China’s hukou system, adopted in 1958 to control population movement, has long been criticized for tying the population to their place of origin. With the mass migration of rural workers to China’s cities and coastal regions, the system is under the spotlight as it means that these migrants suffer discrimination vis-a-vis urban residents in public services such as education, housing, healthcare and other social protection. The debate reaches a new height following a joint appeal to abandon the system by thirteen Chinese newspapers to the National People’s Congress earlier this month.
Could reforming the hukou system bring better lives to migrant workers? Wang Xiaodao, who calls himself a ‘second generation migrant worker’, airs in his blog the grievances and doubts which are representative of this special group in China. Compared with the first generation, this second generation migrant workers face fewer opportunities. Competition is fierce in many occupations. After working for more than seven years in the cities, he has many doubts. Perhaps some doubts could be answered by a hukou reform:
I don’t understand why, in Shanghai, I receive 500 to 600 yuan a month less compared with other workers, who are doing the same kind of job in the same unit. The manager said because he is Shanghaiist, he can enjoy various social benefits and subsidies. I don’t understand why he can have it, but I cannot. Aren’t we both Chinese? Is it true that Chinese cities are hierarchical, and Chinese people are hierarchical too?
I don’t understand why, with my cousin having worked in the cities for over ten years, his son still needs to pay higher school fees than urban children. Why do urban residents not allow their children to share the same table with my nephew? Why is my nephew being isolated and discriminated?
But the above are only parts of the problem. Many more difficulties, such as lack of reasonable safeguards of rights and interests of workers, and unaffordable housing, cannot be solved merely by reforming the hukou system:
I don’t understand why, having spent their lifetime constructing many skyscrapers, migrant workers couldn’t even buy a toilet. This is the same as farmers who spend their lifetime growing crops but could not even feed themselves.
I don’t understand why, with so many factories in southern China, I could not even find a single one with an eight-hour work day. Minimum wage means that the salary would be above a certain standard, right? But why are our salaries merely equal to that standard? Having toiled for over 14 hours a day, a few packs of fertilizers are all that we can afford at the end of the year. Is the wage too low and the price too high, or are we too luxurious?
I don’t understand why, having worked so hard, the managers dare to withhold our salaries. ‘You get what you give’, isn’t this what they say? Why are the relevant departments finding it so difficult to solve it, kicking us around like footballs? To fight for missing salaries and compensation, some go so far as to threaten to jump off from the building, and voluntarily ‘opening their breast’ through a surgical operation to prove that they’ve developed pneumoconiosis from their workplace.
How about going back to the countryside and be a farmer? He has though about it:
The cities have no place for us, how about the countryside? But how can we go back? Like a deserting soldier? Do we have the ‘face’ to see the villagers again? After returning, do we know how to farm? And are we willing to farm? Personally, I’m actually in support of returning and becoming a farmer. After all, the country needs someone to be farmers. But I’m afraid that my parents will be laughed at by other villagers, though their children are also suffering in cities. In their eyes, dying in cities is better than being a deserting soldier.
This new generation of migrant workers is a generation with dreams bigger than money. As Prof. Xie Jianshe, a specialist on migrant worker studies, commented:
They are more attached to cities, rather than rural villages. They are eager to blend into cities, but they are unable to break through the barrier of system and culture. When they go back to the the countryside, they find themselves unable to do farming.
When wealth, houses, cars and a good life are distant dreams, he sees no future, only doubts, illusions and frustrations:
Human beings are like seeds. What matters is where you are dropped. Dropped in the cities, the worst quality can still grow and be strong; dropped in the countryside, you really need to struggle before you can be strong, even if you are of the best quality.
As for my future, where should I go? I don’t know. I can only be a piece of duckweed, floating along with the waves. I once said that pigs are the luckiest animals […] I would really like to become a pig, without any worries and feelings, only eating and drinking. They just stay in the pigsty, not knowing the world around them, until they die.
Now I basically don’t think about saving, because saving is useless. I spend all I earn. You can say I am too negative. But striving for a better live will only lead to blood, sweat and toil, and no more. A good vase cannot be sold for a good price. This loss of hope makes me feel better and easier to pass the days ahead.