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Work and Mobility: Recent Labour Migration Issues in China - Working Paper 6
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Asia Pacific Migration Research Network
Working Paper No. 6

Work and Mobility:
Recent Labour Migration
Issues in China

Edited by Stephen Fitzpatrick
Published by the APMRN Secretariat
Migration and Multicultural Program
Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies
University of Wollongong, Australia

ISSN 1328-2530
Copyright © 1999

Table of Contents


    1. Rural Migration and Rural Development: A Report on the Field Investigation of Eight Villages from Four Provinces in China
    Huang Ping et al 

    2. Looking for Non-Agricultural Opportunities: A Sociological Explanation of Rural-Urban Migration in Contemporary China
    Huang Ping, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 

    3. Migration Obstacles, Human Capital and the Mobility of a Rural Labour Force
    Cai Fang, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 

    4. Expanding with Congregating: Studies on Migrant Communities in Beijing
    Xiang Biao, Oxford University 

    5. Population of Shanghai Going Abroad for Business
    Lou Keren, East China Normal University 

    6. Migration Research Bibliography
    Ma Chunhua and Huang Ping, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


The papers in this volume were originally presented at a series of migration research workshops funded by the Japan Foundation in 1997 and 1998. The workshops were organised by members of the Asia Pacific Migration Research Network in the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and were held in a number of regions in China. The aim of the workshops was to bring together migration researchers and officials, identify key issues in migration and ethnic relations and develop priorities for research. This volume is one output of the workshops.

The first paper in this collection is both a methodological outline and an interpretation of data gathered during a five-month survey of migration patterns in eight villages from four provinces in China.

Huang Ping and colleagues have begun to explore the ways that rural-urban migration is changing both demographic structures and also cultural expectations and awareness in China. Their five-month survey concentrates on economic and social causes of migration, with an emphasis on how gender, educational levels and economic factors contribute to people's decisions to migrate.

They find that for many rural Chinese, migration is not always an all-or-nothing decision. While the concept of 'floating labour' has often been invoked to describe the situation of the newly 'rootless' labourer, many of the subjects of this study in fact identify with particular regions and industries, even regularly travelling between their selected migration areas and their home villages.

This paper has a particular focus on gender differences in motives for migration, and examines how this might be implicated in certain of the impacts of migration. It also raises some of the possibilities of how migration has economic, social and cultural effects on people's home villages.

Huang Ping, in the second paper, explores why the number of Chinese workers leaving agricultural production and/or migrating from rural to urban areas is on the increase. He argues that sociological approaches which privilege either structural impulses or individual agency in an attempt to explain questions such as this cannot in themselves explain the ways migration decisions are made. He sees elements of both positions at work in the process, and invokes Anthony Giddens' idea of 'structuration', to back his argument.

Giddens proposes that "the constitution of agents and structures are not two independently given sets of phenomena, a dualism, but represent a duality" in which agent and structure impact on each other, often in unintended and unpredictable ways. Thus, villagers need to have institutional opportunities for migration in order to migrate, but they must also have the desire to do so and they must have certain expectations on which to base their decisions. Further, Huang Ping points out, they will learn over time "not only to appropriate and rationalise their motivations and purposes, but also ... to re-adjust their previous aims and ... make some changes in their motivations, actions and ... themselves".

Cai Fang uses data from a survey of 1500 rural-urban migrants in Jinan City, Shandong Province to explore how what he describes as a traditional reluctance to migrate from ancestral lands has been overcome by growing numbers of rural Chinese. In fact, he explains, there are still many barriers to successful rural-urban migration, including limited urban resources for migrants - especially in the area of welfare provision - the cultural impact of the HuKou system of registered permanent residence and the 'land bondage' system which creates greater attachments to the land for many rural Chinese than is often the case in other countries experiencing high rates of rural-urban migration.

Fang is concerned to explore which 'push' and 'pull' forces appear to have the greatest impact on people's decisions to migrate. One of the key factors in how these forces are assessed, he argues, is to see that labour migration in China is not just about physical relocation but is more often about a division of labour amongst family members: "It is a decision about who should stay home farming and who go out earning wages, and this decision is supposed to be made on rational justifications ... so as to maximise the household's expected gains."

Xiang Biao's analysis of the formation of various 'ethnic enclaves' in Beijing challenges the notion that migrant communities rely on isolation for their cohesion. That is, he finds that Beijing migrant communities tend to have greater internal cohesion as their interaction with the outside world increases. The city's Zhejiang Village, which he describes as having the greatest degree of cohesion, has strong links - through garment production and marketing - throughout China and as far west as Eastern Europe. Beijing's Anhui village, on the other hand, whose inhabitants specialise in vegetable selling, piece work and domestic services, has its greatest links in areas near the community and also has the loosest internal cohesion.

Xiang Biao also notes that the notion of 'floating population' needs to be rethought in the Chinese rural-urban migration context, since not all rural-urban migrants are surplus labourers - many, in fact, take with them to their new areas capital, technology and information, not just labour - and many have enough economic power to actually change institutional arrangements in the areas to which they move.

Finally, Lou Keren's examination of data on the number of Shanghai workers going abroad for business each year provides confirmation that China's opening up and reform process is producing viable results, with youth increasingly providing the bulk of China's economic and cultural links with the rest of the world. This sector of the Shanghai out-migrating population has also featured rapidly increasing educational levels in recent years.

However, Keren finds that if Shanghai - and, more broadly, China - is to profit from this increase in the "golden age" of the early 21st century, it also must position itself as being able to provide support for these people. This support, according to his survey, must cover areas such as assistance with visas, help with guarding basic rights and recognition of achievements in people's new countries.

The collection ends with an extensive bibliography, compiled by Ma Chunhua and Huang Ping, which will be of great use in allowing APMRN members and others to progress in a field which will continue to yield important data and opportunities for further research.

For more information, please contact:

    APMRN Secretariat
    Migration & Multicultural Studies
    Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies
    University of Wollongong
    Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, NSW 2522
    Telephone: +61 (02) 42 213 780
    Fax: +61 (02) 42 286 313
    E-mail: apmrn@uow.edu.au
    On Internet: http://www.capstrans.edu.au/apmrn/

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