China migrants facing barriers in cities

[This article in the New York Times studies how China “manages population flows” as they put  it in typical bourgeois-speak terms. — Frontlines ed.]

Chinese migrant workers

August 31, 2011

by Andrew Jacobs, in the New York Times

Xie Zhenqing spent 12 years transforming a collection of ramshackle houses into Red Star, a privately run, low-cost school for 1,400 children of migrants from poor rural areas. It took just a few hours this month for a government-dispatched demolition crew to turn the place into a jagged pile of bricks.

“What the government did to us is unconscionable,” Xie, Red Star’s principal, said angrily as parents of her students scrambled to find other arrangements before the start of the new school year on Thursday. “I’ll never work for a migrant school again.”

Red Star is one of 30 technically illegal private schools in Beijing that have been torn down or closed in recent weeks in an official campaign billed as a war against unsafe and unhygienic school buildings. In all, more than 30,000 students have lost their classrooms this summer. Advocates for the migrants warn that many of the capital’s 130 other unlicensed schools could be next.

Cynical observers see other motives behind the campaign, including the municipal government’s unceasing pursuit of land sales to fill its coffers. The site where Red Star once stood is surrounded by a crop of expensive high-rise apartment towers and a new subway station.

But school administrators, parents and many Beijing residents view the bulldozing as nothing more than a roughshod exercise in population control. According to the Beijing Bureau of Statistics, more than one-third of the capital’s 19.6 million residents are migrants from China’s rural hinterland, a figure that has grown by about 6 million just since 2000.

Numbers like these worry the governing Communist Party, which has a particular aversion to the specter of urban slums and their potential as cauldrons for social instability.

Though the quality of education they offer may be questionable, private schools such as Red Star are often the only option for the children of low-skilled migrant labourers, who for the most part are ineligible for the free public education available to legal Beijing residents. Known derisively as “waidi ren”, or outsiders, the migrants are the cut-rate muscle that makes it eminently affordable for better-off Chinese to dine out, hire full-time nannies and ride new subway lines in places such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

“The middle class hates to see that kind of poverty, but they can’t live without their cheap labour,” said Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington who studies China’s rural-migrant policies.

To manage the huge population flows—and its own fears—the government relies on an internal passport and registration system dating from the Mao years that ties access to education, health care and pensions to the birthplace of a person’s parent. The “hukou” system, as it is called, has created a two-tiered population in many Chinese cities: those with legal residency and those without. Though urbanization is a central tenet of the party’s latest five-year economic plan for the country, Chan says, the 250 million rural migrants who are expected to move to cities in the next 15 years could become a source of social unrest unless the hukou system is reformed. “Having that many second-class citizens in Chinese cities is dangerous,” he said.

Obtaining an urban residence permit, called a hukou, is possible only for those with deep pockets or top-notch connections, so struggling migrants live in a gray zone of pay-as-you-go medical care, dingy rented rooms and unregistered schools where the education is middling at best. Byzantine property ownership and bank-loan rules mean that most rural hukou holders are frozen out of the housing market even if they can afford a down payment on an apartment.

The challenges become even more heart-rending after middle school, when the children of migrants must either return to their parents’ hometown for high school—and thus live separated from their parents—or drop out. “It’s a cruel, unfair system that stops people from pursuing their dreams,” said Song Yingquan, a researcher at the Rural Education Action Project, an advocacy group.

Policymakers have been discussing hukou reform for two decades, but beyond limited experiments in Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu and a smattering of tier II cities, the National People’s Congress, China’s law-making body, has declined to act. Resistance comes from factory owners who want migrant labourers to remain insecure and cheap to exploit, and from urban elites who fear an even greater deluge of migrants from the countryside if it becomes easier to live in the city. But the most formidable opposition may be that of local governments, which worry about paying for the healthcare, education and other benefits that migrants and their children would qualify for as legal residents.

©2011/The new york times

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