China’s Undocumented Migrant Problem

Washington and Beijing have at least one issue in common.

Migrant workers in China

This week, the United States and China will resume a dialogue on human rights after a two-year hiatus. The talks come at an especially sensitive time in U.S.-China relations, with both nations eager to press the reset button. Discussion is expected to center on Chinese censorship and the imprisonment of political dissidents and civic activists. But the usually one-sided discussion could be shaped by both nations’ struggle with a less high-profile human rights issue: the treatment of undocumented migrants.

The United States could begin by conceding one of China’s principal arguments: Human rights are not just about individual liberty, but also economic opportunity. The Chinese “economic miracle,” which lifted 500 million people out of poverty in just one generation, is itself an unprecedented human rights achievement. Yet it gave rise to other pressing human rights concerns, including an issue that threatens to destabilize China’s Communist regime—growing discrimination against the roughly 200 million Chinese citizens who left their rural homes to find jobs in China’s booming cities.

In many ways, these rural migrants resemble undocumented immigrants in the United States. In China, they provide indispensible labor for vast urban construction projects and work in menial jobs as guards, waiters, cooks, or barbers. They are often mistreated by employers, generally live in poor conditions, and receive few social benefits and limited protection from the police. And their children are regularly denied public education.

Chinese newspapers, “Netizens,” and even Communist officials are calling for reforms. Their main target is China’s 50-year-old household registration, or hukou, system. Began as part of China’s state-run economy, the hukou system labels individuals as “rural” or “urban,” indicating their proper place of residence and binding laborers to the land. Today, rural residents are permitted to travel to the cities, but they can still be fined or forcibly returned home if they are caught working or living outside their designated hukou. Obtaining a temporary urban-residency permit from the police is beyond the means of most migrants, requiring a fee and employment documentation. Permanently changing one’s hukou by attending university or joining the military or the Communist Party is similarly out of reach.

Life for a city dweller with a rural hukou is difficult. Their hukou denies them urban welfare and access to public housing. It also excludes them from publicly funded health-insurance schemes. Since fewer than 3 percent can afford health insurance, most avoid medical care altogether. City judges often impose harsher sentences on rural migrants, and employers frequently withhold wages, knowing undocumented workers cannot complain to police without risking exposure.

Even more devastating, children inherit their parents’ rural status. By demanding “donation” fees and proper work papers, public schools deny education to more than 30 million migrant children, in violation of Chinese law. Many migrant families now rely on unauthorized, poor-quality private schools.

For hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, reform of the hukou system would mean higher-paying and safer jobs, housing, police protection, access to health care and welfare, and education for their children. And reform is now closer than ever. China’s leaders are taking an acute interest, fearing that growing inequality could trigger social unrest and threaten their hold on power. Chinese city-dwellers are three times wealthier than their rural counterparts—the most lopsided urban-rural inequality in the world.

Abolishing the hukou system altogether to allow unconstrained freedom of movement from rural to urban areas may seem the simplest way to reform, but many fear that migrants would flood China’s cities. Mass migration could bust municipal budgets—costing an estimated $242 billion over five years as new residents qualify for public housing, education, and welfare. Costs forced the city of Zhuhai to end its attempt at reform in April 2008.

Chinese scholars have proposed other options. Hukou reform could be done gradually, granting urban hukou to wealthier or skilled migrants at first, then expanding to reach poorer residents in much the same way that U.S. immigration laws favor educated and skilled green-card applicants. Shanghai recently took this approach, granting urban hukou to residents who had contributed to the city’s welfare system for seven years. To offset the costs of public housing, cities might alter property rules so migrants can develop collective housing. Small or medium-sized cities could undertake pilot reforms to try alternative approaches, much as they did in the 1990s.

The Chinese government is committed to reform, though it remains vague on specifics. In 2006, the Public Security Ministry proposed allowing migrants to transfer their hukou to urban areas, and this year the central committee issued a policy paper calling for fundamental hukou reform and greater integration of rural and urban populations. Large cities are becoming more receptive as well. In March, Beijing officials publicly pledged to educate the city’s 300,000 rural hukou children after parents petitioned the city government.

Even as China’s treatment of undocumented migrants receives scrutiny, the United States appears incapable of dealing with its own undocumented immigrants, undermining U.S. credibility on human rights and damaging the government’s image abroad. Most remarkably, as China explores ways to legalize the presence of migrants, expand access to police protection, and reduce discrimination, the state of Arizona, encouraged by resurgent American nativism, passed a law that appears to do the opposite.

As the United States and China consider immigration and migration reforms, respectively, this year’s human rights dialogue has the potential to break from history and become a truly collaborative exchange of ideas. Reform will not be easy on either side of the Pacific, but the similarity of each nation’s predicament represents an opportunity to reset these critical negotiations and perhaps the U.S.-China relationship.

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