China Workers

Friday 6 March 2009, by Robert Paris

site : china worker

Hukou – China’s apartheid system Sat, 9 Aug 2008.

China’s one-party state is authoritarian towards its people but libertarian towards capital

Vincent Kolo and Chen Lizhi

Whereas life for China’s poor majority is micro-managed through an oppressive system of permits, surveillance and penalties governing where they can live, work or study, and how many children they can have, capital enjoys one of the most deregulated environments in the world. China’s one-party state is authoritarian towards its people but libertarian towards capital.

Tough controls apply especially to the mingong or ’peasant-workers’ who migrate in huge numbers from the poor inland provinces to work in the coastal manufacturing regions. These migrant workers are the backbone of the ’new working class’, drawn together by the process of capitalist globalisation. From around 30 million in 1982, their numbers rose to 53.5 million in 1995 and 140 million in 2004. Today, there are an estimated 200 million in this ’floating population’ – the largest mass migration in world history. Sichuan with a population of 87.5 million, for example, exports 11 million workers to other parts of China – one in eight of its population. The devastating earthquake that struck this province in May 2008, leaving 87,000 dead and five million homeless, again highlighted the terrible plight of the mingong. Sichuanese are likely in even greater numbers to leave the province in search of work in order to rebuild collapsed homes. Six weeks after the quake, at the end of June, the government suddenly added a further 1,125 people to its list of more than 17,000 missing. The numbers jumped when migrants began reporting missing relatives to authorities after making the long trek home from elsewhere in China.

Migrants are forced to take the most menial jobs in construction, as domestic helpers and sex workers, and on the vast assembly lines in exporting regions such as the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province. They make up a majority of China’s 109 million-strong manufacturing workforce. Their labour has transformed the economy of China and especially coastal provinces like Guangdong, which in GDP terms ($390 billion) has overtaken Norway and Saudi Arabia. The mingong have transformed the skylines of major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where they make up four-fifths of the workforce on construction sites. And it is mainly mingong who built Beijing’s glittering Olympic infrastructure: the arenas, the new television centre, the opera house, all the new roads, bridges and subway stations. "The Beijing Olympics is being built on migrant workers’ sweat and blood," stated chinaworker.info, when a subway tunnel caved in killing six migrant construction workers in April 2007. Their bosses, from a city government-owned construction company, initially tried to cover up this disaster by impounding workers’ cell phones to prevent them calling the police. This was just one of several fatal accidents on the same 25 km subway line. Reports in the foreign press that ten workers died while working on Beijing’s National Stadium, the ’Bird’s Nest’, have been denied by Chinese officials who concede however that two workers have been killed. In a rare interview with building labourers at the ’Bird’s Nest’, a French TV documentary team asked one worker if he was proud to be working on the project: "Not specially," was his response. "Those with money are proud," added his workmate, "we are poor"! These migrant workers told the interviewer they were paid between 40-60 yuan per day, a wage that rose to 80-100 yuan per day for the most dangerous jobs on the highest parts of the new stadium.

Hukou – systemic discrimination

China’s mingong are discriminated and strictly policed under a residential permit system resembling South Africa’s now defunct apartheid. The hukou or household registration system was introduced by Mao Zedong in 1958, during his ill-fated Great Leap Forward. It was designed to keep the peasants on the collective farms and thereby guarantee food production, preventing an exodus to the cities. Under this system, Chinese society is divided into two groups – "the haves (urban households) and the have-nots (rural households)," as China Daily put it. Without a ’city’ hukou you are not entitled to housing, healthcare, education, or other services under the control of a city government, even if you pay taxes and have lived in the city for years. There is little flexibility in this system – people retain their ’agricultural’ or ’non-agricultural’ status throughout their lifetimes. China’s mingong therefore suffer the same problems and discrimination as ’illegal’ and ’paperless’ immigrants in western countries. In each case they are exploited by capitalism as cheap labour. Only in China’s case this discrimination takes place in their own country – nominally a ’People’s Republic’. The injustices of this system are widely acknowledged, and its critics are many. Zhang Chewei, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, says the hukou system "denies migrant workers their fundamental right as a Chinese citizen to be treated equally".

The household registration system has played a crucial role in the development of China’s sweatshop capitalism. Without this system acting as a ’sluice gate’ for migrant labour, China would have experienced the same explosive growth of shanty towns as in other parts of the neo-colonial world. The hukou system underpins the systemic and very profitable discrimination of the mingong by factory owners, police and local authorities, functioning not unlike South Africa’s infamous ’pass laws’. But unlike the South African system, the hukou is not based upon ethnic categorisation, and its operation is therefore less transparent. Around 300,000 hukou police officers and other paid agents oversee the system and collect information on residents under their jurisdiction (police work that is being revolutionised with the latest computer chip technology as we have already seen). The operations of the hukou system are a state secret, and publishing information about its workings can result in imprisonment. Just 26.1 percent of China’s population, around 350 million people, possess the coveted non-agricultural hukou. The remainder, more than 950 million people, have largely been excluded from China’s urban-based economic boom.

The effects of this must be seen in the context of the social counter-revolution of the last three decades, and the skyrocketing cost of housing, education and healthcare. Only a small minority of migrant workers – around five percent – are covered by medical insurance at their place of work. The majority, like their families in the village, are uninsured. Amnesty International has reported cases of migrant workers performing operations on themselves because they cannot afford hospital fees. When the central government initiated a pilot project in the city of Wuhan, offering free health check-ups for 14,000 of the city’s migrant workers, the results were shocking. They showed that about 40 percent of migrant workers continue to work despite being ill. One in five of those examined were found to have hepatitis B, while one in ten suffered from cardiovascular diseases. Two-thirds of women workers tested were suffering from one kind of genital infection or another. One of those examined was Liu Guosheng, a 38-year-old, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He told the Shanghai Daily the examination was his first in more than 20 years.

In several large cities migrant workers now outnumber the indigenous population. In Shenzhen for example there are 10.5 million mingong and only 1.87 million permanent residents. In many of China’s cities the segregation is almost total, resembling the situation in some Gulf States where nearly all manual work is performed by migrants from South Asia or from other parts of the Arab world. The majority of China’s mingong speak a different dialect to city residents; they’re often shorter, thinner, and more poorly dressed – making them easy targets for discrimination. Their status is no better than the "untouchables in the Indian caste system," according to Professor Qiao Jian of the China Institute of Industrial Relations.

On average migrant workers are paid around 40 percent of the wages of urban employees – 540 yuan (78 dollars) per month in 2004, according to China Daily. A sizeable part of their very low wage is sent home to the village where it is usually the family’s main income, sometimes used to pay school fees or medical treatment for a family member. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the mingong send home nearly $80 billion a year, making this the largest flow of remittances in the world. In some provinces,the sums transferred by migrants exceed the provincial government’s budget.

Epidemic of wage arrears

Karl Marx explained 150 years ago that the profits of the capitalist class come from the ’unpaid labour’ of the working class. But capitalism in China has given this economic principle a new twist, expropriating even a share of what was supposed to be ’paid labour’. According to official figures the total wage arrears bill across China from 2005 to July 2007 was 66 billion yuan ($9.5 billion). Studies show that more than 70 percent of migrant workers have had their wages withheld at one time or another. While this is illegal, the fines upon companies are so low and the regulatory authorities so weak, that the practise is widespread. The construction industry, due to its transitory nature, is the worst offender accounting for more than two-thirds of all wage arrears cases. In some cases workers do not even know whom they should ask for wages, there are so many tiers of subcontractors. This has led to spate of disputes but also the tragic phenomenon of migrant workers throwing themselves from the top of skyscrapers – which they have built – in a desperate last protest over non-payment of wages. This is known as ’tiaolou xiu’, or ’jump protesters’. The central government has attempted to crackdown on these abuses, publishing tables for wage arrears province by province as a means of prodding provincial governments into action. They have set up telephone hotlines and a host of other schemes to help migrants chase up arrears. This is a reflection of growing alarm within the upper circles of the Chinese regime in the face of an upsurge of sometimes violent protest by migrants. The one measure the government refuses to countenance of course is allowing workers to organise independent trade unions.

Some partial loosening of hukou restrictions has taken place and trial reforms are underway in some areas that may make it easier for people to change their hukou. Some academics have proposed a version of the US ’green card’ system to give migrants who have lived in their city for a certain period access to local services. But a full repeal of the system looks a long way off. The central government first discussed scrapping the hukou system in 1992. Then in 2005, the Ministry of Public Security announced a review, but eventually decided that any changes must be implemented by local governments. It is precisely among local governments, however, that resistance is strongest: scrapping hukou and according equal rights to migrants would force them to spend additional funds on local services. This is only an option for the wealthiest cities.

When the municipal government of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, lifted restrictions in the summer of 2003, its population swelled by 150,000 within one year, forcing the government to ’shut its gates’ once again. Without a major injection of new funds, the city was unable to cope with the extra burden on schools, healthcare and social services. "In some elementary schools of downtown Zhengzhou, the number of pupils in a class can rise to 90, which is almost double that of the normal standard," the China Youth Daily reported. Some schools reportedly installed smaller desks to cope with the overcrowding. "To ask a city government to initiate reform would be somewhat like ’asking a tiger to give away its fur’, as a Chinese saying puts it. Therefore, it is necessary that the reform be enforced directly by the central government," argued Wu Zhong in Asia Times Online. Once again, the clash of interests between China’s central power and its cities and regions, runs like a fault-line through all political and economic questions.

Many migrant families have settled in the cities yet still face an uncertain and difficult existence on the ’wrong side’ of the hukou divide. Around three million migrant children who live with their parents in the cities are excluded from the public education system. Many attend poor quality private schools that often rely wholly on unqualified teaching staff. Others receive no schooling. In Beijing, with 5.4 million migrants, there are an estimated 70,000 mingong children who do not go to school. New central government policies require public schools in many cities to enrol migrant children, but in many cases local education authorities have responded with new discriminatory rules and higher admission fees aimed at keeping migrants out. An even greater number of rural children, at least 20 million, are left behind with grandparents or other family members while their parents migrate to the cities. These children can normally expect to see their parents once a year – during the Lunar New Year holidays. During the severe winter of 2008, which closed roads and rail links for days, over six million migrants were stranded at rail or long-distance bus stations as they tried to make the annual trek home for the holidays. Many hundreds of thousands were forced to abandon their journeys and return to their factory towns. Aside from the suffering this caused, the extreme weather conditions highlighted the chronic overloading of China’s transport systems, and lack of investments especially in the rail network, which is struggling to keep up with the sheer numbers of migrant travellers at key holiday periods.

Socialists demand the repeal of the hukou system. We are opposed to all forms of discrimination whether on grounds of ethnicity, sex, age, religious beliefs or place of birth. But to demand the end of the hukou system and its repressive apparatus of permits and state surveillance is not enough. A massive programme of public investment is needed to recreate vital basic services such as healthcare, education, public transport and a social security system, which have been downsized or dismantled under 30 years of economic ’reforms’, and especially since the 1990s. The central government talks about doing these things but its pro-rich policies mean that the real situation is not improving and in many cases is getting worse. The virtual bankruptcy and indebtedness of a great many local governments means that the problems must be tackled nationally, through a massive injection of central funds, which in turn requires a root-and-branch change of the economic and political system. The only alternative is democratic socialism – to replace an economic system dominated by the profit hunger of a super-rich minority, with democratic planning of the productive forces under the control of genuinely independent and fully democratic organisations of workers and peasants.

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