When growth sows the seeds of inequality

This tale of rural-urban demographic struggle comes from faraway China. And it tells us, besides many other things, how uncontrolled growth can also sow the seeds of inequality.

The hukou system took roots in China in the 1950s. Initiated by the Communist Party to control population movement, hukou was designed to safeguard the country’s food supply and to prevent a surge of migration into cities. It could have achieved some of its stated objectives in the immediate term but it also gave birth to a kind of silent social disequilibrium.

Hukou ensured that those with urban registrations enjoyed welfare benefits but, at the same time, withheld the same benefits from rural registration holders. This was unfolding alongside China’s meteoric rise as an economic power and a pace of urbanization unprecedented in human history.

This system eventually led to the emergence of a phenomenon called chengzhongcun – or village within a city – where a large number of migrant workers lived. In effect, this also became a de facto barrier to full urban integration for many Chinese.

As one would expect, high density population clusters led to social problems and made it difficult to provide security and ensure hygiene. Illegal construction started to come up and unlawful discharge of wastewater posed civic challenges. The authorities first tried eviction notices to migrants and then forced them out at their own expense.

Hukou system could have achieved some of its immediate stated objectives in China but it also gave birth to a kind of silent social disequilibrium

Ehtesham Shahid

The hukou system – often called China’s internal passport – slowly outlived its utility. The prioritization of schools, hospitals and other public services for registered residents could not have worked all the time. The watershed moment arrived in the year 2012 when the country’s urban population officially grew larger than the rural population.

There was another social fallout – a new generation of children was growing in the countryside with one or no parent around for most of the year. A census done in the year 2010 counted 61 million children in this category with nearly half having no parents at home. A 2014 survey estimated that 10 million rural children had not seen their parents for more than a year.

Inevitable reform

One more transformation was taking place in China around the same time. The share of jobs from the services sector was getting larger as a result of the way the Chinese economy was shaping. The earlier generation of migrant workers, who mostly worked for factories, found accommodation easily but with the growing need for residential units China’s new economy faced yet another challenge. The system was crying for change.

It was only in 2014 that the authorities started to reform the hukou system. It was announced that migrant workers from the rural areas with stable work and skills would be allowed to settle down in cities with their families. They were assured of the same rights as those registered as city dwellers. More importantly, those who registered to live in the city was given the right to keep their land in their villages.

As part of this reform process, the country wants to grant hukous to 100 million migrants by 2020 in a slow and selective process. However, this number will still be less than half of the nearly 274 million migrant workers China had by 2014. The moot point is even if the authorities manage to strike the right balance, one could still wonder why such inequality was allowed in the first place.
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Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

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Last Update: Saturday, 12 March 2016 KSA 14:24 - GMT 11:24
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