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China's Brilliance and Obscurity as Seen in the Shanghai World Expo

Tomoko Ako
Associate Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University

The Opening of the Shanghai World Expo

China staked its national reputation in preparing for the Shanghai World Expo, which opened on May 1st. I stayed in Shanghai for one year with a host family when I was a graduate student. My host mother often said that she couldn't leave this world without seeing the Shanghai World Expo during her lifetime. It seems to me that she's been watching the great changes that have come to Shanghai, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions, as she has survived World War II and seen the birth of a new China, the Cultural Revolution, and the reformation and opening-up of China.

The Japan World Exposition was held in Osaka in 1970, one year before I was born. Reflecting on those days, my father—who lives in Osaka now—says that, “We didn't have time to stop and think.” Shanghai must have the same frenetic atmosphere today that Japan had in the midst of its high-growth period. But with its huge population and vast economic disparity, the situation in China is also quite different from that of Japan.

Unique Family Register System

Shanghai has achieved significant growth over the last twenty years and it is now the richest region in China. It is quite fitting that the Expo, an engine for further economic development, be held in Shanghai. The inland region of China, on the other hand, is very poor, and the disparity is growing between the rich in the coastal regions and the poor in the inland regions. According to the sample survey conducted in 2007 by the Chairman of the National Economic Research Institute, China Reform Foundation, Wang Xiaolu shows that the revenue of the top 10% of the high-income population is 55 times that of the bottom 10% of the low-income population. The low-income population is concentrated in rural agricultural areas, and they move to urban areas away from home to earn a better living. In China the agricultural and non-agricultural family register systems are segregated and children must take over the family register where their parents are registered. For example, even though a man from an agricultural area in Sichuan province moves to Shanghai to work in a factory there, he is registered under the agricultural family register system in Sichuan province.

It is quite difficult for Japanese to understand the unique system of the Chinese family register, as in Japan people can change their residency registration to the place where they would like to live and enjoy the civil rights accordingly endowed to them. This Chinese family register system continues from the time when collective farms were operated under the people's commune system. The Chinese Government cannot abolish this inequitable system because self-sufficiency in food is the core policy of the Government, which operates a nation with a vast population of more than 13 billion. If poor farmers in Sichuan province were able to establish residency in Shanghai easily, almost 100% of them would be entitled to receive public welfare assistance. As there are vast disparities among people in China, including income level, medical insurance, pension and the educational environment, civil rights must be established in each region within China, separated with boundaries.

Reform of the Family Register System to Solicit Specialists

Shanghai City now issues two kinds of certificates to immigrants: Residency Certificates, which allow them to receive benefits similar to native Shanghainese, and Temporary Residency Certificates, which only allow them to live there. These residency certificates are primarily issued to those who have university education or higher, or to those who have specialized skills. Although nearly any recent university graduates were able to obtain a Residency Certificate until 2003, a new system was implemented in 2004 to evaluate those who are qualified to receive the Residency Certificate based on a comprehensive score comprising university ranking, grades, foreign language and computer skills, creditworthiness and compensation packages of companies they work for, thereby limiting the number of people who can receive the certificates.

In addition, in order to be registered under the non-agricultural official family register of Shanghai City, candidates must meet conditions including: more than seven years of residency since obtaining the Residency Certificate; income taxes paid for more than seven years and carrying social insurance of Shanghai City; expert engineer with an intermediate level qualification or better, or an engineer with a Class 2 national qualification; and no criminal record. Currently, out of 19 million permanent residents in Shanghai, about 6 million are not registered in the official family register of Shanghai City.

Agricultural Farms within the Urban City

The other day I met a Japanese man who operates a factory in the suburbs of Shanghai City at a lecture. He said:
There are about 80 people living close to our factory who are registered under the agricultural family register system and were expropriated of their lands when an industrial complex was built over ten years ago. Around twenty people gathered and barricaded the entrance and exit of our factory for three days, claiming that the unusual odor from the drainage of a residential street was caused by our factory, interfering with our business. They demanded that they be relocated to places with a better environment—and indemnities toward that end—as well as registration in the official family registry of Shanghai City. Finally the police came and the commotion died down. They determined that the abnormal odor was caused by another factory, but I am very concerned that similar problems may happen again.

I imagine that such anecdotes beg the question: Why do people living in Shanghai City want to be registered in the official registry of Shanghai City? Among people living in Shanghai since olden days, there are those under the agricultural family register system and those under the non-agricultural family register system. Most people living in the suburbs of Shanghai are agricultural workers registered under the agricultural family register system. As urbanization progressed, industrial complexes and housing developments were built in the suburbs. The question, then, is: can farmers who were expropriated of their land be registered right away in the official family registry of Shanghai City? And the answer is no. Within Shanghai City, some areas are specified as agricultural areas and others as cities. Public services to be offered to residents are all very different, depending on the areas that they live in. Even in Shanghai there is a great disparity.

Brilliance and Obscurity Persist in China

There is a view that although China comprises great disparities among regions, those disparities create a cheap labor force and give rise to a hungry spirit, consequently stimulating the economy. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that both bright and dark areas persist in a rapidly growing China. Just as Japanese companies experienced through incidents such as those mentioned above, a radicalization of grievances would instantly cause the dark areas to win out over the bright areas.

Tomoko Ako
Associate Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University


Professor Ako was born in 1971. She graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Chinese Language Department at Osaka University of Foreign Studies and completed the Master's Program at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. She received her PhD from the Doctoral Program in the Department of Education at the University of Hong Kong. Since 2009 she has served as Associate Professor in the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University. From 2006 to 2008, she served as Associate Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at Gakushuin Women's College. From 2004 to 2006, she served as Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at Himeji Dokkyo University. From 2001 through 2003, she worked as a special researcher at the Japanese Embassy in China. Her major publications include the articles: The Root Causes of Corruption and Disparity [Fuhai to Kakusa no Kongen wa Nani ka] (RATIO No.5, Kodan-sha 2008); A Country that Devours its Poor [Hinja o Kurau Kuni] (Sincho-sha, 2009); The Cohesion of Agricultural Societies [Noson Shakai no Gishuryoku] and Grass Roots Governance edited by Masaharu Hishida, Hosei University Press, 2010)