“Masters of the People”: China’s New Urban Poor

In Dissent Magazine, Jeffrey Wasserstrom interviews political scientists Dorothy Solinger and Mark Frazier about the urban poor, whom are often overlooked in discussions of China’s migrant workers and the urbanization process that has helped moved millions of rural citizens to the cities. In the introduction, Wasserstrom writes, “The ranks of the poor in China today also include people who have lived in cities all their lives, and, as members of the industrial proletariat, were once considered ‘the masters of the people'”:

Wasserstrom: Can you tell us more about the urban poor in particular? We hear a lot about , but your work has focused largely on other groups of urbanites. How exactly did they end up impoverished and what limits their chances of rising in the social order?

Solinger: Originally, the urban cohort was largely the laid-off, many of whom were in the streets in 2000 vociferously protesting their job losses. These were urbanites who were also casualties of the shutting down of schools during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, and who were in 2000 just entering middle age. The country’s political elite was anxious that the nation’s cherished enterprise reform program would be undermined by the disorder of the protests—which, in turn, would damage China’s chances of entering the WTO and thereby prevent the country from becoming “modern.” The leadership also worried that maintaining the loss-making firms that employed these laborers would diminish the nation’s competitiveness.

But a switch in emphasis in recent years (perhaps similar to a new bent in Western welfare platforms) has urged employment for the healthy unemployed (despite the fact that the labor market is singularly inhospitable to these over forty, semi-skilled or unskilled laborers), and focused on subsidizing only the utterly destitute, severely ill, and disabled.

Even though basic school costs for grades one through nine have been eliminated for urban-registered children, the young of these discarded workers still suffer mightily in their pursuit of adequate schooling. First, they tend to live in rundown neighborhoods, where the local schools are sorely wanting. And secondly, their parents lack the cash to hire tutors or fund extra-curricular activities. So even children with some intellectual promise inevitably fall behind and have no hope of leaving . The job market remains almost as out of reach for them as it has been for their parents. [Source]