The new book “Low-End China: The Party, the Land, Migrant Workers, and China’s Coming Economic Crisis” says that migrant workers have become pawns abandoned by the Chinese Communist Party. Pictured are several migrant workers in China on October 26, 2005, catching a ride. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
In February, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping declared the country “completely free from poverty” as the last nine deep-poverty counties in China’s inland province of Guizhou were eliminated.
However, Bloomberg Businessweek senior reporter Dexter Roberts’ recently published book, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World (The Low End of China: The Party, the Land, the Migrant Worker, and China’s Coming Economic Crisis), tells the story of the country’s “low end. The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World) tells the story of the fact that China’s rural population is still struggling at the bottom of the social ladder.
Instead of enjoying the benefits of China’s economic takeoff in the last thirty years, they have become pawns and victims: they face serious social inequalities, from the endless exploitation by the government and enterprises, to the discrimination of the household registration system, to the pain of family separation, and the accumulated public anger, along with the exhaustion of the demographic dividend, may become one of the triggers for the collapse of the Chinese Communist regime.
In his preface, Luo Gu writes: “China wants the world to believe the myth that its development and authoritarian system will become a model for all countries and even replace the West. But this book will demonstrate why this is false. Instead, China’s economic development will slow down severely, disappointing many Chinese and potentially causing social unrest.”
The book “Low End China,” published in Taiwan in March, was hailed by former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger as “one of the most brilliant and original books on China that I have read in recent years.
How the Party Uses “Hukou” to Control and Exploit Peasants
Low-End China centers on the village of Binghua in Guizhou Province, China, with a population of less than 1,000, a predominantly Buyi village where the vast majority of young people have left their homes to work on the coast due to economic backwardness and shrinking employment.
Mo Meiquan, one of the main characters in the book “Low-End China,” went to work in an electronics factory in Dongguan in 1998 for one yuan per hour because of the lack of jobs in her hometown.
Mo’s cousin, Mo Lubo, dropped out of middle school and tried to make his way to Ningbo, but was robbed of his belongings by three hoodlums just as he got off the train.
Another cousin, Mo Wenzhi, also worked in a factory in Dongguan, crammed into a small dormitory with 10 other workers, where it was hot and humid and there were no toilets. But Mo Wenzhi thought the factory was treating him well, telling Luo Gu, “Comfort and privacy are not my priorities. I come from a poor place, and I don’t want to find a girlfriend. Every night after I get off work, I sleep.”
By the end of 2020, migrant workers like the young men in Mo’s family reached 285.6 million, or one-fifth of China’s total population, and the rural population is about half of China’s total population. But China’s special hukou system has relegated them to second-class citizens in their own country.
China’s current hukou system began in 1958 with the promulgation of the Hukou Registration Regulations, which basically divided all individuals into two categories: “agricultural hukou” and “non-agricultural hukou”.
After the reform and opening up in 1978, cities imposed strict restrictions on household registration. According to a report by the Social Development Research Department of the Development Research Center of the State Council of China, there are more than 20 individual rights linked to hukou, including employment, education, social security, family planning and other aspects. This means that hundreds of millions of migrant workers are not entitled to basic public services in cities, and their health and survival are greatly restricted, and it is difficult for them to defend their rights in employment relationships. Because of this, Chinese companies and factories have access to a large pool of cheap and “docile” labor.
Luo Gu told VOA: “The hukou system has been good for China’s economic development, ensuring a ‘Made in China’ model based on low wages and a continuous supply of low-cost labor. As I said before, migrant workers are just passing through town. These have depressed wages and forged China’s status as a world exporter today.”
Lacking security and social status, migrant workers work tirelessly, night and day, to add to the prosperity of the Communist Party and the country. Since the reform and opening up of China in 1978, the huge number of cheap migrant laborers has been the driving force behind China’s economic take-off and the bargaining chip for Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation” and the promotion of the “Chinese Dream.”
In the fourth chapter of the book, Luo Gu calls migrant workers the “pawns” of the Party. He writes, “The party no longer protects workers, but it still uses measures to keep them as ideological props; it no longer manages workers’ lives in detail, but it has set up a structure of laws to regulate some new bosses so that they don’t treat labor too badly; this is partly to prevent social unrest.”
Luo Gu points out, “Migrant workers are effectively ‘outsiders’ in China. They are here to help build China’s urban economy and help China develop; no one intends for them to settle in the cities. Government officials realize that it is in the interest of economic development to treat migrant workers as second-class citizens.”
Forever an outsider and a second-class citizen
The lack of welfare protection that comes with the hukou system, in addition to facilitating companies to undercut migrant workers’ wages and default on payments, also makes it often impossible for farmers to obtain a safe and sanitary working and living environment, and even triggers a humanitarian crisis.
Luo Gu explains, “The hukou system puts migrant workers in a vulnerable position, making it difficult for them to negotiate with their employers, especially in terms of wages and working conditions, whereas city dwellers with local hukou do not have such difficulties. On the other hand, it is the nature of migrant workers that they move around. In many cases, there is no complete contract between them and their employers, or no contract at all, or a contract signed through a third party. All of this makes them more vulnerable.”
On the other hand, the hukou system has also led to inequality in educational resources, resulting in social problems such as “left-behind children”. Mo Lupo, one of the main characters in the book, later started his own business in Dongguan, and although his income and standard of living were greatly improved, he and his wife still had to face the problem of their daughter’s difficulty in going to school. Under the restriction of agricultural registration, their daughter cannot attend public schools in Dongguan, while the tuition fee of private schools is as high as 15,000 yuan per semester. Finally, Mo Lupo had to send his daughter back to school in Binghua Village.
Luo Gu said, “We see such a humanitarian crisis where nearly 100 million rural children are growing up without parents because they can’t go to public schools in the city.”
With the children of migrant workers ineligible for public education resources in the city and the high cost of private schools unaffordable, the result is millions, if not tens of millions, of rural children growing up away from their parents for long periods of time, with their mental health and educational attainment severely compromised, making it even more difficult to change their fate or make the class leap. The children of migrant workers often have to continue the nature of their parents’ work and lives, becoming perpetual second-class citizens.
Data from China’s Ministry of Education shows that in 2017 there were more than 15 million children left behind in compulsory education across the country. The UNICEF report “The State of China’s Child Population 2015 – Facts and Figures”, on the other hand, shows that 100 million children in China are affected by population movements.
China has been reforming its household registration system since 2014, and a new policy in 2019 calls for cities with a population of less than 3 million to completely remove restrictions on settling in, and cities with a population of 3-5 million to open up the conditions for settling in, but a dozen of China’s most developed cities are not on this list.
The plight of China’s migrant workers has been ongoing for decades, and the problems of low pay and lack of benefits remain unchanged,” said Geoffrey Crothall, advocacy director for the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Labor Newsletter. While the integration of migrant workers has improved in some smaller inland cities, in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, farm-name workers remain ‘second-class citizens.'”
In terms of implementation, many cities still impose conditions such as “legal and stable residence” or “legal and stable employment”; in addition, there appears to be no clear policy guidance on whether newly settled rural residents are entitled to the same benefits as local city residents. Finally, once farmers settle in the cities, they lose the right to renovate and trade their rural houses, and eventually, when the houses collapse, the right to use the house bases will be reverted to the “collective”. All these obstacles show that China’s rural population still has a long way to go before they can completely escape the restrictions of the hukou system.
Disparity between the rich and the poor and the land system
In addition to the hukou system, the land ownership system also restricts the development of the rural population; the current Chinese Constitution, adopted in 1982, states that “land in rural areas and suburban areas belongs to the collective, except for that which belongs to the state as provided by law; residential bases, self-reserved land, and self-reserved hills also belong to the collective.” Despite a series of reforms introduced by the Chinese government in the last decade to allow farmers to rent out their land use rights, official Communist Party statistics in 2018 show that only 37 percent of rural land has been transferred to other farmers or enterprises. Moreover, the decision to transfer remains dominated and determined by the government. For example, the 2020 reform program provides that farmers have the right to vote on land transfers, but the government still has veto power.
These restrictions mean that farmers are not free to buy, sell, or lease land, which stifles their opportunities to farm on a large scale and gain more wealth; they are also unable to use their land as collateral for loans, making it difficult to use it to raise funds for investment or to access resources for more development.
In 2018, the income of urban residents in China was nearly three times higher than the income of rural residents, and most countries globally have an urban-rural per capita income ratio of less than 1.6, with only three countries with ratios above 2, of which China is one. In addition, the urban-rural wealth gap has also widened significantly in recent years: between 2005 and 2015, China’s per capita wealth grew at an average annual rate of 22%, while rural wealth accumulation grew at an average annual rate of 11%.
According to Luo Gu, this wealth gap is bound to affect China’s social stability and sustainable development. The standard of living of the rural population has greatly improved compared to the past, but the gap between urban and rural areas is also growing,” he says. This widening gap is also becoming increasingly obvious to farmers, who are aware that the whole system, including the hukou and land aspects, is discriminating against them. So the next question is, can they accept this status quo?”
Weak and angry peasants will shake up the Communist Party’s rule
Luo Gu devotes an entire chapter in the book to the history and individual cases of migrant workers’ rights in China. For example, the book’s protagonist, Mo Mei Tsuen, was forced to work 48 hours straight at the factory where she once worked, and she joined nearly a quarter of the factory’s workers in organizing a protest and then submitting her resignation.
Luo Gu told Voice of America, “More and more migrant workers are recognizing how the hukou system affects them, and fewer and fewer migrant workers are willing to put up with it, and they’re starting to realize that it’s not right, it’s not fair. This is a challenge for the Communist Party.”
In addition to public anger, the Communist Party faces the challenge of a disappearing “demographic dividend. By 2030, more than a quarter of China’s population will be over the age of 60. Since 2020, the Communist Party’s leaders have emphasized “internal circulation,” or expanding domestic demand to drive economic growth. But Luo Gu points out that the Communist Party still hasn’t abandoned its hukou and land systems, which makes it difficult to achieve massive growth in domestic demand.
What China is trying to do goes against reality,” he said. The reality is that the hukou and land policies have prevented China’s migrant workers and peasants from becoming an able-bodied middle class. If half of China’s population, the rural population, is not well integrated into the Chinese economy, then it will be very difficult for China to achieve the level of domestic demand that the government wants to achieve.”
Luo Gu told VOA that for the Communist Party, poor, aging, disgruntled migrant workers “threaten” the stability of society as a whole: despite their hard work and dedication to China’s economic miracle, their retirement and employment are now a “burden” for China to continue to move forward. The “burden” of their retirement and employment is now a burden on China’s continued progress. No matter how much the Chinese Communist Party leaders tout the advantages of the Chinese model on the world stage, the plight of the rural population is a shortcoming that cannot be ignored.
The American journalist, who has lived in China for more than two decades, concluded: “The hukou and land systems cannot sustain China’s future sustainable development, and it is simply absurd for some countries to think they should follow this model. Even if we look at just these two points, the Chinese model is not worthy of the world’s study.”
(Reprinted: Voice of America, originally titled: “Pawns Abandoned by the Communist Party: ‘Low-End China’ Chronicles the History of Migrant Workers’ Suffering Behind the Economic Boom”)