During the past 30 years of breakneck economic growth, China has seen its population urbanize rapidly. Between 1990 and the end of 2015 the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas jumped from 26 percent to 56 percent, and there are currently estimated to be more than 200 million rural migrants working in China’s biggest cities.
The majority of migration to China’s cities has, so far, been temporary rather than permanent – migrants have mostly headed to bigger cities with a plan to work there for one or two decades before returning to their hometown later in life.
Much of their motivation for doing so stems from China’s system of household registration — the hukou – which links people’s receipt of state welfare to their place of birth. People can only get state-subsidized access to most areas of government assistance – including education and healthcare – in their home province, where their hukou is registered. If they move elsewhere, they must either transfer their hukou to their new home or else pay a premium to access these services.
Many temporary migrants are unwilling to undergo the laborious process of swapping their hometown hukou for an urban one, a process which would involve them forfeiting land rights in their hometown. Many more are unable to do so, obstructed by eligibility criteria they will likely never meet. The result of this is that the vast majority of migrants, burdened with a precarious residence status and inflated cost of living, make a plan to save what they can before eventually leaving the city.
This pattern may well be set for considerable change as China’s next generation of migrants reaches adulthood. Among China’s migrant population are an estimated 19 million children under the age of 18, just over 6 percent of all China’s children. These children tend to either have been born in the city their parents work in or to have moved there with their parents at a very young age. As such, they know little to nothing of their parents’ hometowns; many of them consider the city their home, and are significantly more likely than their parents to want to settle there permanently.
However, even if they are born in the city their parents live in they are still only eligible for the same hukou as their parents. A child born in Beijing to migrant parents will only be eligible for a Beijing hukou if their parents have one – if not, they will inherit the same hukou that their parents have and will have the same legal residence status as any other migrant worker.
This means that upon finishing school these children will find themselves looking for work in a city which they are eager to stay in, but where they face an uphill battle to find a secure foothold. Most are the children of low-skilled parents who migrated to the city outside of official channels, and so lack the legal basis or connections to compete for work on an even footing with urban natives. Many might be left with no choice but to take up the same low-skilled jobs as their parents, in which they would likely never be able to accrue the paperwork and capital necessary to transfer their hukou to the city.
My own research with migrant schoolchildren in Beijing found evidence of the existence of just such a generation. The 700 children I surveyed in 2015 overwhelmingly stated that they liked Beijing and felt a greater affinity for it than their parents’ hometowns. Most wanted to stay, but only those who planned to pursue the same line of work as their parents (and therefore had the contacts to help them get set up) felt it was likely they would be able to do so. For many, remaining in Beijing was a dream they were unsure (or significantly doubted) they would be able to realize.
Left unaddressed, the risk is that China’s cities find themselves host to a steadily growing number of displaced young adults, unwilling to live with the outsider status their parents accepted but unable to shake it off. For a while now, a system stacked against migrants has risked slowing China’s urbanization and, through higher living costs for migrants, dampening consumption; as the new generation of migrants grows up, it may start to undermine social stability as well.
Aware of the need to better integrate rural migrants into the cities, the government is already putting in place plans to give 100 million migrant workers urban hukou by the year 2020. It would make sense to weight distribution of these hukou toward younger migrants, who want them the most. The central government also last year announced reforms to replace temporary residence permits with permanent resident permits – this will give migrant workers much better residency and social welfare access rights, although safeguards for their children to inherit their rights are not currently included. These steps indicate that the central government is aware of the problem and willing to act.
Giving migrants workers (and their children) a more secure foothold in the cities they reside in is just one of the issues that needs addressing, though. For the migrant population to become fully integrated into urban society, the effective segregation of migrants and urban natives in many areas of life will also need to be addressed. Many migrant children are funneled into schools populated entirely with other migrant children – this perpetuates migrants’ perceptions of themselves as outsiders while also denying urban native children the opportunity to mix with the children of migrants. Desegregation could both help migrants feel more included and also help challenge the prevailing culture of antipathy toward rural migration among natives of China’s biggest cities.
Chinese educational laws also require students to sit their gaokao – post-high school exam – in the province their hukou is registered to. Young migrants who want to sit the gaokao therefore find themselves compelled to leave the city for several years at the end of their high school education, in order to have enough time to acclimatize to the local curriculum in their old hometowns before sitting their exams. This adds another barrier to migrant children’s urban residency that wouldn’t exist if these children were able to remain in the city for the duration of their gaokao preparations. Gaokao reform may also eventually become necessary.
Change won’t come overnight. Greater integration of migrants into urban society faces resistance from the urban natives who stand to lose some of their privilege in any rebalancing, and many local governments lack the financial resources to change their welfare structures rapidly (efforts to abolish the rural-urban hukou distinction in 2002 failed for this reason). The central government has shown a willingness to act, but it will take more before China’s young migrants are able to realize full integration into their urban homes.
Peter Farrar received his BSc in Sociology at the University of Bath (U.K.) and Master in Public Policy at Peking University (China). He has worked as a government policy researcher and consultant in both Europe and China.