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November 2002, Volume 9, Number 11

China: Migrants, Economy

The State Statistics Bureau reported that there are 120 million internal migrants in China in 2002; 58 percent were within the province where they are registered, and 42 percent were in a different province. About 75 percent of migrants move from rural to urban areas, and about 60 percent come from six provinces: Sichuan (16 percent); Anhui (10 percent); Hunan (10 percent); Jiangxi (nine percent); and Henan and Hubei (seven percent each). The major destinations include Guangdong (35 percent); Zhejiang (nine percent); Shanghai (seven percent); Jiangsu and Beijing (six percent each); and Fujian (five percent).

The Tangxia Migrant Workers' Association was established by local authorities to help migrants in disputes with local employers in exchange for a $3 membership fee; about 250 miles of south of Shanghai, Tangxia is a city of 210,000 with at least 25 percent migrants. However, the association was disbanded after three months because officials feared it was a banned independent labor union.

Only unions affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions are allowed. Workers call them "boss unions" because the Federation normally negotiates directly with factory owners to have dues deducted from workers' pay, and provides few services to worker members. An alternative not under government control are "hometown societies," informal organizations based on kinship and regional ties.

Economy. China is becoming the factory for the world because of its very low wages; economic growth has averaged over seven percent a year for the past 20 years. Most of the economic growth is concentrated in Shanghai, Beijing and southern China's Pearl River delta, where Dongguan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou (formerly Canton) have been transformed into a giant industrial zone, linked to Hong Kong, the region's major port, by modern expressways.

Many US factory owners are shifting production to China. For example, many US furniture factories, concentrated in the southeast, are closing, and those that remain are changing their strategies, shifting from long runs of the same product to niche markets: small production runs, original designs, and fast delivery.

Nicholas Lardy, of the Brookings Institution says that "The pace of China's industrial development and trade expansion is unparalleled in modern economic history...[leading to] unprecedented improvements in Chinese incomes and living standards." However, poverty is widespread--two-thirds of the Chinese live on less than $1 a day. The average factory wage is about 40 cents an hour, a sixth of the $2.40 an hour in Mexico. In some products, China has achieved dominance. China supplied 85 percent of the 17 million bicycles sold in the US in 2001.

China joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, and was the sixth-largest trading nation in 2001, with imports and exports totaling $510 billion, and an $83 billion trade surplus with the US. Many industrial countries saw fast-growing China as the world's largest market. However, China may remain more protectionist than trade optimists hoped, using safety and other issues to restrict trade. For example, China has reversed its policies on genetically modified organisms, switching from embracing them to imposing restrictions on domestic varieties of genetically modified crops like rice, soybeans, vegetables and tobacco.

North Koreans-China. The Los Angeles Times on October 27, 2002 profiled the South Korean missionary who helps North Koreans who slip into northeast China to get out, and eventually move to South Korea. Missionaries are active in the underground system of shelters that moves North Koreans out of China and into third countries, from which they can leave for South Korea, raising the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea to 583 in 2001 and 838 in the first nine months of 2002. The South Korean government provides each defector a relocation bonus of about $28,000, plus housing, and job training.

The North Koreans are very heterogeneous, and they are taken in groups of six or seven out of China, which considers them to be economic migrants and returns them to North Korea if caught. Interviews with migrants suggest that economic motivations loom large for many.

Hong Kong. On October 16, authorities arrested and repatriated eight mainland Chinese who went into hiding after losing appeals to remain in Hong Kong. So far, more than 2,460 abode seekers have been repatriated to the mainland and an estimated 1,000 more are in hiding.

Valerie Reitman, "Leading His Flock of Refugees to Asylum," Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2002. Evelyn Iritani and Marla Dickerson, "People's Republic of Products," Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2002. "Hong Kong authorities repatriate eight abode seekers," Agence France Presse, October 16, 2002. Philip P. Pan, "An Experiment Begins," Washington Post, October 15, 2002.