The white structure with three stories in the center of the picture is temporary housing for the migrant laborers working on the high-rise office building directly behind their quarters. Construction was finished in less than two years. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Migrant workers are individuals who move from one location to another for work; they are sometimes referred to as labor migrants. The migrant population in China is unique, with a two track migration system that includes both permanent and temporary migrants. Migrant workers are an important factor in China’s industrialization and rapid transformation into a global economic power.
Population mobility in China was slow prior to the 1980s but has accelerated since then due largely to economic opportunities in cities. The hukou (household registration) regulations, a hierarchical system based on a person’s urban or rural residency, have sustained a two-track migration system, comprising elite permanent migrants and poor, unskilled, and exploited temporary migrants from the countryside. The second-generation rural migrant workers are more ready to establish roots in cities, which are also increasingly attracting skilled workers from overseas.
Population Movements Prior to the 1980s
Historically, population mobility in China has been low. This reflects partly the agrarian nature of the economy, which bound people to the land. During the first decade of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), mobility increased as rural Chinese flocked to the city to escape collectivization, crop failures, and poverty and to search for work and economic opportunities. During the 1950s, in order to maintain stability, the Chinese state ratified various regulations on urban residence, which culminated with the hukou (household registration) regulations of 1958. These regulations assigned to rural and urban Chinese different institutional statuses and means of survival. Urban Chinese were allocated food, jobs, and state-subsidized welfare—resources denied to rural Chinese, who instead were expected to rely on farming for their livelihood. This system severely limited rural people’s ability to survive in urban areas, and as a result rural-urban migration declined sharply during the 1960s.
At the same time, the Chinese state’s development plans, driven in large measure by political and ideological considerations, resulted in forced population movements. The Third Front program (1965–1971) moved factories and industrial workers from the eastern coastal region, which was considered vulnerable to outside attack, inland to remote and mountainous areas. And, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the rustication movement sent millions of urban Chinese and cadres into the countryside to farm and work. In addition, Han Chinese were sent to minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang to consolidate Communist rule there.
Mobility in Post-Mao China
The economic reforms that began in 1978–79 paved the way for hukou reforms and relaxation of migration control, which in conjunction with marketization of food and other necessities have made it easier for rural Chinese to work in urban areas and have enabled overall mobility to rise. The Chinese censuses have documented that between the 1985 to 1990 and 1995 to 2000 periods, interprovincial migration flows surged from 11.5 million to 32.3 million, and intercounty migration flows increased from 35.3 million to 79.1 million. China’s intercounty migration rate of 7 percent for years 1995 to 2000 is still significantly lower than the United States’ 18-percent rate, but China is no longer an immobile society. Floating population, a stock measure of the total number of people not living at their place of hukou registration, increased from 22.6 million (2 percent of the population) in 1990 to 78.8 million (6 percent of the population) in 2000. When intracounty counts are included, then the floating population in 2000 was 144.4 million, or 12 percent of the nation’s population. Estimated to be 150 million in 2005, the floating population is projected to reach 200 million by 2015 and 250 million by 2025.
Hukou gave rise to a unique, two-track migration system in China. Permanent migrants are migrants who are registered at their destination; temporary migrants—the floating population—are those who are registered elsewhere. Permanent migrants comprise mainly employees sponsored by the state, educated and skilled workers, and students in higher-education institutes. The vast majority of temporary migrants are poorly educated, unskilled, rural people who seek work in urban areas but are denied hukou there. Between the 1985 to 1990 and 1995 to 2000 periods, the proportion of temporary migrants among all migrants rose from 46 percent to 74 percent, a clear indication that population movements in China are increasingly defined by market-driven, rural-urban labor migration. At the same time, state-planned migration continues to exist, especially due to massive construction projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and the Olympic facilities.
Migrant Work as a Way of Life
Most rural-urban migrant workers in China are between their late teens and late twenties in age. Men constitute the majority of these migrants, but women’s representation has increased over time. Rural men and women, upon finishing elementary or junior secondary education, are motivated to find work in urban areas because in the countryside arable land is limited, the agricultural labor surplus is large, and farming and other rural activities are simply unable to lift them out of poverty. Many leave home for towns and cities in the same province, while others travel from poor, inland provinces such as Sichuan, Hunan, and Anhui to coastal areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong’s Pearl River delta to work. Unlike the li tu bu li xiang (leaving the land but not the countryside) model, in which one does off-farm work but stays in the home village, with the li tu you li xiang model (leaving the land and the countryside), millions of Chinese leave their villages to work and return home infrequently, mostly during the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival, usually in late January or early February). The winter snowstorms of 2008, however, prevented many people from returning home for the Spring Festival.
In the city, rural migrant workers tend to have “3D” jobs—jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and demanding—in such sectors as construction, domestic work, and manufacturing. Their labor is the key to China’s urbanization and industrialization, but they are exploited, discriminated against, and segregated from the rest of the urban society. While thriving migrant communities exist, such as the Zhejiang Village in Beijing, most rural migrant workers in cities lead a marginalized and vulnerable life.
Nonetheless, remittances from migrant work account for at least 20 percent and up to 40 percent of the annual income of the migrants’ households, funding large projects, such as house building or renovation and weddings, and improving the countryside’s standard of living. Throughout China’s countryside, migrant work has firmly established itself as a way of life and a necessary, desirable source of livelihood. The economic benefits of urban work are so attractive that rural migrants are willing to tolerate dividing their households, leaving behind their wives or the elderly to raise children and farm. A split-household arrangement has negative effects on spousal and parent-children re
lationships, but the high cost of housing, education, and health care in cities discourages migrants from bringing family with them. Circular migration, spending time working in the cities, returning home for some time, and then leaving for urban work again, can occur repeatedly.
China’s New Migrant Workers
The first generation of rural migrant workers—those who entered the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s—are now past their peak years for migrant work, and some have returned permanently to the countryside. Many rural youths, some having never engaged in agriculture, are repeating their parents’ path of circular migration. However, there is also evidence that young, rural Chinese as a whole are attaining higher levels of education, and more of them now hope to find permanent, more prestigious work in urban areas and leave the countryside for good.
China’s rapid economic growth has, at the same time, attracted migrant workers from outside. Many foreigners and overseas Chinese hold high-rank management and technical positions and constitute the so-called golden-collar elites in Chinese cities. High-end commercial housing, such as Taiwan Village in Shanghai, caters to these migrants. In addition, mainland Chinese students who have earned advanced degrees overseas are increasingly motivated to return, thanks to the rising demand for skilled, professional workers and the promise of more speedy social and economic mobility than they would find in non-Chinese, Western societies. At both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, therefore, Chinese migrant workers are pursuing economic opportunities by moving to places where they hope to find not only jobs but also a niche.
The effects of the global financial crisis that began in 2008 are, no doubt, felt by China’s rural migrants. In February 2009, China’s Ministry of Agriculture reported that 20 million migrant workers recently lost their jobs, increasing the risk of social unrest. As one after another Chinese manufacturer goes out of business, migrant workers are the first to suffer. For a quarter of a century, rural migrants have provided the labor for China’s rapid industrialization and economic growth. Now, they must face the difficult dilemma between returning home to poverty and risking unemployment in the city.
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