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Credit: St. Martin's Press

China's migrant workers — approximately 288 million wage laborers locked into low wages with few social benefits — aren't just a human rights issue, a new book argues; they're part of an apartheid system undergirding China's 30-year economic miracle.

Why it matters: What Beijing has touted as a better model of economic growth is actually based on systematic exploitation of its rural population, writes Dexter Roberts, a former Bloomberg China correspondent.

  • His book, "The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World" is slated for release on March 10 by St. Martin's Press.
  • Roberts follows an extended family of migrant workers from one village over the course of almost two decades, as they seek work in Chinese cities.

The problem: The plight of China's migrant workers is well known and has lasted decades.

  • China's household registration system makes it very difficult for those born in rural areas to become legal residents in cities, where they move in search of economic opportunity.
  • The workers become, essentially, undocumented migrants in their own country, shut out of better jobs, education, and most social benefits.
  • Low wages have meant permanent poverty for migrant workers but high profits for many of China's factories.

China's leaders should relax household registration requirements to improve the lives of a huge portion of the population. But they haven't, argues Roberts.

  • The usual explanation for this is that China's urban middle class opposed such measures, and Chinese authorities don't want to lose the support of a key socio-economic class.
  • Urbanites are protective of their exclusive access to high-quality medical care and education for their children and fear the crowding that would come if millions of migrant worker families had the same access.

But Roberts provides a convincing structural answer to this question that implicates Beijing's leaders themselves.

  • A reliable supply of low-wage, permanently powerless workers to man China's factories are how China's factories have been able to undersell global manufacturers.
  • Cheap Chinese goods are how China became the factory of the world, a model which powered the country's stunning economic growth over the past three decades.

Now that that model has run out of steam, however, Chinese leaders are hoping migrant workers will return to the villages, rather than remaining in cities to suck up urban benefits.

  • That means no household registration reform. Roberts isn't optimistic that it will happen any time soon, because Beijing doesn't want to give up control.
  • "It comes down to a question of loosening control. In order to do this, they need to hands off a little bit. They need to stop thinking or acting as if they can decide where everyone lives," he told Axios in an interview.
  • "If there’s any hope for these rural migrants, you need to let them live where they want to live and work where they want to work."

Go deeper

Updated 60 mins ago - Sports

U.S. swim team wins 6 Tokyo Olympics medals, including 1st gold

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him.

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau will miss Olympics after testing positive for COVID

Bryson DeChambeau of the United States on the 18th tee during Day Two of the 149th Open at Royal St George’s Golf Club on July 16 in Sandwich, England. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Tokyo Olympic Games, USA Golf announced late Saturday.

What's happening: "Patrick Reed will replace DeChambeau and is undergoing the requisite testing protocol" Sunday and Monday before his expected departure for Japan, per a USA Golf statement.

In photos: Scenes from some of the worst fires raging in the U.S.

A home explodes into flames as the Dixie Fire rips through the Indian Falls neighborhood of unincorporated Plumas County, California, on July 24. The blaze started near the origin of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and has churned burned over 185,000 acres. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Out-of-state crews went to Montana to tackle a wildfire that wounded five firefighters as Australia sent a large air tanker to help Californian firefighting efforts, as 88 large blazes raged in the U.S. Saturday.

The big picture: Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) tweeted his thanks to Utah and California for sending crews over the weekend, as the two states battle their own blazes. The Australian tanker arrived in Calif., this week, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) proclaimed a state of emergency for four northern counties Friday.