The global economic crisis that has resulted in 20 million Chinese migrant workers losing their jobs, in combination with the prominence of last summer’s Beijing Olympics, have resulted in somewhat sustained attention to the issue of freedom of movement in China. While the economy was strong and the dollars pouring in, officials were able to occasionally place on the reform agenda the ancient and cumbersome hukou, a household registration system greatly restricting travel and maintaining a huge rural-urban divide (discussed here in January). The strong demand for Chinese goods also served as an incentive to allow millions of migrants to come to urban centers and work factory jobs. No more.
As of 2008, the hukou system continued to deny Chinese migrants public benefits such as education for children and medical care. The government did introduce temporary household registration for migrant workers, but only a small percentage of workers have been able to obtain it. At the Third Plenum of the 17th Party Congress held on October 12, 2008, it was announced that the “old rural-urban divide” can now give way to “a combined development of urban and rural areas.” Recently, some cities, such as Jiaxing City in Zhejiang, abolished the designation of “agricultural households,” and Yunnan province eliminated the distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural hukou. Despite the changes, however, critics note that discrimination against migrants in terms of what types of benefits they receive still exists. The recent creation of 20 million jobless migrant laborers and the current lack of an adequate welfare system serve to highlight this fact.
Members of China’s Uighur Muslim minority have been particularly notable victims of movement restrictions: they have faced oppression for years, and existing travel restrictions became even tighter in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. During this time, Uighurs were discouraged or in some cases, barred from air travel and access to Beijing was limited. Every year during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, Uighur passports are confiscated by the Chinese government, forcing Uighurs to join government-run tours to Mecca, rather than traveling there on their own, which is illegal. Today almost no Uighurs have passports, an especially problematic issue for business owners. Similarly, Tibetans face strict limitations on their movement and are required to have travel permits to leave the areas in which they are registered to live.
Besides increasing travel restrictions, the Beijing Olympics resulted in forced evictions so that new stadiums could be built. A common estimate, noted in this post, put the number at 1.5 million Chinese moved to make way for Olympic construction, though it notes this has occurred over an eight year period leading up to the games. “Undesirables,” migrants and the homeless were also removed from the city in preparation for the Olympics. In addition, the games were used as a pretext to arrest an estimated 1,500 members of China’s Falun Gong movement. Many members were removed from the sites of Olympic venues and sent to labor camps.
It seems clear that as the financial crisis worsens and attention to reform is diverted, hukou will continue to pose a problem in 2009. Many of the millions of Chinese workers who lost their jobs no longer possess the skills to work in the agriculture sector; in some cases, they simply do not want to return to rural life and its low-paying, backbreaking jobs. The clock is ticking for China to comprehensively enact reforms to ensure that migrant laborers in the cities have access to the same benefits as traditional urban dwellers. If not, the millions of unemployed and bitter migrants may pose a dangerous challenge to Chinese authorities. After all, as has been mentioned innumerable times by advocates of greater democracy in China, the rigidity of the country’s political system means there is little in the way of escape valves – among the most important one in a democratic system being elections and a free press. Without these valves, this may be the moment when the system’s internal contradictions are laid bare.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Kongharald