The Status of "Socially Vulnerable Groups" in China

Introductory note: We have received this article from a Chinese sympathizer who gives a very good insight to the real situation facing millions of workers in China. In spite of all the gloss about the economic development of China in the past few years thanks to the introductions of "market economy" methods, there is another side to the situation. The closure of state-run industries is creating millions of unemployed and to these further millions are added from the rural areas drifting to the cities in desperate search of work. Although we may not agree with some of the conclusions such as the explanation that the emergence of socially vulnerable groups in the urban areas is a "temporary phenomenon in the socioeconomic transition" we believe the article is useful in understanding what is happening in Chinese society today. The paragraphs in italics are taken from the Chinese press.

The term "socially vulnerable groups" has frequently appeared in the Chinese mass media since the ex-premier Zhu Rongji addressed the problem in his government report two years ago.

According to the official definition given by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, socially vulnerable groups refer to the low-income and "incompetent" population whose future development is restricted by various social conditions. This population is divided into three categories: 1) Workers laid off from state-run enterprises. They used to work in state-run factories and companies. Because of the bankruptcy or internal reform of the enterprises, they became unemployed. Some of them get monthly pensions from local government. The others do not have secure income. 2) Those who never worked for state-run enterprises. They make a living by working here and there or setting up small businesses. 3) Migrant workers from the countryside to the urban areas.

The first two categories are urban residents who fall into poverty. According to the minimum income guarantee system, the poverty-stricken population can get subsidies from the local government. The levels of the subsidies vary from region to region across the country. In Shanghai, the most prosperous city in China, the standard of the monthly subsidies was 290 yuan (around US$36) per person in 2003, while the average monthly living expenses per person in Shanghai were 770 yuan in 2002. To a worker who has to pay tuition for his/her child and support his/her parents, 290 yuan is far from enough. One recent report describes the scenario of a female laid-off worker who wants to buy some pork in a butcher's.

She asked the butcher to give her a piece of pork worth 2 yuan. (The average price of pork in China is about 5 yuan a pound). The butcher felt that it was difficult to cut that small a piece, so he asked why she wanted only so little. She answered that her family never ate pork usually. (Meat is much more expensive than vegetables) Because her son was going to take the entrance exam to senior high, she wanted to buy some nutritious food for him. Both the butcher and other customers around the stall were shocked by her story. Finally, the butcher gave her two pounds of pork without charging her any money.

In remote areas, the subsidies are less than those in Shanghai. Unemployed workers live only on the subsidies that average people can hardly survive on. Sometimes, they cannot get the subsidies on time. A lot of them do not have medical insurance. In the face of disease, they appear to be extremely vulnerable.

On April 23, 2003, a 17-year old woman went to the readers' reception office of the Qingdao Daily. Her father had died of liver cancer two years earlier and her mother was suffering from terminal vertebral cancer. The family cannot even afford the pain relief medicine for her mother. She hoped that some warmhearted people would donate 20,000 yuan towards the cost of her mother's surgery.

Despite their poor quality of life, people seldom pose requests to the government. In government buildings of all levels, there is an office named Letter and Call Reception, which deals with letters of complaints from the people and the call they make to lodge complaints. Laid-off workers go there, most frequently requesting only for jobs. Yet, jobs are limited and many people try to make out by themselves. A student of Nanjing University once met a white-haired shoeshine man on her way to the cinema.

Through eye contact, she knew that he intended to shine her shoes. Yet she always deemed that having someone to shine her shoes was a kind of exploitation. So she dodged away. After she bought her ticket, she met him again. As she could not resist the enthusiasm in his eyes, she went to him. When he was polishing her shoes, they chatted. She got to know that he was 72 years old, graduating also from Nanjing University as a history major in the 1940's, living alone, and supporting himself by shoe shining. Because of saying something politically incorrect, he was identified as a Rightist in the Cultural Revolution and had lost his job since then. At the end, she gave him 10 yuan but he insisted to charge only 2 because according to his standard, it is worth 2 yuan to shine a pair of shoes like hers.

However, compared with peasants, those people living in the urban areas are far from the most vulnerable and miserable groups. In China, "peasants" refers to those who do not register as urban residents, no matter where they currently live in.

Adopted in 1958, the Regulation of Residence Registration stipulates that only with the certificate of admission to an urban-located organization or university, or certificate of permission issued by an urban residence office, can a Chinese citizen migrate from the countryside to an urban area. Otherwise the migration is illegal. Actually, Chinese peasants have been deprived of the freedom of migrating within their own country. Since then, "peasant" has become an identity, instead of an occupation. Moreover, "peasant" is a discriminated identity. In the Election Law of the National People's congress and Local People's congresses of the PRC amended in 1995, the fourteenth article states:

The number of deputies to the National People's Congress to be elected by the provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government shall be allocated by the Standing committee of the National People's Congress in accordance with the principle that the number of people represented by each rural deputy shall be four times the number of people represented by each urban deputy.

No official statistical data for unemployment in China counts peasants' unemployment, regardless of the fact that some of the peasants have been bankrupt for decades.

From the 1950s, the price gap has been maintained between agricultural and industrial products. Peasants have to buy electrical appliances, chemical fertilizers, etc., at relatively high prices by selling their cotton, rice, wheat and vegetables at low prices. A journalist growing up in the countryside reported a finance statement of his father's, which goes like this:

Wheat: 400 Kilogram per Mu (Chinese unit of area, equal to 1/15 of a hectare). The price of wheat is 1 yuan per kilogram, so the total price of the 400 kilograms is 400 yuan.

Tax wheat delivered to the state: 80 kilograms
Pesticide fee: 30 yuan
Fertilizer fee: 45 yuan (chemical fertilizer 30 yuan and phosphoric fertilizer 15 yuan)
Seed fee: 45 yuan
Planting and reaping fee: 35 yuan
Road construction fee: 10 yuan
Bridge construction fee: 10 yuan
River cleaning fee: 10 yuan
Net income: 400-(80+30+45+45+35+10+10+10)=150
Time used from planting to reaping: 8 months
Net income per day: 0.625 yuan

Peasant incomes from cultivating might vary across China due to the difference of climates, crops, and land occupancy per person. Nevertheless, the low level of peasant incomes is an undeniable fact. According to the fifth population census of China in 2000, 807,390,000 people are peasants engaged in cropping, which is 64% of the total population of China. However, the GDP of agriculture is only 6.9% of the total GDP in the first quarter of 2003. The consumption of the rural population is only 17% of the total consumption for 2001. In the reporter's hometown, a region inhabit by the Tujia (an ethnic minority) people, the average annual income per person is around 275 yuan. Their poverty could be illustrated by the following example:

Illumination: they used to use coal oil or tung oil. With the increase in the price of those products, they now burn the residue of rosin to illuminate their houses. Although electricity is available, an eight-watt bulb is turedn on only when the kids are doing their homework. Even so, housewives always complain about the electricity fee at 3 yuan per month.

Food: their daily food is made up of potato, sweet potato and corn. Rice is cooked for treating guests. The most luxurious food to entertain guests is eggs, which they have to purchase by walking 20 kilometers on mountainous roads to the nearest town to trade in their rice.

Bed wares: they are "all natural", rice straw for mattresses and palm fiber as a quilt.

Peasants do not have medical insurance or any other social security. When an accident occurs in their lives, they fall into misery.

On October 17, 2003, a 62-year old male peasant Liu Yaojia, brought his two young sons, aged 8 and 11 to a prosperous bus station in Guangzhou. His purpose there was to attract someone to adopt his sons. Being unable to afford the medical expenses when he broke his leg in 2001, Liu had lost his ability to work since then. His wife left him after that. After suffering from illness and poverty for two years, he made up his mind to send his two sons away. When a journalist interviewed him later, he said he felt very sorry that he had to send his sons away, but he had no choice. All that he wanted was that his sons could have better living conditions and a chance to get an education. He also talked to his sister saying that it was all his own fault that he could not support his own children.

The poverty of peasants restricts their children's access to education.

Liu Sulan, a high school graduate in a county in Guangxi province, was admitted by the Department of International Relations, Beijing University. But she was now worried about the living expenses, tuition fees and even transportation fees from her home town to Beijing. After her father had passed away, her mother supported the family alone. Working extremely hard on the farm, the mother could barely afford the living and education expenses of the four siblings in high school. She could by no means raise the money for her daughter's college education. Donated by the local education bureau, high school teachers and neighbors, Liu Sulan got about 4,000 yuan. Although the money was still not enough, she told the reporter: " Solutions are always more than problems. I think I could earn some money by myself after I arrive at the university."

In fact, Liu is a lucky one among her peers because she finally got the chance to enter college. Many kids, especially girls, drop out of school before they graduate from junior high in order to share the burden of supporting a family. In Ningxia, a remote northwestern province of China, an illiterate and impoverished mother gave a letter and a diary written by her 14 year-old daughter to a French journalist early in 2002. One year later, the diary was published in France and became a bestseller. Ma Yan, the author of the diary, like many other young girls in her region, was being withdrawn from school because her family could no longer afford to send her. In the diary, she wrote:

"We have a week off. Mum said, 'Honey, there is something I want to tell you.... I'm afraid this is your last time you go to school. You know we cannot afford it if you three kids go to school, because only your father has an outside job.'
"I said, 'Then I have to stay at home?'
"'Yes,' Mum said.
"'What about my brothers?' I asked.
"'They must continue studying.'
"I asked mum why boys can go to school but girls cannot.
"'You are not grown up enough to understand all these things… until one day you are a mother,' Mum explained.
"This year, I cannot go to school, I'm back to do farm work to support my brothers. I felt like I was at school each time I recalled the laughter of my classmates. If only I could go.

"I will cry for the rest of my life if I cannot go back to school… How can you condemn me to this misery? I want to study!"

The poor quality of life results in the exodus of peasants from the countryside to the cities. Many peasants become migrant workers. Peasants have to apply for a temporary residence license; otherwise they cannot be employed or rent a room and even face the risk of being sent back home compulsorily. According to state regulations the, the cost of each license is 5 yuan. The population of migrant workers is around 100 to 200 millions across the country, that is to say, the state could collect 5000 millions to 1 billion yuan from peasants by issuing the temporary residence license.

Moreover, lots of reports have shown that some individuals and organizations make huge profits from controlling the access to the licenses. Migrant workers have to pay them service fees of 40 to 200 yuan, as peasants' applications for the license can get approved only through those agencies.

Besides the temporary residence license, peasants need a working certificate, a family planning certificate, and a health certificate to make sure that they can work in the cities without being caught and taken to a collecting house, charged the repatriation fee and then sent back home. Lots of reports on peasants being maltreated in those collecting houses can be found on all kinds of mass media. For example, the Guangzhou Daily reported:

On January 26, 2003, Qingfeng residence committee of Guangzhou city caught five migrant workers, who did not have temporary residence licenses. On the way to the collecting house, they jumped one by one from the collecting vehicle going at high speed. One person ran away, two were announced dead after being sent to hospital, one was still in the emergency room and the other one was missing.

In some places, working in the collecting houses has even become a desirable job. The Beijing Youth Daily reported:

In Lianyuan, Hunan province, the average annual income of staff working in the collecting house is 40,000 yuan, much more than the 20,000 yuan, the average salary of workers in the most prosperous local factory. Where does their money come from?

They had an spoken contract with the local train station and detained every peasant with or without all the licenses and certificates, passing by the station. Then the staff searched the peasants for money and valuables. If they found more than 800 yuan on the peasant, they would release him/her after collecting all his/her money and valuables; otherwise they telegraphed the peasant's family, demanding them to pay 800 yuan to get him/her back. If the family were too poor to pay the amount, the detained peasant would be forced to work on the farm belonging to the collecting house for a period of time.

Each detainee in the collecting house got less than 0.5-pounds of rice each day and a slice of pork every ten days. No oil was added to the vegetables cooked for them.

The account book of the collecting house shows that in 1996, they detained 600 peasants, got 120,000 yuan. In 1997, they detained 800 peasants, got 180,000 yuan. In 1998, they detained 1,100 peasants, got 280,000 yuan. In 1999, they detained 1,400 peasants and got 325,000 yuan.

Regardless of all the difficulties and risks facing them, many peasants still leave their home towns to go to the cities as they consider working there as a precious opportunity to drag themselves out of poverty. The majority of migrant workers engage in the lines of construction, service and manufacturing, many of which are the most dirty, exhausting, dangerous and least rewarding and respectable jobs that urban residents are not willing to take. One report of labor status reveals the situation of female migrant workers in Dongguan, Guangdong.

In the foreign-financed Reeboks factory, 5000 girls from the countryside work more than 10 hours a day, six days a week. Their average working week is 71 hours, while their weekly salary is 128 yuan before being deducted accommodation fees and welfare fees. One pair of new-style Reeboks shoes is worth almost 100 dollars, yet those Chinese girls get 0.7 dollar of it.

Eight girls share a 20 square meter room, with no bathroom in it. They do not enjoy any medical cover, unemployment insurance or pension rights.

Another report describes the lives of maids in Shanghai.

From Anhui province, 32-year old Luo Youlian came to Shanghai after she divorced. As a maid, she works 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. By sweeping floors, cleaning windows, doing laundry and cooking, she earns 50 dollars a month plus room and board, which is considered as a reasonable wage. Every month, she posts 12 dollars to her daughter and 25 dollars […]

Because the transportation fee is expensive for her, she only went back to her hometown twice during her five-year stay in Shanghai. Now when she calls back home, her daughter cannot even recognize her voice. But she said, "I never compare my life to those of the rich people in Shanghai. It is all destiny. Those who hired me have a good destiny while mine is cruel."

If working hard for a low income is pathetic, then risking one's life for a low income is miserable. Mine accidents are another item of news which frequently appears in the Chinese mass media. Between January and August 2003, 4150 mineworkers died in accidents, that is, 17 per day. Most of the victims are migrant workers. The lack of safety measures in mines is well known across China, however, migrant workers are still willing to risk their lives for low wages even though they do not have life insurance. One of the most famous reports entitled "Will in the safety helmet" says:

At around 5 o'clock, April 16th, 2003, Water permeation occurred in Seven One mine, Lianyuan, Hunan province. 17 mineworkers were bottled up underground. Six days later, the rescue team got through the tunnel. 16 corpses were discovered and one person was missing. Beside the body of Nie Qingwen, rescue staff found a safety helmet with a will written with chalk.

His will said, " I hate to leave my wife and kid. I owe my mother 200 yuan and owe Deng Shuhua 100 yuan. Gong Zemin owes me 50 yuan. I lent Zhou Jisheng 1000 yuan in the Credit Union. Wang Xiaowen owes me 1000 yuan. I have a deposit of 1650 yuan and my salary in the mine… Lianxiang (his wife), take good care of our kid and look after my parents, you will get rewarded… Remember to cremate me."

On average, mining every 1 billion tons of coal in China costs 700 lives, most of which do not have life insurance. Behind the 700 lives, thousands of their family members are left in poverty.

Migrant workers work exhausting hours and risk their lives for a meagre income, and yet sometimes they do not get paid on time or cannot get their salaries at all. Some individuals and organizations intentionally employ migrant workers without signing written contracts. As most migrant workers lack legal knowledge and have no social networks to help them, they are vulnerable when someone refuses to pay them. Migrant workers' cheap labor power is turned into unpaid labor power. The Xinhua news agency reports:

In Huangzhong, Qinghai province, a construction team leader Zhong Zongshan came to a spoken agreement to pay migrant workers 15 yuan a day. When the work finished, he paid them only 10 yuan a day.

In constructing the Maping expressway in Qinghai, one construction team from Shantou employed migrant workers from Gansu. When payday came, the construction team refused to pay. When the migrant workers went to them to protest, the construction team hired hatchet men to beat them, resulting in one dead, eight injured. Moreover, the construction team ended the conflict by giving the workers some money. The murder has not been legally punished until now.

In Datong, Beijing, the overdue salaries of 2476 migrant workers amount to 4,940,000 yuan. Some of the salaries have been owed for 4 years.

Low levels of education are one reason for the misery of migrant workers. Their children are facing the same fate. According to the survey conducted by the Beijing Education Research Institute, in Beijing, around 200,000 children of migrant workers are in 1st through 9th grade, a period of compulsory education stipulated by the Chinese government. In the past decade, schools in Beijing have charged the migrant workers three to five times more tuition fees than Beijing residents if they want to send their kids to the local schools. The average tuition fee of a Beijing resident's kid is 400 yuan, which means the migrant worker's parents should pay 1,200 to 2,000 yuan for their kids. Such high charges actually block those kids' access to local schools, therefore 180,000 kids have to go to schools for children of migrant workers. The classrooms of those schools are usually illegal buildings, including abandoned storehouses, temporary huts and so on. In the classrooms, piles of bricks are used to make the desks. It is also common practice that 45 kids study in a 20 square meter room or 30 kids share a minivan to school. Most teachers are migrant workers who were working previously as a nanny, vendor, cook, janitor, some of whom even do not have junior high school diplomas. Parents contribute a lot to the school by helping to build the classrooms, building desks, etc. In 2000, 16,491 kids studied in 123 schools of that kind.

Without a certificate, the running of those schools is illegal. Once found out, the school will be shut down. Parents cover up a lot for the schools because it is their only affordable way of getting their kids educated.

Generally, "socially vulnerable groups" could be divided into two categories. One is the urban poor, mostly emerging with the "economic transition". The bankruptcy or indebtedness of state-run enterprises results in large scale unemployment. Many of the unemployed workers have a low level of education, lacking special skills; therefore it is difficult for them to get re-employed. At the same time, the backward social welfare and security systems of China cannot give them the necessary aid, which exacerbates their situation. I think the emergence of socially vulnerable groups in the urban areas is a temporary phenomenon in the socioeconomic transition.

The other category is made up of peasants, including migrant workers and those working on the land. Their experiences are total different. In the past, when there was famine caused by natural or social forces, the peasants would leave their home town to make a living. The replacement of every feudal dynasty by another was caused by peasants' revolt, directly or indirectly. The establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) would also have been unimaginable without the active participation of the Chinese peasants. The mobility of the peasants had always been considered a threat to the stability of the country. Distributing a piece of land to the peasants and binding them to it was seen as the simplest and most effective way of eliminating this threat when the PRC was newly founded.

At the same, in order to industrialize the country over a short period of time, the state stipulated a gap between the prices of industrial and agricultural products. Therefore, no matter how hard they worked, the peasants had no way of extricating themselves from their destiny of poverty.

Since the 1980s, due to the rise of the construction and service industries, a large amount of cheap labor force was needed in the urban areas. The state loosened up its policy and allowed peasants to work and live temporarily in cities. Consequently, there came the upsurge of migrant workers from the countryside to the urban areas. Migrant workers took great trouble to come to the cities to do the most dirty, exhausting, dangerous and low-paid jobs, in the hope of improving their own and their family members' economic conditions.

However, they are discriminated against and bullied in the cities. "Migrant workers" is a stigmatized term in the eyes of urban residents. It is equal to dirty, ignorant, indecent and poorly educated. When some of them cannot get their salaries on time, they cannot protect themselves efficiently. Children of migrant workers cannot enjoy the right of being educated equally as their peers.

Why is there all this misery? Because they are peasants, the invisible vulnerable and stigmatized population of China. Because they are generous and very tolerant. The average amount of time a peasant spends at school is 6 years, which means that they have no access to influencing policymaking. Furthermore, once a peasant's child gets to college, he/she gets the urban residence automatically according to the Regulation of Residence Registration. Since he/she is no longer identified as a peasant, why should he/she care about the lives of peasants?

There are a few people who speak for the peasants. Li Changping is one of them. He has a Master's degree in Economics and works as a secretary of the local Party Committee in Qipan town, Hubei Province. In early March, 2000, he wrote a 4000-word letter to Premier Zhu Rongji. The letter begins thus:

"My name is Li Changping. I am 37 years old. I have worked in the county government for 17 years. With infinite loyalty to the Party and deep sympathy to the peasants, I am writing this letter to you in tears. What I want to tell you is that today the peasants are really in pain, the rural areas are really in poverty and agriculture is really in danger…"

In the later part of his letter, Li Changping addresses the problem of heavy taxes imposed on the peasants, the exodus of the rural labor force, the withering of agricultural production and the boasting and exaggeration of agricultural achievement in local government.

His letter caught the attention of the central government and an inspection group was sent to the town. However, Li Changping was forced to resign office under great pressure from his surrounding bureaucracy.

I believe the future of a country is grim when more than half of its citizens live in poverty. It is even hopeless when that population is invisible to its leaders.

November, 2003

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