PANYU COUNTY, CHINA — CONCERNED that the migration of millions of rural laborers is fueling social unrest, China's big cities are taking unprecedented steps to try to control a growing influx of job-seekers from the countryside.
China's "floating population" - rural migrants who travel from city to city working at construction sites, factories, and other short-term jobs - has expanded from a few million a decade ago to reach an estimated 70 million today.
The flood of migrants peaks each winter after the Chinese New Year, when millions of farmers with duffle bags and bedrolls, many of them newcomers, rush for Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities. City officials blame the migrants for overburdening transport systems, public utilities, and worsening urban crime.
"At the train station, there is no room to breathe," says Yang Zhanchu, a Guangdong Province labor official.
This Chinese New Year in February, Guangdong launched a propaganda campaign in five neighboring provinces warning that unauthorized migrants would be turned back. Police since 1988 have instituted a mandatory national identity card scheme in part to control the migrants.
Nevertheless, Chinese and Western experts predict that as long as a substantial income gap divides the countryside and city, migration to China's metropolises is likely to accelerate.
In Guangzhou's Panyu County, rural laborers and factory directors say they easily skirt official controls on migration.
"Most of our workers come directly to the factory to look for jobs. Later, many introduce their village friends and relatives to work here," says the Hong Kong director of a joint-venture clothing factory in Panyu.
Two factory workers, Ming Fen and Zhen Bing, left their mountain village in Sichuan Province in 1990 to try life in the city. They now work eight to 11 hours a day making clothes, saving more than $200 a year to send back to their families.