With increasing points of contention in US-China relations, sharing notes on labor migration could serve as an entry point for building diplomatic rapport.
At the center of China’s rapid economic growth are the nearly 300 million migrants who have come from rural areas to work in urban factories. Even in these past few years of growing consumerism and digital technology innovation, the most defining element of China’s development remains the factory-driven export economy. “Made in China” has become a ubiquitous label on consumer goods all over the world. It is a mark of China’s massive share of global trade. It is often a mark of inexpensive goods. It is a mark increasingly downplayed, with propaganda-like taglines such as “designed in the USA, made in China”. Yet, more objectively than any of its other meanings,“Made in China” signifies “made by Chinese migrants”. It is no exaggeration that migrant workers have a hand in producing nearly every single thing made for export from China.
One of the great puzzles in the study of migrants in China is why the government has consistently treated them so poorly. Similar to migrants in other countries, Chinese migrants face the daunting task of starting over in an unfamiliar place with scant resources or support networks. Yet,in China, strict internal residency laws, known as hukou, prevent Chinese citizens from enjoying most legal rights and social services anywhere in their own country except in their home provinces.This includes access to healthcare, education, and shockingly, in a country so dependent on factory workers, most labor protections. Despite recent reforms, this system remains so discriminatory it has been dubbed “China’s apartheid”.
Like China, the United States has a significant migrant population. In both countries, migrants are significant in terms of their sheer numbers. They are significant in terms of immense economic contributions. And they are significant in terms of the need for reforms to the policies governing their legal status. Both countries have a lot to gain from resolving these issues, and also a lot to gain from sharing notes on their parallel problems with mass-migration.
Admittedly, there are significant differences between the US and Chinese cases. Yet, at a time when the US must increasingly defend its economic,military, and moral interests, the topic of migration seems to present a practical entry point for finding common and neutral ground with the rising Chinese superpower.