The Mass migration in China: New and changing relationships and institutionsition of movement

In order to understand the mass migration that unfolded in China in the last few decades and the effect of it, we need to recognize two main overarching trends of pivotal importance. The transition, from a planned economy to a market economy, where gradual steps have been taken in a point to surface approach, and the globalization, where China´s national interests have become more and more integrated and aligned with the global markets´ interests. These trends, driving deregulation, decentralization, marketization and financialization, have resulted in the biggest movement of people in our time. A mass migration that have come to impact every part of the Chinese society, and in specific the life of the peasant workers and their families.

This paper aims to give a general account on why the mass migration took place and in specific look on how relationships have changed.


The reform period which took its beginning in 1978, was also the start of one of the biggest mass migrations we have witnessed throughout the history (Ye et al., 2013).  The reforms, initiated by Deng Xiao Ping,  lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty (Muller, 2016) and moved China up in the global value chain in a pace not witnessed before. What took 200 years in Europe, took 20 years in China. With this speed, the effects have been dramatic on all parts of the society, for families, workers and institutions. At the same time as the GDP growth has been impressive, the inequalities have increased. Deng Xiao Pings words became a reality, at the cost of large groups becoming marginalized (Muller, 2016). This GDP growth was fueled by a continues inflow of workers to the factories. The migration was one from the rural side to the urban centers and led to an extraordinary fast urbanization. The first wave of migrants were young men, which was followed by older people, and later in the migration phase, basically anyone who could take up labor, including women. In 1978, 17.9% of China’s population lived in cities. Only three decades later into the reforms, that number was 51.3% (Cao et al., 2014). Before 1984, peasants were not allowed to move to cities, with some few exemptions (Ye et al., 2013). With start in 1984, temporary permissions were given to seek labor in the city, often dangerous, temporary low-skilled jobs. And with that, the migrant worker in contemporary China was born!

What have been driving the people to migrate in modern China?

The rational of leaving the farm can be said to be one about rational economic choice. Since 1987, the income gaps have increased, which gives farmers less incentives to continue farming, and instead search for the luck in the city (Cao et al., 2014). The payoff is higher in the factory than working the land, and according to the Lewis model people will then move to the new sector where the wage is higher (Fields, 2004). The larger the city, the greater the mean income, and with that follows greater social welfare, for its registered residents. This has widened the income gap between the urban and rural residents by nearly 45 times from 1978 to 2011 (Cao et al., 2014). Other theories related to the rational economic choice comes from Todaro and Taylor, which more focus on the push effect of leaving the village in search for something better. But economical do not seems to be adequate to explain the migration, since the poorest areas do not constitute the biggest migration (Ye et al., 2013).

Another factor that helps us explain migration, relates to the fact that migration opportunities are actually not open to all. This you can for example see, in another vein, the gold mining migration to Africa, which only relates to a certain group in China (Loubere and Crawford, 2017) and can then be better explained by network theories.

Another explanatory model for the migration is the neo-marxist, where actually its not about a choice, rather the only way out for survival, and a system that is reinforced by the need to channel new workers in the factories, thus keeping the salaries on a competitive level. The migrant labour is cheap, easy to control due to the management power with the temporary work permit, relatively easy and cheap to fire.

Then we have more deeper personal drivers to migrate. The fact that one wants to get rid of a “peasant” or “farmer” mark, and instead look for a life in the city, and redefine one selves identity shouldn’t be underestimated. This journey to find a new identity, a pursuit for happiness, is very human, and have been done in all times, in all places. 

Relationship: family and migrant worker

In 2009, 58 million children, and 45 million elderly have been left behind. In 2013, All China Women Federation released a report estimating the number of left-behind children living in China to be 61 million (Yuan, Z. (2015). That is 38% of all children in China! How these children are affected are of course of great concern, especially since the numbers are so big. We often discuss the problem with brain drain when talking about migration from poorer countries to richer ones. When solving a crises in one part of the country by importing skilled labour, you basically export the problem to the departing country (Ye et al., 2013). The same could be said in China. Where mostly the young, leave the countryside. These young people are those who could create something new in the rural area, but are now gone in a factory in the coastal area.This creates problems, for example with the rural education. With the digitalization in China, and the high internet penetration, we see initiatives to introduce new learning methods in rural areas to cope with these problems. Initiatives are taken, for example such as Center for Child-Rights & corporate Social Responsibility that partnered with UNICEF and launched the WeChat e-Learning initiative(Shi, 2016).

Relationship: employer and migrant worker

The transition from planned- to market economy created new classes, the peasant workers and the capitalists and new relationships between labors and capitalists. The 农民工, peasant worker differs in meaning from the proletariat in the meaning that all their property, the land, that can earn them a living hasn’t been removed from them. However, even though somestill have the right to use a land piece, this piece of land is in most cases not adequate to provide for a good living. So, they need to sell their labor on a market in a capitalist fashion and becomes dependent on the capitalist.

In China, the labor movement has been strictly regulated in relation to the interest of the state, party and capital. The Hukou system has led to an unhealthy balance in the worker-employer relationship. The system in large, denies social services outside a citizens’ pre-defined Hukou. A necessary mean to control a huge population, but once the mass migration started, once the peasant workers were needed to feed the factories in the urban areas, they were only given limited rights, where the employer had a final say in the wellbeing of the worker with a a series of needed permits, again shifting the power relation in favor of the employer (Deyo, 2012). The worker is not allowed to organize in an independent union, lacks collective bargaining power and the rights alike. From the state and capitalists, it has been of vital importance to keep the salary levels down, in order to gain competitive advantages on a global market. Here, they have been using migrant workers as a tool against local labor to weaken their bargaining power.

The number of migrant workers in the early 90´s was 50-60 million people. This was combined with risks of the social stability when such a large group of people starting to move. To keep control of the people, work and houses were incorporated, so that the management of the factory had control of the people, at the same time, they workers couldn’t really meet with other workers such as the workers in for example Vietnam. This gives the capitalist a leverage over the worker. In the 90´s, with marketization and privatization, the SOE´s had to lay off people in large numbers, which made it harder for peasant workers to find work. This lead to that the number of mass incidents and strikes started to increase. These are events that are isolated and kept at bay by the employer, with help of the local authorities and sometimes non-local thugs. The civil society has not been able to step up for- and protect the migrant workers’ rights, such as was done in South Korea. However, the new generations migrant workers are more politically active than their parents’ generation, they often have no land to return to due to increased confiscation, they are better educated and informed and some groups in the society, Marxists groups at universities, have recently stood up for their fellow countrymen (Dou, 2018).  These efforts to side with workers, pose a threat to the party and have been forcefully crushed. 

Relationship: state and migrant worker

Before the 1978 reform started, people took on life-long employment in a work place. During the Mao period, the agreement was that the worker pledged loyalty to the party and the work. In return the party provided for the worker, food, house and well fare for him/her and the family.

The state, with the SOEs, guaranteed workers lifetime jobs (Deyo, 2012). This system started to disintegrate in the mid 80´s when China adopted a more market liberal economic model. Foreign multinationals started to invest in SEZ, where workers were hired by the foreign-owned company, under different rules than the old SOEs. A more flexible contract-based system, resonating with the one in the West, soon resulted in temporary contracts becoming the new norm in the whole society, making the situation for workers less secure, with massive layoffs as a result (Muller, 2016). The loyalty was one becoming one-directional, as the state opened up for flexibility on the one end of the scale giving companies more leverage, but not increased collective power for the workers, creating an imbalance (Lee, 2004).

Failed social security

There are four types of institutions where individuals can find social security from, according to Gough and Wood (2004). That is: state, market, community, family.

However, the urbanization that the mass migration lead to, has created unsustainable socioeconomic development (Cao et al., 2014). And in China, for migrant workers, it could be said that with the move from the home town, to the urban center, the community and family is no longer a viable option. We have then the state and the market left. With the Hukou system, the state is not a viable option for social security. Then we have the market left. With an income that is low, not only in real terms, but also relative terms, to cost of using the market options is too high. The migrant worker is left alone. The community, his fellow colleagues, can provide a kind of mental support, since they share a common destiny. But for real social security, it’s not sufficient. Before then family was united and was the main source of security, and in addition to that, the danwei or production brigades and the rural collective was another institution that provided security (Muller, 2016).


This mass migration and urbanization in China, have had an impact far greater than economical and reaching far beyond national borders. In this mass migration, peasant workers have formed new identities, and built new skills. Institutions have transformed and come to play different roles. New relationships have been created, and the power in old relationships have been altered or weakened. In many cases, in favor for the capital and the market, whilst the civil society, and institutions safe guarding social security such as the family have been suffering. Migrant workers are now a new group consisting of hundred million people. Despite its sheer size, it is a marginalized group, and needs the support from others to gain the influence it so desperately needs. The modern history of China tells us the story that the unification of workers and students is a threat to any government and is therefore forcefully opposed by the party.

GDP has been the only measure of success since 1978 as economic growth has provided the legitimacy for the party. And the ones that have paid the highest price for Chinas economic miracle, and the cheaper plasma TV in Europe, are the Chinese migrant workers: “The aim of development is not capital accumulation, but the development of human beings, which includes peasants who should not be merely regarded as a surplus resource to be ‘absorbed’ into the industrial sector” (Ye et al., 2013, p. 1139). The migrant workers are wealthier today than 40 years ago. But they have been seen and used as a “surplus resource”, which means that they return home to their village, in a bad condition, with aged bodies and in many cases without land.

What we have seen so far, is a one-directional migration, primarily from west to east. We are now seeing a flow in both directions. When migrant workers, for sake or social security, “upgrade” their Hukou, by buying one of those empty apartments in a 3rd tier city with a loan from the bank. Or when “rural entrepreneurs” now see opportunities back home (Liu, 2018).   

As a response to the changes in institutions and the role they play, president Xi now tries to save/strengthen one of these institutions, the family, in order to tackle the big problem of insufficient social security. That social security, Deng Xiao Ping, with his famous words: “some people needs to get rich first”, was very much part of privatizing, decentralizing and dismantling. The other part of the Deng Xiao Ping´s sentence was left untold. When he let the rich run ahead, he also pushed the peasant workers in the opposite direction. The question is how far it can go before too many people demand an answer: When will the rest get rich?


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