A wave of migration that could bring another 300 million people to China's cities in the next three decades could threaten social stability as migrants struggle to bridge a fast-widening rural-urban gap, two studies released this week have warned.

While cheap labour from the countryside has fuelled China's remarkable economic growth over the past three decades, a new generation of migrant workers was increasingly unwilling to return to life in the countryside and more prepared to strike for higher wages, the studies found.

Last year alone, China experienced more than 30,000 collective labour protests and more than a million work disputes, the reports estimated.

A government study on China's migrant population, released this week by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, found that more than 76 per cent of migrant workers born after 1980 wanted to live permanently in cities, but were “seriously challenged by the high cost of urban life and poor access to welfare services such as education, medical treatment, housing and social security programs”.

Under China's household registration or hukou restrictions, migrants lose access to social services when they leave their home provinces — a policy seen as widening the urban-rural gap, with city residents now earning more than 3.3 times what rural Chinese take home.

The report said more than 300 million rural people would move to urban areas in the next three decades. China's migrant population, the study calculated, was 221 million — 16.5 of per cent of the country's population. China's urban population is expected to cross 800 million by 2020, up from the 670 million estimated by last year's census.

The rising urban migrant population will strain resources as well as pose challenges to social stability, the report said, with 20 per cent of migrant workers unable to afford working and living in cities.

Wealth gap

The problems arising from “a widening wealth gap between migrant workers and urbanites are crucial because they upset social stability,” Wang Qian, who heads the commission's floating population management division, said at the report's release.

Other problems the report identified were poverty, forced housing demolitions and challenges to public services.

Another study, conducted by the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB), found that a new generation of migrant workers was “more determined and able to push for [wage] increases”, compared with the past where “workers tended to wait for their rights to be violated before taking action.”

The CLB estimated that in 2009 alone, China saw 30,000 collective labour protests. Those numbers are expected to have risen in the two years since.

Geoffrey Crothall of the CLB told The Hindu in an interview that behind the strikes were financial pressures and rising costs of living caused by inflation, which were pushing up wage demands.

Another factor was the balance between supply and demand of labour, in contrast with the past where “clearly an oversupply of labour meant workers pretty much had to accept what paying conditions were offered.”

Mr. Crothall said rising migration would necessitate a relook on restrictive hukou policies that deny migrants social benefits. “At some point, the central government will have to revisit the issue of hukou reform,” he said, adding that it was “more likely to happen at the provincial government level” with likely easing of internal migration within provinces.

Rather than ease restrictions, governments have, so far appeared to tighten them. Mr. Crothall cited the recent closure of schools in Beijing for migrant workers' children, a move to discourage migrants from settling in cities.

“We are going to see growing social tensions, between groups of young migrants who want to make a life for themselves in cities and urban residents becoming more reactionary,” he said.

“And that is a serious social issue.”

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