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No more tickets to Beijing

An unusual call in China to reform the laws governing migrant workers....

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
March 5, 2010 12:04:29 am

The mingong or the migrant worker is likely to be unobtrusively present at the 11th annual session of the National People’s Congress convening today in Beijing. The plight of the migrant worker has today captured social imagination in a compelling way. Earlier this week,more than a dozen Chinese newspapers took an unprecedented stand: signing a joint editorial to end curbs on migrant workers. Such an appeal is also intuitive in that it resonates deeply with China’s new and uncomfortable reality of labour shortages. There are hints of political blessings from the highest quarters,with Premier Wen Jiabao promising reforms. It also has a strong social justice message that speaks to the official goal of social harmony. All indicators that give a sense of an imminent policy overhaul,right? Wrong. These are troubled waters — and this is one river that China would like to cross by feeling the stones.

The migrant worker stands as a powerful metaphor for the historical tensions between the different worlds that exist within China today: between the rural and the urban; the coastal and the inland; the wealthy and the vulnerable. The struggle to reconcile these complex contradictions is fraught with critical implications for social and political stability as well as for growth. The hukou,a household registration system set up in 1958 essentially identified each Chinese citizen as either rural or urban. The registration pinned the rural resident to the countryside,tying access to entitlements to the place of birth. A relaxation of controls allowed mobility to the people — but not to their residence status. Since their residence status remained with their hometowns,it disenfranchised them of rights to education,health and other secondary privileges.

There is a growing realisation that the rural-urban economic divide is also developing into a knowledge and skills divide that will result in structural problems for China’s economy. The Blue Book,an annual survey of quality of life indicators has over the years cautioned against this growing divide. These contradictions have meant that,in Beijing alone,nearly half of the 460,000 children born in the past three years are said to be ineligible for a hukou registration. The uncertain legal status of the migrant worker has also meant that many of the benefits of China’s recently introduced labour contract law that sets a minimum wage and other safeguards have not benefited them much. Unpaid wages to migrant workers are said to amount to $25 billion.

Despite the compelling story of social exclusion,there are three reasons why China is likely to make haste slowly. First,fears of instability and social unrest will mean that there is not likely to be a complete policy overhaul and more a rebalancing of priorities. Recent changes in the administrative classification of rural-urban population reinforce this. The “agricultural” and “non-agricultural” categorisation of hukou is no longer in place. But the labels of “local” and “outsider” continue to operate with the same old functional logic. China’s rural residents total 760 million and there is fear that a fresh influx of migrants into urban spaces would strain housing and other services. The claims of migrants to services remain tenuous at best with public pressure often being the only catalyst for action. Social mobilisation recently saw Shanghai and Beijing’s Chaoyang district agree to provide schooling to migrant children.

Secondly,the emerging citizenship debate is not so much about a growing rights consciousness in society as it is indicative of a rules consciousness. The grammar of dissent in China shows that it is consciously being framed in the language of the state,so as to signal that protest does not challenge state legitimacy. Note how the case for the abolition of hukou is framed as a justice and citizenship issue,its denial being said to “violate China’s constitution”.

Lastly,the nature of the politico-normative bargain on rights is also likely to be far from complete or fair. While there have been some signature pilot projects to “grant rural residents urban rights”,this in no way translates to a universal entitlement. Cities such as Shanghai,Shenzhen and Guangzhou have begun to offer permanent residency permits but only to higher income migrants. This move is prompted largely by the growing labour shortages that coastal China is starting to face.

Whether or not the rising calls for the abolition of the hukou mark a turning point in the discourse on rights and citizenship in China remains to be seen. Till these contradictions are resolved,China’s 140 million rural migrants are likely to remain suspended in a twilight zone between the city and the countryside.

The author is associate professor,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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