China’s “Floating Population”

China is faced with an internal migration crisis, the scale of which cannot be ignored. In 2012, China’s internal migratory population (both inter- and intra-provincial) exceeded 250 million people. Within that population, those without household registration—effectively illegal aliens within their own nation—known as China’s “floating population” (流动人口), exceed 160 million. Predominantly rural-to-urban migrants moving to the industrial centers of China’s eastern seaboard, this “floating population” is the disadvantaged lifeblood of the Chinese economy.

Since the explosion of internal migration in the 1980s, China’s economy has triumphed (albeit at the expense of the environment), enjoying GDP growth in excess of 10% a year. The government too has implemented sweeping economic reforms to allow for greater growth of both state and private industries. The rich have gotten richer (China is second only to the US in the number of billionaires), and a substantial middle class has emerged (roughly 300 millions citizens). , Yet little has been done for a migratory population larger than the populations of Germany, UK, France, and Italy – combined! They suffer the highest rates of HIV, illiteracy, and crime in China. Their estimated 37 million children are severely undereducated.

Migrant workers assemble computer hard drives at the Seagate factory in Wuxi, China, November 6, 2008. In the last thirty years, tens of millions of rural citizens have immigrated to manufacturing centers in eastern China in the hope of earning higher salaries. (Wikimedia Commons/Robert Scoble)

The government’s current system is clearly broken, but why? And why isn’t the government helping?

The migration crisis is exacerbated by an outdated household registration policy, known in Mandarin as hukou (户口). Promulgated in 1958 by Chairman Mao, hukou operated as a method of controlling the labor force of China. Further, like the Soviet propiska system, hukou served as an internal passport, categorizing citizens as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’, ‘farmer’ or ‘intelligentsia’. Mao was keen on tracking potential dissidents, but moreover preventing mass migration of the peasantry to the industrializing cities. Rural citizens who moved and worked in urban neighborhoods were deemed illegal aliens and denied any welfare privileges associated with citizenship.

A household registration identification card, August 2, 2006. The hukou system is effective in establishing a social apartheid between the 90 million migrants who have proper paperwork, and the 160 million who do not. (Creative Commons/Micah Sittig)

Since the era of Deng Xiaoping, the pace of economic liberalization has been brisk, yet liberalization of labor policy has lagged behind. The Politburo rightly feared that if the poor migrated to the cities in droves, civic institutions would be placed under tremendous financial stress—stress to provide adequate health care, education, water, etc. to an increasingly congested urban environment. Several reforms notwithstanding, (such as allowing inheritance of hukou to pass from father and/or mother, as opposed to solely the father, and temporary urban residency permits for migrants), migration policy is remarkably similar to what it was in 1958. The results are catastrophic for the more than 160 million “floating” workers in the urban areas of China. They live without any civil protection from the state, while employers and the state profit from their “illegal” labor.

Why has the government failed to act on the cries of their main labor force? The answer can be divided into two parts.

The first, and most blunt point, is that the People’s Republic of China is an oppressive state. The government frequently incurs human rights violations, including denying migrants health insurance, jailing dissidents, censoring the Internet, and preventing religious freedom. Although the economy has liberalized significantly, much of China’s rule of law remains backward.

The second reason is that the government still shares Mao’s fears from 1958: the abolishment of the hukou system could lead to mass migration from rural areas and strain on urban areas. The sheer cost of providing social services to an additional 160 million people frightens the government from attempting any serious reform. Urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are already suffering from the side effects of overpopulation. From where would the money and space to educate, treat, and train 160 million people come?

So why doesn’t China’s “floating population” protest and demand an end to internationally recognized human rights abuses? In part, because in many cities, migrants have indeed succeeded in acquiring wage increases and safer working conditions. The government continues to provide sufficient improvements to the workers just to prevent a nationwide revolt (e.g., Chengdu has eliminated urban welfare barriers as of 2012). In addition, the workers are terrified that challenging the state could result in physical or financial harm for them and their loved ones.

In an age where an increasing number of Chinese are connected to social media (and able to bypass government controls), will China experience an “Arab Spring”-esque event? Or will the state continue to restrict the benefits to migrants, leaving INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) to provide essential social services to China’s labor force? Unfortunately for those suffering from this crisis, and the estimated 100 million additional rural-to-urban migrants expected by 2020, there is no clear answer.

Don’t Waste Your Crises, Mr. President

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” counseled President Obama’s first Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, in early 2009.

Although many Republicans, still recovering from their losses in the 2008 Election, seized the advice as evidence of the Obama Administration’s secret intention of transforming the United States into an Orwellian nightmare, the quote itself is not unprecedented. Winston Churchill said something similar, and strategists across the ages have noted that when the status quo falls into chaos, the winners are those who seize what they can. Looking back on American history, it seems that the greatest Presidents used great conflagrations to their advantage, and the weakest Presidents bungled them. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. Their presidencies coincided with the two deadliest threats in the country’s history: the Civil War in Lincoln’s case, and the Second World War in Roosevelt’s.

Conversely, the presidents directly before these legends have been remembered as failures. James Buchanan is remembered as the man who thought he would be the last President of the United States and failed to subdue the domestic unrest which ultimately culminated in the Civil War. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are remembered for their isolationism in the time of the rise of Fascism, and their inaction when faced with the onset of the Great Depression.

But a Commander-in-Chief need not wait for apocalyptic upheavals to get a chance to prove his leadership. The nature of politics is such that the state is beset by constant crisis, with challenges approaching at all times and from every direction, including from within.

Most people would be hard-pressed to recount the foreign policy of Dwight Eisenhower. Yet the Sputnik controversy, the Korean Armistice, the Suez Crisis, and the U2 Incident all occurred on his watch, and Ike is generally remembered as one of the best – if not the least interesting – Presidents of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps Kennedy best exhibited good crisis management: following the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, he deftly managed the Cuban Missile Crisis and is still one of the most popular Presidents in our history. Truman, Nixon, and Reagan assembled some of the best foreign policy staffs in American history, and are thus remembered for strong foreign policies.

Carter, on the other hand, is remembered as a better person than President precisely because of his crisis management – he bungled the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which was not necessarily a matter which threatened our territorial security the way previous crises had, but nonetheless posed a threat to our overseas interests and national prestige. Lyndon Johnson, another great man, dramatically increased America’s presence in Vietnam, yet failed to solve anything, and for that has been reviled among moralists and strategists alike. Perhaps most notorious has been George W. Bush; it is likely that his management of the War on Terror will leave him remembered as a warmonger and a generally incompetent leader.

We come, now, to the question of President Obama. How will he be remembered? If he continues to pursue a foreign policy akin to his first term, he will likely be remembered in the same harsh light covering Johnson, Carter and Bush.

The international system is entering a period of great change. The ongoing financial crisis is its economic manifestation, but the crisis itself goes beyond economics: class, technology, and the role of government all affect and are affected by the current developments. Meanwhile, new bases of power rise around a world which is politically more complex now than it has been since the late 1960s.

New challenges are on the horizon, and those who handle such situations well will go down as great statesmen. History remembers those who fare poorly as politicians. To his credit, President Obama did not emulate his predecessor’s adventurism, and by scaling back the Afghan and Iraqi wars has freed the American military from its former tied-down state. And the Bin Laden raid was, undoubtedly, the high point of his foreign policy.

But almost all of his administration’s major initiatives, from the Reset Button with Russia to the Asian “Pivot” to the New Beginning with the Muslim world, have been either poorly-informed ideas or only partly-successful policies. And the President’s crisis management, it seems, has been no better. As the Arab Spring toppled dictator after dictator, some of whom were American allies, inconclusive and contradictory statements emerged from the White House. The same pattern is visible now as the Syrian war drags on and an American intervention appears to loom closer. And although the President handled the recent North Korean crisis reasonably well, the unwise Libyan intervention has spawned countless unforeseen consequences, while Russia’s recent granting of asylum to Edward Snowden on the grounds of international law appears to be a diplomatic crisis in the making. It is unclear whether the President will handle the unknown crises awaiting him in the last years of his second term as a politician or a statesman.