Conflict Between City Image Pursuits and Migrant Workers’ Rights

College of Resource Environment and Tourism, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China



This chapter is a review of China’s emerging city-centred growth pattern as well as its persisting residency control and dual-track land system. By discussing the fundamental right-mobility relations underpinning the low-income migrant workers’ mobility, this chapter explains: (a) the specific meaning of ‘city justice’ that should be advocated during China’s transition from a command to a market economy; and (b) the reason why, and the way in which, the ‘Right to the City’ gives way to ‘pragmatism’ at the initial stage of pro-market reform aimed towards ‘city imaging’. Dialectical Materialism, as a method, is used to provide discourse on the right-mobility relations that are constantly, and gradually, evolving to serve the institutional changes in China.

3.1 Background: The Transition from a Command to a Market Economy

3.1.1 China’s City-Centred Growth and Residency Controls Since the 1980s

The collapse of the dynastic system in 1911 and the May Fourth Movement in 1919 (introduction of science and democracy) had fundamentally ended the rule of orthodox Confucianism in China. The new era, led by inexperienced republicans, had also opened up hot debates about the ways in which State power could be increased, with the purpose of protecting the people from foreign invasion and internal turmoil and paving the way for re-establishing the greatness of China. However, for over three decades, the warlords and Guomindang nationalists provided no solutions, their decision-making being blocked by civil wars, foreign invasions and corrupt practices. Disappointment and disillusion explained why the Chinese rejected the Western liberal values that tended to limit rather than support State power. In 1949, under the leadership of Mao, communist ideology and Leninist political reform were introduced in a revolutionary movement, which was effective in restoring government authority and reaffirming the Chinese identity. Under socialism and a strong central government, social conformity was enforced by political movements and disciplinary actions. Individual claims of rights were viewed as a ‘class concept’ and an ideological error by the Chinese-Soviet model of socialism. The free choice of workplace or residency, rural-urban or inter-city migration, and intra-city mobility were virtually forbidden until the rigid socialist conformity was broken by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

Commencing in 1979, China introduced market forces interdigitated with centralized control by imitating the economic growth model of the ‘Four Asian Dragons’ to some extent (Harvey 2005: 120). The end justifies the means. The overall incidence of poverty was reduced to a great extent within three decades, alongside a fast-growing economy. China was ranked as the world’s second largest economy in 2011 and the eighth largest foreign direct investment (FDI) recipient in 2010. However, the legitimacy of economic liberalization is increasingly questioned by its divergence from the Socialist egalitarian promises and a strikingly widening income gap between the highest and lowest income quintile groups in cities—a gap of threefold in 1990, fivefold in 2000, and reaching tenfold in 2010, at the national level (China’s National Bureau of Statistics 1990, 2001, 2011). The income gaps, published by the government, could well have been underestimated and the actual figure may be a difference of almost 30 times, if an underreported ‘grey income’ from corruption through rent-seeking1 or government monopoly is considered (Wang 2007).

3.1.2 Flexible Wealth Accumulation in the Transitional Stage

At the initial stage of urban transformation, the mixture of two conflicting systems—centralized control and the market-led operations—has opened up possibilities for economic growth in a ‘flexible’ manner. As stated by Wu (2008), China’s pro-market reforms and strong state intervention are very well suited to enhancing the State’s competitiveness, as a latecomer to modern industrialization. This ‘flexible’ wealth accumulation goes along two lines.

On one hand, economic reforms have created a highly efficient ‘growth machine’ through top-down devolution of various powers (e.g. fiscal, tax and land administration) to the city level. China’s ‘Neoliberal Urbanism’ has emerged since labour and investments were introduced across cities and circulated across the urban space (He and Wu 2009). The ‘growth machine’ can build a business-friendly environment and enhance a city’s competitive ability, but it also produces an ‘unliveable’ city life for low-income people including migrants (Harvey 1989), leading to the withering of the ‘iron rice bowl’ and the rapid dislocation of dwellers following renewals. The residency control system (hukou) and circular migration of migrants (between city and home village) have been retained in order to control unnecessary increases in local public expenditure.

On the other hand, the city is riddled with labour-capital and land-use conflicts, and the State is concerned with how to distribute this vast amount of wealth which is generated and accumulated therein. The liberal turn and agglomeration economies have opened up a space for claims to economic and social rights that were virtually forbidden in Mao’s era. The bottom-up claims for the ‘Right to the City’ are actually a cry for the openness, transparency and fairness in the liberal economy and competitive world (Lefebvre 1996). Even though informal means were devised to ‘settle down’ and serve the low-income groups, including rural migrants, at a low cost, there are still some institutional barriers established by the existing system that are obstructing the passage towards realising equitable rights for all.

3.2 Developmental Urbanism Versus Inequitable Access to City Rights

3.2.1 City Image Building Versus the ‘Right to the City’

In representing the distribution of economic surplus in the urbanization process, Fig. 3.1 conceptualizes the relations between local economic growth, mobility of individuals or households, and the social justice in transitional China, in a period when developmentalism and a series of regulations on land use and migrant growth set by the centrally planned rule have continued to discourage or constrain free population movement. Justice is normally defined as fairness to all citizens with no distinction of birth and no inherited powers (see Rawls 1971; Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1789). Lefebvre (1996: 158) defined the ‘Right to the City’ as the interests ‘of the whole society and firstly of all those who inhabit’, not conditional on ‘membership’ (such as nationality or ethnicity or birth) in an enfranchised community. However, the enforcement of the national developmentalist slogan, local ‘growth coalition’ and other sovereign powers on individual mobility choices have become institutional barriers to inhabitants’ rights to participation in urban affairs and rights to appropriation of the city’s amenities and benefits. Barriers set by the existing system against an equitable ‘Right to the City’ for all, including inhabitants’ rights to participation in decisions that contribute to the production of urban space, are listed as follows.


Fig. 3.1
Wealth generation and distribution during the urbanization process since the 1980s (Conceptualized by the author)

Firstly, for the local inner-city residents affected by the city branding movements, the dislocation, under-compensation, the lag of resettlement behind dislocation and a forced migration to the suburbs are seen as barriers to a ‘settled’ life. Without a clear definition of the State’s and individual’s rights to land uses and property, the ambiguity of property rights can neither secure a participatory city planning, nor guarantee an equitable access to the city’s welfare and amenities which include government subsidized low-income housing. After the demolition, it would take several years before the dislocated residents are able to access the subsidized housing for resettlement purposes.

Secondly, for the rural migrants, the hukou system and population control policies are the biggest barriers to their settlement in the host cities. As shown in Fig. 3.1, the hukou system was maintained to help minimize local public spending so that the money saved can be invested for revenue-generation and city-branding to attract further investment.

Figure 3.1 illustrates the dislocation and rehousing issues of inner-city residents and migrants. In examining the potential social implications of the ‘unsettled life’ of low-income groups in China’s transitional cities, this chapter will address the issue of social justice in the context of developmentalism and city-branding practices in at least three of the following areas:

  • Regardless of residency status, it should be ensured that no one’s livelihood falls below a decent level of living standard. This principle is undermined by the narrow coverage of poverty relief programs, demolition and dislocation without timely resettlement and the exclusionary zoning/ordinance which makes it difficult or impossible for ‘unwanted’ groups to move in and stay

  • Reasonable tax rates are imposed on those who have gained substantial wealth in order to compensate the less fortunate. However, social polarization between the houseless and the multiple housing owners is manifested in at least two ways: (a) between rentiers and tenants (e.g. rural land owners and migrant tenants engaged in the informal rented housing market in suburbs); and (b) between the introduction of talents and investors and the continuing influx of low-income migrants. Without effective actions taken to narrow the asset/income gaps in the society, the social polarization would be sustained in the long-run.

  • A more open competition for business opportunities ensures more equitable opportunities for all competitors. However, the hukou system is a power hierarchy that excludes low-wage migrants from access to the city’s housing assistance and other amenities. Being perceived as an expenditure burden on governments and a threat to property value by a ‘growth coalition’, low-income migrant workers with their underproductive employment and demands for low-rental housing have been largely neglected or even suppressed and relocated by the public authorities.

In examining low-income groups’ claims to the ‘Right to the City’, the gradualism of China’s pro-market reforms has stratified socio-political structure and formed two barriers to right claims, namely: (a) the consolidation of an old power hierarchy inherited from the central-planning system; and (b) the newly introduced market forces which have reinforced the division of labour and the occupational hierarchy in China as an emerging market and a global production network. The two lines of stratification are inter-connected and interact in many ways, such as via mobility of labour, capital, goods and services over space. City-branding movements, taking the form of public-private partnership between governments and developers to extract value from the urban redevelopments, are the most significant interactions arising from the profit incentives of market forces that drive mobility. Conflicts of interest erupt when the entrepreneurial pursuit (exchange value of land) affects the fortunes of residents using the city to live (use value of land). For both entrepreneurs and residents, the control of prime locations means the availability and accessibility of rich resources (markets, rent, and public services) that can maintain existing privileges and open up new opportunities. Logan and Molotch (2007: 48) explained the relation between spatial mobility and social stratification as follows:

The most talented individuals rise to the top as they use their skills to develop the best places to maximize geographical potential. People migrate to those areas that can best use their particular skills, which includes the migration of the most talented people to the most crucial spots. The overall system secures the triumphs of the fittest people and the fittest places, resulting in a maximally efficient society. It all works because, given unfettered occupational and geographical mobility, the best people help society get the most out of the best locations.

In considering the economic contributions made by (a) the dislocated inner-city residents who have been forced out of prime sites; and (b) the migrant workers who are deprived of welfare benefits in the cities hosting them, this chapter will address the following issues about the right-mobility relation underlying the low-income groups’ residential mobility in the cities:

  • In citing Lefebvre’s slogan of ‘Right to the City’, the specific meaning of city justice that should be advocated during the transitional era will be examined

  • A thorough review of the perceived unjust policies that have affected the low-income groups’ intra-city mobility, and the evolution of these polices in the recent three decades will be conducted

  • Suggestions of better or more just policy alternatives that provide an outlet for the ‘Right to the City’ against a ‘growth coalition’ (dislocation and hukou policy shown in Fig. 3.1) will be given.

3.2.2 Social Justice and Injustice

It is normally believed that social injustice comes from unequal access to wealth and power, which is heavily influenced by political privileges, social stratification and division of labour. However, it takes a long time for competing groups, with conflicting ideologies and contested interests, to hammer out coherent concepts of justice. In the West, Locke’s discourse on the state-society relation is the foundation for Anglo-American liberal politics with special emphasis on civil and political rights (Locke 2009: 159–169). As stated in Rawls’ (1971: 5) book, A Theory of Justice, ‘institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life’. However, the East Asians influenced by Confucianism care less about political rights but more about economic rights, which should be accompanied by family values and social harmony (Lee 2002; Hahm 2008; Bauer and Bell 1999).

China has witnessed a drastic shift from a command economy based on a highly egalitarian distribution system to Deng’s material incentive and market-led system that ‘allows some people to get rich first’ (Zhu 1999; Nee 2005a; Sautman 1992). This pragmatic approach was posed by Deng with the purpose of eradicating common poverty and achieving common affluence (xiaokang) while hoping that the gap between the rich and the poor, and between the regions will be short-term and transitional. However, the social justice involved seems to be a slippery concept during the transitional era, as it lacked clear definitions.

The French Revolution of 1789 and its debates on two paths to justice provided a clue regarding China’s shifting concept of justice. There are at least two different definitions of justice. One was characterized as an equality of outcome and result, posed by Gracchus Babeuf during the French Revolution in a society of ‘absolute equality’ where there would not be any private property (Barrie 1978). The other ideal was briefly represented as ‘La carrière ouverte aux talents’ (careers or jobs open to the talented), the equality of opportunity and open competition for scarce opportunities. Mao’s absolute equality notion complies with the former definition of justice, requiring the abolishment of any private property and to stabilize ‘a political system in which the state is able to hold in check those social and occupational groups which, by virtue of their skills or education or personal attributes, might otherwise attempt to stake claims to a disproportionate share of society’s rewards’ (Parkin 1972: 183). This laid the foundation for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Communist Party over the rest of society. However, gradual pro-market reforms and pragmatism have introduced an uneven access to power and economic opportunities, as shown through the maintenance of the State’s supreme authority on land-use zoning and property expropriation to support developmentalism, as well as the retaining of the hukou system to encourage migratory cheap labour while making them largely independent of the city’s fiscal expenditure. In opposition to the growth goals of the city, the inhabitants would be given limited space to choose where to stay or move. This is the main feature of China’s transition experience, as argued by Nee Victor (1991, 1999, 2005a, b) and Walder Andrew (1995).

3.2.3 Emerging Mobility and Claims of Rights to City Spaces

Mao’s central planning system had promised an overarching principle of public ownership and a high degree of egalitarianism. In the urban sector, full employment and state-provided benefits were ensured through top-down economic planning and the danwei system. In the rural sector, the collective ownership of rural land was run by People’s Communes with very limited state grants. As a result of the State control over the city size and urban population, China’s urbanization level consequently lagged far behind the developing world (Zhang 2004). This mechanism served the orthodox Marxist course of ‘anti-urbanization’ that was borrowed from the Soviet model, and is characterized by: (a) highly capital-intensive and heavy manufacturing in the cities; and (b) highly labour-intensive agricultural production in rural areas. The central planning, hukou and danwei systems thus produced a low propensity to move, unless driven by massive political movements like ‘shangshanxiaxiang’ (intellectuals and educated youth going to remote areas and villages). The free mobility of labour and residents had remained a ‘forbidden area’ until the 1980s, when the opening-up of the economy brought cheap rural labour to the urban areas.

Since the 1980s, the top-down administrative allocation and rigid danwei system have been replaced by city-centred entrepreneurialism. The powers, responsibilities, initiatives and risks were devolved down to the local governments through reforms in the tax, fiscal and land systems (Qian 1999). The increased autonomy of local governance is common and intertwined between China and the global production network (Purcell 2002). China’s pro-market experimentation goes along with it most of the way, but proceeds in a gradual and progressive manner. In order to support its developmental interest, residency controls and the primacy of State ownership are manoeuvred by local governments to form:

  • The city space in a state of ‘flux’ that makes the city economy highly competitive to attract increasingly mobile investment; and

  • A flexible workforce that can cut off local expenditure on public services for all.

A problem is posed here: to what extent can the increasingly diverse and open society accommodate the needs of the world market at the higher end, and that of the low-income group at the lower end? In recent years, ‘nail-house’ protests and rural land-owners’ unlawful business undertaking of farmland transactions and real estate sectors are the main forms of bottom-up claims for the ‘Right to the City’. After years of ‘nail-house’ protests and landless peasants’ claims to share the rural land development rights, the following rights have increasingly been protected since the mid- and late 2000s:

  • Compensation levels are to be set at the market price and the plan-market dual track system (see Lin 2009a: 79) is to be abolished in the near future; and

  • In-kind compensation through a supply of new subsidized apartments has been advocated to replace the once-and-for-all monetary compensation that had led to entitlement failure and impoverishment of those deprived of home or land.

A new low-income housing policy is intended to expand the availability of public rented housing (gongzufang) to migrant workers with decent jobs. Unskilled and low-wage migrant workers, however, have not been taken into account yet. The ill-defined public-private property relations and State-peasant relations during the rapid urbanization phase, however, opened up possibilities for the sacrifice of individual rights claims to economic expediency, often in the name of common good.

Western discourses on the ‘Right to the City’ may be used here to shed light on the ethical dilemma behind the residency controls and the involuntary mobility of the low-income residents following their home and tenement demolition. The ‘Right to the City’ is a slogan proposed by Henri Lefebvre (1996: 158) as early as in 1968: ‘the right to the city is like a cry and a demand… a transformed and renewed right to urban life’.

David Harvey (2009: 48) rephrased Lefebvre’s utopia of the ‘Right to the City’ and defined a broader scope as follows:

[T]he right to the city… is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city more in accord with our hearts’ desire, and to re-make ourselves thereby in a different image.

Lefebvre’s rights are applicable to all inhabitants and housing areas. However, rights entitled by law in China are conditional upon the ‘membership’ status of inhabitants, such as one’s place of birth, work units, employment and housing status. Hence, a gulf between Lefebvre’s utopia and China’s realities exists.

3.2.4 Right-Mobility Relation Evolving with a Shifting Mobility Policy

As present day China undergoes dramatic urban transformations, the increasing income gap among different groups could be attributed more to the inequality of opportunities to have a city life and access services, rather than solely attributing it to the division of labour in a competitive environment. As stated by Max Weber (1958: 181–183), this differentiation and inequality of socio-economic opportunities under the conditions of commodity or labour markets are ‘determined by the amount and kind of power, or lack of such, to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income in a given economic order’.

In Mao’s era, people in China followed the top-down arrangement of their job and residence; individuals had no freedom of job choice or residential mobility (Zhang 2004: 44–47). Although pro-market reforms freed up labour mobility, residency controls are still enforced explicitly or implicitly on migrant workers (Fan 2007; Wu 2002, 2006b). Additionally, the supply of subsidized housing is conditional on the city plans and local interests (Hsing 2010). The city branding movements, land-centred urban politics and hukou-based residency controls have generated a vast pool of urban drifters, consisting of low-income migrants and dislocated local residents following urban renewals (Hess 2010; Zhang 2010, 2011).

A rich body of research has highlighted the social inequalities arising from residency control, housing redevelopment and dislocation (Huang and Clark 2002; Huang and Jiang 2009; Shin 2009; Fang and Zhang 2003; Li and Song 2009; Logan et al. 2009; Wu 2004). However, few studies have explored:

  • The power-right dialectics underlying the residential mobility driven by city-branding movements; and

  • The specific barriers that turn down the low-income groups’ full gain from urbanization and economic growth. The interest here is to understand how the economic surplus has been (re)distributed in the urbanization process among different social groups, how the relationship of the city as a ‘growth machine’ and its inhabitants has been shaped, and what kind of city this urban politics will produce.

In exploring the ‘right’ and ‘mobility’ relation, the factors shaping and affecting ‘right’ (access to cities and/or housing) and ‘mobility’ are conceptualized and elaborated in this chapter. To fill in the above two research gaps, this chapter will probe into the right-mobility relations in the context of how the enforcement of the city-branding strategy has allowed labour mobility but maintains residency controls. This feature sees:

  • The redevelopment-induced dislocation and resettlement of local residents, which are dominated by local ‘growth coalition’ (see He and Wu 2007) and constrained by a shortfall in supply of government subsidized housing (see News.Dichan.Sina 2011); and

  • The migrants being discouraged from settling down permanently in the host cities (see Huang 2012).

Thus, it is evident that the unhappiness of dislocated local residents awaiting resettlement apartments and the ‘floating’ and ‘unsettled’ status of low-wage migrants have been a hotbed for social discontent in recent years (Hsing 2010; Wu 2002; Zhang 2002, 2010). Their mobility pattern and the extent to which they can access residency rights and affordable housing become the very yardstick for their measurement of the ‘Right to the City’ (see Lefebvre’s slogan of city justice). Characterized by city branding movements, the social injustice behind the dislocation and rehousing process can be demonstrated and measured in the following ways:

  • Mobility pattern—if there is an involuntary mobility, in what way and at what level are the dislocated residents compensated, what is the proportion of their resettlement through subsidized housing programs, can they adapt quickly to resettlement, and to what extent are they satisfied with their new living environment?

  • A comparison between different income groups in their access to the new subsidized apartments and the city’s amenities following their mobility will reveal in what ways or due to which policies certain social groups get a more difficult (or an easier) access to the city’s benefits/amenities than the others. Although Beijing’s official statistics and reports provide little citywide data on how many disadvantaged have been affected negatively by specific policies, the injustice would become more apparent when comparisons are made among the recipients.

After three decades of economic reforms, the claims of rights in the city are still restricted to the economic field. The issue of ‘Right to the City’ has again risen to attention in the 2000s, when urban issues such as the compensatory reforms to satisfy dislocated families and landless peasants, as well as prolonged housing unaffordability, inaccessibility and discrimination attracted attention. The national media have also publicised these issues, especially the cases in which land (re)developments have affected the low-income groups’ choices of where to settle down (see Hsing 2010; Hess 2010; Zhang 2002, 2010). The following sections expatiate on the perceived unjust mobility policies that have produced low-cost and fast urbanization in the past three decades:

  • The city branding movements and the urban politics of inhabitants

  • The plan-market dual track system and the bottom-up urban informalities

  • The Hukou system: the invisible wall and place-specific welfare mechanism.

3.3 The Perceived Unjust Mobility Policies

In examining the perceived unjust mobility policies, China’s largest cities—Beijing and Shanghai are chosen as case studies. By and large, the economic activities cluster in the large cities and coastal areas owing to the benefits of spatial proximity, scale effect and accessibility to sea ports (see Dicken 2011: 541). The big cities, which are also the nodal points of the global network and the command centres of the national economy, have acquired an increasing proportion of wealth and power. They enjoy the prerogative to make decisions about how to distribute wealth among the inhabitants, including migrants. Generally, the higher the administration level and the closer the integration in the global market of a city, the more difficult it will be for low-wage migrants to obtain a local hukou, and for the city to tone down its city-branding movement which causes many dislocations (Fan 2008; Chan and Buckingham 2008). Affected by the intense land-use conflict between different interest groups, agglomeration economies have inevitably opened up debates on the rights of the affected residents and migrant workers impacted by the city-branding movements.

Ma (2005: 478) defined the repositioned growth pattern as ‘a downward shift in state power from a single unitary national scale to multiple local scales, giving rise to a new power matrix in geographic space since the 1980s’. The globalizing and reformist cities (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen) are competing for a place in the global city roster through employing spatial recapitalization, instigating industrial upgrading to produce higher land exchange values and improving productivity with labour input from the skilled and educated migrants. Mobility has been encouraged by economic liberalization, whilst still discouraged or constrained by a series of regulations set by the old centrally planned rule. Most of the cases of mobility—including migration to cities, dislocation and resettlement following urban renewals—are arranged as an indispensable part of the circuits of capital in the city and beyond. The socio-spatial arrangements work for the maximization of the national and local interests by triumphing in the global market and through inter-jurisdiction competition.

The power-space dialectics has been manifested in residential mobility phenomena and entitlement issues in the urban politics of inhabitants of China’s globalizing cities. The participation in ‘the production of space’ and the appropriation of city’s space and amenities are the focus of the urban politics of inhabitants. As argued by Lefebvre (1991: 416) in his seminal book The Production of Space, ‘groups, classes or fractions of classes cannot constitute themselves, or recognize one another, as “subjects” unless they generate (or produce) a space’. The claims for a just city represent a bottom-up hope for equitable treatment and affordable homes in the host cities, as well as an end to a transitory existence of ‘floating between locations’.

3.3.1 City Branding Movements and the Urban Politics of Inhabitants

The following section investigates the land and housing politics in urban China acting as specific barriers to the ‘Right to the City’. The urban politics of inhabitants focus on two issues:

  • The dislocation following city branding movements; and

  • The supply of low-income housing enabling low-income dislocated groups to be resettled.

Market reforms have commodified urban lands. They have therefore become a factor of production, dominating China’s wealth accumulation and distribution since the tax-sharing reform and land conveyance reform, during which the national economy had been deepening its integration into the global market (see Zhu 1999; He and Wu 2009). In extracting value from the city, low-income groups’ ‘Right to the City’ is repositioned in the place-making process, which has occurred not only through the upgrading of inner-city areas, but also through the expansion of urban administration into suburbs that were previously administratively designated as rural areas (see McGee et al. 2007: 6). A sea of dislocated inner-city residents have been removed to the underserved suburbs.

Table 3.1 shows housing areas targeted for demolition and the families that were affected from 1995 to 2010 in Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai began its demolition projects slightly earlier than Beijing and on a greater scale. The scope and scale of the demolition and resettlement of families depended on the urgency and plans of the municipal governments, as well as the housing market demand as impacted by the developers. Property prices, housing policies, the rigour with which the project was implemented, and the sharing of interests in the land were important factors in determining how and where the affected low-income groups would move.

Table 3.1
Housing demolition and local families affected in Beijing and Shanghai, 1995–2010


Floor area (million sq. m.)

Families (thousand households)


























































































Sources: Beijing Municipal Commission of Housing and Urban-rural Development (2011) and Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Statistics (2011)

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