All posts by Ellie Wong

Chinese migrants: Stuck in the middle

China is a nation on the move. 211 million rural migrants[1] – roughly equal to the population of Indonesia – have moved into its cities in search of a ticket of the poverty of the countryside. It is the largest migration movement in human history.

According to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, China is indebted to the liudongrenkou, or ‘floating population’, for its unprecedented economic growth and the skyscrapers that dominate urban skylines[2]. Yet, what is life really like for the workers of the world’s biggest factory?

Migrants: A force for development

“Rural migrant workers are the main army of the contemporary Chinese industrial workforce … The government and all parts of society should treat young migrant workers as they would treat their own children ”   (Chinese Premier WenJiabao, June 2010)[3]

Since the start of reform and opening up in 1978, China’s shift from a planned economy to a burgeoning labour market has seen millions of rural migrants leave their farmland to come and work in the factories have spurred China’s unprecedented economic growth.

The success of international trade and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), particularly from manufacturing in former Special Economic Zones’ in the coastal eastern regions, has been driven by China’s cheap labour force, which has knocked out competitors in the global marketplace.

Forming the bulk of this labour force, China’s rural migrants have made a played an important role in it’s spectacular growth story. According to Li Tie from the China Centre for Urban Development, they will be critical to sustaining China’s urbanization rate[4].

Migrants also play a significant role in the reduction of poverty in rural areas. Since 1974 China has seen a decline in the poverty rate from 64% at the beginning of reform to 10% in 2004[5]. Today, 80% of rural income in China from the labour of rural migrants[6].

The idea that migrants can be a force for development is nothing new. According to prominent Canadian-American economist and Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith back in 1979, “Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those that want it most. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they came. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?”[7]


Stuck in the middle of the rural-urban divide?


Despite the acknowledged contribution of migrants to the national economy, many commentators argue that the liudongrenkou are second-class citizens in their own country. This is largely due to hukou, or housing registration system, which limits migrants’ access to basic public services in urban areas.

In March of this year 13 Chinese newspapers made a bold statement on the hukou and the rights of migrants in China before it was quickly retracted. They said:

“We believe people are born free and should have the right to migrate freely, but citizens are still troubled by bad policies born in the era of the planned economy and [now] unsuitable.”[8]

Introduced in the 1950s, hukou system distinguishes China’s internal migrant situation from the rest of the world. While urbanisation in Europe led to rural migrants settling permanently in its cities, China’s internal migrants occupy a murky space somewhere between the rural and the urban.

According to the system, the whole of China is zoned as either rural or urban. Liudongrenkou with a rural hukou cannot apply for an urban one and all the benefits that come with it, including access to public schools, social security, public housing and health insurance.

There have been some reforms to the hukou system in recent years, but these have been limited only benefitting the better-educated highly skilled migrants who have been able to successfully apply for urban housing status.

Adding another layer of complexity to the issue, according to the Chinese constitution, rural land is collectively owned[9]. In contrast to urban areas where there are land usage rights, rural migrants are unable to legally to sell or mortgage their land for commercial use– although this is sometimes done illegally. The result?

Migrants who live outside their official place of residence for more than six months often have one foot planted in their rural hometowns and the other in the city that they work in. ‘Floating’ between the urban and the rural, they might have land, children or partners in their hometowns and seasonal or semi-permanent work cities half way across the country.

Although the central government has publicly recognised the need to address these issues, it appears that arguments against abolishing the hukou namely the fear of ‘floods’ of migrants descending on China’s cities and the significant costs of services needed to accommodate them – are holding strong. There is also the argument that the hukou system also allows the government to better keep track of its population.

Other more cynical points of view cite vested interests of those who benefit from the fees rural migrants have to pay for private housing, education and health services. In any case, in order to address the issue, the government hopes to encourage rural migrants to move to smaller cities in their own provinces[10].

Denied access to basic public services


As a result of the hukou system migrant workers are forced to pay for basic public services out of their own pocket. The problem is many can’t reach deep enough.

Over the past three decades, there has been a process of fiscal and administrative decentralisation whereby responsibility for health and education has been increasingly given to local authorities rather than the central government. With decentralisation has come the rise of a user-pays system in two critical areas: education and health.

Migrant education: miscellaneous fees

According to the Right to Education (2006), “The process of decentralization has imposed the obligation to finance schooling upon local authorities without ensuring that they have resources corresponding to their educational responsibilities”. It is the poorest provinces whose governments are least able to afford quality education services for its populations.

Although primary education is free under the Constitution, a loophole in the 1995 Education Law enables so-called ‘miscellaneous fees’ to be levied under relevant regulations of the state[11]. These so-called ‘miscellaneous fees’ include exam-paper fees, reading room permit charges, desk fees and homework-correcting fees.

What does mean for the children of migrants? In their hometowns parents might have to pay fees because local authorities might not have adequate resources. According to The Guardian, there are as many as $58 million children left behind in the countryside in the care of relatives[12].

In the cities migrant children face another dilemma. As state schools receive no funding for migrants students, they often claim to be full or charge fees that many parents cannot afford. According to the Friends of Migrant Workers group, some schools charge illicit “donations” up to CYN 6,000 (AUS $1000) a term[13]. While the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based group campaigning for workers’ rights, estimates that about 6% of migrant children have never attended school[14].

Migrant healthcare: high and dry

The situation for healthcare offers a similar picture. According to a 2008 survey of 101,000 households in 5000 communities, healthcare has become Chinese people’s number priority[15].

Yet, health financing has been decentralised to the lowest level, which has led to a rise in out of pocket payments. According to one study, households are spending 18 times what they were in 2001 with the average cost of a single hospital admission equal to China’s annual income per head[16].

Another cause for concern is insurance. In the countryside, rural migrants are covered by the Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme. However, the coverage provided is relatively limited, in relation to the service benefit package and financial protection. When they move to the cities, unlike urban residents, rural migrants will not be covered by any insurance program.

These policies have contributed to alarming social outcomes. The United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA), have identified migrant youth as a group in urgent need of better sexual and reproductive healthcare services[17]. Furthermore, there are now fears that HIV-infected migrants will act as an ‘epidemiological bridge’ infecting their partners and therefore children living in the countryside.

This trend can be linked to the fact that while the government covers expenses relating to birth control, patients shoulder reproductive health care costs. These high costs, limited access to sexual and reproductive information, and increased likelihood of risky sexual behaviours like multiple partners, place migrants at heightened risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

A way forward?


Around the world both internal and external migrants are goinng through experiences similar to Chinese migrants.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  recently released a report on the world’s 211 million international migrants where there is a trend across countries to deny migrants access to education, health and social security through discrimatory laws and policies. OHCHR argues that legislative and policy change guided by a human rights approach will be key to the protection of migrant rights.

Adopting such an approach would be of significant value to China. The current situation where Chinese cities do not want to accept or include migrants in their urban populations urgently needs to change. Yet, this will be anything but easy and, more probably, a tediously slow and gradual process. This is because protecting migrant rights requires the overhaul of some of the country’s most deeply entrenched policies: the hukou and the land rights system.

Rural migrants will need to become visible in government budgets and city-level government with other priorities need to summon the political will to allocate the resources necessary for ensuring the public goods of health and education. Following this, comprehensive policy and centered on migrant rights will need to be formulated and implemented.

Providing for  liudongrenkou equal to the population of Indonesia will be an enormous undertaking for government, civil society and the country’s international presence.

But, after all, China is on the move and those pushing it forward shouldn’t have to be stuck in the middle for much longer.



[1] ‘Set up and improve statistical and monitoring system for the whole population floating population’, Population Today, Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 33.

[2] ‘China PM praises migrants but makes no promises on pay’. (2010). BBC website. June 15 [online]. Available at:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Li, T. (2010) ‘Development Strategy for Cities and Urbanization in China’, Presentation at the International Symposium of Migration and Urbanization. Beijing: International Organization of Migration, National Population and Family Planning Commission.

[5] Dollar, D.  (2007). ‘Poverty, inequality and social disparities during China’s economic reform’. US-China Institute website [online]. Available at:

[6] Niu, W. (2010). ‘Transition of Economic Development Mode and Population Flow in China’, Presentation at the International Symposium of Migration and Urbanization. Beijing: International Organization of Migration, National Population and Family Planning Commission.

[7] Galbraith, J, K. (1979). The Nature of Mass Poverty.  Harvard University Press.

[8] ‘Chinese newspapers in joint call to end curb on migrant workers’. (2010). guardian. [online].Available at:

[9] Yamaguchi, Y. Shinya, M. (2006). Affordable Housing for Rural Migrant Workers in Urban China. East Asia Social Policy [online]. Available at:

[10] ‘Chinese newspapers in joint call to end curb on migrant workers’. (2010). guardian. [online].Available at:

[11] ‘National law and policies on fee or for free – China’, The Right to Education [online], Available at:

[12] Millions of Chinese rural migrants denied education for their children’. (2010). guardian. [online].Available at:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hu, S. Tang,S. Liu, Y. Zhao, Y. Escobar, M, L. de Ferrant, Di. (2008). ‘Reform of how health care is paid for in China: challenges and opportunities’. The Lancet, Vol. 372, p. 1846.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Youth migrants need improved access to sexual and reproductive health’, UNFPA website, 7 April 2010 [online], Available at:;jsessionid=4D09473FBE8BEB73BF7C309A38CEBD8E