Migrants make up much of the massive workforce, which has helped fuel China’s astonishing economic boom.
However, most migrants cannot settle in the cities due to a household registration system, known as hukou, which divides all citizens into urban and rural residents and allocates public services accordingly.
Hence the annual upheaval ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, which begins tomorrow and heralds the Year of the Snake.
China’s incoming administration, which takes over next month, has identified urbanisation as a key driver of growth. This will have implications for migrants and many analysts see it as a pressing issue for the new leadership. At the 18th Communist Party congress in November, current president Hu Jintao backed hukou reform. The following month, the economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, also called for faster household registration reform.
“There are currently around 200 million people who have left the countryside and work in the cities,” says Kam Wing Chan, professor of geography at the University of Washington
“These 200 million cannot permanently settle in the city because they do not have the urban hukou. This means that their stay there is temporary because, even though they live there, they cannot access things like public housing and social security benefits. Their permanent home is the countryside.”
Tom Miller, author of China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History and analyst at GK Dragonomics, said it was a “deeply unfair system”. Migrant workers were, “legally and institutionally discriminated against. They lead second-class lives”, he said.
Reform to the hukou system was essential, he said: “If you believe in equality, that people should be treated properly, then the system should be reformed.”
He pointed out that there was also a clear economic case for reform. He said: “It doesn’t make sense having one third of the people living in your cities who cannot be urban consumers.”
The inequality created by the hukou system also has the potential to create instability, something the authorities want to avoid. Migrant workers, particularly the young, are becoming increasingly vocal about their discontent. “I think it can be quite dangerous,” said Prof Chan. “You have a lot of disenfranchised people with a lot of grievances, many of them young. That is not a desirable situation.”
Migrant workers put in long hours building skyscrapers and working in factories making the latest fashions and gadgets. But they rarely get to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
“These people do not live in modern housing. They live in dormitories if working in factories or in urban slums if they are working in services or they sleep on the shop floor or maybe in a tent or prefab on a construction site,” explained Mr Miller. They also have less disposable income than their city-registered counterparts. “They have to save more of what they earn, even though they are earning less in the first place because they are worried about what will happen if they get ill,” added Mr Miller.
Du Ling Ying is smiling despite a long, uncomfortable 12-hour bus journey ahead of her. She is travelling from Shanghai to her home town of Huaibei in China’s Anhui province, where she will see her two children for the first time in a year. “I am looking forward to seeing the children,” she said.
Du Ling and husband Li Wei, like most migrant workers, have no choice but to leave their children at home because of the hukou system. They are not entitled to public schooling and cannot afford private schools in the city. She is looking forward to being with them tomorrow, a day on which she might forget the hard choice rural workers in China are forced to make in order to improve their children’s prospects.