Among Shanghai's 23 million residents, almost 40 per cent are expected to be unregistered migrants from rural areas. Nationwide, latest official estimates assign no less than 230 million people to the so-called 'floating population', people without permission to reside permanently in urban areas.
These include many thousands of street vendors who, with no social security and constantly on the lookout for authorities, have developed creative ways of dealing with their challenging situation and have become not only an ineluctable part of the city's streets, but also provide popular amenities for Shanghai's local residents.
'It's good to have them. They do the jobs that others won't and some sell a lot of cool stuff for just a few Yuan,' raves my Chinese companion at one of the countless informal markets at Shanghai's busy street corners. 'They' in this case refers to the many vendors selling food, clothes, DVDs, and more on their blankets and modified motorbikes right on the sidewalks.
Despite several relaxations of the system in recent years allowing rural settlers to change their status temporarily or permanently under certain conditions, it is still very difficult for many migrants to pay the fees and provide the costly documents needed to apply for urban hukou.
'It is good business, but we always have to watch out!' notes one of the vendors. 'Watch out for what?' I want to ask him — as seconds later the vivid market vanishes while a police car drives by. I could guess the answer by now.
A few moments after the car has turned around the corner, the market is back. 'Sorry for the interruption!' yells the suddenly reappearing vendor with a smile. 'We are used to this. It's our daily routine.'
'But it is dangerous! Once they catch you, they will send you back wherever you came from. We have no rights here!' another seller openly complains. Every year, thousands of illegal migrants are being fined and sent home by the authorities. It is the daily challenge of the 'floating population'.
Urban life without urban hukou
In China, rural-urban migration is strictly limited by a household registration system called hukou, which distinguishes urban from rural residents by location and family background. The status of urban or rural hukou is given at birth and determines access to necessities such as social welfare or health insurance, which are provided only at the resident's registered location.
Despite several relaxations of the system in recent years allowing rural settlers to change their status temporarily or permanently under certain conditions, it is still very difficult for many migrants to pay the fees and provide the costly documents needed to apply for urban hukou. The vast majority just takes the risk and tries to make it in the city without it.
The typical types of work 'floaters' undertake are characterised by John Friedmann in his 2005 book China's Urban Transition as 'dangerous, dirty and difficult: the notorious 'Three Ds.'' They usually find jobs in small or medium-sized private enterprises, work as cleaning staff or housekeepers, temporary work on construction sites, or simply set up their own small businesses on the streets. Their typically poor educational background and low social rank in urban society often leaves them with painfully low wages and — as recently estimated in the 2012 Report on the Development of China's Floating Population — an average workload of more than 54 hours per week, which significantly exceeds the maximum of 40 hours set by national labour laws.
One might call it exploitation, but floaters have no other choice. 'If I don't do it, I will be replaced by someone else. It's a tough competition. Everyone has to earn his share,' says one out of dozen illegal motorbike taxi riders in front of a metro station. Especially in newly developed parts of the city, the creativity and informality of migrants fill the gaps which hasty urban development neglected. 'When people hop off the metro line, there is no further bus connection for them to go home. We are quick and we are cheap. Many people depend on us!' a proud motorbike rider claims.
But not everyone likes the increasing appearance of non-locals in the cities. Somewhat higher crime rates among migrants cannot be denied, though caused by the fact that employment opportunities are not equally distributed among migrants. In a 1997 survey Sun Changmin of the Shanghai Academy of Social sciences explained this from a psychological point of view: 'Although living in cities, one way or another they are not entirely accepted by the urbanites. They feel that they do not belong to the city and are a marginal group'. A statement my companion confirms with his own attitude: 'They are different. Many of them have no manners and don't know how to behave in a city like Shanghai. They are not always to [be trusted]'.
On the other hand, some authorities are recognising that the private entrepreneurship of many migrants could lead to significant beneficial changes to a national economy that has traditionally been very state-driven.
This surprising statement compared to what he said at the market before describes the dilemma in which 'floaters' find themselves. They are needed, but not really wanted. In some situations, such as at sightseeing spots, they are perceived as disturbing the image of a 'spectacular' city that Shanghai wishes to present, as tourists find themselves running the gauntlet through crowds of pushy vendors.
On the one hand, this is a kind of informal entrepreneurialism that authorities do not like to see and which they increasingly monitor and regulate. On the other hand, some authorities are recognising that the private entrepreneurship of many migrants could lead to significant beneficial changes to a national economy that has traditionally been very state-driven. As Friedmann mentions, some city governments are already encouraging urbanites to undertake more private initiatives, using migrants' same entrepreneurialism as an example.
Not 'floating' anymore
The floating population is without doubt the country's most significant force for economic and urban growth. Without the millions of workers on construction sites and factories, Shanghai might be a different city today. But the group responsible for the city's wealth is experiencing a tough and somewhat ironical challenge. Authorities uphold the strict rules on urban migration, trying to gain control over a flexible, diffuse informal sector, while the creativity of the 'floaters' and their pursuit of prosperity remain unswerving.
The biggest obstacle for the floating population to access welfare is the hukou system. In fact, it is the reason that there even is a floating population. On the other hand and despite all criticism it prevented China's cities from engendering large squatter settlements as can be observed in many developing countries. But while the hukou system was initially intended to protect the productivity of the countryside, it has turned into a form of protectionism around urban services and an accelerator of social divergence. At least one thing is certain: back to the countryside is no option. Since they are here in the cities to stay, authorities might have to search for a term other than 'floating' to describe them.