|Available now from Zed Books|
Migrant workers live in the shadow of towers intended for true city-dwellers Jianan Yu / Reuters Leo Lewis Published at 12:01AM, January 22 2013 250m... is the estimated number of people in China’s cities who do not have the right piece of paper — the urban hukou — they need to live there legally.
It is a deeply problematic figure for the Communist Party and a source of resentment that has been boiling up since the Nineties. It catches the authorities in what is, at best, a bit of grand-scale self-delusion and, at worst, the conscious creation of a gargantuan underclass.
Last week, and without dwelling on the abrasively two-tier quality of urbanisation, Beijing proudly touted the fact that the population of China’s cities rose to 712 million in the course of 2012. It keeps the country on course to reach a billion urban dwellers by 2030 and, in theory, provides robust support for GDP growth in decades to come.
Such numbers are deliberately crafted to impress, an intriguing new book on the subject argues, but ultimately are bogus. Because migrant workers do not have local residence permits for the cities they first construct, then later live and toil in, Tom Miller says in China’s Urban Billion, they are treated as illegal immigrants in their own country.
Denied urban social security, schooling for their children and a range of perfectly ordinary urban jobs (supermarket cashier, for example), migrants without city hukou face a form of discrimination that leaves them nominally urban but trapped as near-non-consumers.
Played shrewdly, and with a bit of swift, well-aimed land reform and a shake-up of the system, these 250 million become genuine participants in the biggest and most economically transformational migration in history. Played badly, the same 250 million (and possibly more) become a permanent underclass, gaping helplessly at China’s skyscrapers from slums that expand to host a population the size of Britain, France, Germany and Spain combined.
The problem is made worse, Miller writes, by urban planners’
“impoverished view of modernity”, which demands that the past be obliterated to make way for the new. China’s cities will continue to shock and awe, he argues, but will struggle to inspire hearts and minds, a challenge made even tougher if the new cities retain their halo of filthy air (another symptom of poorly planned urbanisation).
But most crucial, he argues, is the long overdue reform of the hukou system, a transformation dodged by successive administrations in large part because of the astronomical financial strain it would place on city budgets. Lifelong social security for each new urbanite would cost about £10,000. If urban benefits and welfare were extended to 300 million migrant workers over the next couple of decades, the bill would be around £150 billion. It is not hard to see where the resistance to reform lies.
China commentary would not be China commentary without the prediction of some massive, destabilising crisis lurking in the near future. It is lodged firmly in the discourse, but Miller’s book is not in the business of peddling doom. Its observations capture a nation urgently squaring-up to a process that is morphing more rapidly, and with far, far bigger implications, than any urbanisation that has come before.
For China’s leaders, there is no roadmap on all this because a lot of the roads haven’t even been built yet: China’s Urban Billion is the closest they have.