In China, there's no freedom of movement, even between country and city

A man walks past a billboard in Beijing. Image: Getty.

In recent years, China has gained a global reputation for its juggernaut economy and breathtaking social change. Yet beneath this shining veneer, an outdated Maoist institution continues to define the life chances of Chinese citizens: it’s called “hukou”.

Hukou is a kind of passport system, which limits access to public services, based on the birthplace of the holder. It was first established in 1954 to immobilise China’s large rural population, as China’s Chairman Mao Zedong sought to contain any possible challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new autocratic regime. The result was a highly segregated society.

Having an urban hukou allowed citizens to enjoy privileged access to public services such as education, health, housing and pensions. Meanwhile, citizens with a rural hukou were more or less deprived of access to the country’s limited welfare system, and unable to move freely to China’s more affluent urban centres along the east coast.

Rush to the city

After Mao died in 1976, realities on the ground gradually began to change. Young Chinese people who had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (from 1966 to 1976) were returning to the cities. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, China’s economy picked up steam, drawing millions of rural migrants into urban industrial clusters to become low-wage labourers.

Rural dwellers were attracted by the new job opportunities, which promised an escape from abject poverty in China’s countryside. But migrating from the countryside to the city came with its own challenges. While it provided a pathway for social upward mobility, rural migrants routinely experienced discrimination at the hands of Chinese city-dwellers. Rural migrants mostly carried out dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs, which urbanites were not willing to do.

Walking away. Image: Renato @ Mainland China/Flickr/creative commons.

To make matters worse, the strict hukou system made it almost impossible for rural migrants to bring their families with them to the city. As a result, China’s countryside is now populated primarily by elderly people, women and children. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 61m children have been left behind in China’s villages, to be looked after by older siblings or grandparents. Many suffer from psychological problems caused by the long-term separation from their parents.

The CCP has been mindful of these challenges, and has introduced economic policies – such as Building a New Socialist Countryside – to improve infrastructure and economic development in rural China. But these investments have neither stemmed the flow of rural-urban migration, nor addressed the core issue of increasing social inequality.

The road to reform

In recent years, the CCP has announced piecemeal reforms to the hukou system, to try to allow some of the 236m migrants living away from home to acquire an urban hukou and gain extra entitlements. A number of municipalities have introduced an Australian-style, points-based system, which means applicants who meet certain criteria become eligible for urban hukou.

The government has encouraged cities to relax their criteria, but requirements for first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai remain far more onerous than those for second and third-tier cities in other parts of China. What’s more, additional caps on rural migrants means that in practice, only a fraction of those who are eligible are actually granted urban hukou.

Hukou reforms are also complicated by the fact that land reform has made little progress in China. Rural Chinese are wary of giving up their rural hukou, which entitles them to a small plot of land. Such land use rights provide a limited safety net for rural Chinese – particularly those who do not enjoy the benefits of an urban pension.

Tough choice: rural hukou (left) and Beijing temporary residence permit (right). Image: Rolex Dela Pena/EPA.

In China, the distinction between citizens with rural or urban hukou is increasingly seen as arbitrary. In 2008, some Chinese citizens called on the CCP to abolish the system in its entirety. Signatories of Charter 08 – a progressive manifesto for the future of China – said that an alternative system should be established, which “gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live”.

So far, the CCP has ignored calls to abolish the hukou system. Some authors of Charter 08 have even been imprisoned. Meaningful reform of the hukou system will require the party to be more open to bottom-up, civil society initiatives and policy advice, to level the playing field for both rural and urban Chinese citizens.The Conversation

Andreas Fulda is assistant professor in the School of Politics & International Relations/Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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