View from the Wall

Behind China's Urbanization


The Chinese government's release of its latest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figure of $1,000 per person at the end of 2003 signifies that China is on the verge of becoming a world economic power. It also signifies that full-fledged urbanization has taken off. The traditional Chinese society, rooted in agriculture, is gradually diminishing and yielding to rapid industrialization.

To understand what is going on, one need only look at the new skyscrapers and traffic jams. The speed of urbanization is nothing less than amazing. A million acres of farm land disappears each year. A hundred million rural farmers have already flocked to the cities to seek better jobs. New factories and office buildings, new residential developments and road expansion are constantly stretching city limits. A new city map of Beijing becomes outdated about a month after its publication. Many who hold the latest city map are perplexed and overwhelmed by the constant rapid changes.

All this can be viewed as a China that is advancing rapidly, or it can be seen as the disappearance of the old and traditional China. To those who for generations have lived in rural China, cities are no longer distant as they once were. Now, anyone has an opportunity to seek new dreams in the cities. However, behind the veil of impressive urban development, there are countless stories woven together by blood and sweat.

Migrant Workers: China's Second Class Citizens?

On March 17th, 2003, Sun Zhigang arrived in Guangzhou from Jiangxi province to look for a new job. One day after dinner, while he was walking the streets of Guangzhou, he was detained by a government official for not having an identification card with him. Three days later he was found beaten to death. It seems the only reason for this was that he was a migrant worker without an identification card. Sun Zhigang was innocent. His death shocked society. As news spread, many ordinary Chinese citizens expressed their outrage. The government was forced to punish the perpetrator and changed some laws regarding migrant workers. His parents received government compensation for his wrongful death. Because it forced the government to change some laws, his death was not completely wasted. Nevertheless, jus tice might not have been served if not for Sun being a college graduate and for netizens expressing their outrage in internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. There were many migrant workers before Sun who experienced utter abuse or even death in the cities without any headlines.

Millions of migrant workers accept low paying jobs that most urban people do not want. These jobs tend to be very hard with long hours. Workers do not have holidays or benefits and are not even guaranteed to receive their wages. Not getting paid on time is becoming a normal phenomenon for many migrant workers. Some have not received wages for years. Nationwide, wages owed to migrant workers has reached 100 billion RMB. Some workers resort to suicide in order to express their deep despair and dissatisfaction. In November, 2003, the city of Beijing had no choice but to provide 1.2 billion RMB emergency funds to temporarily alleviate the crisis. Furthermore, children of migrant workers are not eligible to enroll in the public schools. The government does not recognize schools started by migrant workers for their own children.

Nevertheless, migrant workers play a critical role in supplying cheap labor for a city to function from garbage collection, selling vegetables and milk delivery to construction. They give their lives to ensure that the modernization of the cities continues, but often their rights and very existence are not even acknowledged. They are a group that is forgotten or ignored by society. They are China's second class citizens. Urbanization and modernization have brought them nothing more than hard ship and trials. When you are astounded by the rapid pace of urban modernization, do not forget the millions of migrant workers who make all these things possible with their hard labor.

Urbanites: Pain in Their Hearts

During China's October National Day, several events occurred in Tiananmen Square. Some people jumped into the river in front of the Square; others wanted to burn themselves. Still others wanted to blow themselves up. The police were able to stop and arrest these individuals before their acts were carried out. However, these at tempts demonstrate the cry that comes from the heart of many. Some are local Beijing residents; others come from outside the city. Why do they seek death? It is because they hope that their death will serve as a wakeup call for society to pay attention to their plight. They have lost hope that justice will be done for them.

For some of these people, their life long residences were torn down against their wishes. Shanghai lawyer, Zheng Enlong, was arrested by the authorities. He represented many citizens of Shanghai who were forced to relocate as the city bowed to the pressure of wealthy developers. In Xian, Fuzhou, Cheng du, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Baotou and Beijing, real estate developers and corrupt government officials have forced residents to accept very low payment for their properties. Then they turn around and build high rises for instant lucrative profits. Things like this occur throughout China on a daily basis. Historic buildings and cultural relics will soon become ashes and their sites will house modern high rises. Many of the developer's victims have no choice but to relocate to remote areas since they simply cannot afford the cost of the newer housing in the cities.

Numerous corrupt officials strike it rich as they grant favors to developers. Ordinary citizens have no way to fight this battle. Local courts refuse to accept lawsuits against government officials and developers after all, it is the government who gives the orders to tear down the old buildings. The companies that do this work are government appointed. Compensation is determined by the government. Can any one win a lawsuit against such a government?

Rampant destruction of old housing and its unfairness has become a major source of social unrest. The central government was forced to ask local officials to stop "unreasonable" tear downs. The government is now required to clearly and openly state how compensations work so that all citizens know what they are entitled to. CCTV, a government run station, even broad cast a few corruption cases. Nevertheless, all these efforts cannot erase the hurt and the pain in the hearts of many ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down.

Homeowners' Councils: The Birth of New Communities

An unexpected product of rapid urbanization is homeowners' councils. Homeowners' councils have broken the age-old control of the Party at the most basic level of government—the communities. These new communities are self-governing, unlike the past where the Party had virtual control over everything. Of course, the Communist government does not like to see this new development. However, it cannot stop the birth or legalization of these self-governing communities that actually are allowed to exercise their legal rights, a first since the 1949 revolution.

This latest development is a big shock to the Communist government. Traditionally, the Party has set up a neighborhood council, the lowest level of government. These neighborhood councils would watch over every citizen. However, privately owned proper ties broke the limits of the neighborhood council. Now, properties can be bought by whoever can afford them. New property owners, wanting to protect their investments, have formed homeowners' councils. The government initially refused to recognize these as official entities. However, the force of the market has pushed the government to recognize their legality, albeit reluctantly. For the first time, people in a community can discuss issues, make decisions, elect a representative and exercise their rights without the interference of a Party neighborhood representative. The meaning and significance of homeowners' councils are far reaching and may not be fully recognized until much later. If rural villages are also able to democratically elect their own community leaders, how much power does the Party have left at the most basic level of Chinese society? Perhaps the government can no longer worry about things such as this as they try to focus on economic development and making money. But, who knows? Once ordinary Chinese citizens have learned to exercise their basic rights at the most fundamental level, might they not want the same ability to protect their rights at a higher level?

Image credit: neville mars via Flicker.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio