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January 2006, Volume 13, Number 1

China: Migrants, Students, Taiwan

Rural-Urban Migrants. China plans to abolish legal distinctions between urban and rural residents in 11 of its 23 provinces, thus allowing peasants to register as urban residents and to have the same rights to housing, education, medical care and social security as city dwellers. Since the 1950s, a system of residence permits, known as hukou, ties every person to a locale; Chinese needed permission to travel internally.

Some 200 million rural Chinese have left the place where they were registered, including some with no intention of returning. Migrant access to urban services depends on local rules and jobs, and more services are being provided by employers rather than city governments. Experts predict that large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai will retain tighter controls over migrants to prevent the emergence of slums, but medium-sized cities whose employers want rural-urban migrant workers will make it easier for newcomers to register and receive services.

Internal migrants sent $30 billion to their rural homes in 2005, according to the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP). CGAP estimated that 95 million migrants each remitted $300 to $400 over the past year. About 75 percent of China's domestic remittances are sent through the China Post, commercial banks and rural credit cooperatives.

There are about 480 million rural workers in China, including 420 million with only primary school educations. In an effort to increase rural incomes, the Chinese government announced plans to end the centuries-old agricultural tax based on land in 2006, earlier than planned. The tax, about 10 percent of a typical farmer's income, had to be paid regardless of farm income, so that farmers who migrated to cities still owed the tax on unfarmed land. The central government received $7.5 billion from the agricultural tax in 2003, $2.9 billion in 2004, and $187 million in 2005, reflecting its abolition in many provinces.

Abolishing the tax will end the ability of local governments to impose additional levies, which were a source of conflict, and raise farmers' incomes.

Land Seizures. Some 40 million Chinese farmers have had their land seized, usually for economic development, contributing to the 74,000 public protests in 2004 across China. Local governments, which own land and lease it to farmers, say that they need to take land to allow investors to create jobs.

Farmers are to receive compensation, for instance, in Jiangsu Province, eight times the value of the crop produced in the past three years. However, compensation is based on what can be earned from farming, not the value of the land for nonfarm uses. With local officials often sharing this higher nonfarm value with developers, farmers feel cheated; in one case, farmers received up to $5,000 per mu, one sixth of an acre, but the local government received $35,000 per mu. One solution would be to privatize farm land, but the central government fears that many farmers would simply sell their land and move to cities in an uncontrolled flood of migrants.

Students. China is dramatically expanding higher education. It has increased the number of undergraduate students fivefold in a decade, so that 20 percent of college-age youth are in college. There has been a similar increase in the number of PhD holders, and China is aiming to lure many of the best and brightest Chinese scientists at foreign universities back to China.

About 40 percent of the faculty of Beijing University were trained abroad, and there is tension between their desires for academic freedom and the still heavy hand of the state. The goal of many students is to become government officials, which helps to limit student protest.

Economy. China raised estimates of the size of its economy in 2004 from $1.6 trillion to $2 trillion, making China the world's sixth-largest economy after the United States, Japan and Germany. China's 1.3 billion residents had an average per capita GNP of $1,100, adjusted for purchasing parity.

Taiwan. There are about 320,000 foreign workers in Taiwan from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, and they have become more aggressive about protesting violations of labor laws.

Migrant workers staged protests outside the offices of the Council of Labor Affairs in Fall 2005 to call attention to beatings of migrants who were being deported for leading a strike at a Formosa Plastics factory. Thai workers rioted at a dormitory at a Kaohsiung MRT construction site in August 2005, which was one reason why the ruling Democratic Progressive Party suffered losses in December 3, 2005 "three-in-one" local government elections.

The CLA surveyed 228 firms employing at least 100 foreign workers in Fall 2005, and found that about half were in violation of labor laws. It recommended that local governments play a more active role in policing migrant living quarters and that labor brokers be rated and subject to having their licenses revoked.

Ching-Ching Ni, "China to Abolish Contentious Agricultural Levy," Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2005. Howard W. French, "China Luring Scholars to Make Universities Great," New York Times, October 28, 2005.