/ 14 June 2011

Unhappy rural migrants threaten China stability

China’s millions of rural workers will become a serious threat to stability unless they are better treated in their new urban homes, a top state think-tank warned in a report published in the wake of fresh rioting in one factory city in the south.

Riot police poured into the southern city of Zengcheng on Monday to bring calm after migrant workers went on the rampage over the weekend to protest the abuse of a pregnant street hawker who had become a symbol of simmering grassroots discontent.

The report from the State Council Development Research Centre, published on Tuesday, found that while the overwhelming majority of migrant workers and business owners from villages see their future in cities and towns, they are often treated as unwelcome “interlopers” and have few rights.

The huge shift from the countryside to cities will continue for decades, and unless the migrants have better welfare, housing and legal status in towns and cities, their discontent could turn into a serious threat to stability, the study, published in Reform magazine, said.

“Rural migrant workers are marginalised in cities, treated as mere cheap labour, not absorbed by cities but even neglected, discriminated against and harmed,” added the report by the think-tank, which advises central government leaders.

“If they are not absorbed into urban society, and do not enjoy the rights that are their due, many conflicts will accumulate.

“If mishandled, this will create a major destabilising threat,” it said of this festering resentment.

Absorbing rural migrants
China’s ruling Communist Party has long worried about the challenge of absorbing tides of rural migrants. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have said their priority is improving the lives of 750-million rural residents, including 153-million migrants.

In February, Hu singled out migrant workers as one of the threats to the stability that the Communist Party prizes as a key to one-party control and economic growth.

The new study found that migrants have made gains, but it also illustrates the magnitude of the government’s task.

Migrant workers have won higher wages and better treatment, the survey of 6 232 migrant workers found. The report did not spell out exactly when the survey was conducted, but results refer to conditions in 2010.

The percentage of migrant workers who said their wages were in arrears fell to 4.3%, a fall of 16 percentage points on the results of a 2006 survey.

But it also found that very few of those workers, especially the younger ones, want to return to their villages.

“Basically, there is no chance that the new generation of migrant workers will return to their villages to farm, and about 90% of rural migrant workers expressed the desire to become urbanised,” said the study.

“Policy-making must confront the pressing reality that migrant workers now dominated by a younger generation will remain in towns and cities.”

Asked where they would choose to live, only 8.8% said the countryside. The rest said towns and cities.

Yet just 0.8% of those surveyed said they had bought a home where they worked, The remainder rented or lived in factory dormitories.

Even if they do return to their villages or hometowns, few young migrant workers would have the skills to take up farming. Among the respondents aged 16 to 25, only 15% had ever done any farming, the survey found.

“The younger the rural migrants are, the less willing they are to return to the countryside,” said the study, whose authors include Han Jun, a prominent adviser on rural policy.

Although the pool of young rural residents is shrinking as China ages, another nine million villagers will move from every year for the next five years, the study said.

It singled out China’s residence permit (hukou) system, which channels most welfare, housing support and healthcare to urban residents, as another major impediment to integration.

“Under our country’s current bifurcated urban-rural system, rural migrant workers are still treated as interlopers in cities, and they cannot enjoy the same treatment as urban residents.”

“Urbanising” rural migrants so they have welfare, healthcare, and schooling conditions roughly equal to established residents would cost the government about 80 000 yuan ($12 340) for each migrant, the study found.

For now, over 80% of migrants want to keep their farmland, so other family members can farm it or lease it out, using the crops and income as a safety net, it found. – Reuters

Main demands of migrant workers