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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 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.