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China Begins Counting 'Floating Population' : Asia: Economic opening has created large number of internal migrants. Government fears chaos if group becomes detached from national order.

November 19, 1994|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — Teams of government officials and neighborhood-watch committees fanned out into the narrow-laned traditional hutongs and burgeoning workers' suburbs of the Chinese capital this week as part of a historic census of migrant labor.

On Nov. 10, the first day of the census, all bus stations, train stations and airports were sealed while police checked the identity papers of travelers, arriving and departing. This week, they began a citywide, house-by-house survey interviewing residents and lodgers.

The purpose, officials said, is to find out just how many Beijing residents are part of the huge "floating population" that has surfaced in China since economic liberalization began more than a decade ago.

In Beijing alone, the number of migrants from all parts of China is estimated to be more than 1.6 million. Nationally, the number of migrants is believed to exceed 80 million, more than the population of Germany.

Through official newspapers and special television programs, the government has reassured migrants that the census data will not be used to punish them or evict them for living in the city without work permits.

"Please cooperate," Zou Lanchun, deputy commissioner of the Beijing Statistical Bureau, appealed in a television appearance. "Don't worry about being charged or expelled."

Underlying the government effort, however, is a widespread fear of what might go wrong if this huge mobile population becomes untethered from the national order.

The transient population is relatively new, at least in the Communist era of Chinese history. Before 1978, when economic reform was launched by senior leader Deng Xiaoping, citizens could not buy tickets for transportation without written permission, and they could not work without permits.

"This is a desperate attempt to get a grip on the floating population," commented journalist Liu Yida, who has written extensively on the migrant population.

Migrants are blamed by Beijing residents for much of the crime in the city.

When a sensational case comes along, such as the murder of the wife of television star Zhou Lijun earlier this year, it fans the flames of an already considerable prejudice against the wai di ren , or "outsiders." According to the Beijing Wanbao newspaper, one of several in the city that gives extensive coverage to crime, the woman was killed by a migrant repairman from Hebei province when she surprised him attempting to rob the couple's apartment.

In general, the migrant census has been widely welcomed by the native Beijing population.

"It's a good idea to identify all these outsiders," commented one man, the owner of a small shop selling denim jeans and jackets in the Xiaozhuang neighborhood in northeastern Beijing. Across the street, migrants from other provinces had set up sidewalk stands selling many of the same clothing featured in his shop for much less. In one half-block stretch of the street market were migrants from four provinces: Henan, Hubei, Shandong and Anhui.

"I buy my jeans for 40 yuan (about $5) and sell them for 90," the shop owner said. "That's the Beijing way to do business. But those people from Anhui, they will buy the same thing for 40 yuan and sell it for 45."

In an attempt to prevent the census from turning into a witch hunt, government television and newspapers have attempted to present the migrants in their most positive light, as hard-working people who do jobs that no one else will do.

On the evening Beijing television program "City Government-City People," citizens testified to the value of the migrant work force as preparers of breakfast snacks in local shops, vegetable vendors and shoe repairers.

"Outsiders are good at making the Beijing economy active," said one in a glowing tribute. "In Beijing, no one else but the outsiders repairs our shoes. We have nowhere else to get them fixed."

Already blamed for much of the urban crime in China, the floating population--translated literally from Chinese as "blind flow"--is also seen as a potentially volatile political force. Chinese officials got a sobering taste of that possibility two years ago when Muslim migrants from distant Xinjiang region, living in the capital, threatened police with riots after one of their population was murdered with a watermelon knife by a Beijing shopkeeper.

Among those being counted this week in Beijing were six young carpenters from rural Jiangsu province; they were living in two small rooms in the northeastern Beijing migrant neighborhood known as Six Li Village.

By working on construction projects and doing free-lance carpentry, the men said they were able to send about $1 a day home to their families, after their living expenses were subtracted. When construction work is slow, the men go to the local market where they sit on the curb with a handwritten sign: "I am a carpenter."

Migrants complain that they are often persecuted by Beijing natives. One worker, interviewed on local television, said that bus conductors often refuse to let migrant workers aboard if they are carrying heavy packs of tools and supplies.

But mixed with the resentment is a feeling of pride that a modern city is being built with their hands.

"We feel we have made some contribution to building our capital," said one hard-hat migrant worker on one of Beijing's many construction sites.

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