Migration of Millions Puts Squeeze on China's Cities

A PILE of rubble stands where Yin Jun's garment workshop used to be. Mr. Yin lives in a southside Beijing ghetto known as Zhejiang Village. At one time, it was home to more than 100,000 migrant workers from Zhejiang Province in southeastern China.

Now the population of Zhejiang Village is shrinking. The Beijing municipal government is trying to demolish it along with more than 20 other migrant enclaves in China's capital, all part of an effort to discourage a flood of rural migrants from swamping China's already crowded cities.

"That was my livelihood," says Yin, looking at what was once his tailor shop, which his landlord recently tore down. He had borrowed more than $10,000 from relatives and friends back home in Zhejiang to open the little business.

China is trying to contain one of the world's largest human migrations. As the economy has boomed in recent years under economic reforms, about 100 million people have flocked to cities in search of jobs and a better life.

Under China's household registration system, every Chinese citizen must live in a certain city or village. Until economic reforms gained momentum in the 1980s, citizens were not allowed to relocate or even travel without official approval.

Fifteen years ago, 80 percent of the population were farm workers. Mostly illegal immigration to cities has reduced that to 65 percent today. About 130 million more workers still live in China's farm belt than can be employed there, a number that is expected to increase to 200 million by the turn of the century, according to Chinese demographers.

In Beijing, an estimated 3.2 million migrants now make up about one-fourth of the city's population. They cluster in ghettos with others from their province and usually specialize in certain jobs: garments and shoemaking among those from Zhejiang, housekeeping and child care by those from Anhui, and kebab stalls and other restaurants by those from Xinjiang.

But officials worry about this human influx, known as mang liu, or "blind flow." Beijing residents often resent the migrants as dirty and unpredictable and blame them for rising crime rates.

Chinese officials worry that the migration is undermining social stability in the cities, where people already are uneasy over rising prices and joblessness. Because they move around, many rural people are able to flout China's strict one-child-per-family policy. But they also are often unable to enroll their children in school. In Beijing, only one-sixth of the migrants have official employment papers, and only one-third hold residency permits. City services, such as the subway, are stretched to their limits.

"With China's transition from a rigidly planned system to a market economy, the floating population turns into a pressing issue," said Luo Gan, a central government official, at a recent high-level meeting on migration.

"The social disorder stemming from rural-urban migration can be seen as an inevitable result of the sweeping social reform. Many developed countries had similar experiences when they were developing," says a recent commentary in the official English language China Daily.

"The problem with this migration, then, should not be how to stop it but instead how to properly handle the influx of rural laborers and how to diversify their outlets," the article concludes.

Chinese cities already have taken a number of steps to keep migration in check. Beijing authorities repeatedly have pledged to tighten enforcement of residency and job permits. Earlier this year, the city government began charging an $11,600 registration fee for new residents.

Still, small squatter enclaves like Zhejiang Village continue to crop up and thrive under the new economic freedoms. What were farmlands and slaughterhouses on the Beijing outskirts just a few years ago are now a bustling community of small workshops, businesses, and restaurants. Although ramshackle and rundown, the houses where people often live in dormitory-like conditions are also thriving workplaces that contribute to Beijing's prosperity, the residents say. The village has its own sewer system, health clinics, and child-care centers.

Provincial officials from Zhejiang, where money sent home from Beijing accounts for a significant part of incomes, have joined with the local residents in a plea not to remove the community. "We have helped develop this area and made it prosperous," says one Zhejiang laborer who works on construction projects. "Why do they want to throw us out?"

People in Zhejiang Village say Beijing officials are concerned that such enclaves will challenge their authority. In the past, city police have had minor confrontations with the area's unofficial militia, made up of Zhejiang residents.

Still, Beijing city officials don't want to openly confront the residents and bulldoze the area. Instead, they are taking a cautious approach by asking landlords to take down illegal additions to houses and to make sure all renters have residency permits.

But that doesn't ensure that migrants will leave the city and go home. "My friend has told me of a vacant room," says Yin, the displaced tailor. "I'll move over there and reopen."

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