Lone Migrants: China's Growing Underclass

By Jiang, Feifei | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Lone Migrants: China's Growing Underclass


Jiang, Feifei, Harvard International Review


In the 1980s, China's population of rural-to-urban migrants numbered around 2 million; today, the estimated number of internal migrants ranges from 150 to 200 million people--over one-tenth of China's 1.3 billion population--and growing. These rough estimates are only expected to rise, with some analysts predicting that the total number of such migrants will reach 300 million by the year 2015. Driven by the privatization of farming, increased urbanization, and rapid industrialization in China's cities, millions of people each year decide to leave their increasingly substandard livelihoods in the Chinese countryside to find work in the cities, mainly in factories or on construction projects. These migrants make up 40 percent of the urban labor force; however, due to China's strict regulation of social benefits that legally ties residents to one area of the country, the vast majority of these migrants are unregistered and therefore unable to claim either government benefits or protection from employer exploitation. Living alongside their urban counterparts, China's migrant workers face second-class treatment from employers and native city-dwellers alike, an attitude only reinforced by government restrictions on migration. As the need for more urban workers rises, government regulation of internal migration needs to adjust accordingly in order to fully support the workers who form the silent backbone of China's economic and internal development.

In the 1950s, the Chinese government implemented the hukou household registration system in an effort to regulate and allocate government-subsidized public services. The system determines government benefits by a citizen's place of residence; when the program was implemented, urban residents received social welfare benefits such as pensions, health care, and subsidized housing, while rural residents received land. The previous communist, government-controlled economy has given way to capitalism, resulting in agricultural privatization and urban industrialization. Consequently, the existing hukou system proved to be too rigid to accommodate the new system. Furthermore, the government benefits offered to rural residents tied them to their increasingly meager portions of land, providing peasants with much more limited options than their urban counterparts. Migration from the countryside to the city was only a logical consequence of the new economic climate; however, the hukou system continued to require rural residents to apply for a difficult-to-obtain change of residence in order to live in the cities and receive government benefits.

Because millions of Chinese migrants are living undocumented in the cities, they receive none of the benefits that registered city-dwellers are allocated by the Chinese government. All types of social benefits and insurance, including many pension programs, subsidized housing, and free health care, most importantly, are not available to city dwellers without hukou status. Pensions, for example, if offered, cannot be transferred if a migrant moves to another city or returns home. Education also comes at an often-prohibitive premium for children of unregistered migrants, who, unlike their urban-registered counterparts, must pay a fee to attend urban schools. Furthermore, since hukou status is inherited, these migrant children will face the same barriers as their parents if they attempt to obtain urban hukou status.

Workplace discrimination is also a problem. Employers are not accountable for their treatment of unregistered migrants, and workplace conditions are predictably substandard. …

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