When I first talked to Xiao Zhang he was packing his bag in a tiny, shabby room near a construction site where he worked. He has lived there with his wife and other fellow workers since he came to this city.
“I fled from a remote village in Guangxi province to Shenzhen to change my life three years ago.” He said. “But now I realise it is much harder than I expected. I could never actually become part of this city, so I am planning to leave.”
In fact, Xiao Zhang is just one of more than 280 million migrant workers in China. There are also a great number of fresh graduates and office workers moving from rural or less developed areas to large cities.
Today, China’s internal migration is characterised by a flow of people, especially the youth, moving into first-tier cities located in developed provinces in search of fortune, status and a higher quality of life. Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are their main destinations.
It is of great significance to raise people’s awareness of the current situation confronted by rural migrants as a disadvantaged group, and tackling the issues arising from this mass migration. It also helps China’s government to improve essential services that these rural migrants risk losing when they move to the big cities.
The importance of studying urban migration in China
China’s rural-to-urban migration is a good case study for people who are interested in or doing development studies. The phenomenon of population movement is an important indicator of urbanisation in the modern world.
Regional migration also changes the spatial distribution of China’s population, thereby posing challenges to urban land use such as expanding overall built land and increasing proportion of residential land. It also results in the expansion of urban infrastructure systems. This increasing demand on land and urban facilities could lead to potential environmental disturbance that goes against principles of building resilient and sustainable cities.
Additionally, demographics of a country plays an essential role in its economic, political, cultural and societal domains. Studying urban migration helps the government to formulate appropriate policies and regulations for the society as a whole
New attitudes and reforms needed
Since many rural migrants are under great pressure due to the barriers they come across in terms of housing, job seeking, and education for children, is it really worthwhile for people to leave their hometown and struggle in big cities?
While it may be better for them to weigh the opportunities and difficulties of their migration rather than blindly following the trend, the government is still responsible for reforms that aim to assist and support these rural migrants.
For those studying China’s phenomena of rural to urban migration, there are key points to consider when making recommendations for effective policies that can mitigate the threats rural migrants face during their resettlement.
The government is expected to construct affordable and low-rent houses. For example, the average housing price in Beijing is more than 50,000 in RMB (nearly 10,000 in AUD) per square meter which is too expensive for low-income migrants. They can hardly afford their accommodation if there are no alternatives provided.
Relaxation of institutional barriers to civil rights is also crucial. Social welfare systems in China are largely based on the Hukou (known as the household registration system) which limits rural migrants’ access to equal rights such as voting and medical insurance.
Another big concern is their children’s education, so implementation of preferential schooling policies for their children is required. Left-behind children in rural China has become a social concern because the lack of parental accompany and care has profound impacts on their future outcomes.
It is also helpful to provide subsidies for their transportation costs. China’s great migration during the lunar New Year is the largest movement in the world. It is reported that some poor migrants have to travel approximately two thousand kilometres by motorcycle to head home for reunions.
The most difficult factor can be the changes in Chinese society’s attitudes towards these rural to urban migrants because of prejudices they face in decision making processes as a marginalised community. They sometimes receive disrespect or even discrimination from citizens, which leads to disharmony in society.
The study of China’s rural to urban migration can help to motivate the Chinese government and China’s general public to pay more attention to this imperative issue. It also contributes to eliminate the potential problems that come with the inequality suffered by these rural migrants who seek only to live a better life.
Ruiying Zheng is a second year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Environmental Studies at the Australian National University.