Another record, a simple numerical statistic, allows us to reflect on China’s biggest problems. The Bureau of Statistics has communicated that Beijing’s population has exceeded 21 million. They’re legal residents whose numbers have increased by nearly half a million in 2013. The extraordinary speed of Chinese urbanization is not slowing down. In 2010, for the first time in the country’s history, there were more residents in cities than in the countryside. 1980, there were 140 million urban residents, which became 670 million thirty years later, and will reach 930 million in 2030, against an essentially stable total population. In 2000, there were 34 Chinese cities with more than one million inhabitants, 102 in 2012, and there will be 221 in 2025. The biggest human migration in human history emerges from these numbers; the farmers became laborers in the cities, factories, and construction sites. Moreover, the statistics demonstrate lacerating contradictions and economic prospects. 38% of Beijingers—more than 8 million people—live in a sort of controlled and permitted reality. The hukou system limits citizens to their cities of birth and registration, from which they cannot technically move without authorization. Authorization is granted on an informal basis, their presence if tolerated for more than six months in the city that defines them as “residents.” Official permission to live in a different city is not permitted because it would entail a series of legal and wage improvements, a de facto extension of the welfare system that would increase costs for the businesses that employ them. These millions of laborers—frequently far away from their families in addition to their hometowns—are second-class citizens with respect to their colleagues holding the right hukou, who find better jobs and remuneration. Globalized China’s production needs cannot survive without this labor force: it uses them for economic ends without granting them political rights.
Their roles now extend beyond the factory gates and spill over into society. The idea is to insert them more into the economic circuit in order to give them greater vitality. Urban societies are capable of creating wealth much faster than rural areas. China needs them, given the slowing economic growth, ageing population, increases in production costs, and decreasing returns on capital. The specter of the “middle income trap” appears close, which has already stricken other Asian countries. Creating new consumers—certain of their futures and incomes—could be the lever that reawakens their economy. At this point, the real estate market is slowing dangerously, just like the sectors tied to construction (glass, cement, steel), and the restoration sector. In all of their complexities, real estate purchases have decreased 14% in the first five months of 2014 after 22% growth in 2013 as a whole. It’s clear that the creation of new consumers—freed from fears regarding their statuses and the impulse to save—would breathe vital lymph into the GDP’s anticipated hard landing. There are strong opponents to reforming the residence system, especially from those who have grown rich from the discrimination. On the other hand, the situation can no longer be controlled; protests and unrest have manifested across the country, fueled by this issue. The government should retract the policies that have led them until now, which are based on compressing salaries and consumption. It would be right if the administration found the courage to avoid the intensification of intolerable social inequalities, gaining an advantage from the emergence of stronger economic subjects. If China doesn’t do this, it risks massive protests; if it ventures into reforms it could lose control over the masses. For this reason the country is walking a fine like, a dangerous razor blade because it has postponed what it should have done for social justice long ago.