Beijing is a beautiful city. On the surface. But Ai Weiwei, activist-cum-professional black jack player, who has suffered beatings, harassment and imprisonment at the hands of Chinese authorities, got out of jail a few days ago and scratched it for the Daily Beast this morning and found not one, but two Beijings.
One is of power and of money. People don't care who their neighbors are; they don't trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can't even imagine that they'll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they've never seen electricity or toilet paper.
Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing's slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.
Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird's Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants' schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don't have any money, they pull the stitches out. It's a city of violence.
The plight of rural migrants in China is one of the most under-reported stories in the West—but also one that spells most trouble for China's autocracy. During Mao's reign, the country implemented something called hukou, an internal passport that went to draconian lengths to control the movement of Chinese people. Under hukou, every citizen is assigned a status—urban or rural—upon birth, creating a kind of locational apartheid. If people want to move outside their birth hukou, they need official permission, which was virtually impossible to get before liberalization. Now, thanks to the need for cheap labor in China's urban factories, men can get permission by paying a fee. Women have to pay—and take a pregnancy test to prove that they are not moving to evade birth control restrictions!
But the worst part, as I wrote previously, is that:
Once hukou migrants—dubbed the "the floating population"—arrive in cities, their living options are mainly consigned to ghettos, invisible to tourists. Beijing authorities are so determined to keep them sequestered that, on the pretext of dealing with rising crime, last year they began walling off native neighborhoods—erecting fences and posting guards to check identity papers before letting anyone in.
But hukou restricts more than mobility. It restricts social services too. Migrants are not entitled to any of the social services that urban residents get unless they convert their temporary visa to permanent residency, something that is exceedingly hard to do. "They can't get admission in city public schools or get adequate health insurance or other subsidized services or even city bus passes," notes Professor Kam Wing Chan, a hukou expert at the University of Washington. Hukou makes city life so hard that many couples leave their children home to be raised by grandparents, breaking up families.
Hukou is like India's caste system in assigning destiny at birth, with one big difference: The Chinese government has created and enforced hukou whereas India's government has been trying to eradicate the caste system, albeit in a ham-handed, counterproductive way through reservations and quotas in government schools and government jobs.
However, opposition to hukou has been growing in recent years. Sometime back, about a dozen editors of government-controlled newspapers jointly signed an anti-hukou editorial in defiance of authorities. Some obviously lost their jobs. But how long the government can browbeat—and physically beat—the Chinese into submission on this topic remains to be seen.
China's one-child policy has decimated the natural, private safety net for old people in traditional societies. So its aging migrants will need a public one—just what hukou denies them. If China fails to extend hukou benefits, its large and disaffected underclass of deracinated, rural population might become a political tinderbox, ready to explode. Yet doing so won't be easy given the various asset bubbles that the Chinese authorities have to keep feeding to maintain its 9 percent GDP growth.
China might yet find itself in interesting times, all the hoopla about it whooping the U.S. economy notwithstanding.