Category Archives: Lecture 6 Contemporary Chinese internal/international migration

Draft Lecture 6. Contemporary Chinese internal & international migration

20th to 21st century Chinese migration networks and patterns

Maoist era rural-urban-rural migration

The planned economy and involuntary or ideological migration were key features of internal migration in the Maoist era (1949-1978).

  • large-scale movements of peasants to the cities in 1956–7 with the speed-up of collectivization
  • periodic campaigns to send cadres and intellectuals down to the countryside for ideological remoulding (xiafang)
  • return to the countryside of peasant migrants after 1957 (huixiang)
  • the mammoth campaign forcing high school and university graduates to the countryside (shangshan xiaxiang) between 1968 and 1976 after the Cultural Revolution.
  • routine state unified job allocation system (guojia tongyi gongzuo fenpei, or fenpei for short), part of the economic plan, creating approx 20 million migrants under the hukou [household registration system] (Mallee, Hein: 4).

The hukou system worked to control/regulate the rural/urban populations,  The hukou has been likened to an urban passport. Citizens were required to register in one place of regular residence. Once assigned a residential location, individuals could not elect to change their hukou registration. By 1955, all citizens of China were listed with either an urban or rural household registration. The hukou

  • provided population statistics, identifying individual status
  • was designed to restrict rural-to-urban migration; and agriculture-to-industry labour
  • 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.


Guthries suggests that the system restricted migration:

With proper paperwork, in some instances, individuals could legally migrate to urban areas, for example, but few people would choose to do so because it was so difficult to survive outside their hukou registration locations …. (Guthrie, pp. 195-196)

However, other researchers suggest this overlooks the scale of informal mobility (migration outside of the hukuo system).

Hukou system in the current era:

Hukou system continues with some changes. Chinese citizens still generally required live in the place where their “hukou” is kept, but can apply to change it.

  • Chinese state committed to gradual reform, granting urban hukou to migrant workers in small towns and cities, but not megacities (by 2020)
  • Migrant workers in some cities can apply for temporary residence permits which give them some welfare rights for limited periods
  • 260 million migrant workers live in cities but do not enjoy the same benefits as those who hold an urban hukuo (

Internal migration networks and circulation

From the 1970’s onwards, migrants such as those from Zhejian migrated and settled in diverse locations throughout China. Once the migrants had established themselves, they recruited labour and business partners from their home communities, building strong and well organised communities able to survive long period without contact with the home community (Xiang Biao, 1999)


Rapid urbanisation built on migrant labour in the reform era


‘Floating population’

Migrant workers are known as the ‘floating population’ because their temporary status  and settlement is difficult

They often stay in ‘urban villages’ or factory compounds in cities, many working in constructionPicture7

Their labour is the engine of China’s rapid urbanisation

‘Migrant workers’ conditions and quality of life for the millions of migrants were often quite appalling with little in the way of government intervention’ . ajeckstein / June 22, 2011Shenzhen: The “Instant City”


Rapid urbanisation example: Shenzhen
Special Economic Zone

Pre-reform era

Shenzhen was a fishing village area of approx. 30,000 people in 1979

Post-reform era

  • 18-20 million people
  • Approx 4 million have Shenzhen hukou,
  • 8 million have permanent residency,
  • 5-8 million “float” unofficially within the city
  • 90% + immigrant pop.
  • Under the Reform strategy Shenzhen became a special economic zone (SEZ) SEZ have economic  & other laws that are more free-market than normal national laws

Reform and Opening policies; these  policies were first tested in Shenzhen and the other SEZs, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen and later on, Hainan.

SEZ include free trade zones, export processing zones, free zones, industrial parks/estates, urban enterprise zones. Designed to increase foreign direct investment, develop infrastructure, increase employment

Urbanisation, wealth, inequality

Cities like Shenzhen derive great wealth from IT, industry, services, finance, logistics, property.

Housing in these cities is very expensive: For example, Shenzhen is the 7th most expensive city to buy an apartment in the world, with values having increasing 75% 2015-16

In/equality in the reform era

Less Poverty in Reform era:

Chinese People living on less than one US dollar:

  • 1981: 634 million (63.8% of the population)
  • 2001: 212 million (16.6% of the population)

Global effect: worldwide population living under poverty line nearly halved from 1981-2001; China’s contribution very high, including effects of investment in Africa

However, growing inequality in China… especially between rural areas v urban areas

Measured by the Gini coefficient (which ranges from perfect equality at a value of 0 to absolute inequality at a value of 1), the PRC shifted from 0.22 — one of the most equitable scores ever recorded — in 1978, to 0.469 in 2007, ranking China as one of the world’s most inequitable societies (Goodman and Zang, 2008: 2; citing Adelmen and Sunding, 1987, Xinhua, 17 January 2007).

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Contemporary International migration from China

Elite migration



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Documentary: China’s Millionaire Migrants



International  sex work migration: aspirational migration

The TiP 2017 stated that Chinese women and girls were sex-trafficked to up to 19 international destinations, and the US State Department report (2008) had previously indicated that most of the sex-trafficking occurred in Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. The 2008 TiP report claimed that Chinese female migrants were being “forced into commercial sexual exploitation” after having been lured abroad with through “false promises of legitimate employment” (and, typically, provides no evidence for its allegation).

Chin and Finckenauer’s  (2012) ethnographic work with Chinese sex workers in eight areas in Asia (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and mainland China) and two cities in the US (Los Angeles and New York)  found Chinese migrants overseas to be involved in voluntary not forced sex work, and to be motivated by the greater income afforded by sex work overseas. Other ethnographic research in international sex-work destinations including Malaysia, Australia and Cameroon corroborate the tendencies identified in Chin and Finckenauer’s work. For example, B.N. Chin’s (2012) ethnographic work with migrant sex workers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shows that sex work can provide women with the means of earning income for families, for education, and for their own businesses. She argues that it enables a form of cosmopolitanism “from below,” via international travel and language and cultural learning.

Renshaw et al.,s (2015) ethnographic research with Chinese, as well as Thai and Korean migrant sex workers in Sydney and Melbourne similarly found that most report high levels of personal safety and safe sexual health, and none of the migrant sex workers they interviewed reported extortion through debt or identified themselves as victims, and very few claimed to have been trafficked.

Ndjio’s (2009) ethnography with Chinese women and girls doing sex work in Douala,cpd Cameroon, also found that sex work was undertaken voluntarily, either prior to migration (in China) or after working in low paid service-work in Douala. Sex work migration had occurred in two waves, with the first wave in the 1990s working to support the needs of the single male Chinese workers in Cameroon, and the second wave in the 2000s working as part of the increasing development of Chinese-African trade. In both waves, Ndjio suggests, the market for Chinese sex services in Cameroon provided an opportunity for impoverished rural Chinese women.


  • Battistealla, G. (ed.), (2015) Global and Asian Perspectives on International Migration, Switzerland, Springer.
  • Chin, K. and Finckenauer, J.O.  (2012) Selling Sex Overseas: Chinese Women and the Realities of Prostitution and Global Sex Trafficking. NYU Press.
  • Fitzgerald, J. (2007), Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, Sydney, University of New South Wales.
  • Guthrie, D. China and Globalization: The Social, Economic and Political Transformation of Chinese Society. Taylor and Francis
  • Miao, L. and Wang, H. (eds.), (2017), International Migration of China: Status, Policy and Social Responses to the Globalization of Migration, Singapore, Springer.
  • Kajunus, A. (2015), Chinese Student Migration, Gender and Family, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kennedy, P, (2010), Local Lives and Global Transformations: Towards World Society
  • Pieke, N. and Mallee, H. (1999), Internal and International Migration: Chinese Perspectives, Richmond, UK. Curzon.
  • Lee, E. (2003), At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
  • Lee, E. (2006), “Defying Exclusion: Chinese Immigrants and their Strategies during the Exclusion Era”, in  Chan. S. (ed.), Chinese American Transnationalism: The Flow of People, Resources and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
  • McKeown, A. (2001),Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900–1936, Chicago, Chicago University Press
  • McKeown, A. (2004), ‘Global Chinese Migration’, paper presented to the Fifth Conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas, Helsignor, Denmark.
  • Anderson, B. (2006), Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism