The Cities vs. the Countryside - One Major Problem China Faces Is the Huge Number of Rural Migrants, Estimated at More Than 100 Million and Increasing at the Rate of 20 Million per Year

By Luo, Jing | The World and I, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Cities vs. the Countryside - One Major Problem China Faces Is the Huge Number of Rural Migrants, Estimated at More Than 100 Million and Increasing at the Rate of 20 Million per Year


Luo, Jing, The World and I


China's fifth census, carried out in November 2000, reveals that approximately 456 million people (36 percent of the population) live in cities or towns, and 851 million (63.91 percent) reside in the countryside. The Chinese government has every reason to focus its attention on solving rural problems.

One immediate problem facing China is its huge number of migrants, estimated at more than 100 million and increasing at the rate of 20 million per year. While rural industries absorb a small portion of this surplus population, the rest drifts into cities, causing tremendous pressure on employment and giving rise to many social problems.

The slow progress of urbanization, coupled with the recent Asian financial crisis, has limited employment opportunities in cities and towns. The crime rate has been climbing, especially in small and midsize cities. The Hard Strike law enforcement campaign used to prepare cities for the 2008 Olympics encourages tough punishments, especially death sentences. Whether the floating population can be successfully controlled directly affects the country's stability.

Historical perspective

As early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.--A.D. 220), solving the problem of densely populated regions depending on scarce cultivated land was an important priority. Two approaches were notable: migration and opening up new land. Migrations led to wars with indigenous groups, which generated more harm than good. Similarly, the effort of opening new land for cultivation soon exhausted land resources.

This situation finally led to a third solution, the fine cultivation method (tending the farm by hand). Women, children, and surplus laborers were sent to work on farms during the off-seasons (winter and summer) to weed, till, and fertilize the land. This system effectively provided employment to the surplus population. Additionally, the land yielded more crops, and farmers took advantage of their free time to engage in side occupations such as producing goods to sell for cash.

For thousands of years, China was well known for its agriculture. For such a system to work in China, however, urbanization had to be curtailed. The logic seems straightforward: organized commerce and manufacturing would jeopardize family-based businesses, and a labor force bound to the land could generate no significant capital.

There is speculation that, historically, Chinese government officials intentionally suppressed urbanization to avoid competition with the civil service, the most legitimate channel to wealth. Clearly, China's urbanization was historically underdeveloped, which has implications today.

Until 1978, the communist regime was trying to implement the Soviet model of forceful land control. Since 1958, when land was deprivatized with the establishment of the people's communes, the party's policy had stressed the production of cereal grains and severely restricted the development of local industries and commerce. Any side occupations at the time were labeled "capitalist tails" that had to be severed. The consequences on urbanization were grave: farmers' markets disappeared, and the number of towns decreased sharply.

In 1978, the party reversed its tack and decided to modernize the economy by adopting the "agricultural production responsibility system." According to the policy, land was leased to peasants for 15 or more years. They were allowed to keep any surplus but had to make up the shortfall if they failed.

Slogans promoted by Deng Xiaoping, such as Getting Rich Is Glorious and Poverty Does Not Belong to Socialism, ignited everybody's dream. By this time, however, the overpopulation of the countryside had become an explosive issue. The government finally realized that the rural surplus population had nowhere to go but into cities. Unfortunately, China's urbanization had lagged so much that cities were not ready to absorb the impact. …

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