Migrants' Rights: Opening Up the System

Thanks to economic reforms that began in Zhao Ziyang's time, an estimated 140 million rural-born migrants now live and work in Chinese cities, lending energy and cheap labor to China's economic boom. But their right to live in the city is still bedeviled by the rigid Maoist-era registration, or hukou , system that categorizes them as rural residents. They've often been treated as second-class citizens, and denied access to education, social welfare and other urban rights. Some migrants haven't received back wages for years.

Now, jittery in the wake of Zhao's death, Beijing authorities are scrambling to keep migrant workers happy. Months ago authorities laid plans to pay migrant workers nearly $4 billion in back salaries before the Chinese New Year. (The holiday, which begins Feb. 9, is a traditional time for clearing debts and spending time with family.) In the past some migrants, unable to return home for lack of pay, have resorted to desperate protests--demonstrations, suicide, hijacking construction cranes. The day Zhao died, Beijing municipal authorities declared that more than half the city's rural labor force had been paid back wages and released from work early. Remaining debts would be cleared, they vowed, by the end of the week.

The moves are part and parcel of a larger government effort to appease migrants. Growing calls for reform have led some cities to experiment with relaxing the hukou system, by giving migrants greater access to medicare and education for their children. Last October, Shanghai made long-term residence permits available to anyone with a stable job and housing in the city. Of some 300,000 migrant children in Shanghai, only about a third attend city schools, but authorities recently pledged to help boost that number and to support unofficial migrant-run schools similar to those springing up in many Chinese towns.

As with most liberalizing moves in China, authorities are relaxing the rules to ease brewing tensions among migrants, not necessarily to solve the larger problem of their outsider status. After rural-born graphic designer Sun Zhigang was beaten to death in March 2003 while in police custody in the Guangdong province, an online outcry prompted central government authorities to order a halt to the random detention of migrant workers. That came as good news to 37-year-old construction worker Xiao Wang from rural Hubei, who used to fear getting detained on the streets of Shanghai. But his life remains far from ideal. He and his co-workers are paid by the day and could find themselves out of a job at any time. They aren't entitled to urban medical insurance. And their children can't enroll in government schools without paying hefty extra fees. So Xiao Wang and his wife have left their 6-year-old son at home with his grandparents. "I see him a couple of times a year," he says, blinking back tears.

In order to modernize the system, China's government "needs to enhance investment in social-welfare systems," says Prof. Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology; he sent a letter to the Parliament in early November declaring the hukou system unconstitutional because it discriminates against farmers in education, taxation, social welfare and medical care. For their part, cities say they can't afford to be much more generous. When the Henan provincial capital of Zhengzhou loosened qualifications for residence permits in August, the migrant influx mushroomed more than ten times to 150,000 in just three months. Social order deteriorated, and authorities had to restrict the flow. One city in Shandong offered free education to migrants' children--only to discover the plan would cost $1.2 million--several times the total education budget of the town. It's a high price to pay, but the price of neglect may be even higher.