San Francisco Chronicle: Where you are born in China determines your fate

Calum MacLeod, Chronicle Foreign Service

June 29, 2002

Beijing -- Yan Leidong isn't advocating democracy […]. He supports the government's one-child policy and the Beijing Olympic Games. Yet he has been detained, beaten and deported by the country he loves.

For all his dozen years working in cities of central China and sending money to his home village in Hunan province, the 39-year-old Yan -- who requested his real name not be used for fear of police retribution -- remains a second-class citizen by virtue of his birth.

"I still feel so outraged about what happened," he said. "What kind of country is this where a citizen's civil rights have no guarantees?"

As a registered rural resident, Yan is a pawn in a residency system maintained by the Communist Party since the 1950s to keep farmers on the land of their birth and prevent them from migrating to China's overflowing cities. […]

China has a "floating population" of about 200 million rural residents, who travel to urban centres to work at low-paying jobs that urbanites shun, ranging from construction to dish washing. They are an underclass that has trouble getting decent housing and even such basic services as health care. Millions of migrant children in cities are barred from schools as part of an effort to keep them down on the farm.

Yan's story highlights the fragile nature of human rights in China and the country's apartheid like class divisions. The simple act of locating Yan illustrates the separate worlds that Chairman Mao fought to avoid.

"Go down there," said a Beijing woman, pointing to a basement under the campus of one of China's top universities. "I have never been myself. I only saw migrants go down there."

In a dark alcove of an underworld warren, Yan is sleeping after working the night shift as a cook in the student canteen. His clothes hang on heating pipes that fill the walls.

A native of Hunan, Mao's home province, Yan arrived in February and luckily landed a $120-a-month job at the canteen rather than at a construction site, as most migrants do. With the university promising to give him residency papers, things were looking up.

In March, however, the National People's Congress ordered the police to crack down on migrant workers, which resulted in a frenzy of arbitrary detentions.

Yan's problems began after he was stopped on the street just outside the university gates by a plainclothes police officer, who asked him for the required "three certificates" -- identity card, residency and work permits. When he only produced the latter two -- the university had kept his identification card -- he was detained. During his detention, he was interrogated, beaten and forced to sign a document that he lacked the required papers.

"I had no choice, I signed the form," he said. "I was cold, hungry and angry."

For most migrants who are arrested, the humiliation ends only after repatriation to their home province. By law, detention should not exceed 15 days, but in practice is often extended for longer periods. According to China's "reform through labour" system, prisoners can be jailed for three years without a trial.

Yan was one of the lucky ones. He was held for just one day, sent back to Hunan's capital of Changsha and fined 380 yuan ($46) -- more than many local monthly salaries -- to cover the cost of his detention and repatriation. The police often pocket the fines, and those who can't afford to pay can be sent to do forced manual labour on road or building construction sites.

"I realized now that these policemen, the servants of the country, are making money off of us," said Yan. [……]

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