by Gang Lin

"Uneasy Times in China's Cities: Urban Migrants and the Unemployed" Seminar jointly hosted by the Asia Program and the Department of State, February 23, 2000, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

A growing number of urban migrants and widespread unemployment pose two increasingly important challenges for China's cities. What factors have contributed to China's 135 million urban migrants and its more than 10 million unemployed? What social problems do urban migration and unemployment foster?

Two eminent China experts examined these and related issues on February 23, 2000, at a seminar entitled "Uneasy Times in China's Cities: Urban Migrants and the Unemployed," hosted jointly by the Asia Program and the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Heavily relying on statistical data, surveys and personal interviews, the two speakers explored the potential for instability in China's urban as well as rural areas. This event was part of the U.S.-China Fulbright Twentieth Anniversary Distinguished Lecturer Program.

This program highlighted China's difficulties in resolving the issues of massive urban migration and unemployment, which have been generated by China's transition toward a market economy and urbanization. In a survey conducted among rural people by sociologist Li Qiang, 42% of the interviewees stated that at least one member of their families had left their villages; most of these migrants worked outside their original counties and provinces. The increasing number of urban migrants is demonstrated by another survey conducted by the speaker: 1.8 % of the migrants interviewed left their villages before 1980, 14% left between 1981 and 1990, while 40 % left between 1991 and 1996, and 41% left between 1997 and 1999.

Urban migration has created a social gap between urban residents and the migrants from rural areas. As Li Qiang noted, the migrants feel they are discriminated against since they are permitted to work only at those arduous and unpleasant jobs that urban residents decline to do. While the migrants might have taken some job opportunities away from urban residents, not all of them can find jobs in cities, which has contributed to a growing crime rate in cities, featured especially by theft and robbery. Female migrants from rural areas are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment while working as housekeepers or babysitters for urban families.

Steven Mufson of the Washington Post explored other problems related to urban migrants. According to Mufson, a serious brain drain has hit China's rural areas since most of the migrants are relatively young (in their 20s and early 30s) and more educated. China's ability to create more and more job opportunities in urban areas to absorb the increasing number of migrants and the unemployed is another great concern.

Political tension in China's cities is less explosive than the social gap suggests, however. According to another survey conducted by Li Qiang, most of those interviewed believed they were living better than ten years ago, contrary to the negative response of Eastern Europeans when they were asked the same question. Despite the increasing number of jobless in China's cities, the unemployed usually lay blame for their difficulties on their former employers rather than on the government. The more severe challenge for Beijing comes from China's rural areas and involves political conflicts between peasants and corrupt local government officials, journalist Steven Mufson added.