Over the last generation, the greatest wave of internal migration in human history has transformed China’s cities, and with it the global economy. Although estimates vary, studies report that up to a staggering 103 million urban migrants currently exist in China. This number could increase to 243 million by 2025 – catapulting the urban population to nearly 1 billion and dramatically shifting city demographics. Already, estimates show that migrant workers compose nearly 40% of Shanghai proper’s 23 million people.
Critics of Chinese migration, most notably from the West, have historically been plenty. These stem primarily from the Chinese government’s tendency to use the hukou system (a permanent residence registration system that dates back to ancient China) to restrict internal movement by denying rural migrants certain amenities within its coastal cities. For example, children born to rurally registered parents will themselves count as ‘rural’, even if their parents migrated years before and they were born in urban centers. Like their parents, their lack of a hukou for where they live will make it more difficult for them to get a driver’s license, or even purchase a house and car. Escaping this cycle is, for most, nearly impossible.
All evidence shows that these trends are unlikely to change anytime soon. One reason is that China’s growing factories still benefit by employing large numbers of cheap migrants – a supply that the current system guarantees. Another significant force is the cities’ lack of educational resources for non-locals. In Shanghai, migrant children are eligible to attend local primary and middle schools, but are denied access to high schools. In lieu, some of the smartest migrant children attend vocational, or trade, schools. Although Premier Wen Jiabao criticized the hukou system on March 5th of this year, promising that “migrant workers will become permanent urban residents in an orderly manner”, we all know how reliable these types of governmental promises are.
But here’s the catch: this year, for the first time in nearly three decades of rising coastal migration, studies show that the inland population is starting to work closer to home. This is a big change, and potentially a sign that recent floods of government investment in the Western interior are working. As inland cities like Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, improve their infrastructure, many Chinese firms have begun to transfer some manufacturing away from Eastern cities in search of cheaper operating costs. This price disparity reflects both initial signs of development in the West, as well as potential signs of “over-development” in the East, leading to wage costs above the developing country norm. Another potential cause is the recent, 2008-induced downturn in European demand for coastal produced exports.
For their part, provincial officials have begun what would have ten years been unthinkable: luring migrant workers home. The Chinese government recently abolished agricultural taxes and began subsidizing rural areas. In Chongqing, a photo was even published of policemen carrying bags for migrant workers who were returning home for the New Year holiday. As domestic demand begins to account for progressively larger shares of Chinese GDP each year, firms do not necessarily need to make their homes close to a port anymore. The result is a steady influx of new factories in the interior.
Some scholars associated with the Chinese Communist Party have argued that this pattern additionally reflects shifts in China’s socio-political infrastructure. For example, some have posited that this reaction represents China’s attempt to avoid the phenomenon of “Latin Americanization” – that is, “highly unequal megacities and their attendant crime, slums and social instability” (Wallace 2009). This might seem inconsistent with typical development patterns though, as emerging economies traditionally give preferential treatment to cities. Others have argued that this trend is merely the result of changing demographics within Chinese society: according to UN estimates, the number of 15-29 year olds in China peaked in 2011. This means that the population will only continue to age from this point onwards, reducing the supply of young workers even within the country’s innermost provinces.
Regardless of the reasons behind it, China’s new, changing patterns of migration will assuredly influence the country’s development profoundly over the next few years. Already since 2010, Chongqing has allotted full social benefits to nearly 3 million migrants who had previously been categorized as immigrants from the hinterlands. Chengdu has announced plans to repeal amenities-related barriers to migration within the next year. In this way, migrants in urban areas will be able to enjoy the same social benefits as registered city-dwellers. Access to urban schools in particular will allow them to bring their children with them, in place of the current practice of leaving them with grandparents or other relatives in the village.
Although these omens point to hope for China’s glaring regional imbalances, however, it remains to be seen how these added financial burdens will be carried by local governments. In 2011, many of China’s interior provincial areas reported GDP growth exceeding 15% (Chengdu reported a healthy 15.2%, while Chongqing clocked in at 16.4%). Once this growth slows down, will government officials display the same zeal for social reform? We’ll have to wait and see.