When I walk into Beijing’s migrant worker slums, five minutes from the high-rising financial centre and shopping malls, I understand what Ai Weiwei means when he calls Beijing “a city of violence” – violence against a large section of its working population and their families. “We live under the same sky, why are we not entitled to the same rights?” is a question many ask in Xinzhuang and other migrant neighbourhoods.
During the past month schools for children of migrant workers – who build the capital’s offices and mansions, clean its streets and guard its security – have been shut down, with more to follow in the coming weeks. Tens of thousands of migrant children are left without schools and nurseries to go to. Here in Beijing, two worlds exist in parallel. Those of rural origin – a third of the city’s 19 million population – are ruthlessly segregated from the urban dwellers, economically, socially and culturally. Despite the attempt to pretend this is a local issue and only local governments are responsible, the day-to-day injustices experienced by migrants are very much a result of central policies.
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. While rhetorically the peasantry was the “vanguard of the revolution” – and indeed the 1949 revolution wouldn’t have been possible without them – in practice, in China’s post-1949 drive to industrialisation, the peasantry became an unchangeable category of social class in the Maoist theory of the “four blocs of society” known as “new democracy” (xinminzhu zhuyi).
Peasants’ role was to produce and feed the cities and support the modernisation process of their motherland. Peasants’ class status was fixed – as shown on their ID – no matter what they might choose to do. “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 Xiao Ping‘s gaige kaifang (economic reforms and opening up), in the late 1970s. The countryside underwent de-collectivisation while it remained the nation’s production backyard. Agricultural production increased in the early stage of the reforms in “releasing the productive forces”, as Deng called it, but with rampant corruption and heavy taxation, the poverty deepened. Since the mid-1980s half of the 400 million rural working population have been pushed off the land, seeking a livelihood away from their villages.
As rural residents came to the cities, they immediately faced discrimination and exclusion. Migrant workers’ first welcome was being told to stand in the min-gong (peasant worker) queue inside train stations. And there was no way to disguise class origin: the migrants could be distinguished by their brown, tanned faces and bent backs (due to years of farm work). They spoke their own dialects instead of “proper” Mandarin. Many faced verbal abuse as soon as they arrived.
In the three decades of gaige kaifang, numerous barriers have been set up to discourage their migration: the strict requirement for the unaffordable temporary residency permit, and the random street search by police. Most migrants feel they are a hidden army of labour that supplies industries and urban life with their sweat and blood while enduring second-class status.
Today, when China boasts growth and foreign reserves, migrants continue to be burdened with the hukou system. The criteria for applying for a hukou remain harsh, and unreachable for most migrants, 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 dwellers pay a minimal cost for medical care, many migrants have to return home for treatment. While urban children enjoy free primary education, migrants either aren’t entitled or can’t afford it – monthly tuition fees in a Beijing primary school would cost a migrant parent two-thirds of their wages.
A migrant activist told me: “These children aren’t treated as everyone else. They’re called the mobile students, who can’t go to state schools. Their parents have for years sent their children to privately run schools without proper facilities or curriculum.” In Haiding, Chaoyang and Daxing – the migrant-inhabited townships within Beijing – hundreds such private schools were set up. Some are run as makeshift charities, others profit-making, but they are inadequate to provide proper education. Yet education, in many people’s eyes, is the only way they can lift themselves out of poverty.
Some call hukou the fundamental evil. Even the government-funded National Development and Reform Commission admits it is an “institutional barrier” and believes it should be scrapped. However, these institutions aren’t in the position to change things. “Protection of migrant workers’ rights” is a rhetorical statement of state organisations, but the government has shown no wish to listen to migrant workers’ demands. The only officially recognised channel through which migrant workers can voice their discontent is by petitioning the local authorities – a centuries-old tradition. Little happens as a result. Self-organised protests are classified as “mass incidents” and often dispersed quickly.
Calls for change have so far fallen on deaf ears. Some suspect that migrant children’s schools are being closed as a disincentive to future migration. Migrant workers’ NGOs face constant government monitoring and pressure not to speak out. Meanwhile, the state-run trade unions are ineffective and seen by many workers as a “paper tiger”.
In recent years, migrants have raised their demands through protests, road blockages, sit-ins and spontaneous strikes. Although these have not always proved effective, workers have become more aware of their collective strength. In the past year they have won some improvements in wages and working conditions. Many migrant workers, now better informed, are far 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 now that it is in their long-term interests to listen.
By Hsiao-Hung Pai, a freelance journalist and author of Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour.