4.12.2012 | Von:
Bettina Gransow

Migration and Urbanization Policy: Priority of Economic Growth

Ever since the beginning of the reform process introduced in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping, the direction of Chinese migration and urbanization policy has been determined by the need to promote economic growth.

This has led to a fundamental shift in the attitude toward rural-to-urban migration. After having been directed exclusively toward keeping migration under control, the policy gradually became more relaxed and flexible and measures were even taken to encourage migration in some circumstances. This change in migration policy can be roughly divided into six phases[1]:

Ban on Migration (1979-83).
The introduction of mechanisms of competition to the Chinese economy sent out contradictory signals: Incentives were created for economic development and employment in small towns[2], but at the same time rural migrant workers were sent back to their villages. The Chinese leadership reacted to the first waves of rural-to-urban migration with continued rejection, almost as a reflection of the social control mechanisms of the planned economy. This seemingly paradoxical policy becomes understandable when seen in the context of the socialist distribution system then still in force, which was based on rationing; this entailed handing over ration coupons for food, clothing etc., which were only obtainable at one’s permanent place of residence.

Limited Toleration of Migration (1984-89).
Provided that rural workers were capable of meeting their own living expenses, they were permitted to remain in smaller towns and cities. The Ministry of Labor also encouraged migration from impoverished areas for the purpose of promoting non-agricultural employment.

Reimposition of Ban on Spontaneous Migration (1989-92).
After the crushing of the student protest by military force on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, rural migrant workers were not supposed to leave their home villages and were expected instead to accept work on the land or in village and small town businesses. Rural migrants in the cities were to be kept under strict surveillance; this applied both to conditions of employment and to rural workers wishing to settle in the cities. Local governments were instructed that they should no longer issue rural migrant workers with permits to go and work in the province of Guangdong, which was a standard-bearer for the economy and attracted very many migrants to the region. Not even victims of natural disasters were to be allowed, as migrants, to seek work there.

The Regulation of Migration (1993-2000).
Once the groundwork had been laid for a resumption of the reform course in the early 1990s, a phase of regulated migration was introduced. This was aimed at channeling the flow of migrants into small and medium-sized towns and limiting the influx into the major cities, especially metropolitan areas like Beijing and Shanghai, in order to avoid putting additional strain on the material and social infrastructure of those cities. The regulations were now no longer restricted to the sphere of employment, but embraced a whole raft of measures concerning migrants’ working and living conditions in the cities. For example, in 1995 the government introduced rulings concerning temporary residence permits for the rural population in cities, which were designed to regularize the status of migrants in the cities. Simultaneously, regulations governing the return of mendicants and the homeless to their home villages were extended to include migrants without money, papers or accommodation, who could now be forced to leave at any time. This practice continued until 2003.[3] In general, the government’s attitude in the 1990s was essentially based on economic considerations. By the use of cheap rural labor, China aimed to boost its industrialization and competitiveness in the global market; migration policy therefore became increasingly relaxed. At the same time, the opportunities for migrant workers to settle permanently in the cities remained very restricted, so as to keep indirect costs arising from migration as low as possible (e.g. for city transportation systems, water and energy supplies, and also for education, health provision and social security).

Promotion of Migration (2001-2005).
At the start of the 21st century, after the gap between urban and rural incomes had widened to 3.6:1, the intention was that all unnecessary barriers to rural-to-urban migration should be removed, in order to reduce the disparity between city and countryside and to create greater equality in the distribution of wealth. With this in mind, the government resolved, in 2001, to hasten the reform of the hukou system. However, in practice any such reform is a complicated and lengthy process, because the hukou system is closely interwoven with other institutions such as, for example, the land system[4], the education system and the system of social security. Abolition of the hukou system cannot therefore be achieved by simply issuing a legal decree, but must be accompanied by reforms in these other areas.

Recognition of the Rights of Migrant Workers (since 2006).
In recent years China’s political leadership has made increasing efforts to create a legal basis for the equal treatment of rural migrants with regard to labor law. The "Proposals (of the State Council[5]) for the Solution of the Problems of Migrant Workers"[6] of 1.26.2006 were the prelude to measures aiming at the integration of migrants in the urban environment in which they lived and worked. In 2007, in relation to the reform of the hukou system, the Chinese government designated the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu as local experimental zones in which to develop innovative approaches to the integration of rural and urban systems of administration in the fields of work, land, social welfare and services.
Tripartite structure of the future internal migration in ChinaTripartite structure of the future internal migration in China: It is expected that the future structure of internal migration in China will be a tripartite one. Like today there will be one migration flow along the Chinese east coast with the Peal River Delta, Shanghai and the Yangzi River Delta and Beijing/the Tianjin Region as mega urban clusters (red stripe). In addition, it is expected that there will be a significant migration flow in China’s inland regions directed towards Wuhan (Hubei Province) (blue stripe) as well as a third flow towards the emerging mega cities, that is, Kunming (Yunnan Province), Xian (Shaanxi Province), Urumqi (Xinjiang Province), and Harbin (Heilongjiang Province) (blue stars). Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

In 2008, for the first time three migrant workers were appointed as deputies in the National People’s Congress[7]. At the same time, the global financial crisis of 2008/09, with its tangible effects on the Chinese export industry, brought home to the Chinese leadership the weakness of an economic strategy that is oriented unilaterally toward manufacturing for export and is consequently dependent on the state of the world market. Then, after 25 million migrants had lost their jobs, expansion of the domestic market and strengthening of domestic consumption became cornerstones of a reorientation of economic strategy by the Chinese government, with more weight being given to innovation, investment in research and development, and better qualified staff. A further objective of this strategy is to encourage the rise of a broad middle class[8] and so make a contribution to the stability of Chinese society as a whole. Together with a higher wage level, such a reorientation of economic strategy requires the creation of comprehensive social security systems as a necessary precondition of increased consumer spending among migrants. The central government has recognized the need for a unified and flexible social security system and, with the passing (in 2011) of a social insurance law that combines individual insurances such as sickness, accident, pension and unemployment insurance, together with maternity protection, has taken an important step toward its realization, yet implementation and additional funding at the local level is making painfully slow progress. And while the central government is keen to promote equal rights and to strengthen the protection of migrants’ employment rights, the city governments, which are under pressure on account of their debts and are engaged in an increasingly fierce economic competition with each other, and which furthermore have had to take on additional responsibilities with the decentralization of the administration system, are anxious to keep the costs of immigration as low as possible and to accept only the best and most highly qualified workers. This has resulted in ‘incomplete urbanization’ (as the Hong Kong city researcher Chan Kam Wing has called it)[9], i.e. the cities only want to accept the migrants as workers, not as citizens with an equal right of access to public goods and services.

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


Cf. Huang und Pieke (2003), Schnack and Yuan (2010), pp. 124-150.
Small towns below county level
The so-called "Three-without population" could be immediately arrested and transferred to local detention centers pending expulsion or sent back home. Relatives and friends had to pay a "ransom" so that the arrested migrants were released from detention. This practice developed into a lucrative source of income for the local security agents and attendants. It came to be publicly criticized in March 2003 when the 27-year-old graphic designer Sun Zhigang was beat to death in such a detention center in Guangzhou after his only ‘misdemeanor’ had been not to carry valid documents when he got into a control and was arrested. This event was taken up by the media and caused considerable public outrage. With the support of dedicated attorneys the regulation which allowed for custody pending deportation of rural migrants was abolished on June 20th, 2003.
Up to the present day, there is no private land ownership in China. In urban areas, state-owned land prevails, in rural areas there is predominantly collectivized land. Land use rights are traded, not ownership rights.
The State Council is the central administrative body of the People’s Republic of China, it is headed by the Prime Minister.
"Guanyu jiejue nongmingong wenti de ruogan yijian"
The National People’s Congress is the parliament of the People’s Republic of China.
Zoellick (2010).
Chan (2010), p. 77.
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