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Reflections on the Role of Migrant Labor

The following was written by Daniel Wright in 1998 while a fellow in the Institute of Current World Affairs living in inland China and studying its people and societies. His “Reflections” came after sharing conversations and experiences with migrants during a 35-hour train journey from China’s interior to the coast.

To get my mind off my discomfort, I decided to visit the teenagers who had asked for a picture the night before. I asked the man who had been leaning on me for most of the previous twelve hours to hold my seat. He was glad for the chance to sit down. As I came into view, the boys seemed delighted to see me. They cleared a space on their bench, pulled out some home-cured ham strips, and asked me to do my card trick again. As I shuffled the deck, I asked them why they had decided to leave home.

“We’re from the countryside in northeast Guizhou; it’s very poor there. We want to come out, earn some money, and see what we can learn. Who knows what will happen? But we can’t stay at home.”

I have read the literature that evaluates migrant labor—like these teenagers—as a social, economic and political threat.[1] Since they form a group outside the system, it is argued, there is no way to organize or control these people. Whether for family-planning purposes, concern over rising crime, or just the menace of the unemployed sleeping in the streets, migrant labor lives beyond the reach of the state. Others also cite migrant labor’s vulnerability to exploitation and the lack of basic social services available to them, especially health care. Needless to say, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a chaotic drama of fifty million jobless migrant laborers swamping China’s cities.

The teenagers’ attitudes fascinated me. They certainly did not consider themselves a threat. They were attracted to, not envious of, the relative wealth of the coast—a part of China they had seen only on television. And as a group of five buddies, traveling together for their first time away from home, they did not seem afraid.

From the way they talked about working the stony fields back home, these young men seemed to represent the views of a large number of China’s rural laborers who consider agriculture to be an unprofitable, unattractive, and even redundant economic activity. In the rural regions of China’s interior where there are few nonagricultural activities, migration is often seen as the only way out. After all, if one family member leaves home—like these young middle-school dropouts—it means one less mouth to feed. And if the migrant is able to land a job, even the dirtiest of manual-labor jobs, he earns on average in one month what he would earn in an entire year at home. In this way, one family member who has gone to the coast may be able to support an entire family back in China’s rural interior.

More and more government officials view migrant labor as a normal consequence of economic reform, which, while loosening control of China’s countryside through the breakup of the commune system, encourages some areas and some people of China to prosper first (namely, coastal cities and special economic zones).[2] As a de facto component of government policy, therefore, it is only natural that large numbers of people would flow from the less- to the more-developed areas of the country. The challenges of migrant labor are indeed very real. The contributions the laborers make, however, to both the coastal areas and to their home regions outweigh the costs and risks.

And while migrant labor can be viewed as a threat to stability, an equally persuasive logic argues that migrant workers are the thread that keeps a rapidly transforming China from ripping apart. Migrant labor serves to both relieve pressure from the country’s impoverished regions and to transfer resources and skills back to those areas. When I put the “stability” question to a Guizhou government official who works in Shenzhen, he responded immediately with an interesting comparison: the threat of starving North Korea that looms over South Korea. “If North Koreans could travel to South Korea as migrant labor,” he said, “the problem of instability on the Korean peninsula would be solved.” His analogy is obviously flawed, but I got his point. The general freedom Chinese labor has had to pursue wealth, regardless of where it may be found, has alleviated what would otherwise be unbearable pressure, and certain instability, in China’s impoverished interior regions.

In addition, much of China’s economic growth has been built by the callused hands and sweat of migrant labor. In urban areas, for instance, migrant labor often does the dirty work that locals would never touch. China’s powerful export market, as well, has been underwritten by the inexpensive and willing labor of those from the interior.

Like the powerful force of Overseas Chinese—ethnic Chinese who live outside China but who contribute billions in gifts and investment to their ancestral homeland each year—China’s “Overland Chinese” (my term for the millions of migrant laborers who work on the coast but who remit significant amounts of cash to their homes in the interior) play an important role in their local economies. A Guizhou official told me that in 1997, migrant laborers from Guizhou remitted five billion yuan (U.S. $600 million) to family members back home. Equivalent to ten percent of the province’s gross domestic product, the figure equals Guizhou’s entire annual local-government revenue. In this regard, one of the most important contributions made by migrant labor is the ability to channel resources directly into the hands of individual families in China’s poor interior, something government bureaucracies and aid programs seem to have great difficulty doing.

The Guizhou Economic Daily reported the story of thirty migrant laborers, all from the same village in Guizhou but who work in different locations on China’s coast, who recently formed an “association” to support their home village.[3] Most funds from migrant labor are remitted directly to family members and do not contribute to village services like education and health care. Nevertheless, the example illustrates the Overseas Chinese-like role that migrant labor plays. To become a member of the association, each worker must agree to do three things: First, learn one skill he or she can share with fellow-villagers; second, provide at least one piece of information to the village regarding work conditions on the coast; and, third, provide an annual donation to the village.

The contribution made by migrant labor to their home villages is, therefore, not just monetary. Several migrant laborers told me, as we traveled down the tracks, that beyond the funds remitted home, they believe their role is to open their family’s minds to new ways of doing things and try to keep their village from being satisfied with simply having enough clothes to wear and food to eat. In fact, many migrant laborers, after a few years of “eating bitterness” on the coast, wake up to realize that they could be their own boss back home, using the skills they have learned.


  1. ^ Kam Wing Chan, “Recent Migration in China: Patterns, Trends, and Policies.” Asian Perspective 25, no. 4 (2001): 141-51.
  2. ^ Ezra F. Vogel, One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong under Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 125-60.
  3. ^ Guizhou jingji ribao (Guizhou Economic Daily), February 5, 1998.

Image credit: Chinese train, “hard seat” class at 07:13 AM by Harald Groven via Flickr

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Daniel Wright

Daniel Wright is the director, Washington, DC Office of The National Bureau of Asian Research and author of The Promise of the Revolution: Stories of Struggle and Fulfillment from China's Hinterland. He may be reached at <>.View Full Bio