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October 2011, Volume 18, Number 4

China: Migrants; Hong Kong: Maids

China's household registration or hukou system generally requires residents to obtain public services in the city or village in which they are registered. In August 2011, just before schools were to reopen, Beijing authorities announced that 24 unlicensed private schools enrolling over 30,000 migrant children would have to close.

A third of Beijing's 19 million residents are migrants, and there are at least 437,000 school-aged migrant children. A quarter of these migrant children are enrolled in several hundred private and mostly unlicensed schools that Beijing authorities say are unsafe.

Beijing authorities said they would find places for all migrant children in regular public schools, although some commentators thought the school closures were aimed at persuading parents to send their children back to the towns and villages where they were registered. Some parents said that, if they could not find schools for their children, they would send them to their home villages.

Shanghai has closed most of the private schools serving migrant children and shifted some of those displaced to regular public schools by providing each migrant child with an 1,900 yuan a year subsidy. Most public schools charge migrant children 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a year.

The urban share of the Chinese population rose from 19 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 2010, when urban per capita incomes were three times rural incomes. However, only about 35 percent of urban Chinese have an urban hukou. The 171 million migrants in urban areas have significantly lower incomes, $3,600 a year, than urban residents with urban hukous, $5,700 a year.

Most economists favor ending the hukou system, which they say limits freedom of movement and keeps too many Chinese workers in agriculture. However, others counter that the hukou assures urban areas a ready supply of pliable low-wage workers and limits the costs of local government services. If rural-urban migrants had full rights in urban areas, more schools, hospitals, and housing would have to be built.

Demographers worry that Chinese government efforts to limit population growth and regulate mobility may backfire. The one-child policy, which is most strictly enforced in urban areas, and a preference for boys has led to a gender imbalance, with 118 males for every 100 females in China in 2010. Some provinces and cities are asking the central government to allow them to experiment with relaxing the one-child policy, but high housing prices may nonetheless discourage more children. A typical 1,000-square-foot apartment in Beijing costs about $311,000, 40 times the annual salary of the average resident.

Chinese economic policies encourage households to save even though the interest rate on savings is less than the rate of inflation. China's state capitalism accumulates household savings in state-owned banks that lend at low cost to government-backed corporations and private investors such as real estate developers with connections to the Communist Party. High household savings contribute to investment and hold consumption to 35 percent of GDP, half the US level.

Hong Kong. Hong Kong's High Court in September 2011 ruled that foreign domestic workers may apply for permanent residence status after seven continuous years of residence. Most foreigners can apply for permanent residence after seven years of being "ordinarily resident" in Hong Kong, as spelled out in the 1997 Basic Law, but the Immigration Department had excluded foreign domestic workers. Local unions also opposed allowing domestic workers to obtain permanent residence, believing that more permanent residents would crowd schools and public services.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos lived in Hong Kong since 1986, and sued after being denied permanent residence rights in August 2011. Local migrant advocates estimate that up to half of the 292,000 foreign domestic workers could be eligible for permanent residence if they could apply after seven years residence. Foreign domestic helpers have more rights in Hong Kong than in many other countries, including a day off a week, protection under a minimum wage (at least HK$3,740 or $480), and insurance for work-related injuries.

In 1999, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that children with at least one permanent resident parent were eligible for permanent residence in Hong Kong. Hong Kong leaders, fearful of more mainland Chinese women coming to Hong Kong to give birth if the fathers were Hong Kong permanent residents, asked the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing to reinterpret the pertinent sections of the Basic Law; the Standing Committee overturned the Hong Kong court decision.

Hong Kong leaders could appeal the High Court's decision granting foreign domestic workers permanent residence rights to the Standing Committee in Beijing.

Taiwan. Taiwan had 403,500 migrant workers in June 2011, including 166,700 Indonesians, 87,000 Vietnamese, 79,000 Filipinos, and 70,000 Thais.