For years now, China has faced the daunting challenge of managing its roughly 260 million “domestic immigrants,” or migrant workers. They flow itinerantly from countryside to cities, where they dwell as second-class citizens and temporary guests with no formal urban status because of a system, known as hukou, that prevents them from settling and easily accessing basic services such as health care, social security, primary education for their children, and decent housing.
At nearly 20 percent of the population, China's migrants, if they were to form their own country, would constitute the world’s fourth most populous nation. It is a demographic that has grown 30 times over the past 30 years, according to figures from an official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) journal, Seeking Truth, even as total population growth has increased by less than one percent over the same period. Relative to the overall population, the migrant demographic is younger, more mobile, and not particularly smitten with the status quo.
What’s more, a rising generation of “millennial migrants” aspires to the same lifestyle and opportunities afforded their urban contemporaries. As a result, their expectations are shifting rapidly, increasing the possibility that their accumulated discontents will turn into a volatile force that catalyzes social instability.
MAO’S URBAN BIAS
The irony of the migrant predicament is that it is the direct result of the CCP’s attempt to ensure stability back in the 1950s, when Chairman Mao Zedong implemented the hukou, or household registration system, to control the ballooning population. It broadly categorized the Chinese population into rural and urban and was strictly enforced to prevent rural farmers from flooding the cities. Under Mao’s statist economy, the rigid form of control was designed in part to keep abundant labor on the farms in order to produce enough food for one billion–plus mouths.
Still, the politics at the time—and which remain
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