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China's Achilles' heel: The 'floating population'
By Francesco Sisci and Lu Xiang

BEIJING - China's severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic has taken Chinese leaders by surprise by revealing many inadequacies of government organs, primarily the inability to make quick evaluations and responses to health emergencies. It has also exposed a ticking social time bomb - the countless peasants who have immigrated to cities during the 25 years of China's economic reforms. They have fled from hospitals, attacked medical staff and, whether intentionally or not, have facilitated the spread of the virus. The government has responded clearly the concern this difficult-to-control group poses, threatening with capital punishment all of those who intentionally spread the disease.

These people, called mingong ("popular workers", to mark the difference from proper city-dwelling "workers", gongren) or liudong renkou (floating population, meaning they are no longer residents in the countryside but not city residents either), are the main cause of the spread of SARS in the countryside. They have thus introduced the next step of this health emergency.

This flight is a result of Beijing coming clean in late April about the extent of the SARS infection in the capital, which had previously been covered up in hopes of averting panic and economic loss. The workers panicked immediately, dropped everything and left the city to return to their villages scattered throughout the country. They did this before the municipal authorities could implement control measures to stem the flow of workers from the cities to rural areas.

It is apparent that authorities were taken by surprise by their flight and had not anticipated it. In a news conference on Thursday, spokesman Liu Jian said the national government estimates China's mingong population to be about 36 million to 40 million, and that 8 million have already left cities for their home villages.

The mingong left the construction sites of skyscrapers where they would possibly never live. They fled the middle-class houses where they were working as nannies. Most significant, they ran away from potentially SARS-infected hospitals where they served as janitorial staff. The hospitals suffered the most, as they needed to implement upgraded hygienic standards to prevent the contagious disease, but had no employees to perform these duties. Hospitals tried to lure workers back with higher salaries, even tenfold increases, but few mingong took the bait. Fear of SARS proved to be stronger than the lure of a higher salary.

Mingong's jobs in any Chinese city come without any guarantees. They make on average from 500-1,000 yuan (US$60-$120) per month, a small fortune in the economically bleak countryside but a pittance in a metropolis. On top of their low salaries they do not get any of the benefits that are provided for registered city residents. They have no health insurance, they are lucky if their children can attend school and their housing, if they have it, is quite poor, as most of them live in dormitories or other precarious accommodations on the city outskirts.

Mingong provide necessary cheap and flexible labor that is ready to return to the countryside if there is no longer anything to do. They thus provide an essential filler role in the development of the country. They are there when they are needed, they return home when they are no longer necessary, and they do not constitute a burden for the city's unemployment department. They are an enormous resource for cities. Socially they are virtually non-existent and can be forcibly expelled from the cities at any time. They can then be kept continuously at bay and their grievances carry no weight compared with those of the "proper workers", the gongren. In fact the mingong are used instead of the city gongren (not doing exactly the same job, but roughly the same), but only the gongren are allowed enough leeway to become restless and protest if they lose a job, as they are legal city residents.

The mingong know their work in the city is temporary but still hope for an opportunity to obtain legal permanent residence. At home the mingong invest their city earnings in home improvements. They typically already have a small plot of land allotted to them by their village, which provides a subsistence-level income. Their land is tilled by their elders, or sublet to other farmers, while the mingong are in the city.

In other words, the mingong have nothing to hold them in the city besides their salaries. Except for those who managed to make the leap from workers to small artisans or traders, and thus have set up a shop in the city, for the vast majority all their strings are still attached to their home village, where they have houses, land, family and investments. Therefore SARS represented for them a direct threat to their livelihood: if they stayed in Beijing they could be infected and could lose their job anyway, as many economic activities in the capital could come to a stop, as indeed many did. Then they had better move back home, where there was less possibility of infection and better life guarantees.

SARS has changed the social dynamic for the mingong. Before SARS they had nothing to gain in fleeing the city and the promise of a salary and possible legal urban integration was enough to hold them in the city. Now with SARS, it is clear that this isn't enough to hold those people where they are most needed. In case of any calamity, which could strike a city any time, without any proper bond, an insurance, a house, etc, the mingong will be always drawn to move back to the countryside, furthering the city troubles and possibly also the troubles of the whole country.

Since the last week of April more than a million mingong have left Beijing, thus facilitating the potential spread of the disease almost everywhere in China, and increasing the workload for the already-overworked Beijing medical staff.

Thousands of short-term solutions have been applied to overcome these problems. In the countryside all kinds of checks have been enforced to spot infected people. The Jiangsu government is offering a reward to anybody exposing a hidden case of fever, the Zhejiang government sells all anti-fever drugs exclusively in clinics instead of in pharmacies in order to check on anybody who may be trying to treat SARS on their own. In the cities, soldiers have been ordered to sweep hospitals' floors, replacing the mingong.

These are short-term measures that won't solve the problems of how to prevent the possible future desertion of the mingong and how to retain the economic flexibility provided so far by these workers.

The mingong's desertion could be immediately resolved by providing for their integration in the city. Giving them houses and schooling for their children would keep the mingong in the cities, but this would affect the economic flexibility they provided. This would make the Chinese social machinery more cumbersome. It would reduce what so far has been one of its greatest advantages: the capability of quick response to opportunity and crisis, by using China's huge countryside as an unexhausted supply line of workers to factories when needed.

This system has so far guaranteed social stability. Workers' protests have mostly involved gongren who have lost their jobs, who were typically at least partly compensated with other opportunities and the possession of their homes, which were previously rented to them. The full integration of the mingong could escalate social problems, as integrated mingong could join hands with those gongren who already feel dissatisfied with the growing social costs of ongoing reforms.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, China needs to hold steady. While the full integration of mingong is impossible both economically and socially, the perpetuation of the present system of almost total marginalization of the mingong is also untenable. It would subject cities to a repeat of the present SARS disaster. A middle ground must be found, guaranteeing some insurance benefits that could be cashed in case the mingong move to their villages or to other towns. As the latest plenary session of the Chinese National People's Congress stated, integration of the mingong in the cities is necessary for the overall economic growth.

This process will be slow and full of problems, as possibly the largest social issue of modern China is looming: a potential conflict between China's urban population and the rural residents would like to become city residents. Furthermore, there is the issue of the cultural integration of these peasants who have lived in a world largely similar to that of their ancestors 200-300 years ago, and now are moving to the cities, a world in many ways closer to New York than to their villages. It is a leap in space and time, from feudal times to modernity, from ancient beliefs to a globalized value system and mindset.

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May 17, 2003

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