per capita income to life expectancy to literacy rate – regional imbalances are severe and growing. It concludes that China's Gini coefficient, a measurement of a country's income inequality, has increased by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years, with urban dwellers earning nearly four times that of rural residents. At 0.46, “Chinas Gini coefficient is lower than in some Latin American and African countries, but its urban-rural income inequality is perhaps the highest in the world.”3

  • 4 See the national survey conducted by Institute of Economic Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at (...)
  • 5 For more statistics and analysis on the social and economic cost of Chinas modernization drive, se (...)

8The higher GDP numbers only make inequality worse, and when systemic factors biased against the rural population are included, Chinas city to countryside income ratio is as high as 6:1.4 The result is that a person in richer cities enjoys a life expectancy of close to 80 years, the level of a middle-income country and ten to fifteen years longer than a farmer's life span in Tibet or other remote provinces. The UNDP report also shows that the inland regions lag behind in education, especially among the female population.5

9Only two decades ago, China was one of the most equitable societies on earth. Today, it ranks 90th in the UNDP's 131-nation HDI. It is ironic that while 250 million people have been lifted out of poverty in record time – a proud achievement that no one denies – China is also leading the world in creating one of the most unequal societies in history.

2. How to measure social stability, or the lack of it?

10The Chinese government has repeatedly told the world that it needs social stability to develop its economy, and Beijing claims to value economic and social rights more than political rights. The question is thus whether Chinas traditional political control can be accepted as a model of development by the very people who are now excluded from China's growing prosperity.

  • 6 “Ministry of Public Security Holds Press Conference to Announce Public Security and Fire Situation (...)

11The last report the Chinese government released regarding social protest cited 87,000 incidents of “public order disturbances” in 2005, up 6.6 percent from the 74,000 figure in 2004; the number of events that “interfered with government functions” jumped 19 percent while protests seen as “disturbing social order” grew by 13 percent in 2005.6 Some say this is an alarming acknowledgement of the looming crisis in Chinese society that may soon tear China apart, with unthinkable consequences. Others contend that the figure is not surprising and that it may not even be a new development, and that it reflects only the fact that Beijing now allows more reporting of these protests that have long existed. The Chinese government even puts this spin on reports of social disorder, claiming that China is now more democratic by allowing the protests to occur and then informing the public about them.

12Despite the differences in assessment, the emerging consensus is that various grassroots protests are increasing in numbers, are becoming better organized, and often turn violent when local officials are no longer seen to be working to resolve ordinary peoples’ legitimate grievances. Such protest movements are gaining wider social acceptance. Again, the UNDP Report's survey of the Chinese public's perception of income distribution gaps reveals a popular appetite for social justice and potential support for radical actions: more than 80 percent of those surveyed believe that China's current income distribution is either “not so equitable” or “very inequitable.”

13Meanwhile, a recent global study by the Pew Global Attitude Project seems to contradict such pessimism. It shows that the Chinese in recent years are the happiest that they have been due to their improved standards of living, and that they are now more optimistic about their future than they have been in recent years. Seventy-two percent of Chinese, the highest among sixteen countries polled, expressed satisfaction with national conditions. Although the survey acknowledges that the “sample is disproportionately urban and is not representative of the entire country,” its results convey one important message not recognized in the data analysis of the pollsters: the people of China have extremely high expectations about benefiting from the country's ongoing economic expansion; if these high expectations are not met in the near future, however, their frustration with inequitable income distribution may turn to demands for equity and social justice.

14From the 1950s to the 1970s most Chinese were very poor but relatively equal; social protests were rare and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) asserted control with little concern regarding large scale grassroots unrest. Today's China, after more than two decades of reform, is much more prosperous but at the same time a very unequal society. Historical experiences show that when a country is embarking on rapid economic growth, social mobility accelerates and people's expectations for their own share of the prosperity increase. Yet, at the same time, income distribution gaps widen and, with few exceptions, only a small portion of the population enjoys the benefits of the country's modernization drive. Such a paradoxical process often results in rising resentment among the populous and leads to large scale protests for a more equitable distribution of wealth. China today is at such a crossroads characterize by unprecedented prosperity, high and unmet expectations, and growing frustration with perceived social injustice.

3. When will the “tipping point” come, if ever?

15The current Chinese leadership, headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is keenly aware of the growing disparity and its serious consequences. After years of promoting Deng Xiaoping's famous call “to get rich is glorious,” now it is the “harmonious society” that seems to have become the central pillar of the Hu-Wen approach to easing China's social tensions. Despite a number of measures – ranging from investment in remote regions to elimination of agricultural taxes to “hard strikes” against corruption – social unrest is on the rise. With some of the recent bloody confrontations between peasants and local authorities, many wonder if some kind of a “tipping point” for a social crisis will arrive soon – a potentially explosive situation in which large scale upheavals could shake the entire Chinese political, economic, and social establishment.

16Revolutions, for example the Russian Revolution of 1917, tend to be precipitated by three conditions: first, the masses can no longer be governed; second, the ruling elite can no longer govern; and third, the social forces are fully mobilized under the leadership of a revolutionary party to overthrow the existing regime. According to these conditions, China is nowhere close to a revolutionary “tipping point.”

17Yet it would be a profound mistake to take comfort from such abstract conclusions. The state of the first two conditions has been progressively deteriorating in recent years: widespread social protests are increasing and the corruption of government and CCP officials together with the plight of ordinary citizens have combined to weaken the governance structure. A deadly combination of these two elements could lead to a widespread belief that the majority of the population is left behind because of corrupt officials and the privileged few who have enriched themselves through exploitation at the expense of the masses. This perception may foster pressures that fundamentally reconfigure the existing social, economic, and political order.

18This process may well be accelerated if the inevitable economic slowdown in the coming years occurs simultaneously with natural, environmental and other humangenerated ecological disasters. An externally-imposed, alternative political mechanism is unlikely, if possible at all, given China's tightly controlled conditions. Yet a governance crisis of such magnitude is likely to trigger an internal split within the CCP ruling elite, with reform-oriented forces openly confronting hardliners who advocate total control by force. If history tells us anything about large scale social turmoil, it is that a total breakdown of society may not help in solving Chinas pressing problems. Thus, the great challenge for China, and by extension the world, is that of how to avoid such a dangerous internal “showdown” with reforms that effectively address the issue of income inequality, social injustice and lack of democratization.

II. THE STATUS OF CHINA'S MIGRANT WORKERS

19It is in such a broader context that I shall examine the status and the treatment of China's migrant workers, and explore how continuous discrimination against such a large social group will risk China's political, economic and social stability in the long term. Premier Wen Jiabo specifically instructed in-depth research on migrant workers and related issues in February 2005, and since then the State Council has done some extensive studies.

1. China's migrant workers 101

  • 7 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)

20According to the Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers by the Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, farm workers are a special concept in China's economic and social transitional period. They are peasants in their household identity, have designated land rights in their home village, but work in the non-agricultural sector and have their main income from wages. The narrowly defined farm workers are those who leave home and enter urban areas to work. The broadly defined farm workers include not only those who go to the cities to work, but also those agrarian workers who work in the manufacturing and service industries in the counties near their homes. Currently, there are about 130 million migrant workers in the narrowly defined category and about 200 million nationwide if using the broadly defined standards.7

21I agree with the Report's conclusion that the development of Chinas migrant workers has gone through three historical phases. The first phase marks a transition from free movement to strong control, and lasts from the early 1950s to early 1980s. It is essential to understand that the origin of the division between the urban and rural regions began in 1958, when the government issued the household registration system. This system strictly controlled the movement of the rural population to the cities, and it thus marked the beginning of the “dual system” that has lasted until this day. The second phase is that of a transition that can be characterized as one from “leaving the land but not leaving the home” to “leaving both the land and the home,” and it lasted throughout much of the 1980s and the early 1990s. The third phase is characterized by a policy shift from “negative constraints” on migration to “positive guidance,” and has lasted thus far since the mid-1990s.

22According to the State Council Report, migrant workers have the following characteristics:

23First, Chinas rural migrant workers, usually young, have junior high school education on average. As suggested by statistics, among the migrant workers, 61 percent are between 16 and 30 years old, 23 percent between 31 and 40, and 16 percent between 31 and 40. The average age of the migrant workers is 28.6. 66 percent of them do not receive education after junior high school and 24 percent of them have received skill training of various kinds.

24Second, 88 percent of migrant workers are introduced to their urban jobs through social networks formed either by relatives or other people from their hometowns. Only twelve percent of them go to the cities through organized channels. This phenomenon may be explained by the fact that most migrant workers have a general lack of information about the labour markets and thus show less confidence at job agencies than their urban peers. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of migrant workers finding employment through government or job agencies, though these have not yet become the principal channel for job-seeking.

25Third, most migrant workers come from central and western China. In 2004, 47.28 million migrant workers came from central China, accounting for 40 percent of the total, and 31.61 million came from western China, representing 26.7 percent of the total. Trans-provincial migrant workers from provinces and cities like Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Chongqing, Sichuan and Guizhou account for 60 percent of the total number of migrant workers in each respective province, and 81 percent of the total trans-provincial migrant workers in the whole country. The number of migrant workers from Sichuan and Henan exceeds ten million. In Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei, Chongqing and Sichuan, migrant workers account for more than 30 percent of the total labour force.

26Fourth, the majority of migrant workers work in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and service. In 2004, 30 percent of migrant workers worked in the manufacturing sector, 22.9 percent in construction and 10.4 percent in the service industry, 6.7 percent in hotel and restaurants, and 4.6 percent worked in wholesale or retail. The situation differs in different regions. In eastern China where manufacturing is developed, 37.9 percent of migrant workers work in this sector. The construction sector in central and western China accounts for 30.1 percent and 37 percent of those regions’ respective migrant workers.

27Fifth, most migrant workers prefer to go to eastern China or large and medium-sized cities where the rate of employment and the average income are high. In 2004, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Fujian received 82 percent of the migrant workers. More than 60 percent of migrant workers chose to work in large or medium-sized cities.

  • 8 Ibid.

28Sixth, many migrant workers are temporary migrants and have “dual occupations.” While they work in the fields during planting and harvest seasons, they take up jobs in the cities as restaurant employees, factory workers, construction workers or housemaids during the slack agricultural seasons. In 2004, this category of migrant workers accounted for twenty percent of the total population of migrant workers. Other migrant workers switch between cities and villages on a yearly basis.8

2. Discrimination against migrant workers

29Despite the contributions of the migrant workers to China's successful modernization, there are serious problems with how they are treated:

30Employment. The household registration system (HRS) is the fundamental reason for unequal treatment of rural migrant workers, contributing to a series of related problems in fields such as social security, children's education, health care, and employment security.

  • 9 Ibid.

31Without urban household registration, the rural migrants cannot enter the official employment system in the city. But a substantial number of migrant workers move across several administrative areas in a given period searching for suitable jobs, thus depriving them of the chance to enter into long-term local residential registration system, and many workers do not actively ensure that they are registered in the local system. Furthermore, the instability and short-term nature of the work available to migrant workers exacerbates this problem.9

  • 10 Yan Wei, “Rural-Urban Migrant Workers in China: The Vulnerable Group in Cities,” School of Managem (...)

32The majority of rural migrants are engaged in the most painstaking, exhausting, dirty and dangerous work, work which urban residents are reluctant to do. One of the most important reasons causing insecure employment for rural migrants is that they do not, or are not able to, establish stable contractual relationship with the enterprises that employ them. The overwhelming majority of rural migrants do not sign work contracts with these enterprises, and the regulation of labour law in China has so far failed to effectively protect rural migrants’ employment rights and interests. Many enterprises use the abundant supply of rural labour as a means to only employ rural migrants for the short-term, and thereby to reduce their labour costs.10

  • 11 X. Dong and P. Bowles, “Segmentation and Discrimination in Chinas Emerging Industrial Labour Marke (...)

33Payment. Despite the legal protection set out by the Labour Law respecting the minimum wage, many workers receive less. It is common for migrant workers to receive only half or less than half of the pay received by their urban peer workers.11

  • 12 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)
  • 13 Ibid.

34As surveys conducted in Hunan, Sichuan, and Henan show, migrant workers’ work time is twice that of their urban counterparts. But at the same time, they only receive 60 percent of urban workers’ average salary. In other words, the actual hourly wage of migrant worker is only one fourth of that of urban workers.12 And, according to another similar survey, in certain coastal areas, migrant workers’ salary has only increased by RMB 10 for the past decade. If discounting the commodity inflation factor, those migrant workers in effect receive less income than a decade ago.13

  • 14 “Latest adjustment of minimum wage in Guangdong would exceed the standards in Beijing and Shanghai (...)

35According to the Guangdong Labour and Social Security Bureau, many employers deduct costs for accommodation and meals from employees’ wages. In some cases more than RMB 300 was deducted from a monthly wage of less than RMB 700. In other cases, employers would make payment of the minimum wage contingent on employees fulfilling a wide range of onerous requirements, such as never taking time off. Workers paid on a piece-rate basis often had to work day and night in order to earn wages that could still be lower than the minimum wage.14

  • 15 See note 9 above.
  • 16 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)
  • 17 See note 9 above.
  • 18 “The 3 million wage in arrears has exposed the 'latent rules' of the subcontract system of the con (...)

36Data published by the National Statistics Bureau in 2004 show that the average monthly wage was only RMB 539 for rural migrants while it was RMB 1339 for urban workers.15 Another problem associated with the underpayment issue is that of defaulted or even denied payments to the migrant workers. According to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, delayed salary payment to migrant workers reached RMB 100 billion (US$ 12 billion) by the end of 2003, and 72.5 percent of rural migrants encountered some delay in the payment of their salaries. As indicated by the statistics released by the National Statistics Bureau in 2004, more than ten percent of the migrant workers were unable to collect their due payment for a period of at least seven months.16 Payment delays in the construction industry are the most serious, as it accounts for more than 70 percent of the total delay salary payment in all sectors.17 Factory management often uses delayed payments as a means of retaining workers who might otherwise leave. In one construction project alone, the wages in arrears amounted to about RMB 3.3 million.18

  • 19 “China's Migrant Worker Wage Battle,” Xinhua News Agency, 10 February 2007.

37As a common practice in the construction sector, property developers do not hire workers directly; rather, they work through building contractors who negotiate salary terms, supervise the work and distribute wages. In this hierarchical payment system of a debt-ridden industry, wages may not reach contractors, much less making their way into workers’ hands. Unqualified contractors also contribute to wage disputes. According to a recent survey by the Beijing Legal Aid Office for Migrant Workers, about 80 percent of the wage arrears cases were linked to illegal contractors who disappeared with the money. This survey was carried out using over 1,000 cases with which the Legal Aid Office dealt dating from September 2005 to September 2006.19

  • 20 Anastasia Liu, “China's Migrant Worker Pool Dries Up,” Asia Times, 10 November 2005, at http://www (...)
  • 21 Ibid.

38To make matters worse, out of ill-advised trust or desperation, some workers never sign a contract with their employers at the commencement of the employment. As a result, they lose any legal basis for claiming unpaid wages. Such unprotected workers make up 13 percent of all migrant workers.20 Moreover, some migrant workers may not even know the identity and contact information of the contractors, as was the case for 46 percent of workers surveyed in Xian recently. The few lucky ones who successfully get a court warrant to enforce their wage claims may in the end find that the contractor has run off with the funds.21

39The central government has recognized the magnitude of the problem and made the payment of workers’ wages a key policy priority. In January 2004, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ordered eight ministries and committees to ensure that wages be paid. The tide of exploitation, however, has showed no signs of ebbing.

  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.

40Why has all of this administrative marshaling failed?22 While central government policies set off in the right direction, their local implementation seems only to stall workers with grievances. Requirements in labour law for written contracts, proper payment and compensation are often ignored by both sides in practice. While there are numerous government agencies that workers may approach for assistance, overlapping responsibilities, conflicting central and provincial regulations, procedural hassles, and high recovery costs often bar even the most determined from successfully claiming their wages.23

  • 24 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)
  • 25 “Man Under Pressure by Low Wages Survived Attempted Suicide,” China News Network, 27 December 2007 (...)

41Under the PRC Labour Law, all labour disputes must first go through mandatory arbitration before being brought to the courts. But the current labour dispute regulations impose a 60-day limitation period, barring many aggrieved workers from bringing their claims to court after 60 days have expired since the date when the alleged dispute occurred. Their legal rights are further curtailed by the lengthy arbitration and litigation process, which exceeds more than one year in most cases.24 Frustrated workers often resort to extreme but less costly measures such as blockades, demonstrations, and even suicide to claim their wages.25 The root of all the problems facing migrant workers is deeply engrained in the loopholes that have existed in the social and legal system during China's rapid urbanization of the past three decades. Absence of employment contracts is the most obvious flaw, along with illegal or unauthorized contractors, insufficient labour supervision, and poor law enforcement.

  • 26 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)
  • 27 Ibid.

42Social security. Most rural migrants are not covered by unemployment insurance or health insurance provided by the government. According to government surveys, only 12.9 percent of migrant workers are covered by disability insurance, while 10 percent have medical insurance and 15 percent pension fund insurance.26 One of the chief reasons for low coverage rates is the non-transferability of many basic insurance packages. In Dongguan, Guangdong Province for example, 400,000 migrant workers withdrew from pension funds every year, with the average participation period being of only 7 months.27

  • 28 Zhou Min, “How Long will Certificates of Temporary Residency Last?,”at http://news.sohu.com/200608 (...)

43Living condition. To settle down in cities, migrant workers have to pay various required fees accompanying necessary certificates, such as temporary residency, work permits, health checks, etc. The total costs associated with obtaining these certificates vary in different cities. They were about RMB 500 in Beijing, RMB 600 in Shanghai and RMB 1000 in Shenzhen, while the average monthly wage of migrants is only RMB 539.28

  • 29 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)

44Working condition. Another cause of labour disputes is the debilitating working conditions endured by migrant workers, including low pay, seven day work weeks, 15hour work days, mandatory overtime, poor working environments and coercive factory regulations. Migrant workers are typically employed in labour-intensive sectors with poor working environments and must engage in high risk activities on the job. These sectors include construction, mining, restaurant service, and cleaning maintenance, all of which expose migrant workers to numerous hazardous substances. According to statistics from the State Administration of Work Safety, migrant workers account for the majority of the 700,000 workers disabled in workplace accidents every year. Mining is considered the most dangerous industry, with more than 6,000 work-related deaths every year.29

  • 30 See note 9 above.
  • 31 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group o (...)

45Children's Education. By the end of 2004, more than 6.4 million rural children of the age of compulsory education were living in cities with their migrant parents. It is difficult for migrant workers’ accompanying children to enter the education system of a city unless the family has urban residential status or a good economic condition. This is the case even for the nine year compulsory education system.30 Children who were brought to cities by their migrant parents are often charged school fees that are much higher than the ones in rural areas. To make matters worse, schools in the cities charge these migrant children a “transferring surcharge,” with amounts ranging from RMB 600 to 1,000 per semester.31

III. PARADIGM SHIFTS IN DEALING WITH CHINA'S MIGRANT WORKERS

46As we have analyzed, the migrant workers are indeed a vulnerable social group, suffering many kinds of discrimination. But the most important point is the fact that, despite all the policies, measures, legal challenges, protests and even unrests of recent years, the economic, social and political statuses of migrant workers have not changed that much in three decades. They remain a marginalized group in a society now building its prosperity upon a foundation of economic disparity and inequality.

47There are a number of popular and prevailing explanations regarding the causes of the current problems, but these do not withstand scrutiny. The first claims that the dual system of urban and rural household registration (hukou) is the source of all the ills. Advocates of this view argue that once this system is reformed and its duality eliminated, migrant workers will get their share of the prosperity of the urbanization process. However, simply reforming the househould registration system cannot substantially change the economic and social structure that is still adversely oriented towards rural migrants.

48The second theory treats the entire “migrant workers problem” as an issue of economic transition. According to advocates of this view, the current discriminations endured by migrant workers are due to the fact that China is going through a rapid process of industrialization and urbanization. Once China reaches a higher stage of economic development and national income level, then migrant workers will come to receive a better income and higher social, political and economic statuses. This is known as the reverse-U model of income distribution. The problem with this view, however, is that there are many developing economies, especially those in Latin America, which have not followed that pattern of income distribution following economic growth. For these countries, the income gap began to grow in the so-called “take-off” stage and then never again narrowed, leaving the rich richer and the poor poorer. Based on the experience of these countries, China cannot assume that the pure logic of the market will take care of the migrant workers.

49The third theory puts a heavy emphasis on democratization of Chinas political system and/or developing a better legal framework. This school of thought believes that if China were to have a better legal system that could provide better protection to migrant workers, then their rights would be secured and they would no longer be subject to discrimination. Even better, according to this view, would be China becoming a democracy; the ultimate solution would then be achieved by granting democratic representation to the migrant workers. But the reality is far from being so rosy. Many democratic societies have not been able to solve similar issues even today. The treatment of Mexican migrant workers in the United States is an example, and many Latin American societies are democracies but have not been able to confront their urban slums successfully over the past decades.

  • 32 Li Peilin and Li Wei, “Nongmin gong zhai zhongguo zhuanxing zhong de jingji diwei he shehui taidu(...)

50There is another school of thought that, while acknowledgeing all these problems, nevertheless argues that the migrant workers are happier in their current position than they would be with what they would otherwise have to do to make a living. According to an extensive survey by Li Piling and Li Wei, migrant workers are not only making contributions to the Chinese economy, enriching themselves, but they are also very satisfied with their economic and social status. They also tend to be more moderate on a range of social and political issues. And they are overall much more optimistic than urban workers. Thus, these authors conclude that their data indicates that all of the concerns about the role of migrant workers in China's stability – displayed especially by foreign observers – are misplaced.32 The problem of arriving at such a conclusion without questioning the data collected is that it tends to lead to policy recommendations based on the presupposition that if not much is done to ameliorate the state of migrant workers, while there may be growing inequality and injustice, there will not be much danger to China's social stability. This is a dangerous conclusion because it is based on the workers’ own perceptions of optimism or pessimism, and these are subject to change and they will change in the future. Not to take active measures to tackle the problems facing migrant workers, based on the assumption that things are fine as they are, risks negative long-term consequences if the growing inequalities are exacerbated and the workers optimism about the future declines.

51Thus, we must turn to examine what the structural issues are involved in maintaining the status of migrant workers where it is. And these structural issues all relate to the policy choices China has made in the past 30 years of its modernization program. First, the globalization process has produced a “race to the bottom” effect on developing countries. In order to attract foreign investment, China has given many incentives to foreign capital, including low taxes, low wages, and low standards for environmental protection. In other words, the Chinese leadership made the decision that China should “catch up” with the West at the expense of the exploitation of Chinese labourers. Second, China has focused on basic manufacturing and heavy industry that are capital-intensive, labour-intensive, consume large amounts of resources and energy and are environmentally unfriendly. Such an industrial development model requires a low-cost labour force, and China’s seemingly endless migrant workers have fit the bill – but at a heavy cost.

52China cannot fundamentally change the status of its 200 million migrant and farm workers, therefore, unless it makes a paradigm shift in its strategic thinking. It must move to a more value-added economic development model, reduce its heavy industry in favor of less energy-intensive and more environmentally friendly industries, raise wages for migrant workers to close the income gap, and raise the value of its currency. And if China fails to take these steps, China will remain an unequal society, an unjust society and potentially an explosive society.

Notes

1 The author would like to thank Hong Nong and Yu Simin for their research and translation assistance.

2 “China's national power is expected to exceed that of Germany and rank third in the world” (“yu ji nian net jing ji zong liang zhong guo jiang chao yue de guo pai xing quan qiu di san”), Wall Street Journal, 17 July 2007, quoted in China Daily, http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2007-07-17/143812221086s.shtml.

3 China Human Development Report2005: Towards Human Development with Equity, Human Development Reports, United Nations Development Program, at http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/nationalreports/asiathepacific/china/china_2005_en.pdf.

4 See the national survey conducted by Institute of Economic Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/chinese/simp/hi/newsid_3480000/newsid_3488300/3488372.stm.

5 For more statistics and analysis on the social and economic cost of Chinas modernization drive, see “The Cost of Chinas Modernization,” Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, 6 December 2005, at http://www.jamestown.org/publications_details.phpivolume_id=408&issue_id=3549&article_id=2370556.

6 “Ministry of Public Security Holds Press Conference to Announce Public Security and Fire Situation for 2005,” Ministry of Public Security, 20 January 2006, at http://www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n1237/n1432/n1522/96178.html.

7 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, Reform (Gai Ge), No. 5, 2006, at http://www.cham.net.cn/document/20070606174745781189.pdf.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Yan Wei, “Rural-Urban Migrant Workers in China: The Vulnerable Group in Cities,” School of Management, Xi'an University of Finance and Economics, 2007, at http://www.irmgard-coninx-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/roundtable07/Wei.pdf,.

11 X. Dong and P. Bowles, “Segmentation and Discrimination in Chinas Emerging Industrial Labour Market,” China Economic Review, 13(2-3), 2002, p.170-96.

12 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit.

13 Ibid.

14 “Latest adjustment of minimum wage in Guangdong would exceed the standards in Beijing and Shanghai,” People's Daily, 13 July 2006, at http://finance.people.com.cn/GB/1037/4588116.html,.

15 See note 9 above.

16 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit.

17 See note 9 above.

18 “The 3 million wage in arrears has exposed the 'latent rules' of the subcontract system of the construction industry,” Economic Daily, 25 January 2008, retrieved from http://house.people.com.cn/BIG5/98374/101031/6822843.html.

19 “China's Migrant Worker Wage Battle,” Xinhua News Agency, 10 February 2007.

20 Anastasia Liu, “China's Migrant Worker Pool Dries Up,” Asia Times, 10 November 2005, at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/GK10Cb01.html.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit.

25 “Man Under Pressure by Low Wages Survived Attempted Suicide,” China News Network, 27 December 2007, at http://big5.chinanews.com.cn:89/sh/news/2007/12-27/l117020.shtml.

26 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit.

27 Ibid.

28 Zhou Min, “How Long will Certificates of Temporary Residency Last?,”at http://news.sohu.com/20060831/n245101088.shtml.

29 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit..

30 See note 9 above.

31 See “Report on the Problems of Chinese Farm-turned Workers,” Chinese Farm Workers Research Group of the State Council, op. cit.

32 Li Peilin and Li Wei, “Nongmin gong zhai zhongguo zhuanxing zhong de jingji diwei he shehui taidu” (“The Economic Status and Social Attitude of Migrant Workers in Chinas Transition”), Shehui xue yanju (Research in Sociology), No. 3, 2007. at http://www.sociology.cass.cn.

Auteur

Associate Professor of Political Science and the founding Director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. He is a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and a Working Group member of the Canadian International Council’s Canada-China relations program. He has organized a number of major conferences on Canada-China relations. Dr. Jiang has written extensively on Chinese politics and foreign relations and his op-ed articles and comments appear regularly in Canadian and international newspapers

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