What's Driving China's New Push To Move Millions Of Rural Families Into Cities

There are currently 130 million migrant workers in China
There are currently 130 million migrant workers in China
Ding Yuanshan

BEIJING – The official announcement came from Zhang Ping, head of China’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission: the government would “speed up household registration reform” as part of its drive for urbanization of the rural population.

Dubbed hukou, the household registration system dates back to the Mao era, and prevents rural people who move to cities from getting access to local benefits such as health care, pensions and public education.

Vice Premier Li Keqiang said that the global economic slowdown requires China to create domestic demand, as it can no longer rely on exports. Urbanization of the rural population would create a large domestic demand and be a driver of growth. For that to happen, China needs to relax the household registration system so that rural migrant workers can become official urban residents.

This is the first time we have seen a precise signal from key decision makers that the household registration system will be changed.

Not only has China’s current hukou system long lost its moral grounds, it has also become a bottleneck for social and economic development. In the mid-1980s, China started relaxing restrictions on the mobility of migrant workers living in the cities, giving them temporary resident permits. By 2003, 13 Chinese provinces had abolished the distinction between a “rural hukou” and an “urban hukou,” that made migrant workers less eligible for rights than their counterparts with urban resident registration.

In recent years, there have been repeated calls for further reform of the household registration system. One of the important reasons for this is the fact that China is gradually facing an ageing problem – it will “get old before it gets rich.” In order to maintain China’s cheap labor advantage, economists and policy-makers believe that speeding up the pace of allowing rural workers to become city residents can delay the disappearance of China’s demographic dividend.

No matter what the consideration is, as long as it contributes to reforming the household registration system, it is worthy of recognition.

The limits on Chinese citizens changing their permanent place of residence has resulted in a fractured society. It has aggravated the psychological rift – and even hatred – between rural and urban residents.

Recently, an appeal for an off-site college entrance exam right by a student whose parents were migrant workers triggered a lively debate on the Internet. There has also been an increasing number of clashes between migrant workers and local residents in China’s developed coastal regions. These are all alarming events. Reforming this “quasi-caste system” will help avoid the social conflicts that were no doubt coming.

Left-behind children

According to government statistics, there are currently 130 million migrant workers in China. Because of the household registration system that bans them from accessing public education and healthcare, their children are often forced to stay home. More than 58 million of these workers’ children make up the “home-staying children” or “left-behind children” who remain in the countryside with their grandparents or other relatives. Another 27 million follow their parents to the cities but remain at the margin of urban society because they are not allowed to enroll in local schools.

How can one expect to bring up these children, whether they are “home-staying” or “floating,” with a healthy personality and psychology -- without a sound and healthy educational environment? And how can we not expect that such a huge social group will not grow up to become a social powder keg?

Many years ago, some predicted that the tenacious existence of the household registration system would usher in a civil war in China’s urban centers. To a certain extent this has been confirmed by the frequent conflicts between rural workers and local populations.

As to the concrete plan of the reform, a rational consensus has been formed over years through discussion. In principle, a graduated reform is accepted by most people. The idea is to allow rural workers who have stable work and are living in the county-level cities to be registered as city residents, and to allow the ones who have worked in prefecture-level cities over three years to join the local population. As for the cities that are directly under Central Government control, there will be additional requirements.

This is reform based on realism. Unless the levels of public services in the cities and the capability to absorb employment demand are significantly improved, it is not rational to accept more migrant workers.

The cities’ policymakers should be working actively to create the conditions to absorb these rural workers. They should speed up infrastructure construction – particularly in education, housing and medical facilities. They should realize that although on the surface the beneficiaries of a hukou reform are the tens of millions of rural workers, in the long term it is the whole of China’s future generations who will benefit from it. This will not have an instant positive affect like GDP growth would, but it will be remembered by the people as benevolent rule.

In addition, particular attention should be paid to the communication with the urban public. Authorities should hire professional public relations agencies instead of using the traditionally blunt propaganda tactics. New communications methods are needed to make the urban population realize that upholding their interests should not be built on the premise of suppressing the rights of others.

A lifestyle built on such a basis is a disgrace. Urban residents should welcome their rural compatriots, who have been victims for too long of an unfair system.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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