Monday, 1 March 2010

Chain on a little boy a potent symbol of an unjust system and two-tier society

The upsetting photo published around the world just before the Lunar New Year of two-year-old Chen Jingdan chained to a tree in Beijing was loaded with as many misconceptions as it was with shock, desperation, sadness and pity.

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Guanyu 道 said...

Chain on a little boy a potent symbol of an unjust system and two-tier society

Peter Simpson
28 February 2010

The upsetting photo published around the world just before the Lunar New Year of two-year-old Chen Jingdan chained to a tree in Beijing was loaded with as many misconceptions as it was with shock, desperation, sadness and pity.

Far from being a gross act of child cruelty, Jingdan was restrained by his loving father to keep him safe from child-snatchers who had taken his four-year-old sister only days earlier. It was also a snapshot of China’s increasingly volatile two-tier society.

With a mother too sick to look after the boy and his hard-working dad, Chen Chuanliu, an unlicensed pedicab driver too poor to pay for a proper minder or a school place, the cheap and effective padlock and chain were the only option. Chen’s only regret was that he had not thought of the tether method earlier to save his daughter, Jinghong, who, according to police, remains missing since her disappearance on January 26.

Cash donations were offered to help the Chens, but overseas benevolence was not required. Home-grown altruism was at hand. A district kindergarten offered a free place to Jingdan for three years, a life-changing break for the family worth 40,000 yuan (HK$45,500).

But acts of philanthropy are not easy to complete on the mainland. “The biggest problem for Jingdan is that he does not have a Beijing hukou, the permanent Beijing residency document,” explained Mr. Pi, the president of the Aibei Kindergarten. “We’re not allowed to let him attend if he does not have the paperwork.”

The photo of the shackled Jingdan changed perspectives. It became a stark metaphor for the Chinese apartheid the household registration system has created.

The Chens left rural Sichuan province several years ago seeking a better life in Beijing. Instead, they found themselves among the estimated 150 million urban migrant workers stranded on the wrong side of the mainland’s widening wealth gap because they are chained to their rural origins. Under the current system, they are denied entitlements to health care, education and subsidised housing in the cities they help build, service and call home.

The hukou has long been viewed as an outdated and economically damaging social mobility policy. Yet little has emerged from all the government rhetoric to shake up the system and improve the lot of the men and women in yellow hats and restaurant and janitor uniforms. The need to abolish the system has never been so vital, according to socioeconomists at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The body unveiled a study this month that claims that unless far-reaching reform is implemented immediately, China’s stability will be threatened and the economy stunted.

“China clearly has to increase the level of urbanisation from the current 45 per cent of the population to 65 per cent over the next 10-15 years to maintain economic growth,” said Richard Herd, the author of the OECD’s China report, which also praises the country for its handling of the global financial crisis.

“We believe the only way that can be done is for the hukou to be abolished completely. If there is no change to the registration system, a two-tier society will [continue to] be built ... and this could foster disharmony, resentment and instability,” he said.

The report from the Paris-based OECD, compiled by the chief economists of its 30 member countries, was handed to the Chinese government. Officials received the recommendations positively, Herd said. Not that China needs outside advice and warnings on the importance of urgent reform to the system. Barely a day goes by without a state media report, academic newspaper columnist or official calling for reform. However, the fear that abolition would lead to cities being swamped, and the absence of an alternative method to keep such migration in check, has ensured reforms have been piecemeal.

Guanyu 道 said...

In most cases, the amendments ensure money, education and connections dictate who is given or denied benefits. Communist party members and rural officials are likely to be offered residency permits over non-members, while college graduates can claim benefits and jobs far more easily than less educated rural dwellers. Cronyism and local corruption compounds the situation and casts doubt on the effectiveness of the modest reforms.

The need to temper the simmering resentment over the hukou-induced apartheid has many arguing for radical change. Crucially, it is clear to leaders that the country can no longer rely on exports to drive the economic juggernaut during the global financial slump. Consumption must come from within if recession is to be kept at bay, and the potential spending power of an emancipated migrant class is becoming not so much an option, but a necessity.

“Allowing more migrant workers to move about the country into the cities would improve the labour market, bring stability to regional wage fluctuations and result in a much needed boost in domestic demand,” Herd said.

As delegates prepare for next month’s annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), hukou reform is being pushed to the top of the agenda alongside economic stimulus packages, housing bubbles, internal ethnic harmony and fractious foreign affairs.

A government policy document released last month promised “more efforts for rural-urban integration” and “deepening reform of the household registration, or hukou, system”. “This is the first time that the hukou system reform has been written into the policy document explicitly as a core emphasis,” notes Zheng Fengtian, vice-dean with the agriculture and country development faculty of Beijing’s Renmin University.

Last week, on the day Beijing police launched another crackdown on the lucrative hukou black market, State Council think tank the Development Research Centre held a press conference.

Head of rural economic research Han Jun predicted the nation’s rural population would fall by half a billion, to 400 million, over the next 30 years as the rush from the fields accelerates. Migration to the cities was already increasing exponentially, he said. In 1978 the rate of urbanisation was 17.8 per cent. By 2008 it had reached 45.7 per cent, he said. The pressure to provide urban infrastructure and social services in the cities will be immense, as will the need to co-opt the rural workers into the rag-to-riches dream.

Managing expectations is paramount, however, to stave off resentment and spread growth evenly across the nation. Han said the latest reforms to the registration rules were likely to allow young migrant workers to register and claim benefits in smaller cities, which would help them find the money to rent or buy affordable homes. This would keep them away from the already bulging metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

“The key is to allow migrant workers to have a sense of happiness in living in cities,” Han said.

Despite his predictions, many argue that the rate of urbanisation will be too slow to ensure the economy grows at an annual rate of at least 8 per cent to stave off recession.

Premier Wen Jiabao said in December that the registration system should be reformed at the local level to accelerate migration. But Herd said this approach is wrong. The object should be to abolish the system quickly, and from the centre. “It would be possible to continue with registration [for identification] but the distinctions between the different types of residency permits should be abolished within the next five-year plan,” he said. Effective change would only occur if it was coupled with sweeping reform to rural land and property rights, he said.

Guanyu 道 said...

“The stream of young migrants workers into the cities will eventually dry up and older, more settled parts of the population will have to be encouraged to move to ensure growth,” he said. “Currently, if farmers move to the city and temporarily register, they lose their registration in the countryside and subsequently lose their 30-year-land use rights. This is obviously a big barrier to persuading farmers wanting to move into the cities and help drive growth. They cannot transfer the value of their land and use it as security in the city.”

Many claim the liberation of the oppressed, hard-toiling migrant worker from the hukou would have a major impact not just on China’s prospects, but global trade and financial fortunes too. It would also arguably curb the politics of envy, douse rising indignation and put an end to many human rights violations - those injustices and inequalities that helped place a chain and padlock around the ankle of Jingdan. But events could easily go the other way.

As the government once more prepares to address the conundrum, the world will be watching to see if the leadership is bold enough to unlock what could be China’s Pandora’s box - or risk keeping it shut.