And the Losers Are: China's Five Ring Circus

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[Republished at PFP with Agence Global permission.] 
City officials claim that Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality, which has led to speculation that some Olympic events may have to be cancelled, is a temporary problem caused by the dust stirred up due to construction. They have assured a visiting delegation of the International Olympic Committee that the air will be fine by the time of the games. The city has plans to close all factories and stop all non-essential traffic during the games, and is tinkering with the idea of artificial rainmaking to flush out the pollutants just before the games.

The Chinese government views the Olympics as the chance to showcase its achievements and proudly project China to the world as a prosperous and modern nation. Towards this end, it has ordered that 22 squatter villages that house the city’s huge migrant population be torn down before the games. Never mind that the Olympic-related construction boom relies almost exclusively on 850,000 migrant workers recruited from across China. Beijing’s Mayor Wang Qishan maintains that the demolition of the migrants’ “dilapidated structures” is necessary to make Beijing “a livable city.” His government is so ashamed of the migrants’ presence that it plans to repatriate them back to their home villages for the duration of the games. To underscore the determination of the pre-Olympic “clean-up,” it has already closed down dozens of schools for migrant children.

These measures hardly fit the spirit of “One World, One Dream -- the official motto of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, treating migrants as disposables is common practice in all cities across China. City governments can get away with it because of the Chinese “household registration” (hukou) law. The law deprives people of the right to move from their original place of residence without obtaining temporary hukou from the new location. Cities have made this procedure so difficult that few migrants are able to assemble the required documentation, and are thus considered to be in the cities illegally.

Yet their services are indispensable to China’s booming economy. They are the primary labor force in factories catering to the export trade and the backbone of China’s monumental infrastructure construction. They are essential for the needs and comforts of the city dwellers. Without them the urban building boom would halt, restaurants would close down, and most service clerks, street vendors, security guards, and nannies would disappear.

Some 200 million migrants have moved to China’s cities in the last three decades -- the largest peacetime migration in human history. Up to one fifth of the populations of some cities -- such as Shanghai and Beijing -- are migrants.

Chinese rural migrants moving to cities are like illegal immigrants entering another country. Without legal standing to live and work, they exist in a legal void and are easy targets for exploitation. Aside from making them work long hours for low wages, unscrupulous employers denied them time off even when sick. In some factories workers are fined one yuan for every minute they are late to work -- this when they make under fifteen yuan (US $2.00) a day to begin with. According to one study, only 31 percent of polled workers regularly received their full salary on time. The migrants’ non-status allows employers to flout safety laws, resulting in rashes of maiming, poisoning and death among workers who are poorly trained and overworked.

It is by the sweat of the migrants that China has become the factory of the world. And the income from these exports has China sitting on the largest currency reserve in the world (over US$1.2 trillion). The surplus value created by the migrants enables the Chinese government to finance old age pensions, unemployment benefits, and health care programs -- for permanent urban residents only. To add insult to injury, the migrants are regularly stigmatized by the city dwellers, who blame them for everything from crowded buses to street crime. Police target them for harassment and extortion. As of now, the 200 million migrants do not have a single representative in the Chinese People’s Congress to speak for them.

While the systematic impoverishment of the migrants may help China continue the trade surplus with the rest of the world, it forestalls the growth potential of China as a nation, given that 200 million of its citizens do not have the income to live decently and educate their children. Disenfranchising such a significant part of the population is politically explosive in a country founded in the name of Chinese workers and peasants. The invisibility the officials wish on the migrants during the Olympic games cannot hide this contradiction.

As for the rest of the world -- all of us who regularly consume products made by the sweat of their labor -- the least we can do when the time comes to cheer the winners of the Olympic games is to acknowledge the real losers.

Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community.

Copyright © 2007 Peter Kwong

Released: 28 November 2007
Word Count: 875

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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.


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