Arguments - Trends
|China is still a
predominantly rural society. In 1997, only some 30% of the population lived in urban
areas. Since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, the government has strictly
controlled internal migration, especially between rural and urban areas. Only since the
beginning of economic reforms in 1978 have these restrictions been relaxed because of the
demand for unskilled labor in booming cities and towns. In recent years, there has been a
wave of temporary rural-urban labor migration, called the "floating population."
Description of the Problem
|While the great
majority of people in China still live in rural areas, rapid urbanization is predicted by
many experts. To understand Chinas urbanization process, the following questions
have to be answered:
the current trends of urbanization and rural-urban migration?
||Is there a
clear pattern in (interprovincial) migration?
floating population really float back?
China remained a rural society for so long?
|Current trends in urban growth
|According to official
statistics, Chinas urban population was about 72 million in 1952; in 1997 it was
estimated at 370 million (see Table 1). Chinas urban population has more than
quadrupled since the early 1950s, whereas its rural population has only increased from 503
to 866 million. Despite this enormous increase in urban population, China has essentially
remained a rural society. More than two-thirds (70%) of the population is still classified
The UN Population Division has been monitoring city populations around the world
for many decades. For China, they have population data for the 51 largest cities and urban
agglomerations (United Nations 1995). According to the UN estimates, which are based on
Chinese reports, these cities had a total population of about 39 million in 1950. Today,
their population is some 134 million.
Although these statistics on population increase in urban areas and cities are
frequently used to document China's urbanization, they only provide a rather crude and
incomplete picture of reality. We cannot understand urbanization trends in China without
analyzing at least some aspects of the statistical, administrative, and political
background, which in Chinas is completely different than in most other developing
countries (see the discussion on data
|There is significant
migration from rural hinterlands in central China to the booming coastal provinces. For
instance, between 1985 and 1990, Guangdong and five other coastal provinces - Beijing,
Shanghai, Liaoning, Tianjin, and Jiangsu - had significant net-immigration. Together,
these six economically booming provinces had a net population gain from interprovincial
migration of 2.7 million (see Table 2). These results are from the interprovincial
migration matrix of China, based on retrospective questions in the 1990 census.
The clear "winner" is Guangdong: between 1985 and 1990, some 1.26 million
people moved from other Chinese provinces to this province, which is a center of
modernization and industrialization. Only 250,000 people left Guangdong for other
provinces. The obvious "loser" is the agricultural province of Sichuan, which
had a net loss of more than 846,000 people to other Chinese provinces between 1985 and
1990. Net losses of population due to migration were also reported for Guangxi, Zhejiang,
Hunan, Heilongjiang, Anhui, and Hebei - all provinces with large agricultural sectors and
low economic growth.
It is important to understand the relevance of these statistics. They merely
indicate the official inter-provincial migration within a five-year period, which
is small compared with the actual population movements. It is known that China
has a large number of temporary migrants who leave rural areas to work in the booming
cities. This "floating population" does not have official permission for
permanent residence in the town or city. It is estimated that Beijing and Shanghai each
have a floating population of 2-3 million people.
|As a result of the
economic reforms since 1978, productivity significantly increased in China's agriculture.
The number of small tractors rose almost eight-fold, and the number of small trucks for
agricultural use "exploded" from 74 to 876 thousand. The application rate for
chemical fertilizers increased from 58.9 kg per hectare in 1978 to 213.3 kg per hectare in
1993 (see the discussion about agricultural technology).
Average grain yields grew from about 2.5 tons per hectare in 1978 to some 4.1
tons per hectare in 1993. This mechanization and modernization of Chinas agriculture
created a huge excess labor force. Millions of farmers now live on very small pieces of
land that are sufficient to survive, but too small for modern agricultural production.
China's huge rural population is linked to an economic activity, which could be
accomplished by a fraction of the current agricultural labor force. In fact, it was
estimated that in 1994 China had a surplus of about 200 million agricultural workers.
Chinese experts have estimated that by the year 2000 some 300 million farmers will not be
needed in agriculture (Poston, D. L. / Duan, C. C, 1999). If this number is correct, then
China's rural under- or unemployed would outnumber the total population of the United
States of America.
In the course of China's economic reforms some agricultural surplus population was
absorbed in the flourishing rural industries and moved to industrial centers and towns
nearby. However, millions of farmers sent their sons and daughters to the big cities,
hoping they could find jobs and participate in China's economic miracle. In the 1980s and
1990s China experienced a dramatic increase in rural-urban migration. Experts have
estimated that by 1984 the migrants numbered more than 20 million; by 1993 their number
had increased to 60 million; and by 1995 there were probably more than 80 million
rural-urban migrants in China's major cities (Roberts, K. D. 1997). This would be one of
the largest flows of labor migration in history.
Some information on migration flows can be extracted from a sample survey, which
compared the place of residence with the place of household registration. As can be seen
in Table 3, the survey included 1.24 million people. Some 1.17 million of these people
actually lived in the township, town, or sub-district, where they were registered. Some
69,300 people, however, were not registered where they lived, but in some other
township, town, or subdistrict. In Beijing and Shanghai, however, the percentage of people
who did not live where they were registered was much higher. In 1997, some 16.5% and 13.3%
of the population in these cities was registered outside the city.
Officially, the rural laborers working in cities and towns are considered only temporary
migrants - in China called "floating population" (liudong renkou). The
authorities believe to be able to control this rural-urban migration flow with a strict
household registration system (hokou). The floaters, however, might have second thoughts,
and it is unclear how many of them will actually return to their villages. In all major
cities of China one can find well established residential districts with predominantly
"floating population" - sometimes they are living there for more than 10 years.
|Why has China remained a rural society for so long?
|China has long been
the prototype of a rural society. Historically, China's towns and cities were
administrative, political, and cultural centers from which a small elite controlled (and
often exploited) the huge majority of farmers. After 1949, the governments
closed-city policy effectively prevented urbanization. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s,
China's government strictly controlled population mobility. An individual's place of
residence was (and still is) essentially determined by his or her function in the labor
force: the population working in agriculture is defined as rural population, no matter
where they live; nonagricultural population is classified as urban and has significant
social and economic privileges.
|It is impossible to
understand China's recent trends in urbanization and internal migration without taking
into account the country's unique household registration system (or haiku). In
principle, each individual in a household must be registered with a committee. In rural
areas, these committees are called villagers committees, in urban areas they are called
residents committees. This registration not only documents the place of residence, it also
classifies the household by function. This functional classification
determines the individual's social and economic rights and privileges. Each
household is classified either as agricultural or as nonagricultural. The villagers
committees automatically classify their residents as agricultural, while the residents
committees in cities and towns can assign the status of urban resident. Only urban
residents are entitled to receive state-supplied grain and other subsidized food, and only
urban residents can get into state-controlled urban housing. By assigning the urban
residents status, the administration can essentially control migration and assign economic
and social privileges.
|In the pre-reform
period, farmers had little or no chance of moving into industrial or service sectors of
urban areas. Prior to the late 1970s, it was primarily the reclassification of existing
townships into towns that fueled urbanization. At that time, the cities and towns
primarily grew by natural population growth, not by rural-urban migration. When the
economic reforms began in 1978, China was still a predominantly rural society. The rapid
economic transition during the 1980s and 1990s, however, changed this situation.
Industries in rural areas were built up and attracted workers from the agricultural labor
force. The village industries triggered a process of "rural urbanization" in
China. Towns and small provincial cities in close proximity to industrial sites grew
rapidly, and many rural townships had to be reclassified as towns and cities. During that
phase of development, some villages or rural towns with fast-growing industries multiplied
their population within a few years. The population of Senshen, on the border with Hong
Kong, "exploded" from a few thousand to a few million.
|But there was also an
increase of population in the existing urban agglomerates in the coastal provinces and
special development zones. The provincial capitals, such as Beijing and Shanghai, in
particular, required additional labor in the construction industry. Temporary labor
migration to these cities was tolerated or even promoted, and a certain amount of
household reclassification from agricultural to nonagricultural status was allowed. Today,
Beijing and Shanghai have "floating populations" of between 2 and 3 million
people each. Powerful pull and push factors will generate further rural-urban migration.
While an individual's official place of residence is still controlled by the Chinese
administration through the strict household registration system, it is obvious that the
controls have been loosened.
|While the household
registration system is certainly of primary importance for China's urbanization trends,
other factors must be considered as well. There is, for instance, a history of aversion to
the agricultural population on the part of urban intellectuals and bureaucrats. This
"closed city mentality" is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Urban Chinese often
look down on the farmers, whom they consider filthy, uneducated, and lacking in culture.
The "Western" concepts of social mobility and freedom to choose one's place of
residence are not overly popular among Chinese intellectuals. Newspapers in China often
refer to members of the floating population as "criminals," even if their only
"crime" is to demand the same privileges as urban residents. Residents of
Beijing can be often heard complaining about the "floaters," whom they consider
to be responsible for traffic congestion, housing shortage, competition on the labor
market, increasing crime, and other recent negative developments in city life. Among the
urban population in China, there is certainly great support for government policies to
However, there are good economic reasons to believe that even if Chinas
government tries to maintain restrictions on spatial mobility, massive rural-urban
migration and city growth cannot be stopped. Three factors are currently driving
rural-urban migration in China: (a) the widening income gap between rural and urban areas
(see Figure 1); (b) the increasing labor demand in certain economic sectors of the big
cities. For instance, there is a demand for unskilled labor in the urban construction
industry; the electronics and textile industries employ many female workers at low wages;
the service sector (such as restaurants, transportation, and retail markets) also need
unskilled labor; and there is a demand for household servants among dual-career urban
residents; and (c) the further agricultural modernization, which inevitably increases the
agricultural labor surplus.
Urbanization: Trends Impact
Data Quality Prediction Error Intervention Possibilities Intervention Costs
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)
- Copyright © 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright © 1999 by IIASA.)