Illegal immigrants in their own country: China’s migrant workers

Doors sealed off by authorities after residents were evicted from a migrant village on the outskirts of Beijing. Image: Getty.

Last year, eight-year-old Wang Fuman went viral in China. Covered in ice after walking an hour and a half to school, he featured in government media as a testament to the determination of the poorer Chinese to secure a good education. But he also shows the effects of the government’s Household Registration System (Hukou) that separates urbanities from rural China.

Before his fame, his father was a migrant worker whom he saw twice a year. Neither his home nor his school had central heating. He spent his time outside the classroom tending his grandmother’s farm and subsisted on a diet of boiled potatoes. He was one of the hundreds of millions of losers in the Hukou lottery.

Wang Fuman, after his treacherous jouney to school. Image: author provided.

The system originally controlled the movement of Chinese people, with changing registration from one place to another almost impossible. In times of famine, being registered to a rural area could be a death sentence.

Nowadays urbanities can relatively easily transfer their registration between two cities in the same tier (every Chinese city is classified into one of four tiers based on population, GDP and whether it is a provincial capital). Once leisure travel was almost impossible tourism, but now it is a trillion-dollar industry fuelled mostly by China’s newly rich, urban registered middle class.

Those registered in rural areas are now free to move to the city – and hundreds of millions have. But when they arrive, they usually cannot transfer their registration. This means they have no access to the local ‘minimum level’ service, which tops up incomes for the urban working poor and provides a workfare program for the unemployed.

They often also lose their land in the countryside. They have limited access to non-emergency care in urban hospitals, which are of much higher quality than rural ones. Their children cannot be educated in urban schools. Fees can sometimes be paid to allow access, but this is too expensive for most migrants, who are left with the option of either sending their children to low-standard, illegal private schools in the city or leaving them behind with relatives in the village. Some children spend their entire childhood living apart from their parents, just so they can access a second rate rural education – with education spending in cities around 10 times higher than in nearby rural areas.   

Last autumn, the Beijing local government destroyed the homes of thousands of people with rural Hukou, urging them to ‘go back home’ to villages thousands of miles away that many had not seen in decades.

While this campaign was eventually halted after outrage from both the public and government media organisations, it shows how precarious the existence of those with rural Hukou is. Around 250 million rural people who have moved to the city are illegal immigrants in their own country. Those unable to make the move forgo wages that are three to four times higher in the cities. At least 30 million Chinese people still live in extreme poverty – almost all of them in the countryside.   

Hukou is therefore a massive anchor on Chinese growth. While urban-based industries and service sectors struggle to fill vacancies for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, Chinese agriculture is over-manned and inefficient.

While China’s economic growth is impressive and shows no sign of stopping, it no longer follows the trajectory of countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which went from a near universal extreme poverty to near universal prosperity in a generation.

Many economists blame Hukou for China continued status as a middle-income country, with World Bank China expert Yukon Huang estimating it reduces China’s growth by one per cent every year. Reports calling for its abolition surface regularly from the most prestigious Chinese universities and the Central Party School.

Yet after 20 years of talking about reforming Hukou, the system has changed very slowly – and the latest attempt at giving 100 million migrants urban Hukou by 2020 has made almost no progress. There are three main reasons for this:  

Firstly, second class citizens are cheaper than first class citizens. Cities that already run massive budget deficits are not keen to start providing education, healthcare and welfare to all their citizens.

Secondly, despite the hundreds of millions of losers created by the system, there are also plenty of winners. If you are one of the 12 million registered residents of Beijing, you currently receive some of the best healthcare in the country and your children have access to some of the best education in the world. If the 8 million unregistered were allowed in, standards would probably drop.

Beijing natives already ridiculously blame migrants, who must apply for a new car permit every week, for the city’s traffic and pollution problems. Those with rural Hukou have been assaulted for trying to get their children into local schools. While obviously not all urban hukou holders have these attitudes, privileged people are unlikely to give up their privileges without complaint – and unrest could well result from rapid changes.

Finally, central government reforms have to be implemented by local city officials; many of whom share the worst prejudices of the urban middle class they almost all come from. With dozens of party workers in Beijing caught referring to migrants with rural Hukou as ‘the low-end population’ in internal documents, change does not look like it is coming anytime soon.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.