The Phenomenon of Internal Migration in China: Hukou and the Floating Population

The phenomenon of internal migration in China

Following the improvement of communications and transport systems due to modern processes of urbanization and industrialization, the phenomenon of migration has become an issue of worldwide importance. The term migration indicates a movement from one area to another, which usually includes passage across more borders happening in a precise interval of time and includes a change of residence.

From a demographic point of view, migration, together with the fertility and mortality rates is a fundamental component for measuring the population growth in a determined area. In China, the term migration indicates citizens that prior to receiving authorization from the Office of Public Security, move their place of residence from one area to another.

The official figures from the last census of Chinese population in 2010 show that for the first time in the history of China, there are more people that live in the cities than the countryside. In 1950 only 64 million people lived in urban areas while in 2010 the number reached 636 million.

What has caused the phenomenon of internal migration?

Beginning in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping instituted the era of reforms (改革开放), migration from the rural areas to the cities has become an endemic phenomenon and the root of the process of industrialization, economic growth and urbanization in China. The movement of the work force from low productivity sectors to high productivity sectors has become one of the principal components in Chinese economic growth and the main reason of the growth of internal migration.

In 1979, following the disappearance of the old communal farm system, farmers, now free to cultivate their own piece of land realized that the rural areas were overpopulated; there were too many workers in competition for a limited number of jobs. At the same time, following the easing of market restrictions and the necessity to sustain the incessant need for a work force in the construction and industrial sectors, millions of people began to leave the countryside for the cities in search of better opportunities and new stimuli.

In 1990 only 221 million people lived in urban areas; in 2003 this number reached 523 million inhabitants and in 2020 it is predicted to reach a number equal to 854 million inhabitant.

The floating population

The term “floating population” (流动人口) was coined following the exponential growth of the phenomenon of internal migration in China. By floating population it refers to all migrants who, for various reasons and without a valid certificate of residence (in Chinese hukou, 户口制), live and work in areas other than those in which they are originally registered.

In short, the certificate of residence is a document that indicates the exact place of birth and registration of every Chinese citizen. The main division is between city and rural residents, with the former enjoying numerous advantages in terms of mobility, social security systems, education and the quality of services offered.

The authorities do not consider migrants on the same level with citizens with a valid hukou that live in urban areas. The hukou system is designed to “hold back in the countrysides a part of the population that is considered inferior, ready to be used to sustain the incessant need for a work force and progress in the process of industrialization and economic growth”.

Whoever moves from the country to the city falls into one of two current categories:

  • Legal migrants, recognized by the local government and possessing a valid hukou; those in this category are usually only those who changed residence between 1960 and 1980;
  • Illegal migrants, divided into subgroups among which the most important are the “rural migrants” (农民工). In this second category are the citizens that still have a rural hukou, yet move to the cities looking for work on a permanent, long term or seasonal level.

Hukou: the system of family registration in China

The system of family registration was conceived to protect economic activity and the high intensity of capital and sustain the industrialization process in action in various Chinese cities. During this initial phase, the central government concluded that it was of utmost importance to limit the growth of urban population, and as a result the percentage of urban residents was held at 1/5 of the entire population for twenty years.

This policy was also the result of a planned economy: since the objective of local functionaries was to develop each economic plan according to the number of officially registered inhabitants, an exponential increase of population would not be tolerated.

Starting in the early 2000’s, the phenomenon of migration from the country to the cities became increasingly widespread with exponential growth. The end of the economic plan and the reduction of funds released by the central government to local officials rendered residents increasingly jealous of their own resources, leading to greater hatred toward migrants.

Structure, directions, and principal characteristics of internal migration in China

At the end of 2014, the number of migrants reached a figure of 253 million, one that should reach 290 million before 2020.

Starting in the 80’s, the main destination of internal migrants in China was the southeastern coast following the Direct Foreign Investments (IDE) and specific government policies. The province of Guangdong remains the preferred destination for migrants, thanks to the presence of the first two Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Shenzhen and Zhuhai. In contrast the province of Sichuan, a high-density demographic area with low income per capita, is the principal source for inter-provincial migration.

In 2009, the data gathered by the National Agency of Statistics shows that the new wave of internal migration enjoys greater education, not only of their own rights, but above all tend to be more demanding and less inclined to compromise.

In 2009, 40% of migrants were people between the ages of 16 and 25 years old, 40% were between 26 and 40, and the remaining 20% above 40 years old. In that same year, 65% of migrants were men, even though in some areas the number of migrating women was greater than that of men. More than 65% of those interviewed finished high school, 23.5% took specialized courses, 10.6% stopped at an elementary level of education and just 1% was illiterate.

Living conditions for migrants in the cities

Migrants in China, as in many other places in the world, tend to be employed in dangerous and alienating jobs. In 2012, a study conducted by China Labour Watch showed how migrant workers continue to suffer “low wages,grueling work shifts, and no job security”.

Migrant workers are generally employed in the manufacturing and construction fields (39% and 7.3% respectively), in the service sectors (12%), in hotels and catering (8%), and in transportation and communication (6%). According to data provided by China Labour Bulletin, the victims of 90% of accidents in the workplace and 80% of fatalities in the construction, mining and chemical industries in China are migrants.

Children of migrants are often the main victims of this system. Not being able to pay the school taxes and without a valid hukou, they are forced to return to the country and live with their grandparents. According to the latest estimates of UNICEF, 29 million children in China live without both parents, while 61 million live without one parent.

Even though recent studies show a trend of improvement of living conditions for migrants, salaries are not sufficient to cover the most basic daily needs. In 2009 the average stipend of a migrant worker was 1,400 RMB, equal to about 200 USD a month.

Another problem is the phenomenon of unpaid wages. According to the news agency Xinhua, in 2003 more than 3/4 of migrant workers encountered problems receiving their salary on time. In 2004, then Premier Wen Jiabao obligated employers to pay workers a total sum of 100 billion RMB. However the problem still persists and lately has gotten worse, causing protests and strikes throughout the country.

The two greatest problems migrants face in the cities are the impossibility of guaranteeing a minimal education for their children and the difficulty in making use of a minimal system of social assistance. In 2002 almost 2 million children of migrants do not receive any type of instruction. The situation has gotten slightly better with the opening of schools run by the migrants themselves, but the quality of the education and the safety of the schools are still reasons for great concern. Many of these schools are made inaccessible by the police, both for security reasons and for the unauthorized use of public spaces.

Consequences of internal migration

Besides being the basis for enormous growth and industrial development that China has enjoyed in the last twenty years, the migrant population has contributed to a substantial improvement in living conditions in rural areas.

On one hand, the migration of young men from rural zones to the cities has reduced the unemployment rates in the increasingly-mechanized countrysides with lower needs for a work force; on the other, the workers who have moved to the cities tend to put aside as much money as possible to invest in their place of origin. In 2003 it was calculated that more than 370 billion RMB were sent back to families in rural areas, contributing to 40% of rural income.

Nevertheless, living conditions of the floating population still depend on their hukou. Any form of criticism, dissent or protest has been quickly contained and put down by local officials under the strict supervision of the central government. One of the few times that the government acted to protect the interests of migrants was way back in 2004 when thousands of workers, fed up with horrible living conditions and abuse suffered, abandoned the industrial areas around the Pearl River Delta and moved to the southeastern coast. The government acted quickly guaranteeing better pay and convincing the migrants to retrace their steps.

In the past twenty years the central government has promoted new policies to support the migrant population and only now can one see the first positive results. However, as Professor Wang Daben says, “the cities cannot grant an urban hukou to all migrant workers due to excessive costs for social pensions, education, housing and health services”.

In 2014 the government affirmed that hukou reforms will be slow and progressive. Chinese cities are classified as small, medium and large; rural migrants will as a result have different destinations based on their needs and status. Reform will begin in the small cities and eventually extend into the metropolises.

The news agency Xinhua reported that “the government will initially remove family registration limits in small cities, relax restrictions in medium-sized cities and stabilize simplified selection processes in the big ones”. The plan is to relocate 100 rural inhabitants into the cities before 2020.


It will be interesting to understand how the government in Beijing will act to resolve this pressing issue. The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party directly depends in its ability to guarantee constant growth to satisfy both internal and international expectations.

The government has actively moved to guarantee better living conditions for the floating population and there are many calls coming from Beijing telling local governments to do their best to guarantee dignified living conditions for their new urban inhabitants.

Lowering the cost of obtaining a new hukou, equalizing school taxes for children of migrants with those of residents, guaranteeing minimal health care and paying withheld wages are only some of the policies that Beijing will enact over time to meet the needs of the floating population.

The road is long and full of pitfalls such as corruption on the local level, the challenge of transmitting directives from the central government to the local ones as well as the extremely high costs to promote such policies.


  • Chan, Kam Wing, Internal Labour Migration in China: Trends, Geography and Policies, United Nations
  • Chan, Kan Wing., The Chinese hukou system at 50, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 50(2), pp. 21-56
  • Chan, Kan Wing, The household registration system and migrant labor in China: notes on a debate. Population and Development Review, 36(2), pp. 405-407
  • Chan, Kan Wing, Recent migration in China: patterns, trends, and policies, Asian Perspectives, 25(4), pp.127-155, 2001
  • China Daily, Rural-to-town labour force on the rise, China Daily
  • China Labour Bulletin, Migrant Workers Start to Win Significant Compensation Awards in the Courts
  • Dorothy J. Solinger, The Modalities of Geographical Mobility in China and their Impacts, 1980-2010, p.140, The British Academy, 2014
  • Fan, C. C., China on the Move: Migration, the state, and the household”, Routledge 2008
  • Li, M. & Hu, X., The influence of the floating population on big cities’ development and countermeasures, Beijing: Economic Daily Publishing House, 1991
  • National Health and Family Planning Commission, China Daily, November 13, 2015
  • National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS), 2010 Census
  • Watson, A, Social Security for China’s migrant workers – providing for old age, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 2009, 38(4), in Solinger 2014
  • Xinhua Net, 2012a. Report shows: nearly 230 million of floating population in China in 2011.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Farmer – Yangshuo by tefl Search

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