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 Yet beneath this shining veneer, an outdated Maoist institution continues to define the life chances of Chinese citizens: it’s called “hukou”.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.


 

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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