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Mapping rural labour migration in China

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In Brief

China’s rapid economic development and the government’s policy towards encouraging higher inter-regional labour mobility have led to a massive rural–urban labour force exodus since the mid-1980s.

The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics estimated the total number of rural migrants working in cities in 2011 at 158 million.


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The scale and pace of population movements confront the Chinese authorities with extremely challenging policy issues that call for a better understanding of the constraints to and motives of labour mobility.

Rural-to-urban migration has become a norm for rural households in China. In 2007, about one-half of rural households had at least one member working outside the home village. As part of their diversification strategy, rural households use migration as one of their main sources of income, with remittances accounting for about 21 per cent of total rural income and 43 per cent of migrant-sending households’ total income in 2007.

Many incentives can motivate households and individuals to migrate. Economists usually emphasise two sets of factors: ‘pull’ and ‘push’. The expected urban–rural income gap is considered the most important pull factor for the migration decision. Push factors typically include ex-ante risk management, ex-post risk coping or response to a surplus of rural labour driven by land constraints and population pressure.

Other factors affecting migration decisions are many and varied. Household income is a very important factor, and the poorest households are often incapable of participating in migrant labour markets. Land size and land-tenure insecurity also reduce migration. At the individual level, age, gender and marital status have been consistently found to play a significant role in migration decisions. Evidence for the role of education is mixed. Educated rural workers prefer to take non-farm work in the local area rather than migrate, but other findings are ambiguous. Migrant networks are another critical factor in migration decisions. Co-villagers help each other to reduce moving costs and find job opportunities at the destination.

In 2007, 19 per cent of sending households had at least one migrant member working in the local county seat, 30 per cent had at least one migrant member working outside the county within the province, and 44 per cent had at least one migrant member working outside the province.

Sixty per cent of migrant-sending households have at least one migrant member working outside the village for less than seven years, but summary statistics also indicate that 44 per cent have at least one migrant member outside the village for more than seven years. Numbers indicating the size of migration by duration confirm the higher incidence of short-run migration: migrant-sending households send on average 0.89 members for less than seven years and 0.61 members for seven years or more.

Sending households are usually significantly larger than non-sending households and have a higher share of adult males. The average migrant-sending household size is 4.4 persons against 3.5 for non-sending households, with 52 per cent adult males. They have fewer elderly members (0.15 on average, against 0.2 for non-sending households), but more children below the age of 16 (0.7 on average, against 0.64 for non-sending households).

An interesting feature is that the average land endowment per person is significantly lower for sending households, which have an average of 1.24 mu (or 0.08 hectares) per capita, compared with 1.46 mu (or 0.10 hectares) per capita for non-sending households. This significant difference could reflect both land shortages and labour surplus in migrant-sending households.

Summary statistics on household human capital show no significant difference between sending and non-sending households. The average age of the household head is slightly above 50 years and the education level of the household head is about 7.2 years of schooling. That is two years below the nine-year compulsory education system.

As for migration networks, the data show that 53.7 per cent of migrant-sending households have a family migration experience, whereas the share is only 8.6 per cent for non-sending households.

The incidence of migrant-sending households is significantly higher in both central and western provinces, which see a greater level of emigration than coastal provinces. Interestingly, access to an asphalt road is significantly higher for non-sending households than for sending households.

Better access to markets, which access to an asphalt road is a possible proxy for, lowers the probability of sending migrants to another province, while it increases the probability of sending migrants to the local county seat. In remote places, the only available means to diversify income-generating activities is to send migrants to cities, possibly far away, whereas in better-connected villages, sending migrants a short distance can be sufficient.

From a regional development perspective, our findings on the various modes of labour migration have a number of interesting implications. First, they confirm that migration is a reinforcing process. With migrant networks long-distance migration is facilitated, which contributes to the inter-provincial redistribution of the population.

Our finding that better access to local markets reduces migration also highlights another potentially important spatial issue. China is now experiencing a rapid rural labour exodus that could lead to the desertion of remote rural areas. A key challenge for the central government in coming years might be to find an efficient means of keeping remote areas alive and preventing a further agglomeration of people in a limited number of urban metropolises.

Sylvie Démurger is a researcher at the Centre for National Scientific Research (CNRS, France), GATE Lyon Saint-Etienne, University of Lyon

Sylvie Démurger’s research was presented at China Update 2012. The annual China Update conference is hosted by the China Economy Program in collaboration with the East Asia Forum at the ANU in July. This article is a digest of the author’s chapter in Huw McKay and Ligang Song (eds), Rebalancing and Sustaining Growth in China (ANU E Press, 2012), available in pdf here. This book is the latest publication in the China Update Book Series, launched at the China Update conference every year.

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