Wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase full of government papers, Kang Houming feels out of place in the ostentatious surrounds of the Great Hall of the People Hotel, a luxurious stay located in the shadow of the iconic Chinese Parliament building.
Mr. Kang grew up in a world away from the affluence of the capital. He spent his youth on construction sites in faraway Sichuan province, travelling across south-western China in search of work on road projects.
Today, he carries the hopes of China’s 250 million migrant workers, as one of the only three migrant worker representatives in the 3,000-member Chinese Parliament, or the National People’s Congress (NPC).
“I’m probably the poorest person among all the delegates”, said Mr. Kang with a smile, in an interview with The Hindu.
In a Parliament filled with billionaires — the net worth of the 70 richest NPC delegates grew $11.5 billion last year, to $ 89.8 billion — Mr. Kang is perhaps the only representative who spends his nights worrying about his family’s social security insurance.
Five years ago, the construction worker from Chongqing was chosen to represent the migrant labour force of the south-western municipality in the NPC. The move was largely a symbolic one — intended to show that the NPC, widely criticised even by Chinese scholars as a rubber-stamp legislature filled with political and business elites, was indeed a people’s congress.
Mr. Kang has spent the last five years fighting to push through legislation to bolster the rights of workers. He will step down in March when the current Parliament meets for one last time to complete a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which will get under way on Thursday when the Communist Party chooses a new leadership.
The biggest challenge facing China today, Mr. Kang said, is finding a development model that is more equitable and inclusive — and one that is more just for the labour force on whose back China’s development story has been built. Failure to do so, he warned, will result in social instability.
Three decades ago, the easy supply of cheap labour from inland provinces enabled the development boom in southern China. Migrant workers left their villages to work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta, which offered a more promising alternative to life on the farm — even if leaving home meant, according to China’s household registration or hukou rules, losing access to social security and free education.
The rules resulted in a whole generation of a few hundred million Chinese growing up in villages without parents — a sacrifice Mr. Kang says migrant workers should no longer be forced to bear. Mr. Kang and many scholars have seen the restrictions as fuelling a widening income gap, with urban Chinese earning 5.2 times what rural-registered residents take home.
Mr. Kang looks back at his term with mixed emotions. Legislative efforts to push hukou reform have failed, with local governments wary of the added expense to social security. He counts as his most memorable achievement securing legislation to insure migrant workers for any disabilities that arise through work. “Before, migrant workers couldn’t transfer their social security insurance to other cities, but now they can continue their insurance,” Mr. Kang said.
He sees the new generation of young migrant workers as much different from those of his own. “My parents are [were] illiterate, and I studied until middle school,” he said. “But my son went to college. The new generation has higher education. They don’t know how to grow crops because they are in school all the time, and they don’t want to leave cities”.
If cities don’t do a better job integrating them, Mr. Kang warned, China could face further instability. Incidents of unrest in recent months have underscored the anxieties and concerns of young migrant workers, many of whom feel they are treated as second-class citizens.
In May, hundreds of migrants stormed a government building in a city in the manufacturing heartland of southern Zhejiang after a labour dispute led to the death of a worker. This followed riots last year in Zengcheng, in nearby Guangdong, to protest the abuse by city police of a street-seller. In the pastlast one year, wages for migrant workers have risen 21 per cent, according to official figures.
A study by an official think-tank in August said China would need to invest $ 8 trillion to provide social security for new urban residents in the next two decades, with a further 500 million rural residents becoming “urbanised”.
“Every country has disparities”, Mr. Kang said. “But if the gap between the rich and the poor grows too large, there is no doubt that there will be social conflicts”.