Academic journal article China Perspectives

Land Rights and Rural-Urban Migration in China

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Land Rights and Rural-Urban Migration in China

Article excerpt

Beginning in 1978, the reform and opening policies first promoted by Deng Xiaoping led the People's Republic of China onto a path of rapid economic growth and sharp social change. These policies allowed the gradual dissemination of market processes, especially in terms of the allocation of production factors (labour, land, and capital). Even while markets remain far from complete and quite highly constrained, this partial liberalisation has given rise to a rapid pace of capital accumulation, and to a geographical and sectoral redistribution of the Chinese workforce. In particular, China has experienced increasing migration of labourers from rural agricultural areas to indus- trialised cities. Although the high mobility and marginalised living conditions of migrant rural workers make accurate es- timates of their number difficult, existing studies have ar- rived at a commonly accepted estimate of the growth in this population from around 2 million in the mid-1980s to about 94 million in 2002. In other words, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, rural-urban migration affected as much as 12 percent of the total Chinese workforce, and nearly a fifth of the rural active population.((1)

The scope of this phenomenon gives it a crucial significance for the overall development of the People's Republic, as well as for the daily life of China's rural inhabitants, and it has naturally aroused much interest and debate in academic as well as political circles regarding its causes, evolution, and ramifications on economic development and social order. So far, on the micro side, the relevant economic literature has focused mainly on the specific characteristics of migrants, holding the classical Todarian view that differentials in labour revenues were the main motive for migration.((2) Moreover, on the macro side, much of the political and so- cial debate about Chinese internal migration seems to rely on the implicit assumption that this phenomenon is compa- rable to the exode ruralthat took place during Europe's in- dustrialisation in the nineteenth century, and in most devel- oping countries during the twentieth century. Rural-urban migration is thus seen, in a Lewisian manner,((3) as the nec- essary corollary of capital accumulation, industrialisation, and urbanisation.

The temporary nature of rural-urban migration

However, this economic theoretical framework and historical baseline example does not seem to account for one of the most striking features of the Chinese migrant population, namely that it is a "floating population" (liudong renkou). Indeed, apart from numerical importance, another specific feature of rural-urban migration flows in China is their tem- porality. It appears that most rural-urban migrants return to their native rural areas after some years spent working in in- formal urban labour markets,((4) and that out-migration is merely a stage in the life-cycle of rural households or individ- uals. For example, in our data, about 75 percent of the rural migrants are under 35 years old, suggesting that rural-urban migration characterises the first stage of a rural individual's working life.

Moreover, even during this migratory stage of life, rural mi- grants keep moving back and forth between their home vil- lages and the destination urban areas.((5) For example, in our data sample, only 5 percent of the migrants did not return to their home village in 2002, and 60 percent of them spent less than 9 months outside their home county. The distribu- tion of rural migrants according to the length of their out-mi- gration in 2002, plotted in Figure 1, clearly reflects the tem- poral mobility of rural migrants and the diversity of their be- haviours.

China's rural migrant population thus displays striking tem- poral characteristics: migrations appear temporary, that is, out-migration constitutes a transitory stage in a rural individ- ual's life pattern, and is a phenomenon of repeated moves between home and destination areas rather than a more or less permanent settling. …

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