Chinese Migrant Workers in Transition, Part II

By Xie Liangbin
Published: 2008-08-04

Cities in the Pearl Delta region were among the first to open-up as China began to transition from a planned to market economy 30 years ago. In recent years, several municipal governments in the region have been promoting yet another transition -- away from low-end, labor-intensive industries toward high-end production and services.

To support that process, the region is looking for ways to reorganise its demographics in order to develop higher quality human resources.

This special focus looks at how the imminent transition would impact Chinese migrant workers, who formed a significant portion of the region's population. The EO uses case studies in cities like Dongguan and Guangzhou for part I of the focus series.

Part II of the series features an interview with population management researcher Gao Huayou, who talks about the new resident pass system that he helped design, and which was implemented in Dongguan on August 1.

Dongguan: New Resident Pass System
Original article: [Chinese]

Latest statistics revealed that of the 14 million people in Shenzhen, only two million have a permanent household registration. As such, Shenzhen is the Chinese city with the largest "floating" population, taking in 10% of the country's migrants.

The education level of migrant populations is generally low. In Shezhen, only 14.26% of its inhabitants have received higher education, much lower than that in Beijing or Shanghai. That coupled with low-end economic activities and low-cost consumption has hindered development of high-end production.

Since August 1, the Shenzhen local government has introduced a new policy in managing its population. It has terminated the use of a 25-year-old temporary resident permit for migrants, and replaced the paper with a residential pass instead.

The move aimed to narrowing the gap of social rights between native residents and the migrant population, ridding the mentality of "outsiders" and "temporary residents", and creating a sense of belonging among all its inhabitants.

Gao Huayou is a researcher with decades of experience at the population management office of Shenzhen Development and Reform Commission (DPR). He has participated in researching and drafting the newly-implemented Shenzhen Resident Pass. The EO has interviewed Gao recently for insights.

The EO: Why should Shenzhen implement the new resident pass system?

Gao Huayou: Since 1987, Shenzhen has experienced several rounds of significant exodus. At present, the floating population made up some 26% of the city's inhabitants. A city must have a stable and scaled population for sustainable growth, thus, it is necessary to increase the number of permanent registered residents here.

The EO: What are the hindrances in implementating the new system?

Gao: The idea first came about in 2005, but its implementation was postponed numerous times for various reasons. The major dispute concerned social equality, as its implementation would mean having to revamp the existing "dualism system" in population categorization (the natives and non-natives). That involved distributionsof public resources, and how that can be done fairly.

The EO: Has the local government calculated the cost of adding each new registered households for the city?

Gao: According to research from the National Development and Reform Commission, for transforming all "floating" residents into registered residents, Shenzhen needs to invest 200-billion yuan in 3 years. We have also done research back in 1995 and estimated that for each floating resident to become a permanent one, the Shenzhen municipal treasury needed to fork out 150,000 yuan. In 2007 the cost per person would have been around 350,000.

The EO: Compared with the previous temporary resident permit, how much more advanced is the current resident pass?

Gao: The new system is more humane, and the information contained in the resident pass is more reflective of today's needs. The pass is a tool to manage population and to provide services, without it, it would be difficult to live in Shenzhen. The pass also covers socio-economic information of a resident. For example, the micro-chip on the pass has a record of a resident's credit rating and criminal records.

The EO: In other words, the objective of the new pass is to control and manage the population?

Gao: Yes. In 2001, when the policy of detention and repatriation of migrants without temporary resident permits was abolished, the temporary population in Shenzhen balloned from seven million to 10 million people in two years. During that time, Shenzhen faced 176,000 businesses operating without proper documents, and 600,000 street vendors without permits. These created chaos in terms of city management.

The new resident pass is better than a temporary resident permit, as the former covers social and welfare rights previously not provided under the temporary resident system. A pass holder is now entitled to housing, healthcare, social security, education, and access to public services and amenities.

The EO: What is the ideal population size for Shenzhen? What is the maximum population carrying capacity?

Gao: There is no hard and fast rules or a standard in deciding a city's carrying capacity. Distribution of resources can be adjusted according to needs. We try to be objective and not subscribing to a rigid control of population-size.

The EO: Has Shenzhen ever calculated its capacity? It is said that the population target of Shenzhen by 2020 is to achieve a ratio of 1:1 between registered residents and floating population, with an overall population around 10 million people. Is that right?

Gao: It is hard to define the population carrying capacity. In my view, the level of living comfort can serve as a benchmark or indication of a city's carrying capacity. For instance, when the population structure, land per capita for housing, public facilities and services achieved a satisfactory balance. I personally believe the ideal size is about 8.5 million people for Shenzhen. Over 9 million would be a little crowded, and if reached 15 million, the city would be over-crowded.

However, I do not mean that it is impossible to live with such a big population, that depends on the level of economic development and availability of public facilities.

The EO: After the new system is in place, Shenzhen will launch the "four-old restoration" project, namely to revamp urban-villages, old commercial areas, old industrial zones, and old residential areas. These are the places where majority of the migrant workers live. Is the project a means to force out the unwanted population?

Gao: The restoration is just an effort in rearranging the city's structural space. It is meant to be a face-lift, to improve security and hygeine. After restoration, these areas will be upgraded, thus enhancing their usability, appearance, and public spaces. This is part of a process of market reorientation, and migrant workers should adapt to the changes. The principle of "survival of the fittest" applies here, we are not driving anyone out.

Translated by Liang Duo