China's Young Rural-to-Urban Migrants: In Search of Fortune, Happiness, and Independence
By Xiaochu Hu
George Mason University
Photographer Adrian Fisk journeyed to China to ask one question: What do Chinese youth think about life? Above: Hu Lin Shuan, a 27-year-old migrant working in a hotel in Shanghai, holds a sign that reads “Living here I feel frustrated.” See more photos here.
In 2009, there were 145 million rural-urban migrants in China, accounting for about 11 percent of the total population. Among them, an estimated 85 million to 100 million were born after 1980 — a period when three distinct government policies converged to shape the circumstances for increased rural-to-urban migration within China.
After its introduction in 1979, the controversial One Child Policy, which promoted late marriage and delayed child bearing and limited the number of children born in rural families to 1.5 (two for a first-born girl, otherwise one), was firmly implemented and shifted the vast rural China household structure — and thus, agricultural workforce — dramatically to fewer children.
Then in the mid-1980s, the Hukou System — a residence registration system devised in the 1950s to record and control internal migration and which ultimately hindered rural-to-urban movements — began to loosen in response to the demands of both the market and rural residents wishing to seek greater economic opportunity in cities.
At the same time, China's "Reform and Open" economic policy was already on track for creating unprecedented growth and ultimately resulted in a booming economy with increased incomes across China and large foreign investments directed to the manufacturing industry in Eastern urban areas. Slower income growth for rural families, increased demand for cheap labor in China's new manufacturing sector, and booming development that encroached on rural lands pushed a large amount of rural surplus labor to the cities.
These young rural-urban migrants are referred to as "new-generation" migrants, and this population is becoming the driving force behind China's migrant labor.
According to a recent report by the China National Bureau of Statistics, 44.4 percent of new-generation migrant workers are employed in the manufacturing industry compared to 31.5 percent of the previous generation. Construction, which was traditionally the primary magnet for rural-urban migrants, now draws just 9.8 percent of new-generation workers compared to 27.8 percent of the previous generation.
New-generation migrants are young, lack experience in the agricultural sector as well as in city life, and face a variety of challenges. The National Bureau of Statistics report found that the first migrating age of migrants born between 1980 and 1990 is 21.1, while the age for those who were born after 1990 is 17.2 — considerably younger. Having migrated after limited years of schooling, migrants face high pressure from work, low satisfaction in terms of their wages, unsure self-identification (villager or citizen), and an overall lack of happiness.
The tragic string of 13 suicides in a factory owned by one of China's largest employers of rural migrant workers, Taiwanese-owned Foxconn Technology Group, in Shenzhen City brought the challenges of these new-generation migrants into focus. There are also indications that young migrant workers are at a greater risk for falling victim to crime, and may have higher rates of participation in crime. In 2010, for example, it was estimated that about one-third of urban crimes were related in some way to new-generation migrants.
There is still much to learn about this cohort of rural-urban migrants. They may have more individualistic goals and higher expectations than the previous generation, and thus might demonstrate different migrating patterns, particularly in terms of their motivations for migrating, choice of jobs, socioeconomic integration in cities, and their go-return patterns. This article explores some of these issues by analyzing recently collected survey data.
The subsequent analysis is based on surveys conducted in December 2006 and February 2007 by the author and a fieldwork team from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University and Jinan University in Guangzhou. A total of 200 in-depth interviews with randomly selected migrant workers in Guangzhou and the rural areas of Bozhou (while the migrants were home for Spring Festival) were conducted, 86 of which were with new-generation migrants born after 1980.
Guangzhou was chosen because it is a major labor-receiving city in southern China. Bozhou is on the border of Anhui and Henan Provinces, both of which are among the most heavily populated labor-sending provinces in central China.
China's rural-to-urban population movement is largely viewed as a response to the economic reform, and better employment opportunities in destination cities have generally been the main determinant in the decision to migrate. For new-generation migrants, economic motivation is still unquestionably the primary motivation behind their movements.
In our survey, however, we asked an open-ended question to ascertain the motivation behind respondents' migration and attempted to discern primary and secondary reasons.
Primary Migration Motivation: "Why I left the Village"
In the interviews, we asked each of the migrant workers the question of why they first decided to migrate out of the village. Instead of having been pushed by harsh economic times in the village, it turns out many were pulled by opportunity and the excitement of city life.
Interestingly, being tired of school was one of the most frequent answers to the primary migration motivation question, surpassing economic reasons. Many of our interviewees expressed little interest in school and did not complete their compulsory nine years of education before migrating. A secondary reason emerged, however, for not finishing school: the inability or unwillingness to pay for schooling when job opportunities in cities became available. After dropping out, the Chinese school enrollment structure all but precludes youth from going back to school and continuing their education where they left off.
Attending a skills training school thus becomes a very important path for migrant workers who want to improve their professional knowledge and skills. The most popular training schools migrants attend are for computer, technology, sewing, construction, and beauty. Some factories provide on-the-job training for some unique techniques, such as operating a computer-assisted sewing machine. Sometimes training schools and firms cooperate to educate and then provide employment for rural students.
Many interviewees also mentioned the attraction of city life, broadcast as exceptional and exotic by both earlier migrants returning to the village and the media, as a primary motivator in their decision to migrate. A related motivator is the desire for material things and luxury items available only to urban workers. We found throughout our interviews that these two considerations, coupled with uncertainty regarding academic investment (despite relative achievement), prompted many youth to migrate while especially young.
Quite a few of the younger migrants also shared the sentiment of wanting to migrate "for fun" or to "explore the world." Some emphasized their curiosity or their boredom with village life, while others noted the pursuit of freedom from their parents, an expected career, or an arranged marriage.
Secondary Migration Motivation: "Why I Changed Jobs or Cities"
We asked respondents to reconstruct their migration history and explain why they chose each job or decided to move to a new location. As with first migration motivations, we found that the motivations behind the secondary migrations were complex and consisted of a variety of noneconomic reasons.
The major noneconomic reasons for changing jobs included harsh or unfair treatment by management, being overworked with insufficient pay, a desire to learn more skills and techniques, and for individual development. Consistent with the overall mindset of new-generation migrants, however, respondents in our study also cited fun, being with friends, and being bored with the status quo as additional reasons to relocate.
For many years, rural-to-urban migration was associated with a tolerance of any task work: Migrants never complained about poor or unfair treatment. With new-generation migrants, however, this characterization is far from reality. Since life in the villages has been generally improved in most places and land has become increasingly scarce, the only child (or one of the only two children) of a rural family is no longer used to heavy agricultural work at home. As a result, they tend to choose light labor jobs, are highly preferential in the work they choose, and are more likely to switch jobs if they feel they are being treated too harshly.
For rural-urban migrants who are under economic pressure, it is a luxury to pursue the career in which they are really interested. But some of today's young migrants are doing just that. We found that new-generation migrants often use their first job as a bridge to their second: They gain experience, save money for additional training, and make contacts in order to build or work toward career goals. Some also reported using second and third jobs in much the same way.
Meanwhile, young migrants who relocate for fun or freedom put more emphasis on their personal lives, leisure time, the balance between work and play, and their right to enjoy life.
Patterns of Social Migration
After months of interviewing new-generation rural-urban migrants, I generated four representative social migration patterns these youth generally follow based on their educational attainment, job-hunting methods, social network usage, remittance behavior, and reasons for relocation: Career Builder, Family Helper, Emotional Explorer, and Lost Follower.
As shown in Figure 1 (below), each vector is labeled with four or five migration characteristics. The opposite directions represent two extreme behaviors of one characteristic, and each pattern is defined in a separate quarter. Two patterns that share the same direction of vector share the characteristics on that vector. For example, a typical Career Builder and a typical Emotional Explorer both tend to have a higher education level or are better at using training (same features), while a typical Career Builder tends to remit or save more in direct contrast with the tendencies of Emotional Explorers.
Theoretically, this quartered model divides the young migrant population into four mutually exclusive types. However, the division is only suggestive, since young migrants change their social migration patterns as they become more mature.
Career Builders usually operate independently in their job-seeking process, often have achieved a relatively high level of education, are able to quickly and consciously gather professional knowledge and skills during their migration process to promote their career development, and tend to stay within the same business. They also tend to remit with greater frequency and are able to shoulder more of the family's financial burdens.
The Career Builder is the core type because he or she is already aware of the social ladder and is prepared to grasp the opportunities that present themselves. This type of migrant is the most efficient group as career managers. They are of special interest to policymakers in China, because they are seen as the potential elite group stuck in the bottom of China's rural-urban binary societal structure.
The Family Helper group mostly inherits the traits of the traditional Chinese rural-urban migrants who send home every cent they save and lead a hard life in the city. The chief concern of these migrants is their family members in the village. Since economic motivation is the primary reason for Family Helper migrants to move to the city, earning, saving, and remitting cash is their main behavior.
Most migrants of this type prefer a relatively stable working environment, like a factory job, and they usually migrate together with somebody they already know. They relocate only to earn a higher salary or to attain better working conditions. Switching jobs or cities after the Chinese New Year (also called Spring Festival in China), which is January 23 this year, is a very common pattern found among Family Helpers. In fact, tens of millions of rural migrants leave the cities each year in the weeks surrounding Spring Festival to return to their home villages. During the 2009 holiday, a total of 70 million migrant workers participated in this mass migration — about half of China's migrant workers. Employers will usually liquidate their payment before the end of the lunar year, and migrants returning home for the holiday will exchange information and decide where to go the following year.
Family Helper migrants are not necessarily the main bread earners of the family (though some certainly are), but their employment and life in the city are often heavily dependent on the financial situation of the family back home. Migrants with extremely heavy family burdens will usually have to tread a fine line between legal and illegal activities, and many work more than one job in order to remit as much as possible.
Some migrants show a hybrid remittance behavior, which can be placed between those of Career Builder and Family Helper: Their remittances are saved by their parents for the migrant's future use, such as for his or her marriage or to fund postmigration life.
Emotional Explorers occupy the quadrant opposite of Family Helpers because their behavior is vastly different. They often resemble the prototype of the one-child generation, which is typically described as spoiled and egotistical.
Respondents classified in this group often explained that they seldom or never remitted funds to their families and even found that their salaries were not sufficient for sustaining the urban lifestyle they desired. Their motivations for relocating cities or workplaces were often in the realm of the emotional, either for fun, to alleviate boredom, or to follow friends or a love interest. Compared to Family Helpers, who change jobs more rhythmically (around Chinese New Year, for example), Emotional Explorers change jobs more randomly — though we see little planning in both types of migrants. Thus, Emotional Explorers' migration patterns and attitudes towards life and relationships seem to diverge from traditional Chinese rural-urban migrants' values.
Fewer new-generation migrants from the study fell into the category of Lost Follower, and those who did were likely too young to have yet developed into any of the other three patterns. Lost Followers commonly follow relatives or friends when they migrate. When young migrants are not well-prepared, are not knowledgeable enough to protect themselves, and are not under the umbrella of their relatives or friends, their migration journeys can become dangerous.
Migrants in this category may be illiterate or innumerate, might lack identification documents, may not have enough built-up experience to guide them, and may not know where to turn when they get into trouble. This makes them especially vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation, abuse, victimization by criminals, and engaging in crime themselves.
This helps to explain the high rate of urban crimes associated with this new generation of rural-urban migrants, along with "discrimination, limited accessibility to occupational and educational opportunities, disparity in economic and politics, absence of social protection and welfare, and cultural and psychological shock when moving to the city," as the Chinese Academy of Social Science has pointed out.
We found that most of the young migrants’ spouses or fiancés were from the same hometown or province. The strategies used by migrants within certain categories to find jobs and partners share some similarities: Most of those who found partners across regions were classified as Career Builders or Emotional Explorers, who also tend to depend on themselves or the market more when finding jobs and housing in the city. Family Helpers, on the other hand, turn to their village network much more frequently.
The Transition from One Social Pattern to Another, and Back Again
Theoretically, the four types of new-generation migrants are exclusive, but since people and environments change, it is highly possible that one could transfer from one type to another with age and migration experience. There were many examples in the survey data of Lost Followers growing into Family Helpers who are able remit on a regular basis, of Family Helpers growing restless and transitioning to Emotional Explorers, and of those who spend enough time as Emotional Explorers beginning to settle down and work toward becoming a Career Builder.
We also see that some new-generation migrants have already completed the full rural-urban migration cycle of leaving the village, following others, helping family, exploring the wide world, building their career, returning home, and getting married. One may even repeat all or part of this cycle again, as the migration journey does not stop when a migrant returns to the village. Once a migrant gets married and has children, he or she may well decide to move to the city again. Research suggests that, as a migrant's role within their family changes, so too will their migration motivations, destinations, and patterns.
Xiaochu Hu is a PhD student and research assistant at George Mason University, with research concentrations in migration policy and regional economic development. Among her other research interests, Ms. Hu has headed up field research on rural-urban migration in many cities and rural areas throughout China and has presented her research at both national and international conferences.
This article is based on a larger work, "China's 'New Generation' Rural-Urban Migrants: Migration Motivation and Migration Patterns," the full text of which is Available Online. The original article includes a more in-depth discussion of the research findings than that which is presented here.
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