Qin Hui, “China as Seen from South Africa: The ‘Miracle’ of ‘Cities without Slums’,” Part Three
Translation by David Ownby
The Miracle of Cities without Slums (1): Soweto
Once you have a “temporary residence permit,” the next question is where to “temporarily reside.” Generally speaking, the large number of urban poor that appear during industrialization and urbanization are often not what people think, which is that there is a “polarization” of the original population, and some people “fall into” the slums. In fact, the “ghettos” that form as countries urbanize throughout the world are often made up of new migrants coming from outside the cities.
Logically speaking, these new migrants would have the following possibilities in terms of housing: if they are rich enough, they could buy or rent private housing; if they are poor and unable to do this, then in “welfare countries,” they can apply to the government for cheap public housing. But in “laissez-faire” countries, poor people without housing benefits have the “freedom” to build their own shacks, or rent “low-rent private houses,” both of which are often called slums. One characteristic of “Latin Americanization” is that their cities have expansive ghettos, something that has been roundly criticized.
Westerners generally criticize the phenomenon of slums because they sympathize with the poor and hope that the state will provide housing benefits to improve their living conditions, and they are certainly not advocating the removal of the poor. They often cannot imagine that there is any place to which the poor could be removed. Hence when they see a city without ghettos, they think there are no “poor people” and are full of praise.
Of course, South Africa never earned this kind of praise, because blacks and whites both know that if there are no slums in South Africa’s “white cities,” it is because the blacks (the poor) have been forcibly “cleaned up.” But in China it’s not that “black and white,” and there are people who say: over 200 million migrant workers have entered China’s cities over the past few years, which constitutes urbanization on an unprecedented scale, yet there are no slums, an “unparalleled miracle in world history!” But these people stop before asking the next question: where are the migrant workers that entered China’s cities? Before answering this question, let’s first look at where South Africa’s migrant labor lived.
According to the desires of the authorities, migrant workers should keep their homes in the black homelands, and come alone to the cities to work. When they were no longer young, say in their late thirties, they should return to their homelands to live out the rest of their days. Because South Africa enforced tribal ownership of black land, prohibiting blacks from privately, buying, selling, and disposing of the “allocations” that tribes assign to families (see below), the officials assumed that they had a “place of return” in the homelands, and the city did not have to worry about what happened to them once their youth was spent. This meant that as long as they could ban them from illegitimate squatting, then everything would be fine. So the authorities built “dormitory towns” or “dormitory compounds” at the edges of the “white cities,” and set up commuter traffic between the dormitory areas and the work zones.
To Western journalists, the living environment of these single young workers was like “something between a jail and a British boarding school.” The white cities kept their reputation of being “without slums.” Everywhere were sky-scrapers, parks and gardens, beautiful architecture, everything planned and orderly, stately and secure, with nothing like New York’s Harlem or Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town were known as "the most beautiful cities in the southern hemisphere." Apologists for apartheid trumpeted their pride in this “orderly urbanization,” and often sneered at those countries who urged them to end apartheid (especially the United States, with its large black population), arguing that Detroit and Chicago were full of slums and dangerous because blacks had been allowed to pour into the cities, proving that America’s “disorderly urbanization” was a failure.
Although Western journalists condemned the black dormitory areas on the margins of the white cities, if truth be told, the conditions in many of these dormitories were no worse than what we find in the “sheds” where migrant workers live together in Chinese cities, and in purely architectural terms they are better than many of the shantytowns built by South African black workers. In addition, commuting from the shantytowns is often inconvenient, and not as developed as in the dormitory areas. Yet South African blacks all felt that it is better to live together with other family members in a black shantytown than to live as a single male migrant worker in concentrated dormitories.
At the end of the apartheid period, the two even became important social divisions. At the time, most of the Xhosa laborers, who made up a large percentage of black labor and had been in the cities for some time, were settled in the slums, while the Zulu workers, who had a shorter history in the city, were mostly single workers living in collective dormitories. During the period of political transition in South Africa, cities such as Johannesburg experienced many bloody conflicts between black workers, especially between Xhosa and Zulu laborers. At the time, they were generally referred to as “tribal conflicts,” but other factors, including white provocations and party disputes, also played a role. At the same time, many researchers found that the main issue was differences in social status. The single Zulu single workers felt that the Xhosa families looked down on them. The primary difference between collective dormitories and the slum communities was that those living in the former could not build family lives.
During protests by South African blacks, slogans condemned this system for having “destroyed the family” and “destroyed the children,” and an ANC publication pointed out that almost all migrants are “separated from the family for a long time,” and that “for young and sexually active couples, long-term separation will lead to family breakdown.” Many migrant workers for this reason “have never formed a family.” This system created a serious ethical crisis: “It leads to illegitimate children, bigamy, prostitution, homosexuality and alcoholism; it undermines the protection of parents (of their children), and leads to malnutrition, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.” In economic terms, family separation and the frequent back and forth of “migration” increase the cost of living and reduced the quality of life.
At the same time, military-style collective dormitory areas discouraged commerce, and there were few informal employment opportunities such as street vending. Apart from working in white enterprises, there was no way to make a living, and nowhere to live. This further reduced the possibility of bargaining between labor and enterprises, and reduced the wages of those living in the dormitories when compared to those living in the shantytowns.
All of this made people feel that collective dormitories were worse than slums. Hence migrant workers continually struggled for a place to set up families. South African authorities were not about to provide them with cheap public housing, and even less would they allow them to erect shantytowns in the white cities, which would disturb their peace and destroy their aesthetics. So after a long-term debate over whether to “clean up” the slums, South African authorities finally decided on the option of a “city outside the city” where blacks could establish their families. The model for this was Soweto, the “black township” close to Johannesburg.
Beginning around 1910, the shanties and cheap rental housing occupied by blacks in the Johannesburg region began to increase gradually, which created conflicts with the authorities’ “city management” measures. In order to maintain the “image” of the “most beautiful city in the Southern hemisphere,” the authorities, even as they condemned black family shantytowns in Johannesburg as “illegal constructions” and ordered their forced removal, in 1930 carved out the Western Areas where blacks were allowed to rebuild their huts, in what was then the Western suburbs of Johannesburg.
At the outset, the Western Areas were completely the product of the will of the authorities, and at any moment, whites could use the PISA (Prohibition of Illegal Squatting Act) to “remove illegal construction,” “abolish the slums” and kick the blacks out. Following the rapid expansion of the city of Johannesburg, the Western Areas as originally allocated became an obstacle to the expansion of the white city some ten years later. In order to expand the city and develop the real estate market in the Western Areas, the blacks would have to be removed to a more distant suburb. Hence, in 1945, the authorities abolished the Western Areas and set up the “Southwestern Township” in the southwestern suburbs for black workers. This was some twenty kilometers from the center of Johannesburg; in Beijing terms, this would be like moving the blacks from beyond the second ring road to beyond the fourth ring road.
“Soweto” is the abbreviation for “South Western Township.” Many blacks had another explanation for the abbreviation, which was that Soweto meant “so where to?” because whites wouldn’t let blacks go anywhere else. This is the origin of the typically South African “apartheid slum” that is universally condemned. Clearly, the reason that this arrangement is universally condemned is not because blacks were allowed to settle there, but because they were not allowed to settle anywhere else. Some people in China argue that South Africa’s greatest crime is allowing Soweto to exist, meaning that China has done something great in preventing the emergence of such sites. This is turning things on their head.
In fact, at the outset Soweto was created by the authorities as a “collective dormitory area,” but since blacks insisted on “building their own,” whites decided to no longer “clean up” this area in which they did not live. Later on, people built simple homes to rent to blacks, and Soweto grew to be a sprawling slum with three types of residences: collective dormitories, self-built huts, and simple rental units. Each of these three served in turn as the main form of residence in Soweto as apartheid evolved from the early period to the end. Collective dormitories were most important at the outset, followed by self-built huts, and finally cheap rental units.
The terrible conditions of Soweto under apartheid were known throughout the world. Run-down housing as far as the eye could see, a population of more than two million by 1980, much greater than the rest of Johannesburg, rudimentary public services, poor public safety, social unrest…The crime rate was extremely high, and all of the events that sparked the black resistance struggle began here, the “cradle of the revolution” of the black liberation movement. Yet the neighboring white city of Johannesburg was prettier than European and American cities because it “didn’t have slums,” and the contrast between “the paradise of Johannesburg and the hell of Soweto” was painfully obvious.
After the abolition of apartheid, the South African workers of the democratic South Africa earned the right of free abode, and the collective dormitories are now mostly occupied by foreign workers. And the self-built huts and the cheap rental units have gradually been replaced by the cheap public housing of the new South African welfare state. At the same time, the new government subsidizes and encourages blacks to buy and build houses, which means that more and more blacks have their own proper homes.
As market competition has been extended to blacks in the period following democratization, economic divisions have begun to appear among blacks, who were once universally poor. A black bourgeoisie has arisen, and luxury housing for bourgeois and rich blacks has appeared in Soweto. At the same time, basic city services such as electricity, water, communications and medical care have clearly improved, and there are many stadiums and schools. A painting on a city wall proclaims “Soweto Uplifting!” Today’s Soweto has already evolved from what was once a pure slum to a normal city where rich and poor live together. So Soweto now means “so where to?” as in “so where to? Soweto, of course!”
But from another perspective, after the abolition of apartheid, Johannesburg is no longer a “white people’s paradise.” After large numbers of blacks moved into Johannesburg with the end of the strict “city management policies” that had targeted them, the problems of slums, homelessness, and squalor have increased considerably. Even more serious is that the security situation in Johannesburg since democratization has steadily declined. Some people call this the “Detroit phenomenon:” as public security declines and the inner city loses its luster, the rich and the big companies hasten to move to the suburbs, where there appear all sorts of luxury areas…
Compared with the apartheid era, today’s Johannesburg looks a lot more like “Latin America” (it is often said that a characteristic of Latin American cities is that they have a lot of slums), but this is not Latin Americanization in our sense, because Latin America did not emerge from a background of apartheid. South Africa’s problems should be discussed in the context of a comparison with developed, democratic welfare states.
No matter how bad Latin Americanization gets, no one envies the “orderly urbanization” of the old South Africa. South America’s current problems should be seen as the “labor pains” of the abolition of apartheid. During apartheid, South America’s cities were very clean, and public safety was excellent, but all of this is against a backdrop of apartheid. I propose that we call this “pre-Latin Americanization,” in the sense that Johannesburg was a privileged, “beautiful city” built on a foundation of the lack of freedom of movement.
So behind this beauty was the deprivation of the human rights of the blacks, which means that it was even more backward than Latin America. And while there was a time during the democratic period after the abolition of apartheid when there were problems with city management—let’s call this Latin Americanization—compared with the “pre-Latin Americanized” “beautiful city,” this was a sign of progress. The consensus in South Africa today is that problems of urban management are problems encountered in the course of progress. These problems must be resolved, but there is no question of returning to the “pre-Latin America” situation, and even if South African cities at the time were clean and “orderly,” for the black majority these were not their cities, and there was nothing to be proud of.
In fact, even before democratization, following the rise and fall of apartheid, the attitude of the authorities toward “slums” evolved. Soweto’s appearance in the “Southern Areas” was also the result of apartheid’s depriving blacks of freedom of movement and residence, and was condemned as such throughout the world. But with the rise of the black rights movement, the authorities could no longer do as they had done fifty years earlier and move blacks from beyond the second ring road to beyond the fourth ring road; they could not ask them to move further away. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Johannesburg had expanded yet again, and almost all of its satellite white communities were surrounded by Soweto, but blacks’ residence rights in Soweto could not be taken away, and the authorities could not move them to beyond the fifth ring road.
In fact, setting aside questions of “real estate development” and “beautiful cities,” Soweto had already become the center of black resistance organization and activities. So why did the white government not think about abolishing Soweto just as they had abolished the Southern Areas, solely for political reasons? Because they couldn’t do it.
But China can still do it! This what I’ll discuss below, and I’ll start by answering the question “where do China’s migrant workers live?”
The Miracle” of Cities without Ghettos” (2): China's "Dormitory Labor System”
Poor people cannot afford to buy (or rent) regular private housing. This is true the world over. Like South Africa, China’s city governments will not provide temporary residents with cheap public housing or with housing benefits (subsidies). In the past few years, some cities hoping to resolve the problem of “those with middle and low income” forcibly took land from the peasants and built acres of “cheap mansions 廉价豪宅,” also called “affordable housing,” that poor people can’t afford and that rich people take advantage of.
Some people even went so far as talk with relish about the luck they had in ripping off poor people, saying “It was pure luck that Tiantongyuan 天通苑 didn’t become a huge slum.” “If Tiantongyuan had really been built the way poor people wanted, then the whole thing would have been tiny units of less than 80 square meters, all of which would have been sold to low-income poor households, which would have been a huge slum of 100,000 people,” which would have created all sorts of problems. Some people even oppose lowering the standard or the price of any private dwelling, saying, “be careful or you’ll turn middle and low-cost housing into a slum!”
So it turns out to be “right” to cheat the poor, and if we must be vigilant when housing prices fall to the point that poor folks can afford them, then how can we talk about public housing? We should immediately point out that these “poor households” that are being cheated are not migrant workers, because the policy clearly states that these “middle and low income” buyers must have a Beijing residence permit. In other words, migrant workers don’t yet have the right to be cheated, the authorities can’t be bothered to cheat them, because they should never dream of receiving the slightest welfare benefits.
And for the “temporary residents” that have to slap together their own cheap housing, there are many fewer possibilities than in the majority of democratic countries. Professor Yao Yang recently repeated the idea that when poor people come to the cities and build slums, it is an infringement on property rights. Yet “slums” are frequently identified as a “crime of capitalism,” a sin of which my country should be innocent. So, following Yao Yang, if “capitalism” allows poor people to “infringe on property rights,” then “socialist” China, which finally produced a completely muddled “property law” after endless hemming and hawing, is much better at keeping poor people from “infringing on property” than capitalism!
We should admit that what Yao Yang says is not totally false in many democratic countries: although these countries protect property rights, they also pay attention to poor people’s votes, and do not elevate “absolute property rights” above the right to existence of poor people, and hence they often turn a blind eye to poor people who build their own shacks on “empty land.” The practice is formally banned, but they don’t employ the iron fist of “city management” like we do in China.
In the words of one scholar, “In those countries, local governments are quite accommodating to migrant groups and illegal land occupation.” China and pre-democratic South Africa did not see such people as “voters,” and hence were not “accommodating” to migrant workers. Hence both countries have “beautiful city” policies which “welcome ‘luxury’ and prohibit ‘slums.’” But if we compare the two, South Africa after all had a place like Soweto where the huts were permitted to exist, while China doesn’t even have this “loophole.” “China’s cities do not permit the mobile population to congregate or to build their own sheds,” and for this reason “informal housing (such as sheds) is unavailable to the mobile population, a situation which is different from that of many developing countries,” and somewhat different from South Africa as well.
If neither cheap public housing nor do-it-yourself sheds are a possibility, the remaining options are: cheap private rentals or abandoning the idea of family living, and residing in a collective dormitory “public hut.” In South Africa, places like Soweto had many cheap private apartments, which the authorities basically left alone. In the “white cities” there was also a small number of cheap apartments that could be rented to blacks, but this was unstable, because the authorities often intervened to “clean up.” But taken together, the two came to be the most common options for South African black workers. And with the addition of self-built shacks, most black workers were able to build a family life in the city.
Even if in the imagination of the authorities, these were meant to be “migrants,” in fact, by the end of the apartheid period, in the greater Johannesburg area, only 21% of blacks were living in collective dormitories (as already mentioned, most of these were Zulus who had not been in the city for very long). One might say that black progress in gaining a residential foothold in the cities was attained as part of the black struggle for rights.
In China, because building your own simple dwelling is impossible, and because a place like Soweto (where authorities finally allowed workers to live in community, even if was a place of exclusion) does not exist, migrant workers have two unstable options in terms of private rentals, which includes sheds: one is in former villages that have been urbanized, and the other is on what is called the “urban-rural fringe 城乡结合部” in the suburbs. Yet neither of these has earned the “legitimacy” that Soweto did, and Chinese migrant workers face the same dangers as those of blacks living in the “white cities” of being periodically “cleaned up” by the authorities. For this reason, the number of Chinese migrant workers who can live in private rental spaces is necessarily less than in South Africa, and those living as “tenants in public huts” many more.
According to statistics compiled by one scholar, in 2000, 57% of the migrant population in China lived in collective housing. According to another scholar, in the same year, 45.34% of the “outside population” in Beijing “lived in collective dormitories, on the work site or in sheds, while 11.38% lived in ‘other’’ (including being homeless, living with friends or relatives, working as an au pair and living in the family home, or in a “detention center”); only 39.59% were renting, and a meager 0.69% had purchased housing (clearly, home-buyers were mostly “peasant entrepreneurs” and “Shanxi coal mine owners” and the like); and 3.1% had built their own homes (most of these were simple structures on rented land in the suburbs, which we might think of as scattered, illegal “little Sowetos”).
In Shanghai, China’s biggest city, 53.5% of outside workers lived in collective dormitories or shacks in 2003, and most of the remaining 46.5% rented, mostly in private rural housing in the suburbs. What is intriguing is that Shanghai regulations stipulated that for a private rental to be “legal” it had to contain at least 7 square meters, and “having a legally fixed place of residence in the city” is the necessary condition for applying for the Shanghai Temporary Residence Permit. Yet 46.8% of the spaces rented by Shanghai’s migrant workers did not meet the “legal” standard. This meant that while only a small percentage of the workers were able to find rental housing, almost half of those who could were living in “illegal” spaces. In other words, in theory they could be expelled for the quality of their living spaces, instead of obtaining aid for the same problem!
In other countries, poor housing conditions can elicit sympathy (if benefits are not available, you might at least be allowed to move, or even to a certain extent to “infringe on property rights”), but in China and South Africa, your poor housing conditions might lead people to despise you. In South Africa your family might be required to move to Soweto, while in China even Soweto is “illegal.” Other than giving up family life and living in a “collective dorm,” where do you go？ (sowhereto?！--but no Soweto.）This is where the “miracle” of “China has no slums” came from. No wonder people are screaming: "The control of slums should not come at the expense of social justice!"
So there you have it: South African cities “have no slums,” but there is Soweto in the suburbs, and China’s cities “have no slums,” only collective dormitories. In June of 2007, an Indian journalist with a great deal of sympathy for the slums of his own country asked the vice-mayor of Chongqing: Does Chongqing have slums? He answered: “We will never have slums.” And the most important reason that he gave was: China’s peasants are used to “being amphibious,” and like to come into the cities alone while leaving the family in the village. They are not like Indian peasants who want to bring their families into the cities and live with them there! As already noted, this is how South African authorities thought at the beginning. But the blacks were disobedient, and by the end, with the exception of a small number of Zulu workers whose situation was desperate, all the blacks had moved their families to the cities. Most of China’s migrant workers, however, are like the Zulu workers at the end of the apartheid period (or like foreign workers after democratization) and are still living in dormitories.
Of course, there are differences between the “dormitory labor” in China and in South Africa, the largest of which is: most of the collective dorms in South Africa were built in the same style by the government or by companies bidding on government contracts, and became “dormitory towns” or “dormitory compounds” whose standards were fairly uniform. They were fairly distant from work places and had specially planned transport linking home to work. Collective dormitories in China are all built by the renter, and are in no way unified. Some are not so bad, but there are sheds with awful conditions everywhere. Because they are built by the enterprises, they are close to the work place, and no transport is necessary.
Some Chinese workers face a particularly awful condition, that of having no dormitory at all, and sleeping on the work site. Many small enterprises, and especially retail shops or restaurants, have the workers sleep in the work spaces, and those involved in construction or renovation have the workers sleep in the homes they are working on. In South Africa this was impossible, not of course out of humanitarian considerations, but because according to the regulations of South African apartheid, blacks could only work in “white areas,” and not live there, so black labor had to have another place to live.
But in China, aside from a few rural towns that built dormitories and rented them to enterprises in order to “attract investment,” among large cities, only Shenzhen, which had a particularly large number of migrant workers, hired contractors in the 1990s to build a large, multi-enterprise “residential area for outside workers.” The Shenzhen area looked a lot like the “dormitory towns” in South Africa. And when the Shenzhen complex was replaced in the new century, the move was resisted by the residents (see below), indicating that their other options were not as attractive.
The Chinese scholars Ren Yan 任焰 and Pun Ngai 潘毅 (b. 1970) once called this phenomenon the “dormitory labor system.” What is funny is that when their study was published in English, the term used, “dormitory labor,” was the same as that originally used in South Africa, but the system is much more common in China today than in South Africa. In South Africa, the inferior conditions in the slums were often reported in the media, but journalists were not allowed in the collective dorms, so no one knew about the inferior conditions there. China is of course the same on this front. In Pun Ngai’s description, the “dormitory labor system” places workers within a system of control like that of a military camp, so that control of the worker extends from labor through all of daily life, and the strict discipline of “dormitory management” places the workers under a “Foucault-ist panopticon,” leaving no personal space. The collective sheds are guarded, and outsiders are not allowed to enter; it goes without saying that residents work during the day, and at night must return before a specific time, and they have few occasions to go out.
We should note that the “collective sheds” in China’s large cities have made progress; in the 1990s, in Shenzhen and other places, “locked-down collective sheds 拘禁式工棚” were popular, but when there were fires and people could not get out because the doors were locked, many women burned to death in the tragedy. Today, with the exception of news stories about “kiln slaves 窑奴” in mountain mines and rural industries, this kind of collective shed should no longer exist in the big cities with well-developed systems of information. Of course, Pun Ngai also noted another feature of the “dormitory labor system:” the fact that the workers live together is a condition encouraging the development of collective resistance. This was true in South Africa as well. This is surely one reason explaining why the authorities did not oppose the trend toward family living toward the end of the apartheid system. But because China’s restrictions on autonomous labor unions are much worse than in South Africa, the authorities do not seem terribly concerned.
The suffering that the “collective shed phenomenon 工棚现象” has brought to China’s migrant workers is no less than that of South Africa’s “dormitory labor.” In Chongqing, where the vice-mayor declared that China’s migrant workers like to be “amphibious,” a 2007 study found that 5% of male migrant workers admitted to having looked for prostitutes 小姐. In a different survey of workers away from home for long periods, 21% of men said they searched for prostitutes, 18% said they suffered from insomnia, 18% said they drank to numb the pain, and 25% said they watched pornographic videos or told dirty jokes; 19% of women migrant workers said they worked hard to relieve the tension and 5% said they simply “took it.” The survey also revealed that for married couples living apart for long periods, 25% of the men and 33% of the women said they could not sleep, and 39% of the men and 55% of the women said that they called home to get through the night. The survey noted that “sexual repression has become a major pain in the emotional life of migrant workers,” and that many crimes are related to this.
Even more serious is that the phenomenon of “amphibious people” has created the disaster and the ethical crisis of the “left-over” people in the countryside. In April of 2008, the media reported that a drifter in a village in Zhengxiong 镇雄 county, Yunnan, took possession of 轻易霸占 ten left-behind women in the village, and as a result was beaten to death by the migrant workers who rushed back to the village. The man was ugly, poor and powerless, but he still managed to pull off the stunt, which is why it was news. Would anyone notice if someone “better” did this? In addition, in recent years there have been endless reports about the rapid “aging” of rural villages, about the strangely high suicide rates of rural women and about the family crisis. Even more worrisome is that the Beijing Genomics Judicial Evidence Investigation Center 北京基因组司法物证鉴定中心 of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2005 carried out some 3000 paternity investigations, and discovered that 22.6% of the children were not the result of the union of the legal parents. In the rural areas, non-parental cases were almost 50%, which was “somewhat alarming.” This is not a general sample, and neither the urban nor the rural percentages necessarily reflect social realities, but the difference between the urban and rural findings, especially in the context of more general reports about the crisis in rural families, suggests the seriousness of the problem.
In economic terms, the problems of China’s “dormitory labor” are also more serious than in South Africa. Both China and South Africa regard migrant laborers as “having something to fall back on,” and do not acknowledge that they might have problems of unemployment; they see them as regulators that optimize the city's economy and pressure relief valves that circumvent economic crises. When the economy is booming they bring them in to work, but in times of crisis they send them back to the countryside; the young and strong can sell their labor in town, but when they are old and frail they can return to the land for their declining years.
The state avoids the “burden” of social insurance, and since when they are in the city they live in carefully managed “military camps,” they don’t “trouble” elite society. Many people think of this as our unique "advantage." But this "advantage" can only be achieved by keeping the "dormitory labor" system. Since most of black labor in South Africa now lives in a family situation, this “advantage” now exists in its most classical form only in China.
Sure enough, after the economic crisis of 2008, there occurred a great wave of migrant workers returning to the villages in China. Since it was assumed that workers could fall back on working the land, arrangements for their dismissal were sloppy: no advance notice, no buffer period, no severance pay, sometimes wages were not paid. The “social security” of the migrant workers was also invalidated. If they did not “surrender” these sums, they would lose the wages that had been withheld. Under normal circumstances, China’s “dormitory workers” are also in a worse position than other migrant workers who rent. Not only can they not have a normal family life, they also sacrifice their bargaining power on the labor market. Because once they leave the company they have nowhere to live, this means that they cannot “wait for the highest bidder” or “choose among various offers,” and instead can only choose between accepting to remain in the enterprise on any condition and leaving the city to return to the village.
Of course, in both South Africa and China, the trend toward family living among migrant labor is irresistible. This is especially because this trend is self-reinforcing: as long as the first families produce a new generation, they will never accept their status as “inferiors” in the city and will fight even harder for their rights. On this front, China is simply a few steps behind South Africa. Because places like Soweto where large black communities could live together were accepted by South African authorities, the national education system eventually spread to such areas. Even if the financial investment could not be compared to that in white education, and to a great degree what was taught was “slave education” that served the needs of the white ruling class, it nonetheless cultivated the minds of those who dug the grave of the apartheid system. As the South African leftist scholar Hein Marais (b. 1962) pointed out: "Soweto's children" are generally more educated and less able to accept apartheid than the elderly. This is an important reason why the system could not be maintained. However, not only is there a universally acknowledged urban-rural inequality in China’s public investment in education, but because the state does not acknowledge the communities of temporary residents in the cities, “the children of migrant workers” has long been a neglected question in the national education system. Although there have been changes on this front over the past few years, “discrimination against migrant workers” continues to translate into educational discrimination. Because the long implemented one-child policy has brought about changes in the demographic structure of those with urban residence permits, the middle and elementary schools that serve this population have an excess of resources, and current policy trends are to transfer this surplus to the children of migrant workers. However, these schools are far away from the “scattered Sowetos” where these children live, and if migrant workers are not allowed to move closer, or the schools moved to the scattered Sowetos, then the children of migrant workers will have a hard time going to school.
Moreover, residence permits play an important role in the examinations that are at the heart of the Chinese educational system. For this reason, the problem of education for the children of migrant workers in China is far more serious than for South African blacks in Soweto, and is similar to that of the children of foreign workers in South Africa. In any event, the children of migrant workers in China continue to grow up, just as did the “children of Soweto,” and will become important factors contributing to the destruction of the system of status barriers.
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