The Chinese rulers in Beijing spend more on domestic security than all other military expenditures combined. The social and racial components of the Chinese empire remain volatile fault lines. Maintaining security in the interior even captured Mao Zedong as he sought to impose a brutal autarky upon the nearly dozen races that comprise contemporary China. What keeps President Xi Jinping up at night are the racial undertones of China’s household registry and its urban impact upon “low-end populations” that cannot secure official residency status.
The hukou remains an imprimatur bestowing official residency upon the millions of peasant workers that migrated to coastal cities in search of manufacturing jobs. But China’s economic miracle is unraveling because a generation of unmarriageable men that migrated to the southern littoral will not be returning to the countryside. This coincides with China’s move away from export-orientated industrialization.
Mass unrest remains uncommon throughout China’s history, but that may quickly change as a generation of workers seeks to challenge the party’s sense of security
Mass unrest remains uncommon throughout China’s history, but that may quickly change as a generation of workers seeks to challenge the party’s sense of security. Hundreds of millions of urbanized workers now face social challenges that earlier generations never faced as rural workers. China’s political class envisions threats to the party in terms of economics, not social deracination. Focusing on China’s new emerging middle class isn’t where current social or political fault lines are emerging. They are seen deep in China’s urban sprawl; they are a generation of social classes, poor workers in the cities whose family bonds remain rural.
From Deng Xiapoing’s opening of the country in 1978 until 2017, the cumulative movement of peoples out from farming into urban manufacturing was calculated to be 280 million. In 2010, the party leadership began documenting migrants born since 1980. This group has more than 90 million urban members, but the mores of these two generations remain starkly divergent.
The earlier migrants were born at a time of mass starvation resulting from Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But the newer generation born after 1980 are children raised in a capitalist milieu with no formal understanding of farming. A study published in the Economic Research Journal in 2009 revealed that children born after Deng’s opening aspired to “personal development,” unlike earlier generations who remained focused on basic needs. This study revealed that young urban migrants possess four characteristics animating a potentially volatile revolution: they aren’t formally educated, they suffer from a marriage squeeze, earn low wages, and racial discrimination as a result of the hukou merit system that effectively shuts them out of subsidized urban social services like education and health care.
Most migrants aren’t politically active. But that is changing. The social, fiscal and racial threats have met the bulwark of a generation that is alienated from the countryside, but due to high living costs, the hukou system and the marriage squeeze, remain both marginalized and aware of competing alternatives. What keeps Xi up at night is an urban generation of unmarriageable migrant men, working low-end jobs with poor education and absolutely no ties to the existing social order.
The party isn’t ready for this. But it’s a tinderbox ready to explode. Watch for the emergence of subcultures and dangerously violent labor disputes to engulf the mandarins in Beijing.