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HRIC speaks out at UN World Conference Against Racism

August 29, 2001

Human Rights in China (HRIC) Executive Director Xiao Qiang will report on pervasive discrimination in the PRC at the NGO Forum in South Africa on Wednesday, August 29 at 6:00 PM.

Xiao is in Durban as a member of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) delegation to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). HRIC condemns discriminatory PRC policies towards ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu) and will expose the unjust and discriminatory effects of China?s household registration system (hukou) on rural residents and rural-to-urban migrants.

"PRC rhetoric about the unified Chinese people overlooks serious persecution based on ethnicity in minority regions, and residential status under the hukou system," said Xiao Qiang. "It is time for Han ethnic chauvinism to end and the discriminatory nature of China's hukou system to be fully exposed," Xiao said.

Xiao joined the ICT delegation after China successfully lobbied UN member countries to deny HRIC accreditation at WCAR. South Africa was among the countries to vote against HRIC's bid.

HRIC's presentation at WCAR comes on the heels of the group's NGO "shadow report" to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In July, CERD conducted a critical review of China's 9th periodic report on its implementation of that UN treaty. HRIC's NGO "shadow report" exposed the discriminatory effects of PRC laws and policies on national minorities, internal rural-to-urban migrants, and people with rural household registration or hukou. Chine Chen, Program Officer in the HRIC branch office in Hong Kong will also be in Durban for the NGO Forum.




Prepared for the UN World Conference Against Racism,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance


Since the economic reforms began in the late 1970s, the People's Republic of China has seen a massive movement of people as rural residents have moved to the cities in search of work. This "floating population" is now estimated at between 100 million and 200 million people.

Poverty and the lack of opportunities in the countryside have been major push factors in this migration. Since 1949, China's economic policies have consistently devoted resources to developing the cities while neglecting the rural areas, creating a huge urban-rural divide, which is reflected in all spheres of life, including income, life expectancy, access to education and health care.

The Chinese government prevents most rural-to-urban migrants from settling permanently in the cities, requiring them to obtain a raft of permits to stay in the urban areas. Thus many internal migrants are in a similar situation to undocumented workers who have crossed national borders. They are frequently subject to official abuses, including arbitrary detention, and enjoy little or no protection against abuses by employers and other private actors.

  • The rural-urban divide

    Since the late 1950s, the People's Republic of China has consistently implemented policies that have systematically disadvantaged China's rural population. It has prioritized urban over rural development, supported the growth of industry over agriculture, and subsidized urbanites with housing, food and other benefits while mostly leaving the rural population to fend for itself.

    This has resulted in a deeply entrenched form of discrimination against rural residents, who make up the majority of the country's population. This discrimination is created, perpetuated and enforced by a system of residence registration called the hukou system, which assigns everyone at birth to a particular place of residence, and divides them into two categories, urban and rural. In effect this is a form of institutionalized discrimination based on descent. Some Chinese commentators have likened the divisions created by the hukou system to apartheid in South Africa.

    The combination of the hukou system and the long-term effects of skewed development policies have resulted in an urban-rural divide in China far greater than in countries at comparable levels of development. In low income countries in Asia, on average, urban incomes are 1.5 times greater than those in rural areas. But in China, according to UNDP figures, urban dwellers earn an average of three times the income of rural residents, with the difference rising to four times if the services, benefits and subsidies provided to the former are taken into account. According to the Chinese government, the Gini ratio, a measure of inequality, is now reaching the danger level at 0.39, and some studies have found an even higher ratio.

    The Chinese government strictly controls the transfer of people's hukou registration from one place to another. Before the late 1970s, moving from one place to another even temporarily was extremely difficult. But since the early 1980s, controls on temporary migration have relaxed as marketization of the economy has increased. This has led to a rapid increase in the number of migrants drawn to the cities by employment opportunities, with estimates of current numbers of internal migrants ranging from 100 million to 200 million.

  • New methods for control of migration

    Beginning in the early to mid-1990s, in an attempt to erect new structures of control so as to create an "orderly flow" of migrants, national and local authorities began to issue a series of policies and regulations, and set up a variety of joint institutions to cope with migrant populations in the country's cities. These regulatory frameworks, which emerged place by place at first but were eventually adopted on the national level, share a tendency towards complicated certification procedures, set quotas and punishments for violations. At their heart lay the ongoing policy of preventing migrants from changing their hukou registration, consigning them to the status of "temporary residents" not permitted to settle permanently in the city.

    In many ways, this system can be compared to regulatory regimes imposed by receiving countries on migrant guest workers. Indeed, in 1995 China's Minister of Labor Li Boyong proposed to the National People's Congress that the authorities should set up a system for controlling the movement of internal migrants similar to international passport and visa requirements. In effect, this is what has happened, at least in respect of the regulatory regime. However, this regime does not merely seek to regulate the entrance of migrants to cities, but imposes a set of discriminatory controls over their employment, health, fertility, education and housing. Over the course of the last decade, the authorities have issued a staggering array of new regulations at the national, provincial and local level that deal with all these matters.

    The certification procedures instituted by these regulations mean that, to work and live in the city legally, migrants have to apply and be approved for a range of permits at both their place of hukou registration and their urban destination. One report estimated that migrant workers would have to spend around 10 percent of their annual income on what is popularly known among them as "the permits mountain".

    Such high costs combined with cumbersome bureaucratic structures and lax enforcement mean that a majority of migrants do not have all of the necessary permits. The result is that many migrants live in a semi-illegal and tenuous state where they are cut off from the few urban benefits linked to the permit schemes, and are subject to extortion by officials, abuse by employers and ultimately the threat of detention and repatriation to their home areas.

    Government discrimination Xin the form of its development policies, the hukou system and regulations that only apply to rural-to-urban migrants, has pervasive discriminatory effects reaching into the private sphere. Rural migrants are vulnerable to a wide range of human rights violations by private individuals and groups. The government has neither prevented such private acts of discrimination nor provided adequate remedies for rural migrants who suffer these abuses.

    The media's derogatory portrayal of rural migrants as criminals and undesirables feeds the prejudice of urban dwellers, who view migrants as a drain on public resources and a threat to urban security. In this way, the PRC government has not only failed to meet its duty to protect internal migrants from violence and systematic discrimination, but has fostered hostility toward rural migrants and encouraged violations by non-state actors.

    The combination of their rural origin and ethnic and linguistic differences from the city population make most rural-to-urban migrants, but particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged of them, immediately identifiable to city people and urban officials. (Even within the population called Han Chinese - there are distinct differences of language and culture that amount to ethnic distinctions.) Ethnic lines dividing migrants and urbanites are most pronounced at work. The social and institutional bias against rural migrants is thus rooted in their ethnic identity and rural hukou status.

  • Discriminatory representation of migrants

    The derogatory term mangliu (blind drifters) has been widely used to describe all rural-to-urban migrants at least since the 1950s. To central planners, the self-initiated movement of rural migrants, as distinct from planned migration, was anarchic and chaotic. This depiction was dominant despite research showing that in reality, many migrants go to the cities with jobs in mind, established through informal networks like kinship or regional ties, rather than leaving with no particular job or destination.

    Though the term for migrant workers has shifted in recent years from the negative mangliu to the neutral mingong (literally, "civilian worker", which has the connotation of being temporary, as opposed to zhigong, "professional worker"), these negative perceptions persist in the official media. Migrants are described as loser transients, wandering about the cities in a state of aimlessness and disorder, and evincing ?little sense of law and order.

    • Drain on social services
      Government officials now usually preface criticisms of migrant laborers with a brief statement on the benefits that they have conferred on economic development. However, such routine acknowledgements are still accompanied by florid descriptions of migrants depleting state-subsidized goods and services such as electricity and water, sewage systems, food supplies, communications, transportation services and public security.

      Such representations resonate strongly among urban residents who are disturbed by the slipping away of state-subsidized services once provided by the government. Migrants are obvious scapegoats and urbanites commonly view every fresh arrival to the city as yet another threat to job security in a time of cuts in employment, and as drains on public goods and public security.

    • Excess birth guerillas

      Officials also deplore the rate of uncontrolled births among the floating population, saying this undermines the government's birth control efforts. PRC urban dwellers who regard migrants as an illegitimate burden on already strained city infrastructures have readily adopted this view and perceive migrants as a major contributor to China's population problems.

      A prevailing misconception in the cities is that migrant women workers fall outside the reaches of the population control regime and therefore give birth to an excessive number of children. The term "excess birth guerillas" (chaosheng youjidui) that is used to describe such women reflects the alarm and hyperbole which pervade urban sentiments on this issue.

      In fact, national and local governments have enacted a stream of regulations and policies to control migrants' reproductive lives. These are aimed primarily at female migrants, and in some places, women who already have the permitted number of children but do not wish to be sterilized may not be legally employed.

    • Source of crime

      The depiction of migrant workers as criminals or potential criminals is especially pervasive in the public discourse. Government officials routinely speak of a steady rise in the percentage of crimes committed by migrants. Responding to a 1996 report that approximately 10 percent of all crimes in China were committed in Guangdong Province, the province's Public Security Division Deputy Director publicly blamed the figure on the surge in migrants from other provinces.

      The urban population likewise identifies migrants with crime, citing criminality as the most important reason for suspicion and separation from the migrants. Such discrimination is fed in part by the media. Many PRC academics also echo the official line, lauding migrants for their positive impact on economic development but describing them as a drain on public goods and public security. Some cite the additional burdens imposed by migrants because of the inferior quality of their work, which in the construction sector has supposedly led to the use of substandard building materials and a higher incidence of accidents. Migrant retailers and hawkers have also been criticized for obstructing and littering the streets, selling bogus goods and cheating customers.

    • Perception versus reality

      While the problem of migrant criminality has received much attention, most appraisals of the issue have been blatantly biased. Zhao Shukai, a noted scholar of migrant workers, has pointed out that the factors that make up migrant crime statistics are somewhat misleading. For instance, the definition of "migrant" as any "non-resident", results in an overly inclusive grouping by including individuals who are not necessarily rural workers but who travel to a city expressly for criminal purposes.

      Crime figures frequently fail to capture reality. Many migrants are classified as criminals for minor public safety violations. Moreover, crime rates often do not include several types of serious criminal offenses, such as corruption and abuse of office, which are almost exclusively committed by urban people, not migrants. Finally, local urban and migrant crime rates are not directly comparable. The local urban population comprises a broad demographic profile including the elderly, women and children. By contrast, the majority of the migrant population are young men who typically have a higher incidence of involvement in crime. Based on such different population bases, the recorded rates of migrant crime are naturally overly inflated.

      Bald statements of migrant criminality do not take into account the fact that only a small percentage of migrants engage in criminal activity. The pervasive depictions of migrants as criminals and the supposed statistics of increasing migrant crime rates that accompany every story are typically not accompanied by a balancing observation that migrants are also often victims of crime. Migrants are certainly vulnerable to crime yet no assessment of this is ever been made in reports on the subject.

      Public perception of migrants has been dominated by an urban and state perspective which identifies migrants as outsiders who need to be ?put in their place. A poll conducted by Zero Point after the 1997 Spring Festival found that of 255 families surveyed in the economic beacon cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan, 17 percent found the migrants disgusting, and only one in four considered themselves sympathetic to the newcomers. Another 30 percent said they had become used to the migrants and were apathetic.

  • Impact of discrimination

    Discrimination against the rural-to-urban migrants impacts every area of their lives and their enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Below we outline just a few effects of such discrimination.

    • Conflict with locals

      The ubiquitous discrimination faced by migrant workers exacerbates conflicts with urban locals. Furthermore, Public Security Bureau researchers have reported that such prejudices partly contribute to extra-legal activities within the migrant community.

      Conflicts between locals and migrants have erupted on several occasions, including a 1995 clash between Shenzhen villagers and migrant workers brought south largely from Hunan and Hubei to work on a highway project. After a Shenzhen local drove over a road freshly tarred by migrants, a fight broke out. When other Shenzhen locals and police hastened to battle back the migrants, a riot broke out in which several migrants were arrested and police opened fire over the crowd. In the eyes of the police, we are worse than dogs, one migrant involved in the conflict told a journalist. Demonstrations and riots, exacerbated by migrant worker mistreatment and pervasive discrimination, have also flared among miners on China's northern border and workers in inland industrial centers in Hubei and Shanxi provinces.

      Furthermore, discriminatory attitudes have made it difficult for migrants to find employment. Many employers, for instance, would rather hire those who do not look like a "country bumpkin" in appearance. Employers view mingong as workers suited only for the dirty, difficult or dangerous jobs that urban-dwellers refuse to take.

      Finally, some local officials have found that control of migrants sometimes benefits their own interests, either because cheap labor and services become available, or because it increases the opportunities for institutional revenue raising and personal corruption.

    • Migrants' vulnerable status in the workplace

      Because of the official discrimination against them, migrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse in the workplace, and have difficulty accessing means to protect their rights, including official mechanisms that are supposed to enforce labor laws and regulations. The many migrant workers whose status in the city is illegal, generally do not dare to seek official assistance to deal with abuses they are facing.

      Such abuse includes forced labor, dangerous working conditions, physical assaults and unfair dismissals. In most major cities, migrants face systematic discrimination in the types of work they may take up, and they are generally excluded from government social security schemes, most of which are only available to those with urban hukou.

      • Violations of occupational health and safety
        After leaving their rural hometowns in search of better opportunities, migrant workers often find themselves laboring in extremely hazardous work environments. Safety standards in factories employing migrants are often abysmal. One study reports that in 1998 alone there were 15,000 serious accidents in Shenzhen's 9, 582 factories, where the overwhelming majority of workers are migrants. According to the study, conducted by a Worker's Daily reporter, 31 workers are rendered handicapped each day from work related accidents. Every 4 days, a worker dies due to an industrial injury.

        Long hours in dangerous work environments commonly lead to the deterioration of workers' health as well as serious accidents. PRC law defines "overtime" as any work performed beyond eight hours per day or 40 hours per week. This standard is commonly not applied to migrant workers. Many report working a minimum of 12 hours a day, sometimes even during weekends.

        Migrant workers are subjected to a range of abuses including physical violence and corporal punishment. Labor rights monitoring groups report that workers complain that it is common to be fined, scolded and beaten without reason by factory security guards. Female migrants also report that sexual harassment is common.

      • Substandard and unpaid wages
        Many migrants must put up with substandard wages that are often not paid for months at a time. Although minimum wages are set by localities, migrants often are not paid at these rates. As Anita Chan, an academic who has done important work on the situation of migrants, points out, illegally low wages that are paid late often appear to be the norm in factories that hire migrant workers. She states, the sporadic nature of payments was so prevalent that a very common question the workers asked each other was, "Have you been paid yet?", and a frequent response was, "Not yet".

        Although the Labor Law requires employers to pay employees during sick leave, many factories not only do not offer sick leave pay, but also fine workers for work absences, even when due to illness. This may explain why many migrants fail to take leave or seek medical assistance despite suffering from physical ailments or other disabilities.

      • Forced labor
        The confiscation of workers' documents contributes to what can amount to a system of bonded labor for migrant workers. In places where the cost of an urban work permit is very high, factories pay the permit cost as an advance against a worker's future wages. Under such arrangements, the worker is placed in a bonded relationship with the factory and is essentially unable to quit. In other situations, factories require that workers pay a deposit at the outset of their employment, ranging from half a month to one month's wage. Workers who quit without permission of the management, or before their contract expires, are likely to lose their deposits. Because most migrant workers cannot afford to lose such sums, they are often trapped in dangerous or abusive work environments with no ability to leave.

        There have been reports of migrant workers being held as virtual captives in quarries and brick factories and forced to work without pay. In such cases, local people and officials are generally well aware that the migrants are being made to work against their will, but they turn a blind eye to the abuses.

      • Excluded from certain occupations
        In many cases, migrants are clearly discriminated against in favor of urban workers. This is, in part, due to official policies to keep urban unemployment rates low. Large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, publish annually updated lists of job sectors where employment of migrants is prohibited. For example, on February 10, 1998, Beijing's municipal labor bureau published a notice in the Beijing Daily announcing that all migrants working as postal workers, machinists, gardeners and street sweepers should be sacked and replaced with jobless Beijing residents within 20 days. Migrants were only authorized to work in 12 sectors consisting of 198 types of work, usually of the most unpopular kind, such as in slaughterhouses, cleaning, mining, and on construction sites.

    • No Social Security

      Given the job insecurity many migrants face, social assistance is a critical issue. Some local governments have begun to implement various types of assistance programs such as medical insurance, pension schemes and unemployment assistance. However, these regulations are neither consistent nor comprehensive. Furthermore, they generally discriminate against and exclude migrant workers. Likewise proposals for health insurance schemes to replace the fraying urban social safety net focus entirely on the urban population, excluding those with rural registration, including rural-to-urban migrants.

    • Forced evictions

      Forced evictions and the destruction of unlicensed migrant shelters are also common. During the recession of 1990, there were many accounts of efforts to flatten migrant settlements, especially in Guangzhou and Beijing. This trend continued throughout the 1990s, with perhaps the most dramatic example being the demolition of Zhejiang village - the largest migrant settlement in Beijing - Xin November 1995. As with abuses in the workplace, migrants are unable to defend themselves and/or their property against such actions due to their vulnerable status within the system.

  • Arbitrary detention in "clean-ups"

    Since the late 1980s, police "clean-up" campaigns aimed at pushing or keeping migrants out of the big cities have become a common occurrence. During the recession of 1990, Beijing and Tianjin, among other big cities, forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants.

    Migrant workers and individuals without urban hukou status can be subject to arbitrary administrative detention at any time under "Custody and Repatriation" (C&R). Governed by national and local regulations, C&R allows for the detention by urban authorities of people whose household registration is not located in the city where they are living or working. People detained under this measure are generally held for a number of days and then sent back from the city to their place of origin, or bailed out by friends after paying hundreds of yuan.

    Although generally imposed for up to ten days, C&R essentially allows the police to detain anyone for any reason virtually indefinitely, without any due process at all. Detention conditions are reported to be appalling, with frequent beatings, insufficient sanitary conditions, and deprivation of food and water. Shorthanded guards often use the toughest inmates to manage the others, which results in many abuses.

    Under the vague and broad terms of national and local regulations governing C&R, those who fail to comply with the permit system can be detained at any time. Many are detained purely for not having the proper documents to show that they were permitted to live and work in that particular city. Police pick them up in the course of ID checks in migrant neighborhoods. They often claim, with no evidence, that people have committed crimes, or are holding fake documents.

    HRIC estimates that C&R now affects upwards of two million people every year. Most of those detained belong to some of the most marginalized groups in society, generally referred to by the city authorities as "three not-haves" (sanwu renyuan), having no papers, no job and no fixed abode. Articles published in professional journals for officials who operate the C&R detention centers have stated that the "vast majority" of C&R detainees are now migrant workers. Surveys have found that even in cities where compliance with the system of permits for migrants is at its highest, 20 percent of migrants do not have the necessary permits to make their stay in the city "legal." As mentioned above, it is common practice for factory managers to retain migrant workers' permits so that they cannot quit without notice. Among C&R detainees interviewed by HRIC, many were in this situation, but police who detained them refused to listen when they explained the reason why they were not carrying the documents.

    This system of detention is not only abusive, but is a clear form of discrimination against migrants, based on their rural hukou status and their appearance. Individuals are often targeted because the police hear from their language and see from their appearance that they are not from the locality. Urban people are almost never detained under C&R.

  • Conclusions and recommendations

    The hukou system supports an inherently discriminatory structure that favors urban dwellers and disadvantages rural residents. Discriminatory economic policies that have been in place since the late 1950s are reflected most simply in the disparity between urban and rural incomes.

    However, individuals in rural areas are also subjected to discriminatory treatment which deprives them of basic social rights such as the right to education, health and medical benefits, and social security assistance. These rights are guaranteed to all Chinese citizens?regardless of their regional place of origin, Xin the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which China ratified this year.

    The long-term divisions fostered by the hukou system and the official attitudes they reflect contribute to popular discrimination against migrants. The official rubric of control of migrants and preventing influx of rural-to-urban migrants presents them as a threat to urban safety and harmony, thus contributing to widespread discriminatory attitudes among urban dwellers. Migrants become convenient scapegoats for all the ills of modern city life, from overcrowded transport to crime, and city dwellers look down on them as being uncultured, ill-mannered and dirty.

    Additionally, the hukou system is a mechanism which perpetuates the systematic discriminatory treatment of individuals based on their regional place of origin and/or descent. At birth, children are registered in the hukou system at their parents' place of permanent residence, even if they were actually born at a different location. This classification results in the creation of a special category of people who are excluded from a broad range of social, economic and political entitlements. Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) specifically defines racial discrimination as:

    "Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."

    China's treatment of rural-to-urban migrants amounts to a form of racial discrimination under ICERD as it denies fundamental human rights based on a distinction of regional place of origin or descent. China ratified ICERD in 1981 and is, therefore, legally bound to uphold its provisions. Article 5 provides a list of obligations incumbent upon States Parties to respect. These include guaranteeing equal enjoyment by its citizens of:

    • the right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State - Article 5(d)(i)
    • the rights to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favorable remuneration - Article 5(e)(i)
    • the right to form and join trade unions - Article 5(e)(ii)
    • the right to housing - Article 5(e)(iii)
    • the right to public health, medical care, social security and social services - Article 5(e)(iv)
    • the right to education and training - Article 5(e)(v)

    HRIC urges the Chinese government to ensure that internal migrants enjoy equal access to such rights, and related protections.

    As recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Chinese government should incorporate a definition of discrimination as broad as that in ICERD Article 1 into national laws prohibiting racial discrimination, thus ensuring that discrimination against rural residents and internal migrants may also be banned under such legislation.

    In the light of its obligations under ICERD, China should also review governmental, national and local policies, and amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating discrimination against rural migrants, including eliminating the distinction in the hukou system between urban and rural registration.

    China should also abolish detention under Custody and Repatriation, fulfilling the recommendation of the Committee Against Torture that it eliminate all forms of administrative detention.

    Local and national governments within the PRC should also address discriminatory attitudes against rural migrants through teaching and public education measures.

    The Durban Declaration and Plan of Action should highlight the need for proper protections for the rights of internal migrants, and should acknowledge that they often face many of the same problems of discrimination and deprivation of rights as trans-national migrants.

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