China’s Wandering Millions

If you sometimes wonder why China is so hell bent on keeping economic growth at high levels the following article might open your eyes a bit. It comes via Capital Gains and Games and was written by a sociology professor at Columbia:

The conventional term for internal migrants in China is “floating population,” a phrase that describes unprecedented migrant flows, moving from inland villages in the underdeveloped central and western regions to China’s coastal cities, searching for work. According to recent estimates, the total number of migrant workers is more than 150 million, perhaps the largest movement of labor in human history. The floating population is a major force fueling the country’s rapid economic growth. Having made China one of the largest export economies in the world, migrant workers have also become visible to those outside China.

This mass migration has taken place in little more than 25 years. Since the 1950s, China has had an internal passport (hukou) system to control geographic mobility and, in particular, to limit rural-to-urban migration. As a result of economic reforms in the late 1970s, demand for manufacturing and service labor rapidly increased and legal restrictions on migration were relaxed, allowing workers to move from villages to cities. Despite this relaxation, the hukousystem has remained intact, preventing migrants from fully integrating into urban China.
Because of the hukou system, the legal status of China’s internal migrants more closely resembles that of undocumented immigrants to developed countries rather than other internal migrant populations. While their presence in cities is legal, China’s internal passport system does not allow most migrants to gain local residential status in the cities where they work. As a result, migrants hold disproportionate numbers of low-paying, low-skilled jobs distasteful to urban residents and are also excluded from many urban welfare provisions including housing, healthcare, and education for their children.

Now if you were a high ranking government official in China do you think you would take this wandering mob lightly? I sure wouldn’t. The author points out that some 10 to 20 million of these workers are now unemployed yet they haven’t returned to the rural areas. They continue to hang out in the cities or wander from city to city looking for work. “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm …”

This explains why the Chinese take the situation in Xinjiang so seriously. It would probably take a small spark indeed to spread discontent in that region to the millions that live the second class life of the floating population. In no manner could one describe China as a modern stable society.

I am forever at a loss to reconcile reports like this with observations from the China bulls who describe the incredible growth of the economy and the vast riches that are being accumulated by some of the citizens. I take them at their word and understand the vast potential that they see for the country but at the same time I ask myself, how do they hold this together.

History has not been kind to societies that have the sort of social stratification that this paper describes. I’m sure that the Chinese are well aware of this and feel themselves in a race against time to correct it. I wish them good luck and they will need much of that.

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