Tipping the Scales: Inequality in Mainland China and Methods to Influence Reform

ImagenThe People’s Republic of China is rife with inequality. One of the most striking examples of this can be found in their hukou system, a household registration policy that binds citizens to their hometown provinces. Those in more rural parts of China are generally granted farming land, while those in cities usually have access to better education and job opportunities. Over the last two decades, this system has become increasingly outdated and discriminatory. Updates to China’s tax system have made farming unprofitable in many regions, forcing millions of citizens to seek work outside of their home province.
China’s nearly 150 million migrant workers are denied health insurance and domiciles outside of their hometown, and are often subjugated by contractors and construction companies for work as menial laborers. Their children are denied access to free education outside of their home province, and while many of them attend school in their registered region, the education they receive is predominantly inferior to that available in cities. As a result many of these children perform poorly on their 高考 (gaokao), China’s college entrance exam, struggle to gain acceptance into university, and find themselves following in their parents’ footsteps as migrant workers. Due to their lack of freedom of expression, it is unlikely for the majority of China’s population to achieve eradication of China’s hukou system because they are unable to utilize modes of public communication to rally support. Additionally, since China is not a democracy, but an oligarchy with state-capitalistic economic policies, it is unrealistic for the state to reform against its interests. In order to properly address the issue of inequality in China and bolster the rights of migrant workers, China’s civic attitudes require a paradigm shift. Through an increased sense of empathy for its fellow citizens, and heightened confrontation, China’s population will be better equipped to repeal the hukou system.
A greater sense of empathy is a strong catalyst for social change. Through identifying with one’s fellow citizens, one is more inclined to fight for equality and support policies that aim to improve their status in society. This is made evident by the fact that homogeneous populations that share culture, such as Sweden, tend to support welfare and policies aimed at promoting equality more than diverse populations like the United States (Rahn, 2). China is in many ways a divided country with fifty-six different ethnicities, and a deep divide between modern, propitious and rural, underdeveloped provinces. The violent conflicts that occurred in Xinjiang three years ago between hans and muslim immigrants epitomizes this divide within Mainland China. The drastic inequality and lack of understanding between China’s citizens stymies efforts at building a coalition towards migrant worker equality. By empathizing more with one’s fellow Chinese countrymen, and constructing a unified Chinese identity, China’s expansive population will be able to effectively band together and demand legitimate reform.
In a country that lacks a fundamental right to free expression and suffrage, a unified faction intent on elevating migrant workers’ rights is ineffectual without confrontation. This is also due in part to the fact that promoting migrant workers rights conflicts with the Communist party’s economic interests. Through subjugating fifteen percent of the population, the People’s Republic of China benefits from a surplus of laborers willing to work for nominal compensation. In many ways migrant workers are responsible for China’s rapid development. They have built wondrous skyscrapers, paved the asphalt on China’s ever-growing highway system, and constructed high-speed trains that have cultivated China’s economy. Advancing the rights of migrant workers would interfere with the Chinese government’s goals of economic and technological development. Only through directly challenging General Secretary Xi Jinping and the communist party can Chinese citizens effectively foster equality reform.
While confrontation ideally would be an effective mean by which to affect social reform, one might argue, in a country with such glaring inequality and widespread fear of government repercussions, that united public opposition would never materialize in the form of confrontation. Chinese citizens, conditioned by an oppressive autocratic government, tend to adhere to authority and may not be as likely to seek confrontation as peers in democracies. While the concept of millions of oppressed migrant workers being galvanized into action is feasible, they might lack the skills and know-how to properly organize without drawing an immediate and pre-emptive response from a militarized and watchful government. To their credit, successfully confronting China’s autocratic government is no small feat. In 1989, the world watched as thousands of local residents and college students marched upon Tiananmen Square. The government subdued the opposition through military occupation, arrests, and the murders of an unknown number of protestors.
While this might illustrate the population’s ineffectual attempt at confronting the government, China’s citizens are more than up for the task. Despite the fact that the nearly half-million college students and Beijing locals who marched upon Tiananmen were suppressed by tanks and firepower, some have argued that if an incident on par with this uprising were to occur again, that China’s government would be powerless to respond (Yu Xiaodong). This argument gains credence from the fact that the communist party currently conducts more domestic polls and surveys than any other totalitarian regime in the world (Drench). Such attention to public opinion leads one to believe that China’s government is acutely aware of its inability to adequately address growing dissent in Mainland China. In V for Vendetta, V, a government dissident, says, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” Given that the Chinese government strategically blocks web sites that mention sensitive topics, such as the Jasmine Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, continues to suppress political dissidents, and actively censors magazines and newspapers throughout its twenty-two provinces, one can surmise that the government is terrified by the potential domino effect of allowing so much as a single protest to occur.
If a few hundred thousand Chinese citizens were to march across Tiananmen Square tomorrow it is likely that protests would emerge across China, and that the government would be powerless to crush the growing movement. There will always be strength in numbers, and China’s 1.3 billion people wield extraordinary power. While China’s military reserves consist of nearly five million soldiers, the act of mobilizing them takes time and planning. Overcoming conditioning and a legitimate aversion to opposing authority will prove difficult, but once Chinese citizens are roused into action the viability of such a confrontation is almost assured.
Successful confrontation could yield some temporary social change, but it is important to recognize the implications of such drastic action. A radical restructuring of China’s government might follow, which is a splendid idea in theory, but carries potentially adverse side effects. With so many conflicting interests in the world’s most populous country, democratization would lead to a less effective and inherently unstable government, and a military coup would certainly not be out of the question. Fareed Zakaria might also argue that before implementing democracy in modern day China, constitutional liberalism must first be firmly established, otherwise China would simply become an illiberal democracy in which a dictator rules under the guise of democracy (2). As much as China’s issues of inequality require action within China, it could also benefit greatly from international intervention. Western countries, through their importation of Chinese goods are indirectly supporting an economic system that promotes inequality and discrimination. It is something every American should consider the next time they purchase a good with a tag that says “Made in China”.

Works Cited
Drench, Peter. “Government’s Evolving Role.” Modern Day China. Phillips Academy Andover, Andover. 12 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
Rahn, Richard. “Obama And The Swedish Welfare State | The Brussels Journal.” The Brussels Journal. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.
V for Vendetta. Dir. James Teigue. Perf. Natalie Portman and Victor Hugo. Warner Bros. Home Video, 2006. DVD.
Xiaodong, Yu. Personal interview. 5 July 2009.
Zakaria, Fareed. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs, November/December (1997): Print.

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