June 17, 2011 5:38 pm

Unrest spreads among China’s migrant masses

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In the past two weeks, China’s southern industrial heartland of Guangdong has been shaken by two large and violent protests sparked by separate and seemingly unrelated incidents.

In Zengcheng, a city renowned for producing blue jeans, three days of riots erupted last weekend after a 20-year-old pregnant migrant worker was manhandled by government security guards trying to stop her peddling goods outside a supermarket.

Only four days earlier, clashes between migrants and police broke out after a worker at a ceramics factory was stabbed, allegedly on the orders of his boss when he went to ask for unpaid wages.

Although similar demonstrations are relatively common in China, in both cases a standoff between police and angry citizens quickly descended into violence. In both cases, the rioters were mostly workers who had migrated from the Chinese countryside.

For the Communist party, the common thread linking these apparently isolated incidents represents one of the most pressing problems it faces on the eve of its 90th anniversary on July 1: the plight of millions of poor migrant workers.

The extraordinary growth in the Chinese economy over the past 30 years has been driven by rapid urbanisation and a seemingly endless supply of cheap migrant labour flowing from the countryside into the cities.

According to the latest government figures, an estimated 153m people have left their homes in the countryside and moved to cities to work on construction sites, in restaurants and in factories.

One side-effect has been the creation of a huge underclass of people that lacks access to basic social services in the cities and do not hold much of a stake in the modern society they have helped build. Thanks to China’s outdated and discriminatory hukou, or “household registration” system, these people are mostly not entitled to the healthcare, education, housing support or social security benefits provided to their urban cousins.

What was once the biggest driver of Chinese growth has now become a huge potential source of social instability, especially in places such as Zengcheng, where more than a third of the 1.3m residents are migrant labourers.

Conditions have improved for these workers in recent years; they are now afforded some protection under labour laws and can no longer be arbitrarily detained or deported from cities, as was the case just a few years ago.

More recently, the government has responded to rising discontent by encouraging double-digit wage increases and talking more about migrants’ rights while simultaneously expanding the internal security budget in anticipation of further unrest.

But while working conditions have risen, expectations have risen faster as Chinese society has become far richer.

“Young migrant workers are becoming increasingly vocal and are not ready to accept the conditions under which their parents laboured in the first decades of economic reform,” says Jonathan Fenby of Trusted Sources, a consultancy. “With a labour shortage of 2m people in Guangdong they are aware of their worth as inland cities compete for their services.”

While a new wave of younger, more demanding migrants emerges, those in the previous generation are still treated as second-class citizens and must endure daily indignities.

Pei Lixin, 46, left his home in Anhui province 15 years ago to move to Beijing and work as a painter on construction sites. He says it is very unlikely he will ever return to his village.

He works more than eight hours a day, seven days a week, for a monthly salary of barely Rmb5,000 ($770) but he has no insurance or access to social services and his son has had to return to Anhui to attend university. Mr Pei says he is fed up with the discrimination he must endure as a member of the “floating population” of migrants, despite having spent nearly one-third of his life in the capital.

“Even lowly security guards don’t treat me like a human being and life is too unstable,” Mr Pei told the Financial Times. “Our lives are nothing like as good as what is described in the newspapers.”

A government report, republished on Tuesday, warned that if the swelling ranks of migrant workers were not integrated properly into the cities then they could pose a threat to social stability.

China population chart

“Under our country’s current bifurcated urban-rural system, rural migrant workers are still treated as interlopers in cities, and they cannot enjoy the same treatment as urban residents,” said the report from the Development Research Centre of the State Council, a top government think-tank. “If they are not absorbed into urban society and do not enjoy the rights they’re entitled to, many conflicts will accumulate.”

The report forecast that 9m migrants will join the urban work force each year between now and 2015 and less than 9 per cent of all migrants are likely to choose to return to the countryside.

The report itself identified the hukou system as a key obstacle to integration but said that fully “urbanising” rural migrants so they have equal access to schooling, health and welfare would cost the government about Rmb80,000 per migrant, a huge sum when multiplied by more than 150m.

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