China’s population is on the march. Not the Long March that brought the Communist Party to power, but a move by thousands of peasants every day from country to town. This mass migration has major political implications for the country’s leadership. As long as China continues to grow and the bulk of Chinese people have a shot at a better life, the Chinese Communist Party can remain comfortably in power. For those in the cities, that means better jobs; for those in the country it means moving to the city to try and get one of those jobs.
One reason there has been no hue and cry for democracy by the country’s urban elite is that for many years urban sophisticates were far outnumbered by downtrodden peasants. And they didn’t want their power diminished by the rural masses. “Imagine all those people with a low-quality education being able to vote and make decisions about the future of the country. It would be chaos. Democracy would not work here,” says a Communist Party member who had recently moved home from America to take a job in the country’s growing green-tech sector.
A consultant in Beijing who analyses the Chinese economy for foreign investors puts it more cynically. “For many people in China’s cities, it’s a case of ‘I’m doing fine thanks and I don’t want to upset the apple cart,’” says Arthur Kroeber at Dragonomics. China operates a bizarre form of internal apartheid where urban residents have more rights to education and healthcare and more votes to elect representatives to local councils than their rural compatriots. The Communist Party came to power using a peasant revolution, but now the party is made up of a city-living elite that curbs rural power. Peasants in the city are regularly rounded up by security forces and deported back beyond city limits. Brutality is common.
Fifteen years ago China even changed its electoral law to reflect the fact that more people lived in the countryside than the towns – and curtail their potential influence. Under the 1995 law, the votes of four country bumpkins were made equal to that of one city slicker in a bid to ensure China’s urbanites were not outnumbered.
But the country’s rapid urbanisation in the past decade has now prompted the government to think again. This week, China’s legislature began reviewing the law in order to give rural voters a greater say in who should sit on local councils, since the numbers of people who live in the towns and cities are now roughly equal. China has a limited form of democracy that allows people to elect representatives on local councils, who can then be elected as members of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature. The NPC’s 2,987 deputies can discuss and vote on proposals, but have little real power. Analysts have said that this will make China’s voting law look fairer even if in reality voters – in country or town – have little power to choose their leadership and the decisions are made behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai, the Communist leadership compound in Beijing.
Changing the ratio of the rural to urban representation does not mean that citizens will have a greater say in how the nation is run. But the ongoing rush from country to town means that every year, China’s population is getting more sophisticated. And once the bulk of China’s population lives behind the city walls the clamour of questions about why they have so little representation in the country’s government is likely to get louder.