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COLUMN ONE : A Floating Tide of Trouble? : In China, up to 70 million people are on the move. They roam between their rural homes and big cities, offering cheap labor. Police say they also bring crime and social ills.


BEIJING — Police recently awakened residents of the large concrete Yue He apartment complex on the eastern edge of Beijing to show them photographs of the battered face of a young woman who had been found dead, and presumed murdered, in the nearby Tong Hui canal.

The woman was too badly beaten to be identified. But since no family members had come forward to report her missing or claim her body, the police concluded that she was part of the wave of displaced rural Chinese--known colloquially as the "blind flow" people--who have filtered by the millions into major cities in recent years.

At a time when other aspects of the Chinese economy are booming, this huge internal migratory population, estimated at 50 million to 70 million, is evidence of the growing disparity between rural and urban economies. With incomes in the cities 2 1/2 times what they are in the countryside, rural Chinese are racing to urban areas, confronting the government with a new and potentially volatile challenge.

On one hand, the incoming migration of willing workers provides the cities with an instant labor pool to build the skyscrapers and highways engendered by the booming economy. The flood of cheap labor is the key to the success of Shenzhen, in Guangdong province, and the other economic miracle cities in the south.

On the other hand, these immigrants in their own land, bearing their possessions in checkered cloth bundles and staring with childlike wonder at the tall, new buildings of the cities, bring with them all the social problems inherent in any large uprooting of peoples, including poverty, unemployment and, increasingly, say police officials, crime.

According to Liu Yida, a journalist with the newspaper Beijing Wanbao who has written several articles on crime committed by migrants, the dead woman found in the filthy canal was the fifth murder this year of an unidentified victim, almost certainly a migrant.

Although the migrants account for less than 10% of Beijing's population, police officials blame them for 47% of crimes reported during the last three months.

"The population surges have placed enormous pressures on housing and services, creating the latent possibility of instability in the cities," said Jonathan D. Pollack, China specialist with the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. Along with speculation about political succession after the death of ailing 89-year-old leader Deng Xiaoping, the massive wave of internal migration is one of the biggest issues being studied by scholars of contemporary China.

As a result of the internal migration, the government, which used to severely restrict travel for its 1.2 billion citizens, is suddenly confronted with a poor, unskilled, highly mobile population equivalent in size to that of France or Germany. Not since World War II, when invading Japanese troops created waves of refugees fleeing south from Manchuria and the north China plain, have so many Chinese been on the road.

In Beijing alone, officials say, the floating population is over 1.5 million, mainly displaced farm workers from the impoverished neighboring provinces of Hebei, Henan and Anhui. Other major cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, are each estimated to have more than 1 million internal migrants.

City dwellers have come to depend on the "blind flow" people to clean their houses, sweep their streets and serve them jian bing pancakes and bean curd juice for breakfast from sidewalk stalls. But they also complain bitterly that the migrants jam the subways, disrupt traffic and, worst of all, commit increasingly violent crimes on their once-peaceful streets.

Articles in the state-controlled press say the percentage of crimes committed by the floating population has increased steadily over the last five years.

"According to a police survey," Liu, 36, wrote in his popular evening newspaper, favored by commuters, "22.5% of the criminals caught in 1990" were migrants. "The percentage rose to 30% in 1991 and reached 37% in 1992. It soared to over 43% during the first three months of 1993."

Since then, Liu said in a recent interview, the number has risen to more than 47%.

Some scholars of China suggest that the percentages supplied by police may be exaggerated, part of an effort to explain a general increase of urban crime.

"One way Chinese authorities try to explain away problems is to try to blame the problems on outsiders," said Marc Eichen, a professor at Hunter College in New York City who has studied the internal migration problem.

Beijing-based diplomats and researchers, however, say they tend to believe police figures on migrant crime.

Some of the crimes, at least by American standards, are relatively innocuous. One migrant gang, said journalist Liu, specializes in stealing manhole covers, which they melt down and resell as scrap metal. But some neighborhoods with large migrant populations have become so dangerous that residents have formed citizen protection patrols.

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