UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN)

Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific


    A. Introduction

Rural–urban labour migration in China nowadays is becoming one of the most obvious as well as influential social factors which is profoundly changing the current system and the society as a whole. Research shows that in the whole country there were about 70,000,000 people who left their townships in 1995 for temporary or long-term jobs in country towns or bigger urban areas (see Zhao Shukai 1996; Wang Xiaoyi 1996).

The number of migrants who go out of their province is rapidly increasing too. According to official data, there are more than 32,000,000 rural people who come out of their provinces to gain off-farm jobs in urban areas including big cities. Official data also shows that of the total 1.2 billion population, there are more than 71.42 per cent who are living in rural areas, while the average arable land area is 2.11 per capita, or 9.68mu per household (1.00mm = 0.165ac, see Summary of Chinese Statistics Yearbook 1995, pp. 17, 56), which means that there is a great amount of surplus rural labour which needs to be transferred to non-agricultural occupations.

    B. Background

Due to the existing Hukou System, which has separated rural from urban residents since the mid 1950s, those surplus rural labourers had to establish their own non-agricultural enterprises in or near their villages and townships, which are therefore called township/village enterprises (TVEs). This occurred in the early 1980s with the Rural Economic Reform when the economic reform started from the rural areas, signalled by the re-allocation of the arable land to rural people. In the 1980s TVEs played a significant part in transferring rural labour to non-agricultural sectors at the local level, during which the number of rural labourers who got into TVEs from farming increased from 29.99 million in 1980 to 92.65 million in 1990. But the capacity of TVEs cannot always be as great as it was in the 1980s, and it will not be able to absorb all the surplus rural labour. From 1990 to 1994, on average there were only 0.12–0.14 persons in each rural household working in the TVEs; in the meantime there were about 2.87 full- or part-time labourers in each rural household. More than 2.7 labourers have to either stay in the farming fields or go out of their villages or townships for non-agricultural jobs. (Average size of rural household in 1994 was 4.5 persons. See Chinese Statistics Yearbook 1994, p. 276; Summary of Chinese Statistics Yearbook 1995, p. 56.)

    C. Migration Policy

However, it is not easy for them to get into and then stay in urban areas. The process of urbanisation is slow, for a number of reasons:

    i) the limited capacity of absorbing rural labourers due to limited infrastructure
    ii) inefficiencies in economic management and planning in urban industries
    iii) the role of the Hukou System in obstructing rural labour from ‘floating’ within the countryside and being able to move to cities in particular.

The Hukou System is one of social control and administrative systems on the basis of household, whose members, either in rural or urban areas, should register themselves at the local public security office as legal permanent residents. Without official permission they would not be able to move from the registered areas. The key of the Hukou System is not to limit people from moving or migrating in general, but to restrict them from rural to urban movements, from smaller towns to bigger cities (Goldstein & Goldstein 1985, p. 9). More specifically, it was those rural labourers who were then located in their own villages during the process of collectivisation of agriculture and rural society.

In parallel with the Hukou System, in 1955 the Food Ticket System was also put into practice. This system, which assures the supply of certain amounts of grain with state price for people within the urban Hukou, further contributes a great deal to the control of population movement in general and rural–urban migration in particular. Peasants should not merely feed themselves in most cases, but also need to sell a certain amount of grain and other crops to the state as a quota (Howe & Walker 1989). Without urban Hukou and the Urban Food Ticket, rural people are not able to stay out of their village for a long time, especially in an urban areas. The actual limitation is more strict, because without an urban Hukou, people cannot legally apply for permanent jobs in cities or towns, while without an official job offer, rural residents cannot change their Hukou from rural to urban.

Since the rural Reform in the late 1970s, the situation has begun to change. When the collective Commune System was banned, residents in rural areas firstly got a piece of land and then became more interested in, and responsible for, grain production. During the early 1980s, they were mainly staying in their home area, either to concentrate on farming or getting involved in TVE production. From 1984, the Reform spread into urban areas, in which increasing construction required more labourers for work. This is especially true in the Special Economic Zones along the southern coastal areas, where ‘temporary workers from rural areas’ are thus frequently seen by observers and local residents.

However, it was not until the 1990s that there was a great increase of rural–urban migration. In 1994, the Food Ticket System in most cities officially stopped working. Though the Hukou was still there, rural people could instead show their ID cards, which started from 1985 to replace the official stamped letter for travelling, to the employers and then obtain temporary jobs, mostly in construction, service and repair industries, etc.

Before 1995, the authorities and residents from urban areas, especially big cities did not recognise how influential and profound the migration might be. There was thus not very much that could be done in terms of limiting the number and scale of migrants. Since 1995, however, big cities, for example Shanghai and Beijing, started to put forward some policies regarding migrants who try to find jobs in these areas. For example, on 14 April 1995, the Standing Committee of the Beijing People’s Congress legislated Regulations for Out-coming Labourers (1) and Personnel, which took effect on 15 July 1995. In these Regulations there are some new rules for those who come into Beijing for jobs, including:

    i) ‘those who come into Beijing for jobs must, according to the Hukou System, bring their ID cards and other necessary certificates to the public security office near their place of residence in order to be granted a Temporary Residence Card’, without which they cannot get a room to live and to work;
    ii) ‘those who come to Beijing for jobs after being granted their Temporary Residence Cards must apply for a work permit for Out-coming Labourers’ before getting a job;
    iii) ‘those who do not apply for a Temporary Residence Card in the given period of time will be fined by the public security office, and if the issue is serious they will be ordered to leave Beijing’;
    iv) ‘those units or employers which take Out-coming Labourers who do not have a Work Permit will be fined’;
    v) ‘it is the labour administration department of the municipal government which will decide what sectors, occupations and employment conditions are suitable for out-coming labourers (Capital Public Security 18 July 1995, p. 2).

    D. Key Problems

The ‘Migration Wave’ became one of the most serious problems in urban China, for the infrastructure in most cities is very poor. During the Spring Festival period in 1993, most railway stations in big cities suffered from over-crowding with rural migrants who needed train tickets to go home for the festival. Other social problems included a great shortage of housing, hospitals, hotels, power, water, gas, transport, etc. Above all, urban permanent residents started feeling uncertain as far as public security was concerned, as it claimed that in big cities more than 70 per cent of criminal activity is undertaken by these temporary rural migrants. The problem lies largely in the fact that the rural migrants have to be ‘temporary’ and therefore have no sense of duties and responsibility to take care of the urban surroundings, because they are not legal residents due to the lack of urban Hukou.

Another problem exists in the rural areas, where, due to the movement of young, educated mainly male rural labourers, the sustainable development of agriculture and social development in rural society remains problematic. This is in spite of the fact that in some poor areas where there is over-population and less arable land and other resources, rural–urban migration is locally considered as a means of easing the pressure of lack of resources and poverty, and thus local authorities actually encourage people to go out for non-agricultural work (Huang Ping 1995; Croll & Huang Ping 1996).

If such a great number of rural ‘surplus labour’ cannot be transferred to non-agricultural sectors in urban society and in the meantime it can no longer remain in rural China as before, then the question arises: Where to go? What countries or which parts of the world would possibly take it?

    E. Existing Capabilities for Migration Research

In the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there is a research group, led by Huang Ping and joined by sociologists, anthropologists, economists and psychologists, which has established cooperative relationships with governmental and non-governmental organisations in and out of China in the field of rural–urban migration. The group has done some micro-level study in eight villages in China since 1994, and some other studies in urban areas, with the support of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). There are also some individual members in the Institute who have received research funds from the Ford Foundation in the area of rural–urban migration.

In the Institute, there is a Centre for Social Survey and Data Processing which consists of sociologists and statisticians who would join the research and be responsible for sampling selection and data coding and analysis.

    F. The State of Research

At the moment, the Research Group, led by Huang Ping, has finished the eight-village study and have been drafting research papers in both English and Chinese, which would be published in the first half of 1996, according to the original plan. Those individual researchers have also either published their research in China or are preparing to publish their studies.

    G. Establishing a Network

Besides the above-mentioned research group and the Centre for Social Survey and Data Processing, the following research bodies have either cooperated with the Institute or shown their interest in migration studies:

    1. Institute of Population Studies, CASS
    contact: Ms Gao Jialin, Associate Professor
    2. Research Centre for Social Development, CASS
    contact: Dr Jing Tiankui, Professor, Director
    3. Department of Sociology, Peking University
    contact: Mr Sun Liping, Associate Professor
    4. Department of Sociology, People’s University
    contact: Mr Li Qiang, Professor and Head
    5. Institute of Social Development, State Commission of Planning
    contact: Dr Wang Chunguang, Associate Professor
    6. Scholar/Student Division, State Commission of Education
    contact: Dr Zhang Ning, Division Chief
    7. College of China Workers Union
    contact: Mr Feng Tongqin, Professor
    8. Institute of Population & Development, Nanka University
    contact: Mr Li Jingneng, Professor and Director
    9. Department of Sociology, Nankai University
    contact: Mr Guan Xinping, Associate Professor
    10. Centre for Social Situation, Gansu Academy of Social Sciences
    contact: Mr Feng Shiping, Director
    11. Institute of Women’s Study, Sichuan Women’s Federation
    contact: Ms Xu Ping, Director
    12. Department of Social Administration, Zhongshan University
    contact: Dr Xiao Bin, Associate Professor
    13. Department of Sociology, Shanghai University
    contact: Dr Shen Guanbao, Professor
    14. Institute of Sociology, Hunan Academy of Social Sciences
    contact: Mr Luo Xiaofan, Professor and Director

    H. Key Issues for the Next Five Years

(i) Along with the rapid development in China, would the so-called ‘Migration Wave’ continue to increase in size, enlarge its scale and pace, in spite of administrative limits from central authorities and big-city governments?

(ii) The social and political conflict between local provinces and big cities: While local authorities, especially those in lower and mid-developed provinces and countries, encourage more rural labourers to leave for the city in order to remit cash to their families and communities, the city administration attempts to slow down or stop this ‘migration wave’. Urban infrastructure in big cities is becoming less able to supply basic services to the already over-populated cities.

(iii) Due to unbalanced development between south-eastern and north-western parts of China, and between rural and urban societies, are those rural ‘surplus labourers’ willing to move to big cities or southern coastal open areas as they did in the past, or to find temporary non-agricultural jobs around their counties as some policy-makers plan?

(iv) Will the increasing number of young male labourers with a certain minimum level of education who are leaving for off-farm activities in urban areas result in a decline in agriculture in general and food production, or will the constraint between over-population and limited land resources be alleviated?

(v) When husbands and sons are going out what will happen to rural women who remain in villages, tending farms, feeding animals, housework, and child-care? Are they going to follow their husbands and sons to go out through the family/kinship chain, or will they continue to stay, receiving cash regularly from their husbands and sons who may, or may not, come home once a year?

(vi) While it is relatively easier for the Han Chinese rural people to go out of their villages and find temporary jobs in urban areas, it is very difficult for those with ‘minority nationalities’ background to do so, who are mostly living in remote and poor north-western parts of China. Would the north-western part be left far behind and thus suffer from underdevelopment with few possibilities of gaining benefit from migration? Or when there is no way out for ‘minorities’ in the north-western part, what is the potential for this region to attract people for development? In both cases, would there be more cultural and political conflicts or would closer relationships be established?

(vii) It is obvious that there are hundreds of millions of rural labourers who would try to leave their original villages and seek work in non-agricultural sectors in the next 5–10 years. While it will be difficult for urban China to absorb such a massive population of labourers, the question arises: will they, or at least some of them, go to look for work opportunities abroad?


    Chen Jiyuan et al. 1993, Rural Labour Transferring in China, People’s Press, Beijing.

    Croll, E. & Huang Ping 1995, ‘Migration for and against Agriculture’, Research Report to the FAO.

    Dutton, M. 1992, Policing and Punishment in China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

    Goldstein, S. & Goldstein, A. 1985, Population Mobility in the People’s Republic of China, East-West Centre, Honolulu.

    Howe, C. & Walker, K. eds 1989, The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy, St Martin’s, New York.

    Huang Ping 1995, ‘Rural Migration and Rural Development’, Research Report to the FAO, Rome.

    Huang Ping 1996, Seeking for Survival: A Sociological Study of Rural–Urban Migration in China, Yunnan People’s Press, Kunming.

    Huang Ping et al. 1996, 1995: Social Situation in China, Chinese Social Sciences Press, Beijing.

    Liang Fangzhong 1980, Statistics of Hukou, Land and Land Tax in the History of China, Shanghai People’s Press, Shanghai.

    Selected Documents of Laws and Regulations of the PRC, Vol. II ed. by Ministry of Judiciary, Law Press, Beijing, 1958.

    Selected Documents of Regulations and Law in the PRC, ed. by the Ministry of Labour & Personnel, Economics Press, Beijing, 1985.

    Summary of Chinese Statistics Yearbook 1995, China Statistics Publishing House, Beijing.

    Wang Xiaoyi 1996, ‘1995: Peasants in China’, in Huang Ping et al. 1996.

    Yuan 1994, Chinese Peasants: Labour Migration and Social Mobility, Sichuan University Press, Chengdu.

    Zhao Shukai 1996, ‘1995: Rural–Urban Migration in China’, in Huang Ping, et al. 1996.

1. Out-coming Labourers refers to those leaving their Hukou for work elsewhere.

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