Migration in China

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Migrant laborer in China working on the foundation of a city building.

Internal migration in the People's Republic of China is one of the most extensive in the world according to the International Labour Organization.[1] In fact, research done by Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington suggests that “In the 30 years since 1979, China’s urban population has grown by about 440 million to 622 million in 2009. Of the 440 million increase, about 340 million was attributable to net migration and urban reclassification. Even if only half of that increase was migration, the volume of rural-urban migration in such a short period is likely the largest in human history.”[2] Migrants in China are commonly members of a floating population, which refers primarily to migrants in China without local household registration status through the Chinese Hukou system.[3] In general, rural-urban migrant workers are most excluded from local educational resources, city-wide social welfare programs and many jobs because of their lack of hukou status.[4]

In 2011 a total of 252.78 million migrant workers (an increase of 4.4% compared to 2010) existed in China. Out of these, migrant workers who left their hometown and worked in other provinces accounted for 158.63 million (an increase of 3.4% compared to 2010) and migrant workers who worked within their home provinces reached 94.15 million (an increase of 5.9% compared to 2010).[5] Estimations are that Chinese cities will face an influx of another 243 million migrants by 2025, taking the urban population up to nearly 1 billion people.[6] This population of migrants would represent "almost 40 percent of the total urban population," a number which is almost three times the current level.[6][7] While it is often difficult to collect accurate statistical data on migrant floating populations, the number of migrants is undoubtedly quite large. “In China’s largest cities, for instance, it is often quoted that at least one out of every five persons is a migrant.”[8]

China's government influences the pattern of urbanization through the Hukou permanent residence registration system, land-sale policies, infrastructure investment and the incentives offered to local government officials. The other factors influencing migration of people from rural provincial areas to large cities are employment, education, business opportunities and higher standard of living.[9]

History and origins

Qing dynasty


In 1668 during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, the Qing government decreed a prohibition of non-Eight Banner people getting into Northeast China Manchuria of their origin. Han Chinese were banned from settling in this region but the rule was openly violated and Han Chinese became a majority in urban areas by the early 19th century.

However Qing rule saw an massively increasing amount of Han Chinese both illegally and legally streaming into Manchuria and settling down to cultivate land as Manchu landlords desired Han Chinese peasants to rent on their land and grow grain, most Han Chinese migrants were not evicted as they went over the Great Wall and Willow Palisade, during the eighteenth century Han Chinese farmed 500,000 hectares of privately owned land in Manchuria and 203,583 hectares of lands which were part of coutrier stations, noble estates, and Banner lands, in garrisons and towns in Manchuria Han Chinese made up 80% of the population.[10]

Han Chinese farmers were resettled from north China by the Qing to the area along the Liao River in order to restore the land to cultivation.[11] Wasteland was reclaimed by Han Chinese squatters in addition to other Han who rented land from Manchu landlords.[12] Despite officially prohibiting Han Chinese settlement on the Manchu and Mongol lands, by the 18th century the Qing decided to settle Han refugees from northern China who were suffering from famine, floods, and drought into Manchuria and Inner Mongolia so that Han Chinese farmed 500,000 hectares in Manchuria and tens of thousands of hectares in Inner Mongolia by the 1780s.[13] The Qianlong Emperor allowed Han Chinese peasants suffering from drought to move into Manchuria despite him issuing edicts in favor of banning them from 1740-1776.[14] Chinese tenant farmers rented or even claimed title to land from the "imperial estates" and Manchu Bannerlands in the area.[15] Besides moving into the Liao area in southern Manchuria, the path linking Jinzhou, Fengtian, Tieling, Changchun, Hulun, and Ningguta was settled by Han Chinese during the Qianlong Emperor's reign, and Han Chinese were the majority in urban areas of Manchuria by 1800.[16] To increase the Imperial Treasury's revenue, the Qing sold formerly Manchu only lands along the Sungari to Han Chinese at the beginning of the Daoguang Emperor's reign, and Han Chinese filled up most of Manchuria's towns by the 1840s according to Abbe Huc.[17]

Inner Mongolia

Han Chinese were officially forbidden to settle in Inner and Outer Mongolia. Mongols were forbidden from crossing into the Han Chinese 18 provinces (neidi) without permission and were given punishments if they did. Mongols were forbidden from crossing into another Mongol leagues. Han Chinese settlers violated the rule and crossed into and settled in Inner Mongolia.

Despite officially prohibiting Han Chinese settlement on the Manchu and Mongol lands, by the 18th century the Qing decided to settle Han refugees from northern China who were suffering from famine, floods, and drought into Manchuria and Inner Mongolia so that Han Chinese farmed 500,000 hectares in Manchuria and tens of thousands of hectares in Inner Mongolia by the 1780s.[18]

Ordinary Mongols were not allowed to travel outside their own leagues. Mongols were forbidden by the Qing from crossing the borders of their banners, even into other Mongol Banners and from crossing into neidi (the Han Chinese 18 provinces) and were given serious punishments if they did in order to keep the Mongols divided against each other to benefit the Qing.[19]

During the eighteenth century, growing numbers of Han Chinese settlers had illegally begun to move into the Inner Mongolian steppe. By 1791 there had been so many Han Chinese settlers in the Front Gorlos Banner that the jasak had petitioned the Qing government to legalize the status of the peasants who had already settled there.[20]


The Qing implemented two different policies for Dzungaria (Northern Xinjiang) and the Tarim Basin (Altishahr, Southern Xinjiang). The Manchus had wiped out the native Buddhist Oirat Dzungars in their land of Dzungaria. Then the Qing implemented a large scale settlement in Dzungaria to colonize the newly empty grasslands. Han Chinese were encouraged by the Qing to permanently settle and colonize Dzungaria while permanent Han settlers were banned from the Tarim with only Han merchants allowed. The ban was lifted in the 1820s after the invasion of Jahangir Khoja and Han Chinese were allowed to permanently settle in the Tarim.

Hans were around one third of Xinjiang's population in 1800, during the time of the Qing Dynasty.[21] Professor of Chinese and Central Asian History at Georgetown University, James A. Millward wrote that foreigners often mistakenly think that Urumqi was originally a Uyghur city and that the Chinese destroyed its Uyghur character and culture, however, Urumqi was founded as a Chinese city by Han and Hui (Tungans), and it is the Uyghurs who are new to the city.[22][23] While a few people try to give a misportrayal of the historical Qing situation in light of the contemporary situation in Xinjiang with Han migration, and claim that the Qing settlements and state farms were an anti-Uyghur plot to replace them in their land, Professor James A. Millward pointed out that the Qing agricultural colonies in reality had nothing to do with Uyghur and their land, since the Qing banned settlement of Han in the Uyghur Tarim Basin and in fact directed the Han settlers instead to settle in the non-Uyghur Dzungaria and the new city of Urumqi, so that the state farms which were settled with 155,000 Han Chinese from 1760-1830 were all in Dzungaria and Urumqi, where there was only an insignificant amount of Uyghurs, instead of the Tarim Basin oases.[24]

At the start of the 19th century, 40 years after the Qing reconquest, there were around 155,000 Han and Hui Chinese in northern Xinjiang and somewhat more than twice that number of Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang.[25] A census of Xinjiang under Qing rule in the early 19th century tabulated ethnic shares of the population as 30% Han and 60% Turkic, while it dramatically shifted to 6% Han and 75% Uyghur in the 1953 census, however a situation similar to the Qing era-demographics with a large number of Han has been restored as of 2000 with 40.57% Han and 45.21% Uyghur.[26] Professor Stanley W. Toops noted that today's demographic situation is similar to that of the early Qing period in Xinjiang. In northern Xinjiang, the Qing brought in Han, Hui, Uyghur, Xibe, and Kazakh colonists after they exterminated the Zunghar Oirat Mongols in the region, with one third of Xinjiang's total population consisting of Hui and Han in the northern are, while around two thirds were Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang's Tarim Basin.[27]


The Qing stationed both Manchu Bannermen and Han Chinese Green Standard Army soldiers in Tibet. A community descended from Han Chinese soldiers and officials grew in Lhasa.

At multiple places such as Lhasa, Batang, Dartsendo, Lhari, Chamdo, and Litang, Green Standard troops were garrisoned throughout the Dzungar war.[28] Green Standard Army troops and Manchu Bannermen were both part of the Qing force who fought in Tibet in the war against the Dzungars.[29] It was said that the Sichuan commander Yue Zhongqi entered Lhasa first when the 2,000 Green Standard soldiers and 1,000 Manchu soldiers of the "Sichuan route" seized Lhasa.[30] According to Mark C. Elliott, after 1728 the Qing used Green Standard Army troops to man the garrison in Lhasa rather than Bannermen.[31] According to Evelyn S. Rawski both Green Standard Army and Bannermen made up the Qing garrison in Tibet.[32] According to Sabine Dabringhaus, Green Standard Chinese soldiers numbering more than 1,300 were stationed by the Qing in Tibet to support the 3,000 strong Tibetan army.[33]

In the mid 19th century, arriving with an Amban, a community of Chinese troops from Sichuan who married Tibetan women settled down in the Lubu neighborhood of Lhasa, where their descendants established a community and assimilated into Tibetan culture.[34] Hebalin was the location of where Chinese Muslim troops and their offspring lived, while Lubu was the place where Han Chinese troops and their offspring lived.[35]

People's Republic of China

The unique hukou system of China distinguishes Chinese internal migration from migration in other developing countries.[36] In 1958, China established the universal hukou system that restricted the mobility of the population.[37] It aimed to tie farmers to land, secure agricultural supply as well as to support industrial sector in cities after the Great Leap Forward and Great Chinese Famine which caused at least 30 millions deaths.[36] The government allocated housing, jobs, food and other necessities based on the hukou system, which made it almost impossible for people without local hukou status to live in urban areas.[38]

In addition to Hukou system, the people’s commune system was another tool to control labor mobility. Under the people’s commune system, the earnings of farmers were closely related to their daily participation in the collective farming. In 1978, during Chinese economic reform, this system was replaced by the household-responsibility system, which loosened the restriction of people’s mobility.[39]

Huang and Pieke divide the migration policy evolution after Chinese economic reform into four periods. The first period is from 1979 to 1983, during which the government still prohibited migration. The second period is from 1984 to 1988 when farmers were allowed to enter urban areas on the condition that they provided their own food. The third period is from 1989 to 1991 when migration became much more popular and had attracted much attention from the government. The fourth period is from 1992 to 2000, during which the government in some degree encouraged migration, while urban local governments controlled migration more strictly because of high unemployment rates in cities.[40]

From 1949 to 1985, the net migration rate for China was 0.24, compared with world average of 1.84 from 1950 to 1990.[37] Since the mid-1980s, rural to urban migration became a constant social phenomenon. Zhao and Sicular report that the number of rural-urban migration doubled between the late 1980s and the mid 1990s. In 1989, there were 8.9 million migrants and in 1994 the number increased to 23.0 millions.[41] In 2006 it was estimated that China was experiencing a –0.39 per 1,000 population net migration rate.[42] According to National Bureau of Statistics, there were 252.78 million migrant workers in China in 2011.[5]

Occupational profile

Rural-urban migrant workers have a significant presence in China’s labor force.[43] By 2006, migrant workers comprised 40% of the total urban labor force.[44] According to data from National Bureau of Statistics, in 2009 nearly 39.1% of them worked in manufacturing, about 17.3% in construction and more than 7.8% in wholesale and retail. In addition, the number of the migrants who were employed in the tertiary sector of the economy was increasing, which indicated a new trend of employment choice.[45] A report from International Labor Organization in 2006 states that there were also 80 million workers working in the informal sector and it was estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all new employment is in the informal economy.[46] In the informal economy, many rural migrants are engaged in low-paying and temporary jobs such as sanitation workers and porters. Zhu addresses that they are not “employed” in the informal sector, but they “have access only” to the informal sector.[39]

Scholars agree that there is a sharp occupational segregation between migrants and the local population.[46] A study that compared employment situations of urban residents and migrant labors in 2005 reports that around 52% of migrants were self-employed, while 12% of the local residents were self-employed; 12% of migrant workers were employed in the public sector, compared with 68% of the local workforce.[47]

The degree of segregation varies from province to province. A series of field studies by China Center for Economic Research demonstrate that the labor market in Sichuan province is relatively integrated, while in Guangdong province and Shanghai the labor market is quite segregated with “rural migratory-worker urban-resident-worker dualism”.[48][49][50]

In addition to inadequate social protection, the primary reason of the occupational segregation is the migrant workers’ lack of skills and education, which keeps them in manual labor.[46] Migrant workers have less human capital since they have less schooling, shorter job tenure and less training compared with the local residents.[47] Moreover, because of the high rate of job mobility among rural migrant workers, employers have little incentive to train them and thereby prevent them from increasing their social capital.[51]


The driving forces of rural to urban migration are commonly characterized by push and pull factors.[36] Younger migrants are more influenced by “pull” factors, such as "expected earning opportunities", "personal development aspirations" and "urban lifestyle". Older migrants are more driven by “push” factors including labor surplus or "difficult living conditions".[52] “Push” factors also have more positive impact on women’s decision to migration.[53] Besides the push and pull factors, the effects of other personal and household characteristics, such as age, gender, education level and family size also have some influence on migration decisions.[36]

Surplus labor

Labor surplus in the rural area is often regarded as the main push factor of internal migration in China. Central to this theory is that surplus rural labor provides needed labor force for industrial growth in urban areas[54] On one hand, the Household-responsibility system (HRS) established during Chinese economic reform was productive and generated surplus labor in rural areas.[55] On the other hand, in urban areas the development of the special economic zones and industries created demand for labor force.[56] Some scholars[57] state that, while the surplus rural labor is viewed as the main “push factor”, demand for labor can be regarded as the main “pull factor”. Others[36] contend that high unemployment rates in urban areas rejected this paradigm.

Income gap

Early in 1970, the Harris-Todaro model recognized that the persistent wage differential between urban and rural sectors is a main "pull" factor of migration in developing countries.[58] In Zhu’s study conducted in 2002, he presents a model of migration in his study and confirms the significance of the urban-rural income gap for migration decisions.[39] Studies of Dr. Cai, Director of Institute of Population and Labor Economics, demonstrate that an increase of the ratio of local rural income to the average national rural income will reduce migration.[59] Besides the huge rural-urban income gap, the regional income gap also drives internal migration in China. As noted by Zhao whose research interest mainly lies in labor economics, many migrants flow from the western region with low incomes to the eastern region with higher incomes.[36]

Migrant networks

Migrant networks have a positive and significant effect on subsequent migration and thereby result in chain migration. The idea of migration might influence not only family members and relatives but also people in the same area. Migrant networks can reduce cost of labor migration by means such as providing job information and supportive relationship and thereby encourage migration.[60] Liang, whose researches focus on migration in China, states that migrant workers can easily find a job at a restaurant or in garment industry run by migrants from the same origins. For instance, as he specifies, a number of women from Anhui province became maids through migrant networks.[61] In his another study conducted together with Morroka, it is reported that female migrants are more likely to rely on the developed migration networks, while younger migrants and those with higher level of education are less likely to depend on the networks.[62]

Benefits and costs


  • Increased supply of labour in urban areas[63]
  • Increased income for the poor[63]
  • Poverty reduction[63]
  • Access to education opportunities for migrant workers
  • Increase in social connections to Chinese employers
  • Access to diverse labour market for migrant workers
  • Increased income remittance of Migrants to their families in rural regions.
  • Migrant workers access to higher standards of living.
  • Increase of new knowledge and skills for migrants
  • Migrant workers increase the local population creating demand for services[64][65]


  • Increased environmental degradation and pollution[64]
  • Travelling costs a lot of money, when compared to Chinese average income.
  • Overpopulation in municipalities and sub provincial cities[63]
  • Development of migrant suburbs with no access to local health care, education, workplace protection[63]
  • Depopulation of rural regions as breadwinners go into the prosperous region[63]
  • Increased crime and safety issues[63]
  • Increased demand for resources such as water, electricity and sanitation[66]

Social impacts

Labor supply

In general, the current system of circular migration of floating populations in China offers greater labor resources to coastal areas of high economic activity, but “although labor productivity in migrant activities is higher than it is in local nonfarm sectors, the current economic cost of migration in China is so high as to significantly limit such reallocation. The current system therefore works to reduce the overall productivity of labor and causes a tremendous loss of social resources.”[55] In other words, research done by Yaohui Zhao at Beijing University indicates that while economic theory demonstrates labor migration to increase efficiency due to the reallocation of labor, the economic cost of migration actually mitigates gains in efficiency enough that internal migration under the Hukou system results in financial and social losses instead of gains.

Violations of labor standards

Violations of labor standards involve labor contracts, working conditions, wage payments and social insurance.[67] The problems in terms of labor standards violations are rooted in institutional discrimination against migrant workers as well as inadequate law enforcement.[46]

Low incidents of labor contracts are a main form of labor standards violations, which allows employers to further violate labor rights in many other aspects. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development, Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in 2004, only between 10% and 37.5% of the migrants working in the construction industry signed labor contracts.[68] A recent research by the Jinan Daily demonstrates that eight out of ten migrant workers did not know what the labor contract was. Many employers thus take advantage of migrant workers’ unawareness and do not fulfill their obligations to sign labor contracts.[69]

The working condition is one manifest aspect of labor standards violations.The majority of migrants work more hours per day and more days per week than what is limited by labor law. The Chinese Household Income Project Survey of 2002 show that over 80% of migrants worked seven days per week, and only 7% workers’ working time was in accordance with what law regulated. It is also showed that around 33.3% of migrant workers worked 9 to 10 hours per day, about 25% 11 to 12 hours and 12% 13 or more hours per day.[70] Safety is another concern regarding the working condition. The prevalence of migrant workers in dangerous jobs results in a high number of work-related illnesses, injuries and deaths.[46] Migrant workers make up 80% of the deaths in mining, construction, and chemical factories. And about 90% of those suffering from work-related diseases are migrant workers.[71]

In terms of wage payment, although labor law regulates a minimum wage, many employers either ignore the regulation or consider it to be the maximum wage.[46] According to an article in China Daily in 2006, nearly 30% of migrant workers earned RMB 300 and 500 on average per month, nearly 40% between RMB 500 and 800 and about 28% more than RMB 800.[72] Moreover, it is common for migrant workers not to receive their wage on time, due to the lack of protection of labor rights.[70] The government has realized the seriousness of wage arrears and taken many measures to deal with this issue. The situation has been improved a lot, but overall the problem of wage arrears still exists. In 2006, around 10% of rural-urban migrant workers received their wages on average seven months late.[73]

The limited access of migrant workers to social insurance highlights their vulnerability.[70] A survey conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2005 reports that only 13% of rural-urban migrant workers had insurance coverage for occupational injuries and diseases, only 10% for medical insurance and 15% for pension scheme.[73] Another survey reports that migrant workers’ participation in pension schemes was as high as 33.7%; medical care, 21.6%; unemployment insurance, 10.3%; employment injury insurance, 31.8%.[74] The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that less than 5% got pension insurance and less than 3% of rural migrant laborers enjoyed unemployment insurance.[75]

Class and inequality

A migrant worker reading a book. A car license for Shanghai costs 50,000 Chinese yuan, far higher than a migrant worker would generally be able to afford.

At a group expert meeting of the United Nations in January 2008, a number of class-based implications of Chinese urban growth due to migration were identified, including “wage arrears, unfair compensation for land expropriated, urban poverty,” issues of “public safety and social stability,” and the potential creation of a “permanent urban underclass” of 200 million or more workers.[76] Class inequality is commonly reflected in income differentials; “in urban China, urban resident annual earnings are 1.3 times larger than long-term rural migrant earnings as observed in a nationally represented sample in 2002.”[77] Additionally, migrant workers in China are generally excluded from the social services their local neighbors enjoy; “migrant workers’ basic needs for housing, social security, and education for their children are not protected by the local government.”[78]


The floating population of Chinese migrant workers “presents major public health challenges, especially in the provision of reproductive health care for migrant women and the need to address the increased risk to both sexes of infection with sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.”[3] A survey of migrant workers published in the journal “Public Health Reports” indicated that “forty-seven percent of the migrants were unwilling to make contributions to health insurance,” and “poor living conditions and inattention to health may make migrants vulnerable to poor long-term health.”[79] Despite these health issues presented by the floating population, certain factors mitigate the health impact of internal migration in China. In a questionnaire administered to a variety of rural, urban, and migrant workers in Zhejing Province, Eastern China, 2004, indicated that “Migrants had the best self-rated health and reported the least acute illness, chronic disease, and disability, after controlling for age and education.”[79] In light of this data, the researchers concluded that the migrants had zero HIV infections, and the migrant workers examined demonstrated the “healthy migrant effect.” Despite this, migration still creates a negative effect on public health due to the lack of affordable health care.[79]

Mental health

Historically, “migration has been associated with increased vulnerability to mental health problems,” and this has prompted some research into the mental health status of China’s hundreds of millions of rural-urban migrants. Research by scholars from Zhejiang University and the UCL Centre for International Health and Development has however revealed that “rural-urban migrant workers in this part of China are not especially vulnerable to poor mental health.”[80] They believe that this “may result from a sense of well being associated with upward economic mobility and improved opportunities, and the relatively high social capital in migrant communities.”[80] Thus, the “healthy migrant effect” also exhibits itself in the mental health of rural-urban migrants in China.


Migration in China has produced a number of important impacts with regard to gender and gender equality in modern China. In fact, the transition taking place in China of which migration is a part, “is not gender-neutral,” and “macro social and economic changes have gendered outcomes.”[81] According to research conducted by Youqin Huang and published in the journal Environmend and Planning A, “the constraints of human capital, the patriarchal culture and the Household Registration (hukou) System greatly constrain the occupational attainment of female migrants.”[82] One way in which this may be seen is in the fact that women migrants “can only attain jobs with lower prestige than their male counterparts, such as agricultural work and a few gender-stereotyped, family-related urban jobs.”[82] Despite the disadvantages faced by female migrants in China, some research such as that conducted with data from Hubei Province demonstrates that “migration has enabled women to benefit from economic opportunities and provided them with a degree of freedom that was not possible at their places of origin.”[83] As of yet, there is no scholarly agreement on the net effect of migration in China on gender, due in part to “data limitation and methodological difficulties” and difficulty in comparison of “the various aspects of women’s position before and after migration.”[83]


Classroom in a school for migrant students in Beijing (Dongba district).

According to a research conducted by Zai Liang and Yiu Por Chen and published in the journal “Social Science Research”, “migration usually has negative consequences for children’s schooling because of the loss of social capital in schools, neighborhood, and community of origin.”[84] In theory, migrant children can study in urban public schools, but access is usually limited. The main reason is that the education budget for compulsory education is allocated through local governments and strictly based on local hukou population. Many of the urban public schools with a limited education budget are consequently reluctant to accept migrant children.[85]

One usual way for migrant children to study in urban public schools, which is distinct from usual admission procedure, is to pay “sponsorship” fees (zanzhu fei).[67] The amount of such fees can be prohibitive for poor migrant parents, which impedes many migrant children to get enrolled in public schools.[86] Up to now, there are some improvements in terms of access to urban public schools and some cities have banned “sponsorship” fees, but specific policy varies from city to city. A large portion of migrant children are still excluded from the urban public education system.[87]

In response to the lack of access to public educational resources, migrants in some big cities began to set their own schools since the 1990s. These schools are known as migrant-sponsored schools (nongminggong zidi xuexiao). At the beginning, urban authorities refused to grant licenses and even closed down the schools. Although local governments didn’t need to be responsible for migrants’ welfare, they should still be responsible for any accident such as the collapse of buildings or food poisoning that happened in the schools.[67] These schools are usually less expensive with average tuitions fees around 300 RMB per semester.[87] According to Lu and Zhang's research conducted in Beijing in 2001, migrant-sponsored schools usually did not have licenses, high education quality, and adequate facilities. They, however, conclude that despite such disadvantages, these schools at least provided migrant children with basic education.[88]

In addition to the issue of access to education, migrant children have to return to their places of their hukou origin to pass the examination for entry to a higher level of education. The entire school enrollment system in China is place-based and they can only pass certain examinations in their places of hukou origin.[85] This leads to discrepancies between what migrant students have studied in urban areas and what they will be examined as textbooks in different cities and provinces can be quite different.[67]

Left-behind children

Left-behind children in China refer to the children who live with one parent (usually mother) or extended family (usually grandparents) when their parent(s) is (are) absent from home as migrant workers in urban areas. They are left behind partly because of little access to basic welfare in cities without local hukou status and partly because of high living expenses in cities.[89] According to Ministry of Education, in 2012 there were more than 12.6 million migrant children and 58 million left-behind children from 7 years old to 16 years old.[90] Left-behind children will have more health, emotional and behavior issues than those who grow up with their parents.[67]

Left-behind children are generally less healthy, but the difference is very marginal.[91] A study conducted by several professors from Chinese University of Hong Kong reports that left-behind children are more likely to have a less healthy diet and lower rates of physical activity.[92] In terms of nutrition, left-behind children face more nutrition problems such as low intake of some nutrients and poor physical development related to nutrition.[89] Further, many studies[92][92][93] find that left-behind children are more likely to have a smoking habit, compared to children with no migrant parents. Primary causes include insufficient public awareness and lack of health education programs. Weak implementation of related regulations in rural areas such as prohibition to sell cigarettes to children under 18 may also contribute to this unsatisfying situation.[94]

Left-behind children are also prone to undergo emotional and psychological problems.[92] Liang’s study of 250 left-behind junior high school students suggests that 16.6% of them felt abandoned, 12.3% had problems expressing difficulties, and 6.5% felt “anguished” when being left behind.[95] In addition, the earlier those children are separated from parents, more symptoms of depression and anxiety will be reported.[67]

Moreover, various studies[67][89][93] indicate that left-behind children are more likely to have behavioral problems. Qualitative observations indicate that left-behind children often behavior extremely, either withdrawn or excessively aggressive.[96][97] It has also been reported that left-behind children tend to be “indifferent, introverted, inferior” [89] and “selfish”.[93]

The problems noted above are mainly due to the fact that the grandparents either spoil the children or fail to give them enough emotional support.[97] Physical weakness and low education levels of grandparents who take care of left-behind children also contribute to the problems.[92]

Comparative studies show that left-behind children’s situation is not much worse than that of those living with parents in the same area. On the one hand, the institutions (e.g. the hukou system) that maintain the urban-rural inequality should be modified so that more migrants can settle down in cities with families. On the other hand, public resources in rural communities should be improved and regional inequality should be further reduced.[67]

Policy theories

Scholars from a wide variety of fields have recommended policy changes in order to deal with the social issues created by floating populations of migrant workers in China. Some scholars believe that “public policies reducing the cost (including the opportunity cost) of education for rural people could help filling the endowment gap between rural migrants and urban residents in the labor market.”[77] Additionally, scholars have recommended that “new policy initiatives concerning the issue of education and migrant children are sorely needed.”[84] Public health scholars recommend that “because health insurance schemes will remain limited for the foreseeable future, attention should focus on providing affordable health care to both uninsured migrants and the urban poor.”[79] In light of the migrant worker Foxconn suicides, labor scholars have recommended that “the government should redistribute income and guarantee benefits to rural residents and migrant workers to improve living standards.”[78] Those studying labor mobility believe that “the artificial restrictions under which rural-urban migrants work in the cities, i.e. the prohibition on or impediments to urban settlement, restricted access to skilled jobs, and the system of short-term contracts, may have generated an excessively high migrant mobility rate.”[98]

Health policy

A family planning publicity event for migrant population (流动人口计划生育宣传服务活动) at the Wuchang Railway Station. January 2011.

The issue of internal migration and health in China is intricately linked with the health policies national and local level governments enforce. "Policy toward rural-urban migration in China has undergone a significant shift in the last decade,and improving the working and living conditions and access to health care of migrant workers in cities is now clearly on the agenda of national and local governments. Nonetheless, migrants’ mobility and their concentration in hazardous industries continue to make it difficult to reduce their exposure to environmental and occupational health risks and to ensure their access to affordable care."[99] In order to further improve the "living conditions and acces to health care of migrant workers in cities," a number of scholars have recently provided policy recommendations.[99]

In general, public health scholars recommend that “because health insurance schemes will remain limited for the foreseeable future, attention should focus on providing affordable health care to both uninsured migrants and the urban poor.”[79] In light of this recommendation, further research has been conducted in order to assess the status of internal migration and health in China, as well as to provide more specific policy recommendations in order to address any issues. Research conducted by a team from Beijing Normal University and the Institute of Development Studies has provided a number of specific recommendations for policy makers. In a journal article published in The Lancet, this team voiced three primary concerns regarding the health of migrants in China. These concerns consisted of the spread of communicable and infectious disease, migrant maternal health, and occupational disease and injuries such as silicosis, chemical poisoning, and industrial machinery accidents.[100] Beyond these three primary concerns, the researchers advise policy makers and public health officials to pay more attention to two additional issues. The first of these is mental and behavioural health, which is a “domain that is understudied in China.”[100] The second issue they discuss is that of risk perception. Little is known about how migrants perceive the “various possibilities for health care: self-medication, informal healers, traditional medicine, private clinics with varied levels of care, and more formal hospital treatment.”[100] Research into risk perception will “be crucial to prevention, intervention, and other health-related measures for the migrant population in China.[100]

Labor policy

File:Paying salaries to migrant workers in Liaoning Province 2010.jpg
The government collected defaulted salaries from employers and paid the salaries to migrant workers in Liaoning Province in 2010.

Two landmark policy documents regarding migrant workers were issued in 2002 and 2003, named Document Number 2 of 2002 and Document Number 1 of 2003.These two documents initialized the process of elimination of labor market discrimination against migrant workers and legitimization of them. In addition, the 2002 Work Safety Law and the Law on the Prevention and Cure of Occupational Diseases demanded that all employers must guarantee a safe working environment for all employees. In 2004, employers in high-risk industries such as mining and construction were required to cover injury insurance for migrant workers. In the 2005 Government Work Report, Premier Wen Jiabao noted that the payment of migrant workers should not be delayed. In March 2006, the State Council called for the establishment of a system that monitored wage delivery to migrant workers. In June 2006, the State Council passed a series of measures to protect migrant workers’ labor rights, following up Circular No. 36. The measures include the restriction of minimum wages, solutions to wage defaults, enforcement of labor contacts and enlargement of migrant workers’ social security coverage. With the government’s continuous efforts, the situation of migrant workers have been improved, though still varying from province to province.[46] In 2005, 80% of migrant workers had been fully paid.[101] In Shanghai, more than two million migrant workers are in a special social security program.[102]

Education policy

Early in 2003, China has issued an announcement on migration management and pays much attention on migrant children's education. The government mainly focused on possible financial reform, encouraged public schools to admit more migrant children, forbade extra fees and sponsored migrant-sponsored schools. The announcement noted equal access to education, elimination of sponsorship fees and the government funding for migrant-sponsored schools.[103] In September 2003, a joint directive declared that urban governments and public schools should be responsible for migrant children’s equal access to education.[46]

Although there are various policies related to migrant children’s education, in Hu's doctoral thesis, he addresses that the policy is partially implemented and the situation varies from province to province. Policy regarding funding is not being effectively implemented. Public schools don’t have enough funding and subsequently school access is still limited. In addition, migrant parents need to present a series of certificates showing that they have stable jobs and accommodation in cities in order to get their children admitted in public schools.[87]

Hukou reform

The Chinese government has committed to eliminating institutional discrimination of migrant workers on the grounds of hukou system.[46] But the reform is complicated since it involves restructuring political and social systems, which will impact every aspect including employment, social security and property rights.[104]

The objective of the reform is to merge urban and rural hukou systems into one in which migrant workers can have equal access to public resources as urban residents do. At the beginning of the New Millennium, Fujian, Liaoning and Shandong Provinces abolished the dual-type hukou system and issued identical hukou status to both urban and rural residents. Up to 2008, twelve provinces had abolished the dual urban-rural hukou system. Due to the complication of this issue, however, it is still very difficult for migrant workers to gain access to social welfare in urban areas, though with a hukou reform. For example, some cities such as Zhengzhou once opened public schools to rural migrant children in 2002, but these cities soon realized that there were not enough schools for the large number of migrant children.[70] According to China Daily, Huang Ming, vice-minister of public security, addressed that the national hukou reform would be done by 2020. He said in the interview that the new hukou system would gradually extend pension, education and health care services to qualified residents, both urban and rural.[105]

Sources and destinations

Map showing the various administrative divisions of the People's Republic of China.

According to the International Labour Organization, internal migration in China is defined by two essential features. The first of these is that migrants generally move from farmlands and agricultural areas into more urban areas and developed cities. The second defining feature of Chinese internal migration is that “labour flows are basically directed from the interior to coastal areas, and/or from central and western regions to eastern areas.” These are not independent characteristics; “These two features overlap, and are closely interrelated with the macro socio-economic structure.[1]

Migrants leaving Badong in mostly rural western Hubei for the provincial capital Wuhan with an overnight bus have to brave the rigors of Highway G209.

The Fifth National Population Census of the People's Republic of China in 2000 counted 42.4 million people living outside of their home provinces (i.e., outside of the province where they were legally domiciled). These would include e.g. migrant workers, students on campuses away from home, but not the military (who, generally, are counted separately from the provinces' and municipalities' populations). The largest migrant population was found in Guangdong (15.0 mln). The rest of China's southeastern seaboard attracted plenty of migrants as well (Shanghai (3.1 mln), Jiangsu (2.5 mln), Zhejiang (2.0 mln), Fujian (2.1 mln)); Beijing had 2.5 million. The coastal Liaoning and Shandong, as well as the inland Yunnan and Xinjiang had over a million migrants each. [106]

Migrants originated mostly in the inland provinces, such as Anhui (4.3 mln), Jiangxi (3.7 mln), Henan (3.1 mln), Hunan (4.3 mln), Hubei (2.8 mln), Guangxi (2.4 mln), Sichuan (6.9 mln).[106]

Much of the interprovincial migration was toward the neighboring wealthier provinces or municipalities, if there was one. E.g., over 90% of the Guangxi migrants went to the nearby Guangdong, while over 60% of Hebei migrants went to the Beijing and Tianjin municipalities (which both are surrounded by Hebei's territory). On the other hand, among the Hubei migrants about one half went to Guangdong, and he rest mostly to various other coastal destinations, from Beijing to Fujian.[106]

It is of interest to the Chinese government to control the flow of internal migration in China. However, the flow of migration is large and widespread enough to be difficult for the government to manage. “Despite the Chinese government’s policy of encouraging the development of western regions of the country, China’s coastal regions, and especially the province of Guangdong, experienced the largest increase in the size of the floating population. With less than 7 percent of China’s population, Guangdong has 27 percent of China’s floating population. The size of the floating population in Guangdong nearly tripled between the 1990 and the 2000 censuses.”[3] Such uneven migration can hamper the government’s policy to encourage development of non-coastal regions, which exacerbates the geographic inequality in the country.

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