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Migrant Workers and Social Justice (3:09) Excerpt from film "The People's Court", July 2007
Chinese migrant workers give insight into their status, lack of power, and vulnerability in the new economic order.

Country: China

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Guiding Questions
  1. Why have peasants been abandoning the land for the city? How large is this migration?

  2. Based on this clip, in what ways might migrant workers be second-class citizens in China's cities?

  3. How does the treatment of migrant workers challenge China's legal system to become an instrument of social justice?
Background Essay
Social justice for migrant workers in China is hard to obtain. Despite the fact that these workers play an integral role in the economic boom of the country, they do not receive the same benefits as permanent urban residents. China has a system that allocates benefits and rights on a regional basis - a system that can work against the peasants who move to China's cities for work.

When China's Civil war ended in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party established the People's Republic of China. They wanted to centralize power, unify the country and develop China's industry and infrastructure. A few of Mao Zedong's nationwide projects were the Great Leap Forward, a 5-year economic and social plan that he initiated in 1958, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Unfortunately, at the end of the Maoist era, the economy and the education system of China were very weak.

Deng Xiaoping, who became China's leader in 1976, introduced new policies to encourage economic growth. Large segments of the economy were cut loose from direct state control. The private sector boomed, a new class of entrepreneurs prospered and China's formal legal system was re-established. At the same time, however, the Communist Party remained in control of a one-party, authoritarian state and a growing gap between rich and poor emerged. Employers used their newfound market power to exploit workers. Tensions developed. Conflicting claims of property rights came to be a significant problem.

The government of China decided to address these issues by trying to expand and modernize the legal system. Since the 1980s the country has opened almost 400 law schools, training hundreds of thousands of lawyers and judges. The country has also created education campaigns to encourage people to settle their issues in court rather than on the streets.

Before 1995, many judges did not have college degrees or much knowledge about the law. Since 1995, the requirements to become a judge have gotten stricter: now judges need to have a university degree and must pass a national exam. However, the judges are appointed and paid by the one-party government. Their decisions, as well as decisions and actions of lawyers, are often influenced by the Communist Party and local governments. Many Chinese citizens are bothered by the corruption they see as widespread in China.

In 2003, Hu Jintao was elected as the President of the People's Republic of China. His challenges include trying to find solutions to China's economic, social and environmental problems. One of his initiatives, the Socialist Core Value System, encourages honesty and law-abiding and ethical behavior among all Chinese citizens. Whether President Hu's goals lead to real improvements will be a key measure of China's progress toward implementing the rule of law.

Social justice can be hard to obtain in these volatile times.

Every day peasants abandon the land for a better life in the cities. In the past 15 years, 1 out of every 10 Chinese has made the move - the largest ongoing migration in history.

These migrant workers are the muscle of their country's economic miracle. They're building the new China, and many of them have been pulled out of poverty.

But migrants seeking work in Chengdu know they don't have the same rights to health care, housing or education as permanent urban residents.

I've been here for five years. It's been very hard.

Only a few of us have been able to get a job. Most haven't. Some of us work on the construction sites but haven't been paid.

Dreams? We're only second-class citizens. We don't have dreams.

Unpaid wages are just one of many injustices propelling Chinese to take to the streets in record numbers.

According to government statistics, there are an average of 200 protests a day. Many more go unreported.

Professor Wang Xue Fen teaches law at Sichuan University. Coming from a poor rural family, he has a special interest in the legal problems facing these workers.

Were you paid?

No, we weren't paid. When we tried, we were told the company didn't exist. There's nothing more we can do.

We need a just society. Only the rich and powerful have justice. There's no justice for the poor.

This isn't socialism. It's the law of the jungle, where the strong prey on the weak.

An employer who's been listening in has heard enough.

Many of my employees are very lazy. Everyone knows me here, I hire lots of workers.

Haven't you heard of workers not being paid?

No, it's required by law.

All we want is to be paid for our work.

And when we're old, we want pensions, just like city people.

At the nearby public gardens, retirees with pensions and time on their hands while away the day. For many migrant workers, this can only be a distant dream.

Related Links
The People's Court on PBS.org

CIA World Factbook: China

Chinese Constitution, Criminal Procedure Law, Civil Procedure Law, and others translated into English

World Factbook of Criminal Justice System: China

Foreign Affairs "Don't Break the Engagement" (May/June 2004)

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