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China cities scramble to manage mass migration { April 28 2006 }

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China cities scramble to manage mass migration
By Lindsay Beck | April 28, 2006

BEIJING (Reuters) - For Li Xieting, choosing between her hometown in the central Chinese province of Henan and life in the capital Beijing is easy.

"I like Beijing better. In my hometown it's all old people. Everyone else has come to the cities," the 12-year-old said.

The 1,050 children at her school for migrants' children in Beijing are among the 400 million the government predicts will move from the countryside to China's cities in the next 20 years, in one of the fastest migrations in history.

How China, already scrambling to manage a yawning gap between rich and poor and cope with an aging population, handles the transition will test the government's ability to create liveable mega-cities and prevent the explosion of an urban underclass that could threaten social stability.

Beijing already has 15 million residents and state media has quoted authorities as saying they want to limit its population to 18 million by 2020.

The southern city of Shenzhen was little more than a fishing village two decades ago when former leader Deng Xiaoping decided it should be a leader in China's experiments with market reforms. Now it is home to 10 million. The Western municipality of Chongqing has 30 million, roughly the population of Canada.

"Having 50 to 70 million people in Shanghai is not beyond the realm of belief," said Robert Watson of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, who advises several Chinese cities on green building.

"Rather than saying, we're only going to have infrastructure for 30 million, that's not going to stop people from coming. So you might as well put the infrastructure in to support a lot of people," he said.


China is only belatedly waking up to the reality of millions of people -- often rural poor unable to make a living from farming -- swarming into the cities.

It's one side of a multi-faceted problem: China is worried that stark gaps in income, health care and schooling between rich urban dwellers and the three-quarters of its 1.3 billion people who live in the countryside could lead to further resentment and protests that may challenge the Communists' decades-old monopoly on power.

A system put in place under Mao Zedong tied every citizen to their place of origin, giving each a residence permit that prevented them from settling freely elsewhere.

Long after China undertook market reforms and began to rely on rural migrants trickling into the cities for cheap labor on construction sites and in menial jobs like garbage picking, they remain an underclass.

Because their rural residence permits mean many are in cities illegally, the government has long ignored them, leaving them without access to services like education and housing.

The system also meant most migrants were men who left their families behind and who intended to one day return home.

But as the residence permit system slowly reforms, more and more are bringing their families and are coming to stay.

"If the parents are both in the city and they don't have relatives, what else are they going to do?" asked Huang He, Li Xieting's principal at the Xingzhi School for migrants' children.

A map on a classroom wall is colored in to show the provinces the students' families come from. Most are from the heavily populated, interior provinces of Henan and Sichuan.

There are some 300,000 migrant children in Beijing alone, Huang says, most living in suburbs a world away from the skyscrapers and shopping malls of the city center.


Li Xieting lives with her parents, sister and brother in a one-room, cement-floor house beyond an empty lot filled with mountains of cement and bricks bound for construction sites, in a neighborhood made up entirely of newcomers to the city.

Her family has been in Beijing for three years and her mother, Li Kezhi, says they will stay.

"This is a good place. In our home we didn't have one cent of income," said Li, who takes care of the house and children while her husband scrapes a living picking trash.

But although the family feel they are relatively better off in the city, analysts warn that the scores of poor migrants are already contributing to a disaffected underclass marginalized by their better-off city brethren.

Despite its massive population, China avoided the kinds of urban slums infamous in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Kolkata in part because of the residence permits, but parts of Daxing, where Li Xieting lives, are now but a step away.

"It's something already underway," said Dorothy Solinger, a political scientist at University of California at Irvine who has studied China's migrant population.

"It's going to be hard to put into place the kind of policies that will be needed to turn that trend around."

A comprehensive social welfare system with access to health care and education were key, she said.

The strain on resources and the choking traffic are also causing concerns in cities not built to cope with such numbers.

But despite the hardships, Li Kezhi says her family has no regrets about their decision to move to the city.

"We'll stay as long as the policies allow," she said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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