Migration and Movement of People

Internal migration

The internal ‘migration wave’ of rural people into China’s cities has been described as the greatest people movement in history. Controls of internal migration in China were somewhat eased in the 1980s following the end of collective agricultural practices. This encouraged many agricultural workers in south and east China to seek jobs in the quickly expanding cities and factories of China’s ‘Special Economic Zones’. By the year 2000 the number of rural-urban migrants had reached 100m. Over the past fifteen years this trend has extended to inland provinces. Chongqing, for example, has been described as China’s equivalent of Chicago, and has witnessed explosive population rise to 12 million people in 2008.

Motivations for rural-urban migration in China are numerous, including rural poverty, underemployment, aspirations for a different life, and China’s recent economic policies which have concentrated on urban industrialisation and manufacturing. The principle reason remains the surplus of around 300 million agricultural workers in China’s rural areas, thus young and middle aged men and women make up the vast bulk of those moving to the cities, frequently leaving young children and the elderly behind. Many rural authorities have encouraged their young people to move in order to relieve the stress of overpopulation and under-employment on marginal communities. The majority are temporary migrants, oscillating between their rural homes and the cities, according to their employment status. While in the cities many live in very basic accommodation provided by their employer or together with other migrants.

From around the year 2000, the Chinese government began to acknowledge the part that migrants play in China’s continuing economic boom – providing a supply of cheap and willing labour for factories, building sites and other manual tasks in China’s highly segmented urban market. However, the costs of this migration are becoming increasingly evident in China’s cities. Although there is officially a very low level of urban poverty in China, many migrant workers live in very substandard housing and have little access to health or education provision. Those who have moved illegally are frequently denied access to social services through the hukou registration system, while the sheer scale of urbanisation has meant many municipal authorities are struggling to match scarce resources to the needs of migrants. The implications of rapid urbanisation for consumption of fuel and water, let alone air, water and noise pollution in cities like Beijing and Lanzhou are a severe problem for local and national government. Migrant workers who are denied legal and social status in the cities also have little incentive to care for their urban environment. Such questions are beginning to be addressed as cities establish Legal Aid Stations for migrants, and new national legislation on working and employment conditions aims to prevent the systematic exploitation of these vulnerable people.

Urban Chinese churches are beginning to respond to the needs of internal migrants. In the past, urban churches chiefly supported development and poverty alleviation projects only in relatively remote, rural areas. However, some churches are now cooperating with NGOs like the YMCA, the Amity Foundation and Jinde Charities to support migrant workers and their families through providing schools, youth outreach projects, drop-in clinics and job agencies. Numerous churches have also established homes for the elderly, which help look after people left behind in an increasingly mobile society.


Travelling in China
© Churches Together in Britain and Ireland 2010