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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Inside China's great migration
By Lucy Ash
Reporting on the greatest movement of people in human history

Mutilated Chinese workers
100 million Chinese have moved from the countryside to the cities in the last 15 years, looking for work. Lucy Ash investigates the underside of China's great migration.

Shao Hung Xin holds up the stump of his right arm. He shows his hand was flattened by an 80-ton metal press.

It smashed all the bones in my hand, he says. It just flapped around like a piece of paper.

He's just one of a group of victims of industrial accidents in Longgang, in Southern China.

They're waiting for their compensation claims to be settled - and meanwhile living in the same house as their lawyer, Zhou Litai.

Shao had been working every day for 5 months in a computer factory when the accident happened. He went to work with four hours sleep and in his groggy state made a minor slip. It cost him his hand.

Zhou Litai says the case is typical. Millions of workers have come from the countryside to the booming coastal belt for work.

They make vast quantities of toys, electronics goods and clothes, mainly for export.

He says exhausted workers toil on old machines, with little training. Of course they get hurt, he says. The government sacrifices workers to develop the economy.

He's managed to win substantial compensation payments, by local standards.

The authorities are trying to close down his office - and denying that factory hands are suffering. They say cases of abuse are rare and that factory owners who violate the law are prosecuted.

However, every single factory worker I spoke to had at some point been either paid less than the minimum wage or exceeded the maximum working hours.

In other parts of the country, migrants run another risk - arrest. All Chinese are registered as either urban or rural residents. It is virtually impossible for rural residents to obtain urban registration.

So migrants from the countryside can be arrested in cities for not having the proper papers. They can be held in one of 728 Custody and Repatriation Centres until they pay a fine.

Nicolas Becquelin of Human Rights in China, a monitoring group, says these centres are essentially a racket - a way of raising income for the authorities.

A street hawker who had been detained told me that conditions inside the centres are appalling. The inmates frequently fight, while the guards sometimes force inmates to drink huge amounts of liquid as a punishment.

Since migrants don't have urban registration, they face difficulties sending their children to public schools in the cities. So the migrants have responded by setting up their own schools.

I visited one, the Peach Garden School in the outskirts of Beijing. The facilities for the 320 children are much poorer than at a regular school.

Liu Chung Hua is a mother of two from rural Sichuan. She asks why her child can't study with other children?

She's furious at the regulations which divide China into a two-class society. However, it's unlikely that they will be substantially changed soon, according to Jasper Becker, a journalist and historian of China.

He says that Chinese leaders have controlled the movement of people for 2000 years. While the country remains an effective police state, he believes the authorities will be able generally to isolate the cities from the rural masses.

Inside China's great migration:
Thursday 18 July 2002
on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST
repeated on Monday 22 July 2002
at 20.30 BST.

Reporter: Lucy Ash
Producer: Hugh Levinson
Editor: Maria Balinska

Nicolas Becquelin
Condemns custody and repatriation centres

Jasper Becker
The history of the household registration system

A visit to "Second Wives Village in Shenzhen

Crossing Continents


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Country profile: China
08 Mar 02  |  Country profiles
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15 Jul 02  |  Business


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