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China’s migrants still living on the margins in big cities despite promise of reform

Qi Shumin has been living in the capital of his own country for more than 10 years but is still treated like an illegal immigrant in a foreign land, with little access to the city’s public services.

Categorised as a peasant in mainland China’s household registration system, Qi, who makes a living selling breakfasts in a northern suburb of Beijing, is one of 270 million migrant workers who have contributed to China’s economic prosperity but are shut out of the country’s economic boom.

His family lives in two-room, temporary shelter in a compound behind a beer factory in the suburbs that stretch out beyond the capital’s North Fifth Ring Road. They have to burn coal in winter to keep warm as there’s no municipal heating system, have to share public toilets with their neighbours and have to buy water to drink.

“The water from the well is polluted, and we just use the water to wash dishes and clothes,” said Qi’s sister-in-law, doing the laundry in an alleyway less than two metres wide between two rows of bungalows.

They pay 1,600 yuan a month in rent and have no washing machine or television set, partly because they’re trying to save money and partly because their shelter could be demolished at any given moment.

The compound is facing demolition in the next few years to make way for one of the stations on a new railway line that will connect Beijing and the Hebei city of Zhangjiakou, 160km to the northwest, when they jointly host the Winter Olympics in 2022.

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Qi’s breakfast offerings of hot pancakes, porridge, dumplings and eggs help fuel a bustling community of delivery boys, recyclers, plumbers and construction workers. But the Beijing authorities view those occupations as “low-end” and do not encourage such people to put down roots in the capital.

However, China’s economic future could well depend on allowing people like Qi to settle in cities. The central government has repeatedly pledged to allow them to become urban residents – but only in small towns and cities where empty buildings are many and jobs are few.

China’s big metropolises, like Beijing and Shanghai, are turning increasingly hostile to domestic migrants, adding to already burdensome paperwork requirements faced by those wishing to stay and denying their children access to local schools. But despite the daily hardships of life in the capital, exacerbated by the denial of equal rights and low likelihood of obtaining permanent residency, Qi and his family want to stay in Beijing and have no interest in returning to their backwater rural village or any of the small towns close to it.

The glaring mismatch between policy intentions and peoples’ actual desires is set to impose huge economic and social costs on the world’s second-biggest economy.

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The central government started to restrict flows of domestic migrants from the countryside to cities in the late 1950s through a rigid household registration system, known as hukou, that categorised people as rural or urban.

In the past three decades it has allowed hundreds of millions of people to move to cities and coastal areas to serve as labourers, construction workers and domestic helpers, but most city governments deny them access to social welfare services, reserving them for local residents, and often bulldoze slum areas where migrants congregate, forcing them out of city centres.

The central government announced in 2014 that it would abolish the hukou system, while maintaining restrictions on movement to bigger cities. Nottingham University Business School China assistant professor Michele Geraci told the China Economic Review at the time that the change would mean migrants could “only move where they don’t want to move”.

And in his recent book, China’s Future, Professor David Shambaugh, a political scientist at George Washington University, said the new system also fell short of giving amnesty to migrants already living illegally in cities.

Qi’s parents arrived in Beijing about six months ago to help look after the four-year-old son of Qi’s elder brother Qi Shutong.

“We plan to bring him back to Anhui for kindergarten,” the boy’s 65-year-old grandfather said. “Education fees here are unaffordable.”

Living in Beijing is not easy for Qi. He gets up at 2am and then accompanies his two brothers in the family’s second-hand van on the 2km drive from their rented homes to the restaurant where they work. They serve breakfasts from about 5am to 10am and then have to prepare for the next day. Qi’s parents care for his son and cook meals for the whole family.

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“We can earn 60,000 to 70,000 yuan each year. It is not much … life is not easy,” Qi said.

Discretionary spending is cut to minimum. Qi’s father, for instance, has never ridden on Beijing’s subway because buses are slightly cheaper. But the family would not be able to make 70,000 yuan a year if they returned to their village in He county, next to Maanshan in Anhui province, where the local steel industry has been in decline.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but just do what I am doing now,” Qi, 27, said. “There’s no chance for me to go back.”

Meanwhile, the authorities in the capital are rolling out a campaign to drive out domestic migrants. Wholesale markets that had existed for decades have been ordered to shut down, lively wet markets close to migrant communities are being replaced by government-backed small stores, and factories and workshops are being encouraged to move to neighbouring Hebei province.

But Professor Hu Xingdou, an economist at Beijing Institute of Technology, said it was hard to persuade people to go back to rural areas because the economic prospects there were grim.

Meanwhile, mainland China’s rigid land system – Qi can rent out his rural land but cannot sell it – made it harder for migrant workers to gather enough money together to be able to settle down in urban areas.

“China is not really a market economy, and the heavy intervention by the administrative powers stands behind the widening wealth gap and rural-urban gap,” Hu said.

Qi’s neighbours, a man surnamed Zhang and his wife, have lived in the compound for three years, doing odd jobs. They used to recycle scrap metal but gave that up when steel prices dropped.

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“I won’t go back to my hometown in Henan for a decade as I am waiting for any good chance to make money again here,” said Zhang, originally from the small city of Xinyang.

Across the road stands a modern residential community, Ruiqi Jiayuan, where the average price for an apartment has soared 50 per cent to more than 40,000 yuan a square metre in less than half a year.

The surge in Beijing property prices has stymied the plans of another migrant worker, Zhao Bingjie, from Yuanyang in Henan province, to buy an apartment in the capital. He arrived in Beijing 15 years ago after dropping out of school, and now works as salesman in a grocery store at the entrance of the compound.

“I don’t count on having hukou in Beijing,” he said. “All I hope is that I can buy an apartment in neighbouring Hebei province and my kid can receive an education there in the future instead of going back to Henan.”