CHINA'S dramatic economic transformation is resulting in an internal migration of historic proportions. Tens of millions of rural Chinese are leaving their farms and flocking to China's gold coast and prosperous cities in search of economic opportunities.
This nationwide rural exodus is causing great nervousness among China's leaders, many of whom believe the phenomenon poses a threat to China's internal stability.
Urban overcrowding (and the potential social unrest that it could spawn), increasing crime, and proliferating slums are just a few of the conditions being generated by this population shift, the dimensions of which are staggering:
* Chinese officials estimate that this ``floating population'' numbers more than 105 million. Roughly 50 million rural migrants are already believed to be living in 23 of China's larger cities, according to the nation's State Statistical Bureau. With the number of rural unemployed currently surpassing 100 million - and growing perhaps 13 million a year - the trend of growing rural-to-urban migration is expected to worsen.
* Beijing and Guangzhou (Canton) - both the recipients of millions of migrants annually - have reported dramatic increases in their cities' crime rates. Disoriented rural migrants often fall prey to urban gangs who recruit them for prostitution, smuggling, and other criminal activities.
* Growing resentment against migrants is becoming evident in some of the more affected cities and provinces. Migrants arriving in Shanghai's train station are greeted with announcements urging them to return home. Guangdong officials have passed strict laws against hiring migrant labor from outside the province. Authorities in the Zhuhai special economic zone, next to Macao, have erected a 24-mile fence solely to exclude outside migrants.
The growing phenomenon of internal migration in China reflects the highly uneven nature of the country's economic boom. While urban and coastal areas in China have prospered, most of the inland provinces - home to about 900 million inhabitants - remain poor.
Wage disparities between urban and rural workers best illustrate this glaring economic gap. Urban workers in China earn an average 2-1/2 times more than their rural counterparts. China's inflation rate, currently estimated at 16.4 percent, has hit the rural sector particularly hard, exacerbating wage disparities and hiking the cost of living.
Moreover, China's rural inhabitants are rapidly discovering that life on the farm leaves much to be desired. High taxes (often imposed by greedy local leaders), exorbitant fees for fertilizer, and nearly nonexistent profits are rendering the life of an average Chinese peasant nearly intolerable.
Environmental factors have also taken their toll on China's farmers. Increasing desertification, water shortages, and widespread water and land pollution are regular features of rural life. A recent Chinese government report found that 82 million rural Chinese are currently facing water shortages.
Chinese officials have estimated that only 200 million rural workers can realistically be employed by the agricultural sector (compared with the current work force of 450 million). More disturbing are official government predictions that by the year 2000, more than 300 million rural workers will be considered ``surplus'' for employment purposes.
That millions of rural migrants are entering the cities and coastal provinces in search of their share of China's economic miracle is, therefore, hardly surprising. What is of concern is Beijing's apparent inability to stem the influx.
Traditionally, Beijing could rely on a strict urban registration system - a hallmark of Communist rule since 1949. Regulation of movement from rural areas to the cities was strictly controlled. However, with the introduction of economic reforms in the late 1970s, and consequently the weakening of central government authority, barriers to urbanization in China are rapidly subsiding.
To make matters worse, this rural-to-urban migration is occurring at a time when China's urban sector is experiencing rising unemployment of its own, although to a much lesser degree.
The government recently announced that the urban jobless rate is 2.3 percent, or 4 million. This probably understated figure will rise if the central government allows bloated state-run firms to lapse into bankruptcy.
If the increasing numbers of rural migrants are unable to find employment in the cities, they could become a huge source of social discontent.
To all of these figures must be added the burden of China's continued population growth. The People's Daily, still considered the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, recently warned against complacency in the country's efforts at stemming population growth. Increasing at an annual rate of 16 million per year, China's population is expected to grow to 1.3 billion by the end of the century, and 1.6 billion by the middle of the next century.
Can China cope with the consequences of this massive population shift into its cities and coastal areas? Will China be able to maintain food security even though millions are leaving their farms? Can the cities sustain such increases in population without sliding into the urban decay often seen in developing countries? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then China's long-term stability is far from assured.
Beijing's careful handling of population and migration issues will be among its most challenging tasks in the years to come. Their successful management is not only vital for China, but also for China's neighbors. East Asia's regional stability will be imperiled if social chaos in China results in the unleashing of tens of millions of refugees onto the region. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.