4.12.2012 | Von:
Bettina Gransow

Patterns of Migration: Rural-Urban and Labor Migration Predominate

Internal migration in China is predominantly country-city migration and is accompanied by a rapid process of urbanization.

Number of Internal Migrants

Landkarte der Volksrepublik China und Taiwan In 2011 – for the first time in Chinese history – more than half the Chinese population were living in cities. (© Central Intelligence Agency (US))
In 2011 – for the first time in Chinese history – more than half the Chinese population were living in cities. According to projections by the Development Research Center, which comes directly under the Chinese State Council, by the year 2020 the rate of urbanization will have reached 60%.[1] Out of a total population of 1.34 billion, according to the 2010 census, 666 million (or 49.7%) were city dwellers and 674 million (or 50.3%) were country dwellers. In 2010, the total number of internal migrants, that is, those who remained for longer than 6 months at a residence other than their habitual place of abode, amounted to 221 million. In comparison with the previous census in the year 2000 (117 million), this was almost a doubling of the number of internal migrants.[2]

About three quarters of Chinese internal migration is labor migration.[3] According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in the year 2011 there were, in total, 253 million migrant workers (nongmingong); if we discount local commuters, that leaves 159 million migrant workers who live and work away from their permanent place of residence for long periods. Of these, 126 million were on their own and 33 million (21%) were accompanied by their families. The overwhelming majority of the migrant workers (95%) were working as paid employees.

Destinations of Labor Migrants

The country’s principal metropolitan areas and conurbations are the main centers of attraction for rural migrant workers. In 2009, 63% of them were employed in large and medium-sized cities – 9% of them in municipalities[4], 20% in provincial capitals and 34% in cities at the level of prefectures.[5] Since the 1990s the direction of the migration flows has remained unchanged: the destinations are the megacity regions in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, the Yangtze Delta and the Beijing/Tianjin region. The principal provinces of immigration are Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong. There are smaller migration flows in the opposite direction, e.g. to Lhasa or to Xinjiang for the cotton harvest. The Chinese policy of tending to invest more heavily in the western regions of the country also has some influence on the direction of migration flows. Currently, for example, production sites are being moved from the coast to inland locations. As a consequence, central Chinese provinces like Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan, i.e. classic provinces of emigration, could retain more of their workers. The rapidly growing megacities of inland China could also become more attractive. Cities such as Xi’an, Kunming, Urumqi and Harbin are considered to be the next candidates for expansion to megacities.

Despite the presence of so many rural migrant workers, since around 2004 there has been a shortage of labor in the destination regions of internal migration. This has led to a debate among experts about whether the reservoir of cheap rural labor in China is exhausted and a phase of rising wages has begun, or whether other causes are more significant (e.g. non-payment of wages or excessively low wages, the fear of accidents at work or improved living conditions in the countryside itself).

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


Zhou/Li (2010), p. 68.
Major Figures (2011), pp. 59-61.
Cf. also Gongan (2008), p. 2.
Direct-controlled municipalities have the highest rank in the Chinese administrative system, that is, the rank of a province. There are only four such cities: Peking, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing.
Zhongguo (2010), p. 26.
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