China removing “all barriers” so rural laborers can work in urban areas….?

At least that’s what Xinhuanet is saying.

The government will remove all the barriers blocking rural laborers from working in the urban areas this year, including concerned regulations and systems, said Zheng Silin, the labor minister, at the China Employment Forum that opened here Wednesday….

….The official said the Chinese government has paid great attention to the employment of rural laborers and has taken it as an important step to raise farmers’ income and narrow the gap between rural and urban areas.

In order to promote the flow of laborers from rural areas to developed urban areas, the government has built an information network and strengthened the service of job agencies to organize an orderly flow of migrant workers across regions.

Even more dramatic, Zheng says the CCP will “reinforce law enforcement this year and harshly punish any violations of migrant workers’ rights.” Now, that’s a mighty big promise: as everyone knows, China’s migrant workers are subject to unbelievable outrages by unscrupulous employers, and they’ve rarely had anyone to turn to.

So what does it mean? More hot air, or is the CCP delivering a death blow to the hukou system and the exploitation of China’s migrant laborers? Unfortunately, past experience tempers any optimism I feel when I see stories like this. If it’s true, it would be wonderful. If not, it only confirms past prejudices. We’ll see, won’t we?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

Yeah, I agree that the easiest way to alleviate the rural-urban income gap is to relax restrictions on labor migration and that the hukou system is prone to abuse by local police.

But I letting the floodgates open to a gazillion migrant day-laborers is going to create a lot more problems than it will solve. Increased crime, the creation of more unsightly and unsafe shantytowns, traffic problems out the wazoo. I think it’s a terrible idea to suddenly remove all the barriers to migration.

April 28, 2004 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

I would agree with Wayne. In the short-to-medium turn, opening the floodgates could be near disastrous for Chinese urban centers.

These cities are already struggling with overpopulation, pollution and congestion. Millions of migrants crashing in can hardly help things (hello giant shanty towns).

I, among others, have always marvelled at how ‘developed’ Chinese cities appear to be. The secret really is simple: just keep all the desperately poor people stuck in the countryside. If population movements really become unchecked, then China’s major urban centers will, for better or for worse, move closer to actually representing the country they find themselves in.

April 28, 2004 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

“the government has built an information network … to organize an orderly flow of migrant workers across regions.”

I’d have thought that would be how Xinhua would describe the current hukou system, so I’d be surprised if there was a radical change here! But maybe they are trying to reduce the barriers …

April 28, 2004 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

Wasn’t there a large to-do last year over a traveller who ended up dying in police custody during questioning over his papers? Details are fuzzy in my brain, but I thought the incident resulted in a major change in the hukou system.

April 29, 2004 @ 1:00 am | Comment

Yeah, Tom, that happened down in Guangzhou and they said they were reforming the system as a result. Can’t remember any more details off the top of my head though…

Trouble is, there’s always going to be a huge amount of room for abuse, no matter what system is in place. And besides, the central government is entirely dependent on lower-level officials to cooperate with their reforms to actually translate their words into action.

April 29, 2004 @ 1:25 am | Comment

I remember reading in the description of Luo Gan, the internal security guy in the Politburo, and a close ally of Li Peng, that apparently he himslef was thinking that the hukou system is unconstitutional (because it creates two class of citizens). Given that he is not exactly a liberal, that would be a good sign.

I am not sure it will create crowds of migrants, since those who want to move and work in the urban centres already do, legally or not. I have seen rural villages where the only time there are young people around is during Chinese New Year when they come back from the SEZ and other towns.

With such a change, they would continue to do so, only one might hope that the police and other stop taking advantage of them.

And also, they don’t all cross the whole country to go and work in Shenzen (more restricted than the simple hukou system) or Shanghai, more than half the migrants remain in their province.

April 29, 2004 @ 2:52 am | Comment

Tom, in an earlier post (http://pekingduck.org/archives/000051.php) I wrote about the Guangzhou story you refer to. Of all the scandals I’d read about, this was the most disturbing. It did lead to changes in the antiquated vagrancy laws that allowed it to happen. This story made it to the headlines and raised a worldwide outcry. But you have to wonder how many similar cases there have been (are?) that we never hear about.

Alexandre, you make some great points. Maybe change doesn’t need to be as slow as some people say. Obviously there wouldn’t be an uncontrollable exodus to the cities, since, as you say, if they were burning to go, they would do so now.

April 29, 2004 @ 10:09 am | Comment

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