China’s transformation is one of the most startling tales of economic fortitude over the last half-century. Within this transformation, the importance of China’s migrant workers is often underestimated, even though Chinese migrants account for nearly twenty percent of China’s annual growth. Like migrant workers elsewhere, economic prospects and opportunities in Chinese cities drive rural Chinese workers far from home, often into brutal working conditions.
Unlike other migrants, Chinese migrant workers face unique problems rooted in China’s communist legacy. Despite moving to the cities in an attempt to achieve better economic and social conditions, rural populations continue to be segregated by the hukou, a household registration system, which separates urban and rural populations. Although migrant workers are attempting to close the economic and social gap between urban and rural populations, the bureaucratic barriers created by the hukou system have impeded their integration into society.
The State of China’s Urban-Rural Gap
The hukou system, which dates back to imperial China, was previously used for bureaucratic identification. Since 1958, the system has been used to separate urban and rural populations to effectively stop migration. Without proper documentation, those with rural hukou statuses were forbidden to pursue opportunities in urban centers. As Harvard Professor in Sociology Martin King Whyte notes, the hukou system created the largest urban-rural gap in the world by binding the rural poor to farms and preventing them from gaining better livelihoods. “Ironically, the Great Equalizer, the Great Liberator, Mao, produced a two caste society,” Whyte explained, leaving China with “two different societies [and] with different issues and social problems” today.
The tale of the modern migrant worker began with economic reforms in 1978, which opened China to foreign markets for the first time since the rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1950. Fueld by the economic growth of Chinese cities, the movement of migrants from the countryside to cities has been the largest migration in human history with over 200 million migrants currently working away from home. However, despite the government’s easing of migration policies, the hukou system still enables discrimination within cities. While earlier anti-migration policies were implemented in order to keep urban living standards high, even today, having an urban hukou status entitles residents to greater opportunities. Because hukou statuses are assigned for life, when rural migrant workers arrive in cities, they often face difficulties in utilizing urban social services. “For the past 20 some years, China’s government sacrificed migrant workers’ benefits to attract foreign investment,” Taiwanese businessman Bobby Huang acknowledged in a statement provided to the HPR. By failing to provide social services to migrant workers, the government has limited the economic potential of urban migrants.
Many migrant families face difficulties with providing an education to their children. Though urban-born children have easy access to public schools and about 74 percent of them are accepted into college, migrant children, by contrast, are inherently disadvantaged when they accompany their parents to the cities. Scott Rozelle, professor at Stanford University, observed that although migrant children can obtain free urban public education, they can only attend when seats are available and tend to be placed in poorer, lower quality urban schools. Private migrant schools are also available, but they are usually unregulated and expensive.
In an interview with the HPR, Qiu Yu Wang, a Harvard Chinese preceptor who volunteered at the Haidian District Xingzhi Experimental School in 2000, recalled that “conditions were bad” because despite being private, the migrant school she worked at lacked good teachers, equipment, and a strict curriculum—as do many other migrant schools. Due to the difficulties associated with urban school, many migrant families choose the emotionally daunting alternative of sending their children to rural schools under the care of relatives.
The Future of the Migrants
While the hukou system is still one of the many barriers between China’s urban and rural populations, the two groups are becoming more integrated as more migrants settle into cities and become informal urban residents. In 2011, China’s urban population was roughly greater than its rural population. Only thirty years ago, about eighty percent of its population lived in rural areas. In a way, the urbanization of China’s population is “not visible,” explained Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in A Changing China, in an interview with the HPR. “It seems [migrant workers] are urban people, [despite the fact that] they have rural backgrounds.” Nevertheless, this revolutionary demographic shift is causing what she considers “huge social, cultural, economic, personal and emotional changes” in China’s society, especially as migrant workers are becoming more affluent, and forming the next urban middle class.
In fact, in comparison to past anti-migration policies, progress has been made. Although China’s government is currently struggling to balance migrants’ rights and benefits with economic development, more social services are beginning to be provided to migrant workers. For instance, Health Minister Chen Zhu recently announced the launch of a new healthcare plan which would cover the treatment of migrant workers outside of their rural hometowns.
Furthermore, Wang observed that hukou statuses are “not as important as they were in the past” because people are paying “less and less attention to hukou.” For Chang, the most striking part of modern treatment of the hukou system is that “although it still exists, it’s irrelevant for millions of people.” Likewise, in newer cities, like Dongguan, migrant workers are not counted as official residents. The only people who acknowledge rural residents are their bosses, but even then, “the only thing they care about is that there is a young, healthy person who shows up at work everyday.”
The Future of China’s Migrant Workers
Although the barriers created by the hukou system are slowly crumbling, the hukou system’s underlying purpose is still to separate urban and rural populations. If the hukou system continues to create challenges for migrant workers and prevents them from fully assimilating into urban life, the future of Chinese migrant workers remains unclear. So long as there are economic opportunities available, migrant workers will continue to move into cities and struggle to obtain equal footing as urbanites. Yet in the future, if China’s growth slows downs, Rozelle warned that without proper skills and education, migrants, a projected thirty to forty percent of the labor force, may struggle in an economy dominated by high-waged jobs. “China could have huge problems,” he believes, especially with organized crime and unemployment.
The hukou system, however, can be useful in certain contexts. As rights and opportunities are increasingly becoming disassociated with hukou statuses, the hukou system may simply end up serving its original identification purposes. Whyte noted that other countries like France, Japan and Indonesia all have household registration systems documenting their citizens. According to Whyte, although changes should be made, “the hukou system doesn’t need to be abolished” altogether.
China must appropriately deal with the hukou system and its treatment of migrants for the sake of its future. Migrant workers move and will continue to move so long that there are economic inequalities between urban and rural areas. By fundamentally dividing urban and rural residents, the hukou system both causes and complicates migration. Although China’s economic prowess now depends on migrant workers, this may not always be the case. Consequently, it is necessary to evaluate the long term economic and social effects of the hukou system for the future of China’s migrant workers.