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Some 30,000 delegates from more than 50 countries in South East Asia and the Americas gathered at the forum to discuss the problems of global economic development and in particular the plight of displaced and dispossessed in the face of rapid globalisation. Major developing countries like India deployed sizable delegations that organised and attended vocal rallies.

China the most populous developing country — was represented by a modest 10-member delegation from the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CHINANGO). The delegation had planned just one panel discussion on the importance of China’s economic growth for Asia’s development and prosperity.

Although described as non-governmental, the organisation is actually a quasi-NGO, inaugurated by the Chinese government in the last fall with the goal of coordinating Chinese NGOs representation in conferences abroad.

Glaringly absent from the forum were representatives of China’s burgeoning green movement, legal rights activists or any independent members of the public who could speak about the challenges the country is facing in its headlong economic development.

And they are numerous. China is in the throes of an urbanisation process, unprecedented in scale and speed. Chinese leaders are planning to move some 300 to 400 million peasants from the countryside to the cities by 2020. In less than 20 years they hope to complete a process, which took western developed countries three to four hundred years.

According to official statistics, China’s urbanisation rate is 41.8 percent, meaning that a total of 540 million people live in cities. The government wants to increase the urbanisation rate to 75 percent by the middle of the century in order to raise living standards, boost consumer demand and ensure long-term economic growth.

Chinese experts estimate that just in the past decade large cities in the country like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have expanded at an average rate of ten percent annually. The capital Beijing and the east coast hub of Shanghai now rank among the 15 largest cities in the world.

Yet, in the course of this rapid development, China has put millions of migrant workers the very cheap labour that has proved critical in creating its economic miracle, at disadvantage by denying them wages, health care and schooling for their children..

Many of the rural migrants are construction workers employed at the thousands of building sites across the big cities. Others are young girls, making toys, clothing and shoes in the sweatshop factories in China’s coastal cities where export-processing industries are located.

Official figures put the number of people who leave the fields to labour in cities at about 130 million. To speed up the urbanisation process, China has now begun to relax the country’s household registration system, which used to tie peasants to the land and lock them out of the more affluent cities.

Nevertheless, migrant labourers are marginalised and the majority are still denied a share of the country’s wealth. Many of them are only paid at the whim of their employer and can be expelled without appeal at a moment’s notice because they have no legal right to live there. Because of that, they have little access to the judicial courts.

Driven to despair, some have taken extreme steps to fight for their rights. In one of the most publicised cases last year, seven construction workers in the north-eastern city of Shenyang attempted collective suicide to force a demand for their denied wages.

According to the China Labour Bulletin, a labour rights monitoring group based in Hong Kong, saw, last year, over 1,000 strikes, each involving more than a hundred workers, in the coastal province of Guangdong where many of the manufacturing factories are located.

Many of last year’s strikes were by migrant workers demanding that employers pay them their rightfully earned wages.

Three years ago, the central government launched a campaign to pay migrants back their owed wages. But a recent study by the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, concluded that migrant workers were still owed more than 10 billion US dollars in back wages.

Experts are warning that penniless migrants together with workers laid off from the state-owned enterprise are quickly becoming an urban underclass whose existence on the fringes of big cities fuels social unrest.

"Compared with the destitute rural population, such urban dwellers don’t have the bottom line security — land," Zhao Xizhong, a delegate to the National People’s Congress who researches the urban poverty issue told the "Beijing Review". "This kind of poverty is absolutely beggarliness. Without further policy security, they may become the most disadvantaged group."

In its early egalitarian years communist China prided itself on eradicating urban poverty. Recent studies show however, that social inequality in the country is growing fast by every index. According to China’s 2005 National Human Development Report the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality had increased by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years.

While low-income people account for 20 percent of urban residents, they own less than three percent of the cities’ wealth, a recent report by the National Development and Reform Commission concluded. Slums have begun appearing on the borders of some cities where urban poverty is passed from one generation to the next.

"It will take a strong political will from the Chinese leadership to avoid the creation of dormitory cities on the outskirts of mega-cities," says Rob Watson, a senior scientist with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council. "You simply cannot ignore the migrant issue or you end up with urban slums like in Latin America". Watson, who advises the Chinese government on urbanisation, says Beijing and all other big cites would need to change track of development and start teaching real estate developers that development is a privilege and not a right. "It is the only way to make them partake in the cost of affordable housing for migrants and the sustainable development of the city as a whole," he says.