Brakes on China's floating population

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am


China's phenomenal growth is an excellent example of globalisation in action. Since Deng Xiaoping 's 'economic reforms and opening up' in the late 1970s, it has grown faster than anyone could have imagined. Cheap labour and lax environmental, health and safety laws have all played their part in sucking finance and business from developed countries.

A policy of rapid development has seen millions of people flowing from the countryside to the cities in search of work and a better life.

Yet how do cities deal with the masses of people who flood into them? Some have slums, others have systems.

Let's take a look at how China deals with migrant workers.

In the 'issues' section, Hsiao-Hung Pai, the author of Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour, takes a look at the plight of migrant workers in Beijing.

The Great Wall solution

Beijing authorities think they have a solution to the swelling population of migrant workers: wall them out.

Restricted access to some Beijing suburban villages may be extended to the whole city, the capital's party chief said after visiting a walled-off village.

Dashengzhuang, in Xihongmen town in Beijing's Daxing district, has guards at its entrance and people are only allowed in after showing a pass which includes the holder's name, sex, ethnic background, hometown, occupation, identity card number and mobile phone number. The village is closed between 11pm and 6am.

'The community-style village management is a positive and effective experiment in the process of urbanisation and co-ordination of urban and rural development,' Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi said. He said the approach had improved village management and cut crime rates and would be promoted across the whole city.

Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu said a growing floating population had created many problems for city management. Many villages swamped by Beijing's urban sprawl have floating populations, mainly migrant labourers, that outnumber the original residents, sometimes by 10 to one. The pilot scheme in Xihongmen was launched at a cost of 130 million yuan (HK$149.41 million) after 11 violent deaths in November and December 2009 in Daxing district villages.

'Seasonal migrant labourers, 90 per cent of whom are junior high school graduates, are very dangerous,' Chen Debao, chief of the Daxing public security branch, said. Ninety-two villages where floating populations outnumbered original residents were supposed to join the scheme by the end of 2009. Sixteen had already set up gates, fences and police boxes at village entrances.

More surveillance cameras will be installed and hundreds of trained watchmen have been dispatched to work in local police stations. The scheme has sparked heated discussion among internet users, mainland scholars and foreign media. Many people say the villages are more like prisons and the scheme is a form of discrimination against migrant workers.

The Daxing government said participation was voluntary and each village could decide how 'closed' they wanted to be.

Professor Lu Jiehua, of Peking University's Institute of Population Research, said the scheme indicated Beijing still had a long way to go to become a world-class city. 'It's the first time such an approach has been adopted for security reasons,' he said.

Laosanyu village party secretary Wang Changxiang said village entry passes would help authorities gather information about the floating population. Outsiders could apply for a pass with a temporary residence certificate, which required verification of the landlord's and tenant's ID cards. 'In this way, problematic people won't dare to apply for a pass,' he said.

Professor Hu Xingdou, a Beijing Institute of Technology economist, said: 'Prison-style management will more or less improve social security in a few small areas, but it's not appropriate to expand to the whole city.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the South China Morning Post

The Issues

The ideal for any country is to treat all of its citizens equally, with the same rules, resources and policies.

Yet, like many fast-growing economies, China is faced with the problem of millions of people wanting to leave the countryside and work in the city.

It's not just a matter of saying 'yes' or letting the market decide. A large influx of poor people is a huge drain on a city's resources.

If not properly housed and catered for, the migrants could build their own, unsafe homes. These slums, without proper sanitation and water, can be breeding grounds for diseases, crime and poor social conditions.

Household registration

The system that has maintained the rural-urban segregation within China's cities is hukou (household registration), set up in 1958 to control rural-to-urban migration.

After the communist revolution, peasants were meant to produce food for cities. Their class and status was fixed - as shown on their ID - no matter what they might choose to do. In Chinese Whispers, Hsiao-Hung Pai writes: 'Wo shi nongmin [I am a peasant] ... I've had migrant workers tell me about their class origin, as if it were a stamp on your body for life. It was impossible for peasants to move their hukou to the cities.'

This class status hasn't changed since Deng's gaige kaifang (economic reforms and opening up), in the late 1970s. Agricultural production increased in the early stages of the reforms, but with corruption and heavy taxation, poverty deepened. Since the mid-1980s, half of the 400 million rural working population have been pushed off the land.


As peasants came to the cities, they immediately faced discrimination. Migrant workers' first welcome was being told to stand in the min gong (peasant worker) queue inside train stations. In the three decades of gaige kaifang, numerous barriers have been set up to discourage their migration, including the strict requirement for the unaffordable temporary residency permit, and random street searches by police.


The criteria for applying for a hukou remain harsh, and many work for years without any status.

Without hukou, they can't access services in the cities such as healthcare, education and housing.

While urban children enjoy free primary education, migrants either aren't entitled or can't afford it.

In Haiding, Chaoyang and Daxing - Beijing's migrant-inhabited townships - hundreds of such private schools were set up.

Some are run as charities, others profit-making, but they do not provide proper education.

All talk, no action

Some call hukou the fundamental evil. Even the National Development and Reform Commission admits it is an 'institutional barrier' and believes it should be scrapped. However, these institutions aren't in a position to change things. The only official way migrant workers can voice their discontent is by petitioning the local authorities. Little happens as a result. Self-organised protests are classified as 'mass incidents' and often dispersed quickly. Some suspect that the schools are being closed to discourage future migration.


Setting up fences and questioning outsiders is a kind of discrimination and cannot solve the problem fundamentally. It ... represents ... closed-mindedness and conservatism.

Economist Hu Xingdou

But on a day when both of us have to work on the same shift, we have no choice but to lock her up at home unattended for the whole day.

Shi Xuewu, a glass factory worker tells of how school closures affect his five-year-old daughter

In recent years, migrants have raised their demands through protests, road blockages and strikes. Although these have not always been effective, workers have become aware of their collective strength. In the past year, they have won improvements in wages and conditions, and many migrant workers are less willing to accept the status quo.

As they grow in confidence, the regime will find it increasingly difficult to ignore their demands. China's rulers should realise it is in their long-term interests to listen.

Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Chinese Whispers

The News

Just before the new term started, schools for children of migrant workers - who build the capital's offices and mansions, clean its streets and provide security - were shut down.

This has left tens of thousands of migrant children without schools and nurseries. In Beijing, two worlds exist in parallel. Those of rural origin - a third of the city's 19 million people - are ruthlessly segregated from the urban dwellers.

Despite the attempt to pretend only local governments are responsible, the injustices experienced by migrants are very much a result of central government policies.


Xia Dynasty 2100 BC - 1600 BC Introduces family registers

1952 Government tries to limit migration to cities

1958 People are officially categorised as either rural or urban workers, with tight control over the movement of workers from farms to cities. Those illegally working outside their sectors would not be able to get food rations, receive education or housing or even get married.

1958 - 1962 Mass famine - people in cities get food, while those on farms starve. The hukou system prevents those from the countryside entering cities to beg for food, leaving many in the city unaware of the devastation and so preventing mass uprisings or panic

1966 - 1976 Urban migration is reversed by the Cultural Revolution which sees large numbers of urban youths sent to the farming areas

1970s - 1980s Deng Xiaoping's agricultural reforms mean more food enters cities, allowing them to support more people. Migration restrictions relaxed

1980s - hundreds of millions of workers are forced out of state-run businesses and factories

1984 New restrictions on migration

1994 There is a surplus of 200 million agricultural workers.

Mid-1990s People are able to 'buy' an urban hukou, which was at first very expensive but is gradually becoming more affordable

1998 People are allowed to inherit the hukou from their mothers as well as their fathers, whereas previously it was just from their fathers

2003 The migrant worker population reaches 140 million - more than 10 per cent of the mainland's entire population

2010 Migrant workers are moved out of Urumqi ahead of the anniversary of deadly riots.

The editors of 13 mainland newspapers are punished for publishing an editorial criticising the system. They are ordered to remove it from their websites

August 2011 The government closes schools for migrants in Beijing

Hukou 101

The hukou system of registering people and dividing them according to the rural or urban population is a way to limit the number of people moving from farms to cities.

The good

keeps workers on farms, ensures food production

allows city planners to provide for a relatively stable growth in city population

provides demographic information

increases security and allows greater stability as 'undesirable' people can be kept out of cities

The bad

allows for abuse and corruption

citizens are treated like illegal immigrants in their own country

access to education, healthcare, social assistance and other aid is severely restricted

unprotected by the law, migrant workers are easy prey for criminals

enforces a 'class' system that treats urban residents better than rural residents, in direct opposition to the principles of communism