Over the next two decades, the Chinese government is expecting to move 250 million rural inhabitants to cities and towns. It is to be revealed that 21 million people each year are projected to migrate.
In an attempt to shift from a manufacturing economy to a consumer-based economy, the government says that farmers and villagers who choose to stay may do so, although they must eventually relocate. This rapid urbanization of China is called chengzhenhua (transitioning to cities and towns), and the current plan to establish urban centers and to encourage rural-urban migration is the most massive, deliberate, and centrally organized to date. Rather than taking hundreds of years to occur, as this process did in many Western European cities, this migration will quickly fill up “ghost towns” and dramatically shift the social configuration in already sprawling metropolitan areas as well as challenge provincial, municipal, and local governments.
The plan is already being enacted in places such as the mountainous regions of Shaanxi Province, where Li Yongping is in charge of removing 2.4 million farmers in one of the largest peacetime migrations in recorded human history. New towns are being built on or near previous farmlands, comprising housing units complete with “modern” amenities such as heaters, air conditioners, and washing machines.
For many who have farmed for generations, they have to abandon their previous way of life in order to comply with the demands of the government. Even though they will live in more up-to-date accommodations and have modern utilities, employment opportunities are scarce in these newly constructed urban concentrations. This places a great financial burden on the farmers, who have primarily grown and consumed their own crops instead of earning the consistent wages of urban residents. Although the government provides subsidies that cover one-quarter of the cost and offers interest-free loans, the roughly 93,000 RMB ($15,000) needed to purchase a unit is still considered a huge strain on a family’s meager financial resources.
Adapting to a modern lifestyle is also costly. For example, many do not use their new heaters or washing machines because they can’t afford the monthly payments of electricity and natural gas. And those who want to return to their previous homes have found their houses destroyed and farmlands gone.
For rural migrants who have been moving to large, established urban centers such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, they maintain a precarious existence due to the constraints of the hukou, a registration record assigned to each Chinese citizen in order to track his birth, death, moves, and other identifying information. This record is used by the government for more than compiling demographic statistics, though — it is also a tool for population control.
Each hukou has two classifications. The first is the place of registration, which restricts the holder to an area of residence, making it difficult to move to another district or another city without changing the hukou. The second, arguably more important classification is the status of registration, which labels a holder as either an agricultural or non-agricultural (urban) hukou holder.
The agricultural vs. non-agricultural distinction has significant implications for one’s status in society because constraints placed on a type of hukou can determine the economic opportunities available to its holder. Urban residents who have the non-agricultural hukou have educational opportunities, jobs, healthcare and other social benefits available to them that the agricultural status holders may not.
In the past, those who possessed the agricultural hukou were primarily rural residents, but with greater population movement into the cities as a result of the high demand for cheap labor, this distinction lost its bearing. The hukou status is inherited from the mother, so those born in the cities can still possess an agricultural hukou. This means that there are youth who are raised in the same city, but are denied the social mobility available to their non-agricultural hukou counterparts. This serves to socially and economically segregate those who possess different residential statuses, encourage a caste-like discrimination against agricultural holders, and contribute to a growing sense of inequity and restlessness.
The government has created special hukou that grant de-facto urban residents greater benefits and access to education and employment, but the massive influx into the cities that will result from this planned relocation may require more drastic policy changes in order to ensure that the transition to a consumer economy is not a wellspring of discontent.