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02/01/2006

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Date Posted: 10:34 17/12/2003



Peasants in pre-holiday crime spree shock

A Merry Chinese New Year coming up for China's 100 million migrant workers


AROUND ABOUT this time of year, the Chinese media is stuffed full of cautionary words. As we approach the Spring Festival, the growling mass of migrant workers (mingong) suddenly realize that their pockets are empty, and because they don't have enough money to go and see their folks, they decide to go on a criminal rampage throughout the cities before scurrying back home.

And so, police officers march through the carriages of all Shanghai's inbound trains, checking the ID cards of passengers (no such checks exist on the outbound route), and new crackdowns on beggars and subway pedlars are already beginning. The press, including Beijing's Youth Daily, publish notices issued by the local police, warning residents to maintain their vigilance. Cabbies even tell Running Dog that at this time of year, they never accept passengers of a rural persuasion.

Anyone familiar with the pages of Shanghai Daily will be aware of the regard in which the mingong is held in China. The rag's daily crime section is cluttered with one-paragraph accounts of gap-toothed scammers from the Anhui farming belt, of pickpocketing hookers from Sichuan, or of minor gangs just in from the Jiangsu sticks, mugging and pilfering their way through the high streets before somehow bumbling their way into the arms of the law.

Earlier in the year, the mingong were also being blamed for the spread of SARS. The Western press, apocalyptic as ever, usually described them as a 'time bomb' about to explode and infect the entire nation, bursting into the cities like locusts and returning to their villages like rats. We heard tales of plague-ridden yokels flouncing from the city hospitals and taking the next heavily-populated train back home, contaminating everyone along the route.

Meanwhile, in a recent debate about an itinerant mass murderer moving through the provinces of central China, some blamed the loosening of the traditional household registration system, done in order to ease the passage of rural workers into the urban factories. We were, apparently, about to see a host of illiterate sociopaths descending upon the cities with their scythes, their knives, their vials of rat poison.

And who can forget those tales about a rural 'army of single men' - 90 million in all, according to demographers - unable to find wives in a countryside increasingly imbalanced by the One Child Policy?

We also hear of their endless mistreatment. As well as all the customary prejudices against outsiders that often prevail in big cities like Shanghai, the mingong also have to worry about not getting any money. We now hear that a huge salary backlog has left many rural migrants in even deeper penury, according to a number of reports in the local and national press, with some construction firms accused of deliberately delaying payment.

Bearing in mind that they are not actually being compensated for clambering up the sides of buildings, feeding their arms into threshing machines, demolishing ancient apartments with their bare gnarled hands, diving headfirst into blocked sewers and washing the windows of the Jinmao Tower using just a piece of rope and their own damp sock, it seems understandable that they turn to crime, and even Running Dog is prepared to forgive the impertinent scruff who tried to prise open the iron gate of our apartment and steal our shoes only a couple of weeks ago.

There is a contradiction, of course. The cities need them to fill the gaps in the labour market, particularly in the construction sector, and the central government is constantly encouraging the movement of labour from the overmanned farms to the cities. Urbanization is crucial for the development of China, and not just economically: giving opportunities to the dirt-poor residents of the countryside is one way of ensuring political stability in a nation where the discrepancies between urban and rural incomes grow ever wider.

The government is as scared of the rural population as any effete urbanite, apparently drawing on some cultural memory of the Taiping Rebellion, when millions of downtrodden farmers suddenly had the Empire within their grasp.

In any case, the urbanization targets are a massive undertaking. The current rate stands at about 35%, and the government aims to lift that to 50% by 2020, and to 70% by 2050. That means a change in lifestyle for more than 400 million peasants. It will also require a cultural transformation in the cities themselves.

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