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Chinese industrialization and growth driven by the highest levels of internal migration in human history

27 Mar



If you purchased one of the 1.8 billion mobile phones that were shipped around the world in 2011, there is a 50% chance that the phone was put together in the eastern Chinese province of Guangdong. Furthermore, there is also a very high chance that it was not assembled by person native to Guangdong, but by one of the vast amounts of migrants who have relocated to the eastern coast in search of work (Economist, 2012). In the last quarter of a century, the success story of ‘Made in China’ is undoubtedly entwined with the story of migrants toiling for minimal wages to produce for exports. The total stock of rural migrant labour was estimated in 2010 to be around 155 million (Cai, et al, 2011) and this has been the main driver of the Chinese export industry since the mid 1990’s. In export based eastern coastal cities such as Shenzhen and Dongguan, migrant labour has accounted for the large majority (around 70 to 80%) of the labour force at the turn of the century (Chan, 2007). Additionally, China’s rural to urban migration has been pivotal in contributing to China’s recent unprecedented levels of urbanization. In the 30 years from 1979 to 2009, China’s urban population has exploded, increasing by around 440 million, reaching 622 million. Of the 440 million increase, around 340 million can be attributed to both urban reclassification and net migration. If only half of this increase was caused by migration, these levels of rural to urban migration in such a short time period is most likely to be the largest in human history (Chan, 2013).

This internal migration is characterized by two main features: Firstly, most migrants leave their farmlands for urban areas or for non-agricultural activities. Secondly, these labour flows are largely directed from the interior to coastal areas, mainly from central or western areas to the prosperous cities which are predominantly concentrated along the eastern coast (International Labour Organization, 2013). These astonishing rates of migration and urbanization are in turn causing large-scale unemployment problems, especially in cities (Kumar, 2012).

In 1978, rural incomes were less than 40% of urban ones. The economic reforms that began in 1978 meant that China had opened its doors economically to the rest of the world, and large scale factories began to appear in coastal towns. Within these establishments, Chinese farmers could earn more money in a month than they would in an entire year growing rice. Migrants began to move from the poorest inland provinces such as Anhui, Sichuan and Guizhou, where in 1980 farmers lived on less than $2 a day (Washington, 2012). Between 1990 and 1995, more than ten million workers migrated away from their home provinces. A further 2 million migrated between 1995 and 2000, and yet another staggering 38 million over the next five years from 2000 to 2005 (Chan, 2013). Between 2001 and 2010, it can be noted that this migration contributed to 20% of China’s economic growth. These high levels of migration have however, come at high personal cost, with many migrants spending years away from their families. Furthermore, rapid industrialization has also caused large-scale pollution problems in China’s industry driven megacities (Kumar, 2012).

In the late 1990’s, the wealth gap between rural and urban China began to increase substantially, with the rural to urban income ratio increasing drastically from 2.5% in 1997, peaking at 3.3% in 2009 before beginning to decline again to 3.1% in 2011. This has created a huge social issue, with tens of thousands of cases of social unrest in rural areas each year (Economist, 2012).

Recently however, as the costs of coastal land and labour have risen, combined with a flood of government investment (Chongquing and Jintang, 2012), manufacturing is beginning to move inland and fewer migrants are travelling to the coastal cities. As a result, as more jobs are created in the inland cities and provinces, more wealth is slowly beginning to trickle down to rural areas (Washington, 2012).

Inequalities between rural and urban areas are slowly decreasing; however, urbanization in general is forecast to drastically rise. It has been estimated that Chinese cities will face an influx of around 243 million migrants by 2025, taking the total urban population of China to nearly 1 billion (Dyer, 2008). This population of migrants would subsequently account for around 40% of China’s urban population, almost three times the current level (Woetzel et al. 2009).

These forecasts underline the enormous challenges that face China if they are to meet pledges to include the country’s vast migrant labour force to urban social welfare programmes which they are generally denied access to at the moment (Dyer, 2008). China has been predicted to have over 221 cities with a population of over 1 million by 2025. This growth will place huge pressure on many of these, including, securing enough public funding for the provision of social services, dealing with the demand and supply issues of land, energy, the environment and water that will undoubtedly rise as China’s urban population increases further. How China handles their internal migration over the next 25 years if of pivotal if they are to maintain the rapid economic growth that has been seen over the last three decades (Woetzel, 2009).


By Harrison Dunn

Word Count: 930

Reference List:

Cai, F. et al. (eds.) (2011), Zhongguo renkou yu laodong wenti baogao No.12 (Report on China’s Population and Labour), Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe.

Chan, K. W. (2007). Misconceptions and complexities In the study Of China’s cities: definitions, statistics, and implications. Eurasian Geography and Economics. [Online].  Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 382-412.

Chan, K. W. (2013). China, Internal Migration. Washington: Blackwell Publishing. p.1-17.

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Jing, F. (2014). Urban-rural income gap widest since reform. Available: Last accessed 15th March 2014.

Kumar, A. (2012). New Security Concept of China. IPCS Special Report. 1 (125), p.1-12.

Poncet, S. and Zhu, N. (2005) Country People Moving to the Cities: The Migratory Dynamic. China Perspectives. [Online]. 62 (1). P.1-13. Available: file:///C:/Users/Harry/Downloads/chinaperspectives-547-62-country-people-moving-to-the-cities-the-migratory-dynamic.pdf. [Accessed: 23rd March 2014].

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The Economist. (2012). After three decades of migrating to the coast, the inland population is increasingly working closer to its roots. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 24th March 2014].

Washington, R. A. (2012). The largest migration in history. Available: Last accessed 24th March 2014.

Woetzel, J. et al. (2009). Preparing for China’s urban billion. Available: Last accessed 19th March 2014.