modu : A Tale of Urban China

Local governance and citizenship of migrant workers in China

Since the 1980s, migrant workers have become a special social category in the industrialization and urbanization process in China. This reflects a very specific social phenomenon in a country going through a transition from a planned economy to a market economy.

“New” urban citizens

In the face of an increasingly large number of rural migrant workers, the Chinese government’s position on the status of migrants appears to have changed several times over the last few years. They first saw the influx of rural populations as an “anarchical migration”. As a result, steps were then taken to transform this into an “orderly migration”. Still later, the government officially encouraged migrants to “return to their homeland and do business”.

A disconcerting fear may be behind these tumultuous policy shifts: the fear that migrant workers are detrimental to the order in the cities, and as such, should eventually be expelled from their temporary occupation of urban space. Such moral prejudices buttress the notion that rural migrants should not be able to benefit from the rights and social services allocated to urban citizens.

The philosophy that the state should develop to support the management of the population experienced a critical change around 2001. The government began to consider immigrant workers as members of urban society, and modified official discourse to convey that the arrival of people from the countryside to the city to work and do business significantly contributed to the modernization of the entire country. However, ten years later, this change in thinking and policy shift still does not provide migrants with many of the essential social services provided to urban residents in the cities where they came to work. Although their work environments, social conditions, and access to education have improved to a certain degree over the last decade, these migrants still do not consider themselves “citizens” in the city, in any sense of the word.

Obstacles to migrant citizenship and the role of local governments

In theories on the rights of citizens, the relationships between the State, society, and the market are conventionally taken up as the framework for analysis. However, in China’s particular political situation, the State may not be as centralized as many presume. Instead, China’s governmental system consists of various levels of local government. In other words, under the control of the central government, various levels of local government can be seen to have a certain amount of relative flexibility. In many cases, these local authorities have the leeway and the right to adapt policies emanating from the central government. As one widespread Chinese expression Chinese explains, “The central government establishes the policy, the local government unravels it”. This so-called “modification from lower levels” refers mainly to the fact that lower government levels can adopt various means to bypass the requests and policies conferred by higher levels. The methods used by local governments to avoid the controlling measures of the central government are numerous. They may also be the primary factors obstructing rural migrants’ access to urban social services and benefits.

There are three main methods local governments use to skirt central government dictates. The first is to emphasize the uniqueness of their situation. Cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, for example, insist on the fact that their accommodation capacity is already saturated and they cannot accept any new residents. They argue they cannot grant access to new migrants for fear of not being able to regulate and manage the population within their borders. The second is to “remove the logs under the cauldron”. Local authorities may grant the formal status of “city resident” to migrant workers, but in reality, they create conditions that prevent these migrants from practically benefiting from the designation. This can take the form of point-reward systems, or more drastically, the demolition of purportedly “declining” or sub-standard schools which most often cater primarily to migrant workers and their children. The third is to divide migrants into several categories. In this latter instance, those dwelling in spaces under the jurisdiction of a local government will have access to urban citizenship rights, but others outside of this parameter will not.

Our research shows that local welfare, which is the priority of local government in China, is the primary crux for rural migrants gaining access to urban citizenship rights. Whether it’s local government, companies, urban inhabitants or social organizations, the improvement of local welfare is always identified as the priority. Utilizing this logic, if granting urban citizenship to migrant workers is seen as improving local welfare, the issue of securing their rights may be more easily resolved. Otherwise, even if the central government promulgates policies to achieve equal rights between urban and migrant workers, local governments will not apply them, and will set up obstacles against the implementation of these policies rather than considering the universality of civil rights and access to citizenship.

  • 2015/01/12

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  • Wang Chunguang

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The Author

Wang Chunguang

For the publication of the second module Ville Alternative, Wang Chunguang, research director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), offered us some insights about its studies on social integration of migrants in the urban Chinese society.

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