The Implications of Internal Migration

A Study of China’s Development Goals

By Sofia Mandel

Great changes are coming to China’s residential landscape, as the government acts on plans to move 100 million rural citizens to new urban environments by 2020. When this process is finished, it will completely transform the nation. Although this sort of forced government relocation seems extreme, it continues a long history of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tight control of internal migration.

According to a 2009 United Nations Development Program brief, there are four times as many internal migrants in the world than international ones. While international migrants’ social and cultural differences may be more obvious when compared to rooted citizens, internal migration speaks directly to economic and social inequalities within a nation. The Chinese government said this explicitly in their 2013 report “Summary of China’s Migrant Population,” explaining that, “Although China’s migrant workers are different from immigrants, gaps in public service and policy among regions, rural and urban areas have made it difficult for the rural population to merge with the city they dwell in.”

China has an enormous population and uneven development, which results in incredibly high levels of internal migration to urban centers. However, Chinese migration is controlled through a household registration system that acts as a restrictive internal passport. Called hukou (户口) in Chinese, the system ties every citizen to the province in which they were born, and forces multiple aspects of life to be restricted to that province, including education, healthcare, and the ability to purchase a home.

After emerging victorious from the Chinese Revolution, the newly instated CCP faced an enormous country greatly divided among economic and cultural lines. The state was forced to make decisions about how to build up a new economy while continuing to centralize power. They wished to develop a predominantly agrarian society into an industrialized nation capable of competing on the world stage, while maintaining an agricultural industry strong enough to feed both the countryside and the cities. To guarantee that both goals were accomplished, the government established the hukou system to keep everyone in their place.

China’s official differentiated approach to urban and rural citizens began in 1949 when a newly instated Chinese Communist Party first encouraged thousands of unemployed refugees, who had taken shelter in cities during the war, to move back to the countryside, to ensure that urban resources were not strained. Only with a strong agricultural base could China become self sufficient, a growing necessity as few countries recognized the CCP government during its first years in power. As Mark Selden and Tiejun Cheng explain, this solution created the skeleton for what eventually became the hukou system, which “emerged as a critical state response to dilemmas inherent in China’s development strategy…in a predominantly agrarian society.” From the outset, Chinese leaders recognized that a link existed between migration and development; unfortunately, their initial insistence on controlling these forces delayed China’s economic progress until much later.

Although CCP leaders believed that collective farming and a strong agricultural sector would lead to economic growth, this was absolutely not the case. Wenfang Tang and Qing Yang summarize the effect the hukou system had on Chinese society perfectly, explaining that, “the socialist system, while eliminating market-based class distinctions, created a caste system where one’s status was determined at birth.” The hukou system directly undermined CCP leaders’ intensions of social and economic equality by forcing rural citizens to remain rural, even as crops failed and people began to starve. However, restricting the size of urban populations did have the major benefit of eliminating visible signs of urban poverty. Urban residents enjoyed economic and social benefits, while the rural population was left with varyingly arable land and demands to produce enough crops to feed China.

Migration policy changed most significantly with Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in the 1970s. After the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, both disastrous policies that resulted in many deaths, the Chinese Communist Party was forced to reexamine what factors would keep them in power. With no interest in introducing democracy to China, the CCP needed to somehow satisfy its people while maintaining strict control of all industries. For a state that could not fall back on voting records to legitimize its political leadership, reforming the nation became essential if the CCP wished to remain China’s government after the 1970s. It was at this time that Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s new great reformer.

Unlike most countries of comparable economic power, the hukou system makes it difficult for the majority of China’s 1.3 billion person population, the largest in the world, to move freely within its borders.

With Chinese citizens overwhelmingly unhappy with the Party in the 1970s, Deng redirected citizens’ energies to business and economic development and opened China to foreign investment and free market principles. Recognizing that the Cultural Revolution damaged the nation economically, and that development could only be achieved through the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense, he pioneered a state effort to reform the nation. As industrialization continued and China transformed into a labor-intensive, export-oriented economy throughout the 1980s, there was a new demand for service workers and unskilled laborers to fill labor gaps in the rapidly developing cities. Based on this need for rural laborers, the ban on internal migration was largely lifted. Rural citizens were forced to adopt to a rapidly urbanizing civilization, and began migrating to cities. Still, the hukou system was very much in place. This meant that while peasants could now move to the cities for jobs, they were not entitled to any of the benefits that come with urban hukou.

Unlike most countries of comparable economic power, the hukou system makes it difficult for the majority of China’s 1.3 billion person population, the largest in the world, to move freely within its borders. According to a 2014 Chinese government report, there were 268.94 million migrant workers in China in 2013, up by 2.4 percent since the previous year. Migration is clearly a very real option for citizens looking for a better life. As they search for their own financial success, migrants greatly add to their nation’s economic power. In fact, between 1978 and 1998, they contributed approximately 21 percent of China’s GDP growth.

Today, 54 percent of Chinese citizens live in cities, but only 36 percent are registered as urban residents. Many of these individuals become migrant workers, (nong min gong / 农民工) and become part of a caste of second-class citizens. Although migrant workers have played a vital role in helping businesses grow, they suffer from unfair labor practices and life as social outcasts. The Chinese economy developed on the backs of migrants and continues to depend on them. However, because development is measured in GDP, not in the quality of individuals’ lives, migrants remain a cheap and easily replaceable resource in the capitalist system. As the world’s most populous country, China simply has more citizens to exploit than any other nation, and is therefore capable of previously inconceivable economic growth rates.

Fortunately, change is near. After over three decades of major rural-urban migration, the government recently announced changing hukou laws that will bring migrants the same rights and benefits enjoyed by permanent residents. According to a report from Xinhua, China’s state news agency, all Chinese citizens living in a place outside of their legal household for more than six months will have access to “free compulsory education, employment support, care for senior citizens and social welfare.” Over the last 20 years, China has faced a major structural problem: insufficient demand for domestic consumption. This is a direct reflection of rural citizens’ and migrant workers’ low incomes; they simply cannot afford to buy many consumer products. As such, the country is heavily dependent on exports to grow the economy. Hukou reform will help to provide an adequate living standard for the millions of Chinese migrants, and, more importantly to the government, turn China’s production economy into a consumption economy.

Due to the level of underdevelopment in the Chinese countryside, hukou reform will inevitably lead to more rural to urban migration. For a country that now plans to shift its economy from one based on production to one based on consumption, the state excitedly anticipates a growing urban community. In 2005, rural families spent over 52 percent of their incomes on essentials like food and health care, as opposed to 43 percent of urban families. Simply put, urban residents have more money to spend on consumer goods than those living in rural areas. To deal with this issue, the Chinese government has constructed entire cities ready to take on a newly urbanized population, including the 100 million rural citizens that China plans to move by 2020. Considering that rural migrants spent $677 billion in 2012, a nine percent increase in consumer spending as this population becomes urbanized has the potential to greatly enhance the Chinese economy.

However, recent examples of forced rural migration into these new cities have been met with mixed results, including farmers who are unprepared for urban life and a lack of urban employment for young workers. It is imperative that the government simultaneously works to build necessary infrastructure in the countryside to alleviate many of the problems rural farmers face. The government should realize that the only way to stop cities from being flooded after hukou reform is to make life in the countryside desirable. Without a voting record to claim their political legitimacy, the Chinese Communist Party must be keenly aware of both urban and rural Chinese citizens’ levels of satisfaction, or risk losing control.

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