The pool of job seekers on the move in China this year has swollen to nine million, posing serious social problems. Droves of peasants have been migrating to the cities in the east and south in pursuit of better employment opportunities since the 1980s. While providing a cheap and steady supply of work forces, such 'blind drifters' have given rise to a wide range of issues, including prostitution, inadequate housing, public hygiene, drug trafficking and other offences. A clearer picture of the dimensions of the phenomenon has just surfaced, thanks to the latest statistics compiled by the Chinese public security authorities. Ten weeks after the Lunar New Year holidays in February, it has now been ascertained that the various modes of transport in China carried about 170 million passengers during the spring travelling period. Ninety million of them were classified as mobile workers and job seekers, registering a 4.8 per cent increase over the 1996 tally. With 1.2 billion people, China is the most populous nation on earth. There are only 11 other countries which boast a population of more than 60 million. This 90 million mobile population is referred to as a 'nation within a nation' by the mass media in China. With little to lose, many of the drifters have resorted to committing crimes, both petty and serious, in order to make some quick money to send back home. By 2000, China is projected to have a 600 million-strong work force in the rural regions. But projections based on the current level of primary production indicate that only 200 million will be sufficient for agricultural sector. How to contain the extra 400 million pairs of idle hands has become a major challenge for the Chinese government. Tension between the city dwellers and the guest workers is set to increase. An opinion poll conducted by research firm, Zero Point, after the spring festivals has sounded the alarm in this regard. A total of 255 families in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan were interviewed to gauge the degree of tolerance towards the influx from the poor villages. Only one in four considered themselves sympathetic to the newcomers. Another 30 per cent said they had become used to them and had thus become apathetic. About 17 per cent looked on the visitors as 'disgusting'. Shanghai, which houses 3.5 million outsiders from across the country, has emerged as the most attractive destination. The figure is expected to top four million in three years. The second major rendezvous for rural labourers is Beijing, which plays host to 3.5 million. They are followed by Guangzhou with 1.8 million; Wuhan 1.5 million and Chengdu 800,000. Fortune seekers from the indigent parts of the country make up 18 per cent of the residents in these five prosperous cities. Eight million are estimated to have fled Sichuan hinterland, the home province of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, for greener pastures. In 1995, these workers sent home a combined remittance of 1.2 billion yuan (about HK$1.1 billion). Henan and Guangxi provinces, on the other hand, have seen an outflow of 3.8 million and 1.9 million respectively. Four in five of these drifters are from peasant families and have had little formal schooling. The Population Centre of the Chinese Social Sciences Research Institute has recently closed ranks with authorities in Wuhan for a field study on the topic. They have found that as many as one third of the drifters are married couples, some had even brought along their children. Many of the labourers are not observing the central Government's single child family planning policy. Officials have conceded that it is impossible to attach an accurate figure to the number of children in the moving population. In an investigation by the public security administration however, more than a million children were found to have no proper household registration. A significant portion of them have become slum dwellers. In China's interior, about 60 per cent of the drifters are living in shacks. Shanty settlements with sparse sanitary facilities are also reported to have mushroomed on the outskirts of the main cities. Some are breeding grounds for a new generation of triad societies. The lucky ones are often hired on a temporary basis in construction sites. They make up about 30 per cent to 50 per cent of mobile labourers. Others are employed in establishments ranging from markets and restaurants to hospitals and other government institutions. Without residency and proper papers, the remainder languish as non-persons. Some of the unemployed and those eager to make fast money have turned to illegal activities. In its latest edition, China's Time and Tide magazine reported that about 700 vessels had been spotted mooring regularly at the Huangpu River. The ships were said to have come from the neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions and were involved in the trading of stolen goods with those who had come from the same provinces. The Beijing Public Security Bureau noted that about 28 per cent of the criminal cases reported in the capital in 1990 were related to those coming from outside. Last year, 56 per cent of the cases were linked to them. Meanwhile, the Guangzhou authorities suggested that up to 6,000 of such people from other provinces had played a regular role in robberies, blackmailing, kidnapping, drug trafficking, cross-border smuggling and other criminal dealings. The Chinese leadership is apparently well aware of these problems stemming from a widening gap between the cities and the villages. Social studies have been commissioned to look into the matter, and even the Chinese mass media are open enough to address the issue. Nevertheless, there is no easy solution in sight. The twin devils of under-employment and crimes, surfing on the surging waves of domestic migration, have emerged as the biggest social challenge for China on its road to industrialisation.