China Power

China and Migrant Workers

Discontent in Guangdong offers a glimpse of the challenge Chinese policymakers face over migrant workers.

China and Migrant Workers
Credit: Tom Booth

Local authorities in Guangdong are grappling with ways of controlling migrant workers following major riots last month, the South China Morning Post has reported.  The provincial government has announced a pilot programme to recruit migrant workers into local government and the Communist Party, while the party secretary of Shenzhen said that the special economic zone had expelled more than 80,000 migrant workers deemed ‘security threats’ as part of preparations for an international university sports competition next month (both stories are unfortunately behind a pay wall, but follow the reporting of the excellent Chinese-language Southern Metropolis News).

Guangdong’s plans include recruiting migrant workers as civil servants and giving official status to mutual aid associations set up by migrants. Zhu Mingguo, the province’s deputy party secretary, toldthe Chinese newspaper that the province would select migrant workers as representatives to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a body that acts rather like a lower house to China’s legislature.

In an interview today for another story, Peking University’s Pan Wei dismissed the reforms as cosmetic, and indeed the province has set itself a low quota of 120 migrant workers in government by the end of the year, out of 17 million.

Dealing with migrant workers has been a persistent challenge for Chinese leaders. On the one hand, they are often seen as undesirable vagrants who threaten the image of developed areas and who are prone to disorder. Being registered as residents of rural areas, migrants are generally denied access to social services by urban governments. At tense times, such as the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and the economic crisis, officials tend to focus on making migrants simply go home. On the other hand, the Dickensian conditions faced by workers in China’s most prosperous regions are a challenge to the current government’s vision of a ‘harmonious society’ without major social divisions, and Beijing has generally recognized that unrest is often based on legitimate grievances, pushing local authorities to resolve disputes with payments and negotiation.

Guangdong has reason to focus on migrant workers following a pair of major riots last month in which thousands of workers attacked police and burned government cars and buildings. Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, widely seen as a contender for promotion to the top-level Politburo standing committee next year, has particular reason to show off his social control chops with innovative policy.

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Wang Yang may well win points for an inventive response, but it points to a strange direction for Chinese politics. Since the economic crisis, the Chinese government has seen a stream of policy changes in response to social unrest. Last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao announced increased development and environmental aid to Inner Mongolia following major riots there. Local governments across the country have stepped into pay back wages to workers protesting dishonest employers. Is China becoming a country where rioting is the best way to get anything done?

David Cohen is a freelance journalist. He blogs at and his writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian Online, the Global Times, the China Daily and the Lowy Interpreter among other publications.