Reposted from http://www.economist.com, Some are more equal than others
FOR many migrants who do not live in factory dormitories, life in the big city looks like the neighbourhood of Shangsha East Village: a maze of alleys framed by illegally constructed apartment buildings in the boom town of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. There are at least 200 buildings, many of them ten storeys tall. They are separated by only a metre or so, hence the name “handshake buildings”—residents of neighbouring blocks can reach out from their windows and high-five.
The buildings are China’s favelas: built illegally on collectively owned rural land. Rents are cheap. An eight-square-metre (86-square-foot) flat costs less than $100 a month. They symbolise both the success of the government’s urbanisation policy and also its chronic failures. China has managed a more orderly system of urbanisation than many developing nations. But it has done so on the cheap. Hundreds of millions of migrants flock to build China’s cities and manufacture the country’s exports. But the cities have done little to reward or welcome them, investing instead in public services and infrastructure for their native residents only. Rural migrants living in the handshake buildings are still second-class citizens, most of whom have no access to urban health care or to the city’s high schools. Their homes could be demolished at any time.
An unusually public debate has unfolded in think-tanks, on microblogs and in state media about how China should improve the way it handles urbanisation. Some propose that migrants in cities should, as quickly as possible, be given the same rights to services as urban dwellers. Others insist that would-be migrants should first be given the right to sell their rural plot of land to give them a deposit for their new urban life. Still others say the government must allow more private and foreign competition in state-controlled sectors of the economy such as health care, which would expand urban services for all, including migrants. Most agree the central government must bear much more of the cost of public services and give more power to local governments to levy taxes.
Any combination of these options would be likely to raise the income of migrants, help them to integrate into city life and narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor, which in China is among the widest in the world. Such reforms would also spur on a slowing economy by boosting domestic consumption.
The problems of migrants and of income inequality are deeply entrenched in two pillars of discriminatory social policy that have stood since the 1950s and must be dealt with before real change can come: the household registration system, or hukou, and the collective ownership of rural land.
The hukou perpetuates a rigid caste system. Children of holders of rural hukou inherit their parents’ second-class status, even if they are born in cities. Many urbanites want to keep this system in place, to protect their preferential access to jobs, education and health care.
City governments, meanwhile, cannot afford to extend public services to migrants. Zheng Zhijie, president of state-owned China Development Bank, estimated in May that cities would require 50 trillion yuan ($8.2 trillion) in investment by 2020 to accommodate 100m new migrants and provide increased benefits to those already there. Shanghai’s schools give a sense of the scale of the problem: the city had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, all holders of Shanghai hukou; more than three times that many children—570,000 migrant children aged 15 to 19—were living in the city in 2010 without Shanghai hukou, most of them unable to attend those schools.
The collective control of rural land by local officials also impedes social mobility, by allowing local governments and developers to dispossess farmers of the land they lease—and to pay them far below market value for it.
At the same time, housing prices in cities are increasingly out of reach for migrants. The central government has encouraged the construction of low-cost housing in cities with limited success, since only local hukou holders are eligible.
The discriminatory policies continue to take their toll on migrants. China has 163m migrant workers who have left their home township (another 99m people are classified as migrants even though they have only given up farming without moving away). A higher proportion of those were co-renting apartments with others in 2012 than four years earlier (19.7%, up from 16.7%), according to data released this week by the National Bureau of Statistics. And fewer migrants are becoming homeowners—0.6% in 2012, down from 0.9% in 2008.
Some scholars say a solution lies in the handshake buildings of Shenzhen. Tao Ran of Renmin University in Beijing says the government should legalise such buildings around the country—allowing rural dwellers near cities to develop them and rent out flats to migrants—and then levy taxes and fees to pay for expanding services. It sounds like a reasonable proposal that would increase the supply of affordable housing and help more migrants become proper urban residents.