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China’s Forgotten Peasants: An Element of Unrest

Can China continue its economic rise without alienating its peasant population?

July 31, 2006

Can China continue its economic rise without alienating its peasant population?

Our current population stands at 1.3 billion, of whom 900 million are rural, 500 million of the rural populace are of working age, but agriculture needs only 100 million and local township and rural enterprises can only provide jobs for several tens of millions.

So, where is the rest of the 300 million to 400 million to go? Consequently, there is hope for China's modernization only if the surplus rural laborers leave the countryside and move to the city.

But right now the city is not a haven for rural migrants. They are mostly homeless wanderers, and have never enjoyed equal status as citizens. Furthermore, city officials use their power against them, as seen in some of the injustices they suffer from.

They work overtime for no extra pay, they are subjected to dangerous working conditions with no protection, sometimes their pay is delayed, sometimes they are robbed by swindlers, they are kicked out when they are hurt or sick or maimed. Some become beggars, prostitutes, drug dealers or other sorts of petty criminals.

According to a study of migrants in Beijing for the year 2002 by the sociologist Li Qiang, fully one-quarter of migrant workers could not collect their pay or had their pay held back for a variety of reasons — almost 40% of migrant workers had, at one time or another, found themselves penniless in the city.

Over 60% of migrants worked over ten hours a day, 33% of these worked more than twelve hours a day — and 16% of the last group worked over sixteen hours a day.

As for health care, 40% of migrants had been ill at one time or another and virtually none of them had ever been paid a penny for their medical care. Such were the conditions for migrants in the capital.

Migrant peasants have built the great cities in all their glittering glory, only to learn that wealth hardens the human heart. Migrants and city people live in the same city, but there is no equality between them, no mutual friendship nor help nor respect nor civility, not even a shred of kindness or pity.

The "residence registration" system has drawn a line between city and country people, creating inequality in status, opportunity and income — and obstructing the free flow of people to the city.

It has created a sense of superiority in city residents. To add insult to injury, the city government took inappropriate steps that further solidified the prejudices against migrants, treating them all as potential criminals, and they have ended up being the "untouchables” in the great city.

The atrocious living conditions and inhuman treatment suffered by the migrants working in the city have been copiously reported in the media, so much so that people's feelings have become numbed and deadened under the bombardment of depressing information.

Meanwhile peasants' income has steadily declined as the country-city income gap has continued to widen.

The deputy director of the Center for Development at the central government, Lu Zhiqiang, has pointed out that China is now listed among the countries where inequality of income is acute and where public resentment is running high, so much so that social stability is threatened.

In present-day China, no one wants to stay in the countryside. The peasants do all they can to leave. Smart young people apply for college or get jobs through connections. At worst, they flood into the city as migrants.

During the 1980s, township and village enterprise flourished, and one reason for this was that there was a pool of talent in the villages waiting to be tapped.

The recent decline of such enterprises is largely due to the fact that those same talents have left the country for the city. The dwindling human resources soon usher in a decline in material resources, and the spirit of creativity is exhausted.

This partly explains the decline of rural enterprises over the last several years. The outflow of human resources has resulted in a drying up of investment capital. According to our records, between 1985 and 1994 more than 300 billion yuan seeped away from the countryside into the city — an average of 30 million yuan per year.

It has been reported that as early as 1985, the Ministry of Public Security started drafting a new "law of residence registration" to redress the gaping hole of inequality between the country and the cities. But that was 20 years ago, and the new law of residence registration has still not been drafted.

The main reason for the inaction is the obstacles thrown up by various government ministries that are loath to give up the privileges they have acquired during the era of the state-planned economy. Their interests are threatened by shrinking the economic and civil gap between country and city.

A further source of worry is the impact of ongoing economic reforms. The restructuring of state enterprises has led to swelling numbers of laid-off workers, and city authorities have created new measures to deal with the problem.

They fire migrant workers to give their jobs to city residents who have been laid off, then go on to make regulations restricting or forbidding the hiring of migrants in certain trades and professions.

This has caused a logjam among peasants who come to the city but can't find work, or who have lost their jobs. Their numbers are much more significant than those of the laid-off workers from state enterprises in the city.

If nothing is done to help the peasants who stay in the villages, they will have no option but to rely on scraping a living from the limited arable land. If the majority of the rural population is forced to live in this way, the gap between rural and urban incomes will continue to widen.

In the end, the products of the city will cease to find a market among the rural population, and a surplus of commodities and inflation will be the result.

If those in the countryside are perennially excluded from the modernization process, the younger generation of peasants will become an active element in social unrest, eventually causing a rupture between city and country that could lead to confrontation. Any such confrontation will certainly be catastrophic.

From the book, “Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China's Peasants” by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Public Affairs (, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.