Supporting Article

China’s Migrant Population


Prior to 1978, population migration in China was under government control in order to serve the political and economic objectives of the country.  There were several large-scale population migrations.  In the early ’50s, the Chinese government resettled large segments of the population from the coastal and central areas to the sparsely populated border provinces, especially those of the northwestern regions.  Their objective was to develop these areas.  Most of the migrants were technicians and skilled laborers along with their family members.  During the Cultural Revolution, large numbers of youth (former Red Guards) were sent to the countryside to maintain political stability in the urban areas.  Other than these officially organized migrations, few Chinese have had the privilege to choose where they would like to live, for every inhabitant in China must register under the residential registry (Hukou) system.  Under this system, every individual is classified as either a rural or an urban resident.  The system basically limits the movement of population for every Chinese citizen. Once registered in a certain location, all social benefits, as well as one’s livelihood, are dependent upon the registration. If one opts to live elsewhere, one must obtain a de-registration permit from the original place of registration and an agreement from the new place where one wants to move—an extremely difficult procedure.

However, the policy of reform and opening to the outside world in the early ’80s offered increased options to choose from for making a living, thus opening new opportunities as well as challenges for the Chinese.  Population increase, as well as an increase in agricultural production, has suddenly generated a large amount of surplus rural labor.  The rapid construction boom in major cities, compounded by the huge demand of labor in newly built factories in the Special Economic Zone in coastal cities, attracts the surplus laborers by its wages.  With the economic boom in coastal regions, service industries also begin to expand—from waitressing to prostitution.  These services draw many rural migrants who otherwise would have no opportunity for living in a city nor for a regular income.  Furthermore, rural populations see city life not only as an opportunity to earn money but also to acquire new skills—tools for them to take back to aid in developing new enterprises in their home villages or towns.

During the past two decades, Chinese society has experienced a huge population migration not initiated by the Government.  While there are no clear statistics, estimates from various experts indicate that from 80 to 120 million of the rural population are currently not living at home and are engaged in non-agricultural activities to earn a living. In other words, these individuals are living elsewhere, mostly in cities, to earn money as laborers.  Legally speaking, these people need to register with the local authorities as “transient population” or “temporary residents;” few choose to do so because of the high administrative fee and the bureaucracy. While they may retain a non-residential status in their home village, this is on paper only. When reporting is done, they tend to fall through the cracks so that legally, most of this population is non-existent.  In reality, you cannot hide a population of 100 million—especially in China!

Almost all the welfare and social benefits are given to registered residents in urban areas.  The transient population and those who are not registered have no right to claim these social services.  A rural resident cannot change into an urban resident without paying an astronomical fee.  For example, it costs up to one million RMB (US$125,000) to obtain an urban residential status in Shanghai.  Therefore, although the migrant population may work hard as factory workers, housemaids, construction workers, cooks, waiters, hairdressers—or in a variety of occupations that provide services and contribute to the economic prosperity of urban life in China—they enjoy no social services at all.  Their children, if they attend the local school, must pay an extra non-resident premium; few can afford it.  Unlike their urban neighbors who may enjoy subsidized housing, medical services and other social amenities, they must pay for everything.  Furthermore, they have no job security, pension plan or unemployment benefits—benefits that are taken for granted by workers with urban registration in State Owned Enterprises. The only area of government that deals with this migrant population is the Public Security Bureau that rules it as a law and order issue.  Whenever there is a political campaign, these migrants often become scapegoats, for there is no way for them to defend themselves. One sinologist recently concluded that the migrant population is the “most disadvantaged group” in China.

This current year, the Chinese Government is facing a tremendous social challenge.  Several tens of millions of workers will be laid off from the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  This is double to triple the size of the estimated 20 million currently under- or unemployed workers. Although the Chinese Government has begun to focus on this social issue of the migrant population, it has very few resources to deal with it.  There are some local volunteer groups who, often with help from the Government, have begun to help these migrant people.  For example, there are some legal hotlines, magazines, and social clubs organized for them, but their numbers are just too few.

Migrants often form closely-knit informal groups based on their kinship and clans.  These groups serve as mutually supportive communities and provide services to their members.  Still, these are people that are separated from their families and homes.  They have been uprooted from their social context.  In sophisticated urban settings, they often feel disoriented, confused, homesick, inferior and insecure. The urban population, especially in times of economic difficulties, often discriminates against them.  Despite the fact that these very people have contributed much to a city’s development, they are living in a legal limbo and are the most marginalized people group in China.

If Christians are the peacemakers on earth, is there some way they can help to ease the tension between the migrants and their neighbors who are their hosts?  If justice is a Christian value, can the church help these people to attain social services and protection which, in all fairness, they should be given?  If equality among human beings is a Christian value, can the church not speak out to those in authority on the discriminatory residential registration system which separates people into two distinct classes, urban and rural—especially when the former group enjoys most of the social benefits at the expense of the other? It is indeed an apartheid system.  Although there are some Hong Kong-based Christian groups that are ministering to these people, most of them focus on the work of evangelization.  Can these groups also recognize the physical needs of these people and provide them with concrete social services?

There is much that we should and can do for this migrant population. China is a very complex society that is facing tremendous social, political and economic change. This change may force us to look at China from a fresh perspective. We may need to start with basic knowledge of the current social changes in China. This knowledge can then open our eyes for new spiritual challenges—challenges that may be quite different from the classic or stereotype needs we often see (such as those of the more exotic national minorities).  Let us take an in-depth look at this sector of the population and meet the challenge it presents.

Image credit: R0011177_edit by eijin Chen via Flickr.

Kim-kwong Chan

The Rev. Kim-kwong Chan, PhD, DTh, is the Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council. View Full Bio