(October 2002) Despite the restrictions and economic penalties associated with migration in China, large numbers of rural Chinese are leaving their villages for cities and coastal provinces, and many more will likely do so now that China is a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

WTO membership, which took effect in December 2001, is expected to accelerate China's transformation into a major magnet for foreign investors eager to take advantage of low wages and a relatively well-educated and disciplined workforce. At the same time, a restructured economy means lower import barriers, reduced subsidies for farmers, privatization and streamlining of giant state enterprises, and a likelihood of increasing unemployment.

Analysts expect that these changes could see an increase in China's already massive "floating" population — the millions of rural people who flock to urban centers where they are not registered to live.

"Freer trade is expected to increase foreign investment in China, creating jobs in factories, but it also may speed up the movement off the land as cheaper farm products enter China," write Philip Martin and Jonas Widgren in "International Migration: Facing the Challenge," a report by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

Numbers for China's internal migrants vary. But PRB reports that an estimated 130 million Chinese — roughly the equivalent of the entire Bangladeshi population — were living away from places in which they were registered in mid-2001.

The migrants tend to be people between the ages of 20 and 35 who have average or above-average incomes, compared with others in their hometowns, according to Daniel Goodkind and Loraine A. West of the U.S. Census Bureau. As with international immigrants, these internal travelers are subject to demand-pull, supply-push, and other factors.

Writing in Urban Studies, a journal published by the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Goodkind and West note that the migrants generally move from rural areas to cities, with rural laborers going from central and western regions to parts of the east coast for work in township and village enterprises and low-skilled city jobs.

Dire conditions and few jobs in villages prompt the rural exodus.

"In villages across central and southern China, incomes have stagnated," according to an April 2001 New York Times article by Erik Eckholm. "Most young people migrate to coastal cities to perform menial jobs, and local governments are so short of money that officials and teachers often go unpaid for months at a time."

As succession to the WTO and integration of China into the world economy increase the potential for the exodus of labor out of agriculture, growth in labor-intensive sectors and low-skilled jobs will be key, say Goodkind and West. In their forthcoming article, "China's Floating Population: Definitions, Data and Recent Findings," they note that while some workers will find new employment in rural areas, cities are likely to continue to attract many rural laborers.

Home to more than 20 percent of the world's 6 billion people, China, the world's most populous nation, is a poor and predominantly rural country with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of US$800 in 1999, compared with US$31,000 in the United States. The 800 million Chinese living in rural villages are much poorer than the 500 million people in the cities.

China restricts movement within the country, however. The country introduced a household registration system in the 1950s, listing everyone in a specific location, usually their place of birth. It is difficult for rural migrants to obtain housing, education, and government services outside the area where they are registered. Male migrants are often employed in construction, while female migrants often find jobs in factories. Migrants in coastal areas earn US$2 to US$3 a day, far more than they could earn farming, says PRB.

Also, even though the country's household registration system was relaxed in 1994, conditions for internal migrants remain difficult. Goodkind and West point out that though migrant workers, like permanent residents, contribute to local economy, their rights are hardly ever enforced, and they are often cheated out of their pay. Many are also subject to police harassment. Those without correct registration papers can be sentenced to three- to six-month terms of work in prison factories.

While those wishing to change their household registration may seek permission to do so, most migrants cannot afford city work permits, which can cost from US$6,000 to US$12,000. They maintain their links to their villages, in part out of fear that they may be forced back to the countryside, says PRB.

Some major cities are concerned with keeping the growth rates of both their permanent residents and their migrant population. For its part, Beijing aims to keep its nonresident population who stay more than six months to below 2.3 million by 2010. That population now numbers 1.47 million, according to Goodkind and West.

For More Information 

Daniel Goodkind and Loraine A. West, "China's Floating Population: Definitions, Data and Recent Findings," Urban Studies 39, no. 12 (2002 forthcoming).

Philip Martin and Jonas Widgren, "International Migration: Facing the Challenge," Population Bulletin 57, no. 1 (2002) (PDF).