[Editor’s note: Powerful charting compares official stats to reality for the agricultural “ecosystem refugees” who find themselves in the city. Related: US Census releases data on geographic mobility for 2008.]
Republished from the Economist.
Until China breaks down the barriers between town and countryside, it cannot unleash the buying power of its people—or keep its economy booming.
ON THE hilly streets of Chongqing, men with thick bamboo poles loiter for customers who will pay them to carry loads. The “stick men”, as they are called, hang the items from either end of the poles and heave them up over their shoulders. In a city where the Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai, likes to sing old revolutionary songs, these workers should be hymned as heroes. Yet few of them are even classed as citizens of the city where they live.
Most of the stick men were born in the countryside around Chongqing. (The name covers both the urban centre that served as China’s capital in the second world war, and a hinterland, the size of Scotland, which the city administers.) Since 1953, shortly after the Communists came to power, Chinese citizens have been divided into two strata, urban and rural, not according to where they live but on a hereditary basis. The stick men may have spent all their working lives on the streets of Chongqing, but their household registration papers call them “agricultural”.
The registration system (hukou, in Chinese) was originally intended to stop rural migrants flowing into the cities. Stick men were among the targets. In the early days of Communist rule in Chongqing the authorities rounded up thousands of “vagrants” and sent them to camps (vagrants, said Mao Zedong, “lack constructive qualities”). There they endured forced labour before being packed back to their villages.
Rapid industrial growth over the past three decades has required tearing down migration barriers to exploit the countryside’s huge labour surplus. Hukou, however, still counts for a lot, from access to education, health care and housing to compensation payouts. To be classified as a peasant often means being treated as a second-class citizen. Officials in recent years have frequently talked about “reforming” the system. They have made it easier to acquire urban citizenship, in smaller cities at least. But since late last year the official rhetoric has become more urgent. Policymakers have begun to worry that the country’s massive stimulus spending in response to the global financial crisis could run out of steam. Hukou reform, they believe, could boost rural-urban migration and with it the consumer spending China needs.
In early March 11 Chinese newspapers (it would have been 13, had not two bottled out) defied party strictures and teamed together to publish an extraordinary joint editorial. It called on China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which was then about to hold its annual meeting, to urge the government to scrap the hukou system as soon as possible. “We hope”, it said, “that a bad policy we have suffered for decades will end with our generation, and allow the next generation to truly enjoy the sacred rights of freedom, democracy and equality bestowed by the constitution.” Not since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 had so many newspapers simultaneously cast aside the restraints imposed by the Communist Party’s mighty Propaganda Department, which micromanages China’s media output.