Demography: Interview

Population migration in a new China

Tens of millions have migrated from the Chinese countryside to the cities. Scholar Weiping Wu explains the benefits and potential problems.
In Bejing, Chinese migrants built small industrial workshops to make garments or textiles on land .../ Credits: Reuters
Weiping Wu, Professor of Urban Studies & Planning and International Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University Weiping Wu, Professor of Urban Studies & Planning and International Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University: "Differential treatment of migrants is going to be a potentially explosive issue, because the migrant population is growing." Allianz Knowledge: How has migration from the countryside changed China's cities in recent decades?
Weiping Wu: The change happened around 1983, with an easing of restrictions on mobility. This was the first time since the mid-1950s that population mobility became possible. During the thirty years between, cities only grew "naturally," and there was no significant in-migration.

This new mobility was rooted in a number of things. First was the change from an agricultural society to an increasingly industrialized society. Second were the market reforms launched in 1979 and the subsequent policy relaxation in 1983. Third was the increasing pressure from the large population and limited supply of arable land. There was a large surplus of labor in the countryside.

So all of these factors came together, and the wave of migration has been unprecedented since 1983. Right now, the estimate is anywhere between 100 and 150 million migrants, about 80 percent of that migration is from rural to urban areas.

How do migrant settlements in Chinese cities compare with large cities in the rest of the world?
The similarities relate to where migrants tend to settle in the cities. If you go to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, most squatter settlements are on the outskirts, where land use tends to be less restricted and there is more vacant land. We also see that in Chinese cities, you find large concentrations of migrants in these peri-urban areas.

But you don't see massive squatter settlements in China. Migrant villages in Chinese cities have completely different land and ownership situations. Migrants are not squatting; they are renting or building on rented land. For instance, in Beijing, they built small industrial workshops to make garments or textiles on land rented from local residents or villages.
How has China managed to avoid big urban slums?
Large migrant settlements in some Chinese cities are closely tied with production and people's livelihoods. If you look at squatter settlements in Latin America, there is no significant economic activity. If you go to the so-called "urban villages" in Beijing, there are wholesale textile markets, logistics companies, workshop areas, and mini industrial parks - it's nothing like this in squatter cities elsewhere.

This also has something to do with how vigilant local governments are in stopping the emergence of very large migrant areas. In Beijing, there have been five or six waves of clearance of very large migrant-concentrated areas since the 1990s.

What are the economic impacts of this rural-urban migration in China?
Economically, migrants are indispensable. It's also going to be a long-term trend, because China is still only 40-percent urban, and the transition from an agricultural to urban society is going to continue at least until we reach something like 70 percent. So, there will be steady migration for at least a few decades.

By about 2030, China is going to become a much older society. There will be labor shortages in certain population segments in cities, so migrants are a substitute for urban labor. Economically, it is extremely important for the surplus labor to be available for Chinese cities. This may sound exploitative, but is the reality. Foreign and many domestic companies can make products cheap largely because they use migrant labor.

What are the social or political impacts of migration to the cities?
Politically, we are beginning to see more positive migrant policies, but it has taken a long time. Now there is talk of disassociating urban benefits and amenities like access to schools and housing from the hukou (household registration) system. You can see a shift at the highest levels of government towards social policies addressing inequality and disparity. Differential treatment of migrants is going to be a potentially explosive issue, because the migrant population is growing.

And now we are looking at second-generation migrants. How do you accommodate younger migrants, who actually couldn't go back to the countryside because they don't know how to farm and they don't like the countryside? I know a few people like that. On the other hand, in the cities, they are not treated in the same way as the local kids. Gradually, you are seeing small changes here and there, but overall, the positive policy changes have been happening slowly.
Why are the policy changes happening so slowly?
The difficulty is that migration is a national issue. Migrants go to cities based on which cities and regions have more opportunities. So there are large streams of long-distance, cross-province migration. But when it comes down to accommodating these migrants, it's a local issue. All the amenities and facilities at the local level need to be paid by local governments. Tax revenues, however, are centralized. Unless the central government shoulders some of the costs, I would have difficulties seeing large cities opening their doors quickly.

I can see the dilemma of cities. If a city does really well to accommodate migrants, it's going attract more of them. It is a rather difficult balancing act. But the fear that migrants are going to flood the cities might not be warranted, because there is a labor market mechanism that sends migrants home when the market is saturated. Around 1997, during the East Asia economic crisis, there was a significant amount of return migration, because they couldn't find jobs in the cities anymore.

I think as China becomes a true market economy, there are mechanisms that cause - I wouldn't say equilibrium - but near-equilibrium, because migrants can't survive without a somewhat steady income source, or they will go back or move to another place.

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