4.12.2012 | Von:
Bettina Gransow

Terminology: Migrants, Migrant Workers, Outsiders

The concept of internal migration differs from the general concept of migration in that the latter embraces international migration across state borders. In China, internal migration most commonly takes the form of migration from the country to the city[1] (rural-to-urban migration) which is predominantly labor migration.
Wanderarbeiter beim Essen vor einer Reklamefläche für ein Immobilienprojekt in Schanghai.Migrant labourers eating in front of a billboard in Shanghai. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

In speaking of Chinese internal migrants, a variety of different terms are employed: the commonest among these are liudong renkou (floating population/migrants, migration population), nongmingong (migrant workers, literally ‘peasant workers’), waidiren or wailai renkou (outsiders, external people), dagongzai and dagongmei (working boys, working girls) and xin yimin (new migrants). Recently, there has been a debate in China about whether these various terms could be a source of unfair discrimination. Two further terms are xinshengdai nongmingong, referring to the second generation of migrants, and yidi wugong renyuan (external staff), a ‘politically correct’ neologism.
Three groups of internal migrants are statistically relevant (i.e. can be counted):
  1. Persons who remain for longer than 6 months at a place of residence other than their habitual abode[2];
  2. Persons who hold a temporary residence permit (i.e. anyone who registers with the police at their destination city);
  3. Migrant workers (nongmingong), who are sub-divided into
    1. local migrant workers who engage in a non-agricultural occupation within their community, i.e. commuters; and
    2. migrant workers who work for longer than 6 months outside their permanent place of residence, beyond the administrative border of the community. These are the real migrant workers.
It is difficult to say how many internal migrants there are in China, as often no clear distinction is made between internal migrants in general and migrant workers as a sub-category.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Internal Migration in China – Opportunity or Trap?".


This policy brief does not cover rural-rural migration, urban-urban migration as well as urban-rural migration. All of these three forms of internal migration do – for one reason or another – play a role of minor importance: rural-rural migration is not very attractive because better wages are not very probable; urban-urban migration is comparatively uncomplicated because city dwellers have an urban household registration and are therefore included into the urban social security system. Furthermore, environmentally induced migration and resettlement (e.g. from poor areas or due to infrastructure projects) as well as internal migration as a result of natural disasters are not referred to in the frame of this policy brief.
The number of internal migrants is determined through surveys of the Statistical Office and more precisely in the census that takes place every ten years.
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