BEIJING — Migrant worker Yue Yaowei has lived in Beijing for six years but is not recognised as a resident of the Chinese capital — and so cannot get health insurance, buy a car or purchase a house.
“I am under big pressure here,” Yue, 24, told AFP at a duck restaurant in central Beijing where he earns about $400 a month as the head waiter.
“I don’t have much savings after buying clothes, gifts for my family and going out with friends.”
Yue is one of tens of millions of migrant workers around the country tied to a residency registration in their home town which largely prevents them from accessing a range of public services once they move to other cities.
The so-called “hukou” system — which the government has vowed to reform — was introduced in the 1950s to curb potentially destabilising population flows from the countryside to the cities, in a nation recovering from civil war.
It has fuelled resentment among migrants, as has widespread discrimination against the army of low-paid workers, sometimes spilling over into violent unrest.
Unlike their parents, young migrant workers — the second generation — are more aware of their rights, and are increasingly frustrated with the treatment they receive in cities where they are often considered second-class citizens.
Last month, three days of riots in the southern province of Guangdong broke out after rumours spread that police had beaten a street hawker to death and manhandled his pregnant wife.
The protests in the manufacturing hub were the latest in a line of outbursts in the country, which analysts say highlight the frustration felt by migrants over what they see as unfair treatment and anger at the widening wealth gap.
“Very often these disputes that flare up are simply the result of long-simmering discontent,” Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a workers’ rights organisation, told AFP.
“There’s a sense of social injustice that young migrant workers see every day and that is related to their personal and working conditions.”
While Yue has no plans to take to the streets over his struggle to make ends meet in Beijing, he sympathises with the gripes of protesting workers in southern China.
Local residents “think outsiders squeeze their living environment and place competition pressures on them for jobs. Their life could be easier without us,” Yue admitted.
But he said the young workers “can’t go back to their home town because they have left home for so long and have nothing there”.
China’s economic boom started three decades ago when foreign-backed factories sprang up along the country’s southern and eastern seaboards, attracting hundreds of millions of rural migrants seeking work.
The first generation worked long hours in often poor conditions but were able to send money back to their families, helping them build new homes and raise living standards in their rural villages.
Raised in those boom times, China’s new generation of workers are less willing to accept difficult conditions for low pay and are increasingly assertive about exercising their own economic clout as labourers.
And many have no plan to go home.
“Society has become richer so they want a bigger share of the pie. People’s expectations have gone up,” Anita Chan, a research professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, told AFP.
The younger generation of migrant workers are also more educated and “aware of the finer points of the law”, she said.
For Tuo Qiaoqiao, a waitress at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, leaving her village in the northern province of Shaanxi to live in the Chinese capital was a chance to have “some adventures”, meet foreigners and make money.
“People of the post-1980 and post-1990 generations believe in living for fun. We just make everything up as we go along,” Tuo, 20, told AFP as she flicked through a fashion magazine.
“I will not go back to the countryside — the countryside suits old people but not young people.”
Crothall said a common view among urban residents was that young migrant workers were criminals — and many indeed are, according to official figures.
Migrant workers born after 1980 — a group consisting of nearly 100 million people — committed a third of all crimes nationwide in 2010, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
CASS linked the crime wave to discrimination the workers often encounter in cities, dismissing the commonly-held view that it was due to poor education, a bad home environment in childhood, or poverty.
It cited “exclusion, job and education difficulties, unfair economic and political treatment, inadequate social security and cultural clashes” as the main reasons behind the crime wave.
Despite the challenges Yue faces living in Beijing — he shares a bedroom with three colleagues and works long hours — he says he has no immediate plans to return to his home in the eastern province of Shandong.
First, he wants to open his own Chinese restaurant.
“I’m not going home without realising my dreams,” he said. “I just want to earn enough money so that I don’t have to think too much and just buy whatever I like.”