Migration in China

Nimen Hao,

please read the summary below on migration, education and social mobility in China.

Chinese internal rural-to-urban migration and the rise of Chinese wealth and power

The wealth and power of Western states like the US, Canada and the UK were built, in part, on the labour of rural to urban migrants in Europe, and on colonial migrant labour during the 17th to 20th centuries. Contemporary Chinese wealth and power are built on the rural to urban migration of the era of Chairman Mao and then the Reform Era, in what is sometimes called the third (digital) and fourth (cyber-physical) industrial revolutions.

industrial revolutions

Those revolutions led to great increase in wealth and urbanisation:


urbanization migration


Shenzhen is a good example of the rapid urbanisation. In the pre-Reform Era Shenzhen was a fishing village area. It had a population of approximately 30,000 people (1979). Now Shenzhen is a city with a population of 18-20 million people. 90 percent of  Shenzhen-dwellers are internal immigrants. The population grew so rapidly because Shenzhen became very successful as a Special Economic Zone under the Reform strategy.

The rural and urban sides of Shenzhen. Thirty years ago it all looked like the farms on the left side of this photo

Many choose to migrate from the farms to the cities and sojourn (move back and forth), or try to settle there.

Researcher Min Liu explains that much of the rural-to-urban migration of Chinese women relates to gender inequality, as the rural employment, education and lifestyle choices for women are highly restrictive.

In her interviews with rural migrant women in Beijing, researcher Tamara Jacka found their motivations (for migration included not just money, but also travel, escape, “changing one’s fate” and self-development.

The rural/urban residence divide

Historically, once assigned a residential location, individuals could not elect to change it. In the Maoist era holding an urban hukou gave a access to food, housing, public health, education, pensions and other basic life necessities provided by the state, and many types of urban jobs. In contrast, the rural population was basically outside the state welfare system.


These days Chinese citizens still generally required live in the place where their “hukou” is kept, but can apply to change it.

  • Citizens can only buy housing in the place of official residence
  • Chinese state committed to granting urban hukou to migrant workers in small towns and cities (by 2020), but not megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen.
  • Migrant workers in some cities can apply for temporary residence permits which give them some welfare rights for limited periods

Migrant workers were known as the ‘floating population’ because of their temporary and precarious status even if they have lived in cities for a long time.

Migrant workers often stay in ‘urban villages’ or factory compounds.

In the cities, they often experience inequalities of income, health and education because they lack urban household registration (under the hùkou system).

Even when rural migrants do well in the cities, their rural migrant status may still prevent them from competing successfully with city residents.

Geographical movement, social mobility, existential mobility

People often move throughout China to make more money, sometimes by doing business, sometimes by gaining better employment, sometimes by investing in property. These days they also move for education, with the hope that education will lead to better jobs and therefore more money.

More money enables social mobility, raising your position in life by purchasing more or better things, and by being able to use your money for filial support (for example, supporting parents and other family members, raising your own family).

Migration also involves existential mobility, for example the feeling of joy many migrants experience when they feel they are on an upward journey, and conversely escaping the feeling of being stuck (or abject) and not being able “to move on” with (progress) your life, to self-develop.

For many young Chinese people, getting a job that pays enough to support family is not just successful social mobility but existential mobility, a rite of passage into successful adulthood.

For some people, geographical migration is not necessary for social success (or social mobility towards success), nor for existential mobility. For many others it has seemed necessary even if the actual results of migration have been disappointing.

Ant people = Mangliu?

People’s ability to pursue social and existential mobility are limited by rural/urban (hukou), suzhi, guanxi and other forms of status inequality.

We can see how this structures life chances if we consider the different but comparable situations of migrant workers and migrant students/graduates during the rapid growth, urbanization and inequality of the reform (and post reform) eras.

Uneducated migrants working in construction and services in China’s cities are obviously not the same as migrant university students (students who migrated to another city to study). But both groups suffer from comparable desires for upward social and existential mobility, and pressure/stress (yali).

Migrant workers’ predicament:

  • Migrant workers are barred from the benefits of household residence rights, or suffer restricted rights under temporary residence permits. If they migrate to the cities without permits they are regarded as an illegal floating population (liudong renkou).
  • The hukou system helps to ensure that business has a constant cheap and flexible supply of surplus labour (it is cheap, in part, because the state does not have to provide the welfare benefits it provides to urban residents).
  • In the past rural migrants were stigmatized as mangliu (blind flow), regarded as backwards, non-modern, uneducated and overly-conservative (incl. sexist). If suzhi means “quality” (in English), then rural migrants are regarded a low not high, non-educated rather than educated, backwards rather than modern.
  • Migrants often had to abandon children to the care of grandparents in order to support family by working and making more money in cities than they could in the rural areas

Many university graduates share the predicament of migrant workers:

  • They are disadvantaged by the migration laws of the household registration system (hukou).
  • They can be stigmatized by the discourse on population quality (suzhi)
  • They can suffer precarious employment/low level employment (incl. manual labour, casual service work), as college graduates are outnumbering the available white collar jobs. Rising unemployment among college graduates has seen many of them sharing the fate of migrant workers, living in poor conditions in the cities’ suburbs, with low income or no jobs, yet reluctant to return home ’empty-handed’.
  • Lian Si calls them an “ant army”, writing “bees, as they fly, give the impression of upward mobility, while ants always seem down on earth, stuck to the ground”.
  • They challenged by economic & moral dilemmas in living up to their xiao (filial responsibility) as members of the one child generation. Parents have invested in their child’s care and education (yang), and the child is expected to care for her/his parents as they age.

Historically, education has been the path to upwards social mobility. Parents, the state and students all invest in this education-desire. There is an idea that the national college education exams, (gao kao) provides some degree of fairness, wherein rural students can achieve high grades and climb the social ladder. But the idea that social mobility can be obtained through higher education is often a fantasy reserved, in actuality, for elite families. In practice, as everyone knows, it takes money and connections to have access to the best high-schools which give the better chances of gaining entry to a good (elite) university.

For example, Researchers observe that many rural graduates (bìyè sheng) from Beijing universities work in low-pay jobs because they are not regarded as having good “quality” (suzhi) by professional employers, and lack good connections (Guanxì).maildeliveryworkersrental

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