The problem is that most of these people are merely temporary urban residents. When they lose their job in a factory or on a construction site, or can no longer bear the stress of city life, their enduring ties to the countryside inevitably draw them back to their rural birthplaces.
The incoming administration of Xi Jinping has identified continued large-scale urbanization as the most powerful potential driver of China’s economy — yet it is actually a partially reversible phenomenon built on shaky foundations.
“There are some 200 million people who have entered cities but have not yet become [permanent] urban residents,” Chen Xiwen, head of the Communist Party office on rural policy and deputy head of the party’s office of financial affairs, told a forum in late January. “This is a big problem that we need to deal with in the future urbanization process,” he said, while estimating that China’s true urbanization rate is about 35 percent, rather than the official figure of 53 percent.
Wu Deming, 43, is one of the temporary urban residents who remain stubbornly rural.
Sitting in waiting room No. 4 in the enormous Beijing train station, surrounded by thousands of others just like him, he says he has no desire to live for the rest of his life in the Chinese capital. As soon as he has saved enough to build himself a modest house in his village in Manchuria, he will return to be with the rest of his family.
Of his rural neighbors on the outskirts of Sanyuan township, he estimates that 40 to 50 percent of them have moved temporarily to big cities to find work, but that “basically all of them plan to come back and live in their home eventually.”
“Life in the city is not for us — we can’t get an urban household registration, we can’t earn much money, we can never afford to buy an apartment in the city, and if we get sick we have to pay a lot,” Wu said. “Back in the village, our family has a plot of land that my elder brother cultivates while I’m gone, and when I get old, I can just grow enough food for us to eat.”
Reform of the household registration, or “hukou,” system is one of the first tasks that the new administration is expected to tackle.
China’s outdated and discriminatory hukou system classifies citizens as either rural or urban and ties all of their social benefits, including health care, education, pensions and even employment, to their place of birth.
This means that most migrants to the cities find it difficult to access even basic services in their new places of residence, so they often leave their families behind and live the most temporary lives in dormitories and makeshift dwellings.