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October 2012, Volume 19, Number 4

China: Migrants

The number of rural-urban migrants appears to be stabilizing at 250 million. The National Bureau of Statistics reported 242 million migrants in 2010 and 253 million in 2011, but noted that shrinking cohorts of youth promise less rural-urban migration in the future. About 60 percent of Chinese are expected to live in cities by 2020.

Professor Xin Meng of Australian National University estimated that the number of internal Chinese migrants who work in the place to which they move rose from 25 million in 1990 to 158 million in 2011. Meng estimated that, despite the economic slowdown, the wages of the mostly migrants employed in export-oriented factories and urban construction projects rose by 15 percent in the year to June 2012. Surveys suggest that the average wage of rural-urban migrants in urban areas was 41,800 yuan ($6,670) in 2011.

Meng estimates that rural-urban migrants spend an average of seven years away from their homes, leaving for urban areas at age 18 and returning at 25 to marry. Meng estimates that 100 million of the 380 million rural Chinese between 16 and 40 have moved to cities.

China's one-child policy, introduced in 1980, has come under attack for violating individual rights and leading to fewer new labor force entrants. There were 121 million Chinese aged 15 to 19 in 2005, 105 million in 2010, and a projected 95 million in 2015. Many researchers argue that coercive late-term abortions harm China's image and add to the problem of supporting the elderly with ever-smaller cohorts of youth.

One estimate projects that the number of Chinese over 60 will rise from 171 million in 2012 to 411 million in 2040, while the number of those 20 to 60 will fall from 817 million to 700 million. Chinese officials credit the one-child policy with preventing over 400 million births.

About six million Chinese earned Bachelor's degrees in 2012, and many are having trouble finding jobs. Many wind up working for less than the best-paid factory workers, $350 a month for college graduates compared to $200 to $400 a month for factory workers. Experts point to two problems. First, many Chinese graduates lack the foreign language and critical thinking skills needed to obtain higher-wage work in service jobs, and second, the Chinese economy has far more factory and construction than service jobs.

The Chinese Communist Party is the world's largest political party, with over 80 million members. During its 18th National Congress scheduled for November 2012 the CCP is expected to select a new Central Committee, Politburo, Standing Committee of Politburo and supreme leader. Most top officials serve two five-year terms. Current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were elected in 2002, and they made reducing inequality amidst rapid economic growth their top priority.

However, most analysts conclude that a so-called "red aristocracy" of several hundred families and their friends control an increasing share of China's wealth. Land and low-cost credit are controlled by the government, and many families associated with government leaders get rich via their links to state-owned enterprises in banking, energy, transport and communications. Those who acquire wealth often transfer it out of China for safekeeping.

Economy. Chinese manufacturing is distinguished by large assembly plants that employ hundreds of thousands of workers, often rural-urban migrants. Taiwan-based Foxconn, which assembles electronics for many manufacturers, is China's largest private employer, employing over a million workers to assemble Apple and other electronics products. Many factory workers are rural-urban migrants who live in large dorm complexes next to the factories.

After a spate of suicides in 2010, Foxconn raised wages, capped overtime and added 24-hour counseling hotlines and recreational facilities. However, a riot between workers and guards at a Foxconn factory in the central northern city of Taiyuan in September 2012 rekindled concern about the treatment of rural-urban migrants in the large factories that churn out Apple and other electronic products for the world.

Industrial robots may slow rural-urban migration. The falling cost and growing sophistication of robots has some economists asserting that China and other countries with armies of factory workers are in a race against the machine, with millions of workers in China and around the globe likely to be displaced by robots in factories and warehouses. One key to the wider use of robots in factories and distribution centers is the falling cost of vision and touch technologies that make robots capable of ever more sophisticated tasks.

Guangdong, the Pearl River Delta province west of Hong Kong, is losing lower-wage toy, shoe and garment factories to inland Chinese provinces and countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Guangdong factories have raised wages to 2,100 yuan ($330) a month, and advertise that they will cover the cost of housing and food for rural-urban migrants. Some migrants say that Guangdong factories should pay 3,000 yuan a month, since jobs in interior provinces pay 1,500 to 1,800 yuan.

Economic growth in China and other Asian economies is slowing as consumers in Europe and the US buy fewer of the goods exported from Asia. Many experts urge China and other export-dependent Asian economies to reduce their reliance on exports and manufacturing for growth, and shift the focus more towards fostering domestic demand, improving productivity and encouraging the services sector.

Taiwan. There are a record 440,000 foreign workers in Taiwan, and the government in September 2012 announced plans to allow the number to rise to attract more foreign investment.

Taiwan is a desirable place for migrant workers because of relatively high wages, but high recruitment fees are often deducted from worker wages, prompting some to "run away" from the employer to whom they have been assigned; there were 37,000 runaways in May 2012. The Council of Labor Affairs announced in July 2012 that it would not renew the licenses of recruiters with "too many" runaways.

Migrants from Indonesia and the Philippines protested in September 2012 against a new policy at the Taipei Main Train Station that aims to prevent migrants from gathering there. The migrants complained that the new policy represented discrimination; station administrators countered that they were aiming to protect the rights of passengers to move through the lobby area.