Recently I travelled to China for the first time. My first glimpse of Beijing took in the Escher-like headquarters of Chinese TV station CCTV. It is an extraordinary building and to get a proper sense of it, you have to see it from a number of different angles.
Driving across the city, impressed by the scale of the place, I asked one of my hosts about the population of Beijing. He told me there were about 40 million, including non-residents. Almost double the entire population of Australia. Maybe it’s an exaggeration, but more than the figure itself it was the reference to “non-residents” that piqued my interest. Where there really so many people moving to China as to have a significant impact on the population of the capital?
Later, I learned that these non-residents were in fact people from other provinces. Under China’s Hukou system, restrictions are imposed on people’s ability to move from one part of the country to another. Many people from rural areas are drawn to cities to find work, but without residency rights for the city in which they work they cannot access public education or health care. So, Beijing is full of married men who have left their families at home in the provinces. Living in tiny apartments, they work all year and then travel back to their families for Chinese New Year, taking their earnings with them.
Being used to freedom of movement in Australia, it’s hard not to see this as a harsh system. But, reflecting on the numbers, China is a country of 1.3 billion people; if there are already 30 to 40 million people in Beijing, how would the city cope with a sudden influx of millions more? Only a few days ago, the central committee of China’s communist party released new targets to increase urbanisation from 53.7% of the population to 60% by 2020. This plan involves granting urban hukou status to an additional 100 million rural migrant workers. Even so, another 200 million migrants will remain non-residents. It is sobering to consider the potential consequences of granting full freedom of migration to the entire population rather than managing the process in this highly controlled fashion.
I’m not about to renounce my belief in democracy (however challenged it may be in many Western countries today), but, much like the CCTV building, it seems that to better understand China, you have to see it from a number of different angles.
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