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China's Burgeoning Population of Landless Migrants Threatens Stability


China - the world's most populous nation - is now the fourth largest economy in the world. Its fast-paced growth is spurring cities to expand rapidly - depriving farmers of cropland often faster than rural migrants can find jobs in cities. Analysts say the result is some 100 million landless migrants - who pose a destabilizing force in China. In VOA's special series on global population, our Beijing Correspondent Luis Ramirez traveled to a village in Guangdong province recently to look at the plight of the unemployed and landless through the eyes of one young man.

The 29-year-old man, who asked that his name not be used, gazes over a walled piece of ground that he and his family used to farm. The plot, now covered with debris and choked with weeds, was once yielded enough rice, fruits and vegetables to sell at the market and earn his family a comfortable living.

Now, nothing is left after local developers, together with the village chief, seized and sold the plots that supported the village's 800 people.

"There are not a lot of jobs in this place," he said. "Now, that the land was taken, it is even harder to find any jobs. Now, I have to support my whole family by doing some odd jobs, like running errands on a motorcycle."

Desperate, the man left the fields that his ancestors tilled for thousands of years. He joined what some analysts say is the largest mass migration in human history: an estimated 100 million migrant workers who have gone to China's cities in search of work. He saw hope in Shenzhen, a bustling 26-year-old industrial metropolis that has come to symbolize the success of communist China's free market reforms.

"I went to Shenzhen," said the man. "I was working on an expressway. Then, I got married. My parents were getting old and they needed my care, so - as their only son - I had to come back. I was very envious of people in Shenzhen. Life there is so good. Our life used to be good, but now, we don't have any land and I'm very pessimistic about our future. I'm in despair."

That despair turned to fury last year when the man joined hundreds of other villagers in confronting the officials who seized their land. A number of villagers ended up in prison.

Throughout China - and especially in Guangdong - reports have emerged in recent years of angry peasants rising up against local authorities. Robin Munro, a researcher at the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong group that monitors the condition of workers in China, says the central government has been taking note.

"The problem of landless peasants is one that historically in China has been a hugely destabilizing one, over the centuries," said Robin Munro. "Of course, it is provoking or leading to many very vehement rural protests in China over the last couple of years - often involving thousands of rural people. It is a destabilizing element, certainly one that has the government very worried."

The Chinese government says the number of mass incidents, including violent protests, reached 87,000 last year, up more than six percent from 2004. Many of these involved migrants protesting over unpaid wages. There is also discontent among migrants over discrimination that they endure in the cities, where they are not allowed to send their children to schools, and have no access to basic healthcare.

The government has announced a series of reforms including mandates for employers to pay back wages to migrant workers. However, analysts say enforcement has been sporadic at best. Corruption in the courts and among local officials remains a problem.

Some analysts predict a lack of quick and effective legal and social reforms could fuel conflicts between the huge class of Chinese have-nots and the relatively few who are getting rich.

Eric Heginbotham is a China specialist at the Rand Corporation policy institute in California. He compared China to a situation already seen in Latin America, where the desperately poor live next to the rich and powerful. He says China's landless migrants who go to the cities perceive injustice more keenly, because they see the benefits that the new urban rich enjoy every day.

"In the city, they have much greater exposure to what's going on in the rest of the country, to how rich the rest of the country is becoming, as well as ideas about what their rights might be," said Eric Heginbotham. "And there is really, an explosion of interest in China right now in law, in law and rights, and access to courts."

The 29-year-old man at the village near Yunfu in Guangdong province says that - with the help of mobile phones, faxes, the Internet and other technology - his family has taken its complaints over the land seizures to provincial authorities. When that failed, they traveled hundreds of kilometers to Beijing where police promptly rounded them up and returned them to their village. All, he says, has brought them no redress.

In the meantime, he cannot pay his child's school fees and his wife has had to start sifting through garbage for recyclables to help pay bills.

When a reporter asks if he plans to return to Shenzhen, he says jobs there have become harder to get for those, like himself, who have limited education. He says he has chosen to come back to the village and fight for the ancestral lands that he says have been stolen from him.

"My child is small and my parents are old. I have to take care of them," he said. "I have no choice. I have an obligation to fight for our land, along with my fellow villagers. We have to keep fighting until we get our land back. This is the root of our life."

For years, the Chinese government has sought to address the widening gap between rich and poor with land reforms aimed at promoting rapid urbanization, encouraging most of China's 750 million rural dwellers to move to the cities.

Analysts warn this general policy, while potentially effective, could prove disastrous if officials do not find ways to address the plight of those who one Chinese government researcher has labeled the new class of "the three have nots:" those with no jobs, no land, and no access to government benefits.

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