When talking of the “China Model”, it’s important to remember the role of migrant workers

A new book has hit the shelves in China, and is causing controversy. “The China Model” (中国模式), a collection of essays about China’s unique development model, is one of many new books that is part of an effort to put forth a “China model”, a model of development that is in opposition to the much maligned “Washington Consensus”. The Economist notes that the while Chinese officials are keen to downplay talk of the China Model, people peddling books aren’t quite as humble:

(The Chinese publishing industry)….in recent months has been cashing in on an upsurge of debate in China about the notion of a China model…. In November a prominent Party-run publisher produced a 630-page tome titled “China Model: A New Development Model from the Sixty Years of the People’s Republic”. In January came the more modest “China Model: Experiences and Difficulties”. Another China-model book was launched in April and debated at an expo-related forum in Shanghai. Its enthusiastic authors include Zhao Qizheng, a former top Party propaganda official, and John Naisbitt, an American futurologist.

The China Media Project notes that:

In his own essay for the collection, Pan Wei writes of the China Model as a massive and glorious creature, hearkening back to ancient Chinese mythology: “The scale of the China System (中华体制) is massive, and could perhaps be called the ‘Kunpeng System’ [after the vast bird of Chinese legend]. Its head is people-based politics, its state system (社稷体制) is the body, and the national economy (国民经济) is its wings . . .”

There’s probably little doubt that as the American economy stagnates and as the EU faces serious crises among its member states, more developing countries will look towards China’s experience as a practical way forward. However, when one hears the list of ingredients that make up the China Model (a relatively effective authoritarian regime, pragmatism over ideology, good investment in infrastructure, a united ruling party), one crucial ingredient often seems missing: the role of the migrant worker.

In the 1980’s China had little choice but to make good use of its comparative advantage, as any economist might tell you. This meant using its relatively “cheap labour” as a competitive tool. China, of course, had cheap labour in abundance. There was virtually no family planning in the Mao Era, and this created a large population, which went from 540 million in 1949 to almost one billion by the start of reform and opening in the late 1970’s. Also under Mao, the rigid planned economy tied hundreds of millions of farmers to rural land. This meant that as the “Reform & Opening” got under way, China’s policymakers could use its massively poor rural population to its advantage.

Deng Xiaoping said that it was ok for some people to get rich first (让一部分人先富起来). In other words, some entrepreneurs and those with connections could start private business, employee many migrant workers, and contribute to China’s prosperity.

As understandable or inevitable as this strategy might have been, one would think that, over time, the government would work to reduce the divide between legally-defined “rural” people and “urban” people, as indicated on their hukou. Of course, there have been some measures taken over the years to relax the hukou system, most notably, the restrictions of internal migration have been lifted. Nonetheless, it seems almost undeniable that the “China model” of growth is to some extent based on the institutional exploitation of a large demographic of people – migrant workers. Migrant workers have made a huge contribution to China’s development and rising prosperity, but have often not seen reciprocal rewards. During the last thirty years of “Reform & Opening”, migrant workers in China have worked hard, back-breaking, and dangerous jobs without strong union support, proper health and safety conditions, and often without a proper contract.

One wonders, only semi-sarcastically, whether elite policymakers in developing countries throughout Africa and Latin America might be similarly encouraged to disenfranchise and exploit large segments of their own population as a means of development. Indeed, as the book Chinese Investments in Africa: A Labour Perspective points out, as Chinese companies invest in Africa and African governments study the China model, there is an increase in casual, non-contractual labour, widespread violations of workers rights, and a hostile attitude towards unions. In other words, might the “China Model's” view of workers be a crucial ingredient that is overlooked by its vociferous proponents but not by those who are copying it?

In general, it’s no wonder that Chinese government officials− who are keenly aware of all the systemic and governance challenges China faces− are rather hesitant to speak of the “Chinese model”, and that the phenomenon is more confined to academia and the publishing industry.  Although China has taken a unique road to development and has achieved a lot, the deficiencies in the model also ensure that many officials will probably be reluctant to confidently export the model too soon.
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