By Marcella M.

The first time I went to China, I arrived just a few days before the Spring Festival. All around me were people looking busier than ever, standing in seemingly endless lines, carrying massive bags and packages. At the time, I did not know these scenes were part of the annual ritual of migrants going back home for the holidays. From then on, I have been interested to know more about China’s migrant workers. With this short article, I want to share with you what I have learned so far.

A famous Confucius saying states “When one’s parents are alive, make no distant journeys; when you travel, have a set destination.” Traditional Chinese society is dominated by the doctrine that as children, we must take care of our elderly parents. This culture of staying put in one’s birthplace was reinforced by the Chinese government’s strict control of rural-urban migration through the implementation of the rigid hukou (household registration) system. Established in 1958, the hukou determines where one can live and which benefits one is entitled to. However, since China’s opening and participation in the global economy in 1979, there have been major changes in the size and patterns of migration.

In the early 80s, China needed a large pool of cheap labor, thus freed rural migrants to become mobile laborers without urban hukou and rights. Those without local hukou were generally not subject to stringent migration control because many cities needed cheap labor to staff their factories and services. This economic growth strategy allowed China to become the world’s most efficient producer.

Nowadays, internal migration in China is one of the most extensive in the world. The National Bureau of Statistics estimates the number of people working outside their hometowns for at least six months was 278 million last year. To put it into perspective, if they were a country, China’s migrant population would be the world’s fourth-largest. There are two different types of migrants, i.e. permanent and temporary. Permanent migrants are migrants who have obtained local hukou at their place of destination, whilst temporary migrants do not possess local hukou and are thus called floating population.

In China’s largest cities it is often quoted that at least one out of every five persons is a migrant. Local hukou in these cities can be difficult to obtain as only a very select group qualify for it, e.g., millionaires, those with an advanced degree, or those with professional qualifications. Despite living and working in the cities, laborers maintaining their rural hukou are legally not considered to be part of the urban population. As a result, there is a widening gap between the percentages of the de facto urban population and the urban hukou population. This means that in these cities there is a colossal marginalized working population.

The floating population may move to cities to seek employment, yet is limited to low-paid jobs. Occupations such as finance, insurance, accounting, star-level hotel employees, telephone operators, etc. are off-limits. In first-tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai, even taxi drivers – as well as Didi drivers- are required to have local hukou.

Despite living and working in cities, migrant laborers are treated as outsiders and face social prejudice. Long-established urban dwellers systematically associate rural migrant workers with high mobility, high crime rates, and social unrest. Migrant workers are often viewed as a threat, competing for scarce urban resources. Most of the urban citizens would avoid spending time in areas with a high presence of rural migrant workers as they automatically relate those areas with danger. Needless to say, migrant workers often face loneliness and depression.

One of the most significant issues faced by migrant workers in cities is related to education for their children. Most migrant parents migrate to give their children a better life, but their children’s education suffers as a result. Just like their parents, migrant children are treated as temporary residents, thus don’t have the rights to urban services, including education. Although nowadays the majority of existing migrant children in grades 1-9 are enrolled in school, migrant parents complain about local governments’ onerous paperwork as a means to defer migrant students’ access to schooling.

The migrant children who are admitted to schools still face problems. Due to prejudice, some public schools set up separate classrooms and playgrounds. For this reason, there has been a rise in migrant children-only schools. These schools are often improvised by migrants themselves who do not always have experience in teaching or management of schools. They are often located in areas with inadequate sanitary conditions. Moreover, teachers and classrooms are rarely up to the standard of urban public schools. Despite all these shortcomings, it is worth mentioning that migrant schools in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing often have a slightly better level of education than many schools in the children’s home towns.

Those children of migrants unable to stay in the cities with their parents are left in the countryside. These are the left-behind children who live with one or no parents around regularly. Many of these children are either brought up by their grandparents or, in extreme cases, live in orphanages, or completely alone. They usually do poorly in school, have a varying degree of psychological issues. Some have fallen victim to bullying, serious accidents or physical or sexual abuse. Equally worrying, some become easy recruits for criminals.

The Chinese central government has long acknowledged the malfunction of the hukou system and its negative impacts on Chinese society. Various measures have been adopted to ease hukou-based restrictions. The government has also pledged to continuously undertake hukou reform and to establish a new household registration system by 2020. However, it is local governments who retain the decisive voice to impose discriminatory policies against rural migrants. Urban dwellers’ prejudice against migrants makes it very difficult for local governments to change their ways.

Migrant workers have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades. Nonetheless, their lives remain marginalized and subject to prejudice and discrimination. Their children have limited access to education and healthcare and can be separated from their parents for years on end. Many probably managed to lift their households out of poverty, yet the obstacles they face are not small. So, the next time you look at Shanghai’s Pudong, the symbol of a new China in the 21st century, you may want to think about the thousands of migrant workers who contributed to its creation.


  • Luoyi Zhou, Institutionalized Barriers to Inclusion: A Case Study of China’s Rural Migrant Workers in Urban Areas, April – May 2017
  • Kam Wing Chan, Urbanization with Chinese Characteristics: The Hukou System and Migration, April 2018