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Brett Edkins: China's Undocumented Migrant Problem

Roundup: Media's Take




[Brett Edkins is a J.D. candidate at Yale University.]

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....
Read entire article at Slate.com

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