Indonesian reflections on civil society in China

Posted in: China, Indonesia, peer to peer
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Guest blogger Nikmah, Project Officer at International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID), reflects on her recent exchange visit to China

view from taxi

Before departing for China or Tiongkok as we Indonesians would call it, I tried to imagine what the country would be like, how do the people lead their lives and what is the situation for its civil society. We have heard of countless accounts about China, primarily its economic triumphs. Many goods and commodities are made in China. Economists and policy-makers have time and again made references to China for its remarkable economic growth amid the world’s economic downturn. China has such substantial clout that in many international forums negotiations have often swayed in favor of China. On the other hand, not many have been heard of the country’s civil society.

I first set foot in Beijing, China’s capital city, on 5 November 2014. It was bitingly cold, temperatures reaching 4°C. Such cold weather is not what we Indonesians are accustomed to, coming from a country where the average temperature is 30°C. Soon after leaving the airport as we travel along a quiet road with a taxi driver who appeared somewhat heavy-eyed, we noticed skyscrapers and high-rise buildings along exceptionally wide roads. Cars passing through hold unfamiliar brands. These are probably the Chinese-made cars that the economists were talking about.

For days I was astounded by what I saw in China. Witnessing a massive range of products produced none other than by China; a situation unlike Indonesia where foreign products have made a ubiquitous presence. In China, it is difficult to find products made by other countries.

However, after having the opportunity to visit a village located 1½ hours from the city center, there are no more well-paved roads. The roads are damaged and dust particles sweep up into the air by passing vehicles. Houses cramped and huddled together with overhead power cables criss-crossing along the road. The story behind the existence of this village however is what saddens me the most.

The village was built by laborers from other rural areas where job opportunities are scarce. This has compelled them to migrate to the city to become laborers. Due to China’s civil registry policy, citizens who are not born in the city are not entitled to education and health services and housing. As a consequence they are pushed further to the city’s periphery only so that they can survive and earn a living in the city.

From what they have told me, over 240 million people have migrated from rural to urban areas. The migration flow in China saw an upsurge after the 1990s when the government opened its door to foreign investment. Henceforth, many large corporations have grown and flourished, hiring millions of people. To date, migration remains to be a major issue for China and predicted to escalate in years to come. This leads to widening disparities in China as millions of people live at the subsistence level due to lack of access to social programs.

The situation also applies to Indonesia. Decades earlier, Indonesia welcomed private investment to do business in the country without paying heed to rural development. As a consequence, Indonesia has been experiencing an urban population explosion. Labor migration further intensifies, primarily among women who either work as laborers in large cities or domestic helpers in a foreign country as overseas migrant workers. These women are deprived of decent work in their hometowns due to rural underdevelopment.

A distinctive feature that sets Indonesia apart from China is the political system. Since 1998 Indonesia has installed a democratic government directly elected by the people. The government also allows the freedom of association and expression. Civil society has the freedom to criticize flawed public policies. China however seems to show a different story. Owing to its single-party political system, there are no general elections in China. Civil society in particular have difficulties in making their voices heard, much less criticize the government. It is therefore not easy for civil society in China to become development actors on equal standing with other development stakeholders. Hopefully there will be more meaningful changes for improving the lives of workers.

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