Monday, 20 January 2014
China's migrant sorrows must be addressed
Parting is such sweet sorrow, the saying goes, but it also could be very much more and all of it potentially harmful. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in China where rapid industrialisation is undermining family bonds with incalculable consequences. It could even encompass retrograde logistics, leading to more environmental degradation and serious health issues.
China is a big country, with most of its industrial regions clustered around coastal cities. Logistically that makes good sense for an export-oriented economy that is also heavily dependent on imports. But the success of that logistics model depends on 262 million migrant workers toiling long hours hundreds of miles away from their family homes and children, left behind for relatives to look after. The primal longing of those parents forced to seek work far from home is beginning to threaten China's socio-economic fabric on an unprecedented scale.
It is estimated that about 157 million mothers and fathers are separated from their children, whom they typically see only once a year for 10 days during the Chinese New Year. Some 80% of those migrants, it seems, feel inadequate, guilt and anxiety. This reflects on their work through lack of commitment to their employers, while nearly 40% report making frequent mistakes on the job. Poor product quality is one of the main reasons cited by foreign customers driving them to re-shore their outsourced manufacturing from the Far East back to their own or nearby countries. Such a trend could have serious repercussions for China.
To the product quality issue, however, must now be added a logistics problem. Parental anxiety over their separation from their children accounts for half of the typical 15% annual labour turnover rates in factories, which adds to product quality issues. When surveyed, these parents cited the wish to take better care of their children. The result is that factories are now struggling to keep them adequately staffed and so many factories are relocating to the interior to be closer to their migrant labourers' home towns and therefore an adequate labour pool. That is socially understandable but it means more transport, often over long distances, for finished and semi-fabricated components to ports, either for further manufacturing or export. That has implications for more air pollution in a country where an estimated 500,000 die prematurely from breathing problems.
Such air pollution also seriously hits national output. In Beijing and its environs alone the economy loses between US$19 billion and $39 billion a year owing to the effects of PM 2.5 pollutants. This is not to argue that all production deep inland is logistically harmful in an environmental way. The new rail route from Chongquing that passes through Kazakhstan and Poland to Germany will help companies like HP to slash costs and air pollution. The fact remains, however, that 90% of all foreign trade is sea-borne, the cheapest of all transport modes and least polluting per container moved. There is also still plenty more to go for in cleaning up shipping's foul emissions, particularly sulphur, something now being rectified.
Neglect the children, risk the future
If China's migrant anxieties are not properly addressed then the outlook for their children's future, and ultimately China's social stability, looks grim. Already the estimated 61 million children growing up separated from their parents, making up 20% of China's youth, are dropping out of school in record numbers at very young ages, despite being required to stay in school until 15. A study also shows that sexual abuse by teachers and relatives is also a problem, exacerbated by drug addiction and other criminal behaviour.
These left-behind children usually suffer from trauma and don't do so well ate school. Many parents worry that their children will spend too much time in internet bars exposed to the dark side of the Net. China's greatest asset is its industrious, intelligent people and the people's greatest tool is education. The State, of course, realises this but is some if its actions stymieing its efforts? Many migrants would like to take their children to where the work is but feel there are limits on what kind of life they can give them in the cities. The main culprit is Lukou, the restrictive residency system that means if parents don't have urban residency cards rural children cannot attend city schools without paying exorbitant fees. These fees could be seven times what they would be back in the migrants' inland home towns.
Abolishing lukou could help thwart the build-up of serious social issues. Another is much more direct state investment in education. If money is perceived to be the problem there are solutions. Not least would be the savings that could be made by slashing China's soaring defence bill. Since 2003 China's military budget has soared from $30 billion a year to $120 billion. China has nothing to fear abroad, militarily speaking. The world is too interconnected by trade and finance to make war a feasible hand maiden of foreign policy. This is not to argue that China should not have a military force befitting its size and overseas interests, mindful as it must be of past humiliating defeats over 200 years caused by an ineffective, cohesive defence force. But China should recall the words of one of its illustrious sages, Sun Tzu, 2,400 years ago: "Where the army is prices are high, when prices are high the wealth of the people is exhausted."
If China ever needed an object lesson on how eschewing militarism makes great sense it need look no further than across the China Sea to Japan. Utterly ruined by war in 1945, Japan vowed to abandon militarism for pursuit of trade and succeeded spectacularly at giving the people what they yearned for. China's greatest fears are all internal, neglect of which will only lead to bigger problems. Money spent wisely now on social issues and preparing for inevitable natural disasters, rather than military spending, will likewise satisfy the people's yearnings which they most assuredly deserve. There can be no more potent and truer sign of a great nation in the waiting.