‘Low-end population’ of the economic miracle

Untouchables, in sociological terms, refer to people belonging to a group of very low social status and are ostracized from the mainstream of society.

According to anthropologist Sarah Pinto, in the name of untouchability, India’s Dalit communities have faced “work and descent-based discrimination at the hands of the dominant castes.” Despite laws to protect them, Dalits are still facing widespread discrimination and fighting untouchability in contemporary India.

Historically, the practice of class or ethnical discrimination was not limited to India alone. Cagots in France and Spain, Burakumin in Japan, and Baekjeong in Korea, were just few examples in a long list of “untouchable” groups.

Traditionally, China has not had an “untouchable” group, and constitutionally all Chinese citizens today are equal. Since 2010, however, a new term, “di duan ren kou,” or “low-end population,” has surfaced in China’s state media and went viral among 800 million Chinese netizens. The “low-end population,” according to Gabriele Battaglia of South China Morning Post, is a “cold bureaucratic definition of low value-added manual jobs that somehow expanded to designate the people who do those jobs.”

In today’s China, people who have to do those “low value-added manual jobs” in cities and factories are mainly rural migrant workers. According to the annual statistics of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, there were 281.7 million rural migrant workers working in Chinese cities in 2016, making up approximately 35 percent of China’s total workforce of 807 million.

While migrant workers have served as the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades, millions of migrant workers pouring into cities has also posed a policy dilemma for the government. “In China,” noted Zheping Huang of Quartz Media, “people are to receive their government benefits, including health care and social security, according to the city where their hu kou, or household registration, is recorded. Over past decades, the hu kou system became more flexible to encourage people to leave the land and take up jobs. But amid increasing traffic jams, limited water resources and notorious air pollution, Beijing has recently launched a series of campaigns to force migrant workers out of the city, including attempts to tear down neighborhood shops and markets where they work, and prevent their children from entering local schools. Other big cities, such as Shanghai, have also tightened controls over migrants in order to rein in population growth and access to services.”

It was Beijing city government that led the charge against the massive influx of the “low-end population.” “It all began on November 18,” reported the South China Morning Post, “when a fire killed 19 migrants in the village of Xinjiancun – part of the southern suburb of Daxing in Beijing. The Beijing government immediately ordered a campaign to demolish thousands of unauthorized houses in the city and evict the migrant workers occupying these rickety premises. The execution has been rapid and clinically efficient, wiping out whole neighborhoods.”

The mass eviction, reports Charlotte Gao of The Diplomat, “has prompted public outrage and more than 100 Chinese intellectuals have signed a petition urging the top Chinese authorities to immediately stop the eviction, which they called ‘vicious conduct that breaks the law and the Constitution and seriously tramples on human rights’.” The government, the widely publicized letter continues, “has an obligation to be grateful towards all Chinese citizens, instead of being forgetful and repaying the country people with arrogance, discrimination and humiliation – especially the bottom income group.”

Campaigns to evict “low-end population” from cities are causing economic instability and social uproar in China. China’s economic miracle is also a “migrant miracle” – the migrant work force has powered the country’s industrial rise and seemingly endless economic growth. One of the “secrets” behind the rapid economic growth in China since 1980s is its “vast and cheap labor.” “The three decades of breakneck economic growth,” says Gabriel Wildau of Financial Times, “is fuelled by the unprecedented migration of labor from the unproductive farm sector to work in factories and on construction sites.”

Two cornerstones of the Chinese economic miracle, social stability and migrant workers, seem to have come head to head. If the Chinese government can resolve the dilemma, it will give a much-needed boost to the Chinese economy.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.