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October 1996, Volume 3, Number 10

Internal Migration and Stability in China

China's population hit 1.2 billion at the end of 1995, so that China had 21 percent of the world's 5.8 billion residents. About 45 percent of China's population is under 26.

China is one of the world's poorest and fastest growing countries. Its average per capita income is about $500, and its economic growth has been six to eight percent a year, which means that incomes can more than double within a decade.

Growth is not spread evenly across China. The fastest economic and job growth is occurring in the largest cities along the southeastern coast, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen. One result is internal migration, and tensions in areas of origin and destination that, some fear, could threaten China's stability.

Internal Migration. Internal migration within China is similar in many respects to international migration for employment, in the sense that the Chinese registration system acts as a barrier to rural-urban movements. Most rural migrants in Chinese cities are there without government permission, unauthorized workers who fill jobs in construction, services, and manufacturing that are shunned by local residents. They are liable to detection, fines and deportation to their rural residences.

About 70 percent , or 864 million, of China's residents live in rural areas, where household incomes average about $225 per year, versus $425 in urban areas. An estimated 150 million rural workers--a third of the rural labor force of 450 million--is unemployed or underemployed; Chinese data say there are 130 million "surplus workers" in rural areas.

Surplus labor in the countryside, and unfilled jobs in China's cities that offer wages that are low by urban standards, but high by rural standards, have set in motion an internal migration believed to involve at least 50 million, and possibly 70 to 100 million, internal migrants.

In 1994, for example, Beijing and Shanghai were believed to have 3.3 million migrants each, so that migrants were 25 to 30 percent of those cities' populations. Applying these migrant percentages to China's 350 million urban residents yields the estimate of 70 to 100 million migrants. (It should be noted that not all of the migrants in Chinese cities are migrant workers; one-third may be persons away from their registered residences for business, tourism, and education reasons).

From 1957 though January 1, 1994, internal migration was restricted by a household registration system (hukou bu) that required residents to be registered with local authorities. There were two major classifications, agricultural resident (nongye hukou) and urban resident (Chengshi jumin hukou), and only urban residents were entitled to subsidized housing, coupons for food and jobs.

Those registered as agricultural residents remain agricultural residents even after they move to cities, and are subject to forced return to the countryside, as occurred after the collapse of the Great Leap Forward in 1960.

Chinese policies treated agriculture as a source of low-cost food for industrial workers. This made the household registration system necessary to prevent rural-urban migration. As grain prices fell and costs rose in the 1980s, more and more rural residents migrated illegally to Chinese cities.

Much of the Chinese migration is circular, meaning that the migrant retains a link to his village--Chinese terminology distinguishes between migration (quanyi), an official change of household registration, and floating population (liudong renkou).

There are several reasons why many migrant workers in Chinese cities retain a link to the land, including the fear that government policy may change and force "agricultural" residents back to the countryside. Chinese who live away from the place where they are registered are generally unable to obtain subsidized housing and food, and can be rounded up and deported to the place where they are registered to live.

Migration Networks. Young rural men tend to migrate to urban areas to fill construction jobs, while young rural women often find jobs in factories in the coastal areas, where they earn $1.25 to $1.75 per day, two to five times what they would earn farming. Most of China's 25 million construction workers are migrants from the countryside.

There is currently a struggle between migrants, their employers and local government authorities over how to deal with the rural-urban wage gap that motivates migration. In Beijing, for example, employers have to pay the equivalent of $11,600 for urban residence permits for migrant workers from the countryside but the fine for employing a workers without a permit is only 1,000 yuan ($120).

Individuals can buy residence permits to live in Beijing at a cost of $5,800. Migrants found working without permits, or arrested for vagrancy, are often sentenced to produce goods for three to six months in prison factories.

Most migrants report that they must pay for the permit or suffer harassment. In December 1995, 500 migrant construction workers burned the local Communist party headquarters to protest police harassment. Many local authorities find it easier to get money from migrants than from local employers.

Much of the matching of rural-urban migrants with jobs occurs in or near China's railroad stations, where labor brokers surround migrants as they alight from trains. They charge workers 100 to 200 yuan ($12 to $24 dollars) to "introduce" migrant job seekers to potential employers.

Beijing opened a recruitment center in 1996 for migrant workers in the West Railway Station, the first step to regularize the flow of an estimated three million migrant workers employed by some 2,900 enterprises and private businesses. The West Railway Station, at 580,000 square yards the largest railway station in Asia, was built with the help of 20,000 migrant workers over three years. China's state railways have 3.4 million employees.

Migrants often escape tight local controls on family planning, prompting the southeastern province of Fujian in China to pass the country's first law forcing migrant workers to be sterilized after giving birth to one child if they want a job in Fujian.

The new law dictates that couples applying for jobs must produce sterilization certificates to prove that they will not have another child--the new rules apply only to migrant men and women. About 80 percent of the births in Fujian province in 1995 were to the "daily" commuter population of about three million. Another one million migrants live in Fujian province for one month or more.

What Next? By all measures, the number of migrants within China is increasing. The Chinese State Planning Commission predicts that only 46 percent of the nation's projected work force of 669 million will be farmers in the year 2000, down from 53 percent in 1995. Other estimates predict more displacement from agriculture due to rural population increases and encroachment on farm land by development projects.

Chinese analysts are divided on what to do about rural-urban migration. On the one side are those who want grant legal status to agricultural persons already living in urban areas, and permit their families to join them in the cities. Under this proposal, China would abandon the household registration system that limits mobility, and keeps migrants living in fear of deportation.

On the other side are those who argue that large numbers of rural migrants could destabilize Chinese cities and the government, and that the registration system is necessary to prevent a massive "floating population."

If the government restricts rural-urban migration too tightly, there could be rebellions in poor areas. One Chinese analyst uses his view of the cause of the US Civil War--the economic disparity between the North and South--to urge measures to reduce Chinese rural poverty. The Chinese government should redirect foreign investment away from coastal areas into the interior to reduce the rural poverty that is prompting migration, he concludes.

One Chinese city, Zhuhai near Hong Kong, in 1994 erected a nine-foot high fence around itself to deter unauthorized rural-urban migration. Some see fences as a wave of the future.

Chinese Abroad. Beginning in the 1950s as "foreign labor cooperation," China has sent workers abroad to complete 1,000 projects in 70 countries, most notably the railroad between Tanzania and Zambia.

Between 130,000 to 200,000 Chinese work outside the country, mostly in Asia. In 1994, it was estimated that remittances and earnings from Chinese-supplied materials used in foreign projects generated $8 billion for China in 1994.

After economic reforms in 1978, China began to promote the export of labor as a means to earn foreign exchange and to ease domestic unemployment. Three major types of government entities--national government corporations, local government companies, and trading companies--and today there are 130,000 to 200,000 Chinese workers abroad, mostly in Asia. The Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, which reports 200,000 migrant workers outside China in 1994, estimated that remittances and earnings from Chinese-supplied materials used in foreign projects generated $8 billion for China in 1994.

There are also Chinese "worker-trainees" employed temporarily in Japan, ex-USSR, and the US, Chinese farmers in Japan, and 10,000 Chinese workers in South Korea. China is asking Japanese and Korean construction firms to consider using Chinese workers when they win contracts in third countries, such as the Gulf states.

Over half of all Chinese workers abroad come from 10 of China's 30 provinces. About 20 percent come from the South China provinces of Guandong and Fujian, two of the fastest growing provinces in China.

Chinese officials estimate that, of the 220,000 Chinese students who have gone abroad since 1979, only 75,000 have returned. The Chinese government believes that part of the blame for this 'brain drain' falls on Western nations such as Canada and the United States whose immigration policies give easy entry to the well-educated.

Foreigners in China. Eighty foreigners are applying each day for permits to work in Shanghai. Many of the foreigners are employees of Sino-overseas joint ventures or foreign-owned companies. Nearly 3,000 foreigners have been granted work permits since the city began requiring them in May, 1996. An estimated 20,000 foreigners, primarily from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan live in Shanghai.

In June 1995, the Chinese government announced that it would reinforce its border controls to halt illegal immigration, especially into the southern regions of the country. More than 20,000 foreigners enter China illegally every year, mostly from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, plus a small number of illegal immigrants from Africa and Russia. In 1994, police detained 12,000 illegal immigrants in the Yunnan province and the autonomous region of Guangxi.


"Over 3,000 foreigners get job licenses," Xinhua News Agency, September 26, 1996. "China says farmers' majority in work force to end by 2000," Agence France Presse, August 18, 1996. "Fujian to strengthen family planning among migrant population, Xinhua News Agency, July 3, 1996. Gary Silverman, "Vital and vulnerable," Far Eastern Economic Review, May 23, 1996.