Aug 14, 2020 in Political

Reasons for Rural-urban Migration in China

Since the introduction of reforms in 1978, the economy of China has been vibrant. Significant changes in the country’s economic structure and the adoption of the market economy has been instrumental in linking China to other countries. As Hu, Xu and Chen explains, when China opened up its economy and developed strong ties with countries in the Asia Pacific, it has managed to reposition itself as key player in the global economy and one of the leading trading countries globally. Presently, China is top recipient of foreign direct investment, which can be attributed to heightened interest that investors have in its internal market as well as the presence of cheap labor in the country. Economic reform in China has been gradual starting from the eastern and southern regions, then to the northern, and finally to the western and central regions. Different provinces have responded differently to the economic reform. Moreover, economic development in the country has largely been uneven. Such regional variations increase the difficulty of generalizing the impacts associated with the economic reform; however, some common developments have been witnessed in the country. An example of such development is the increasing movement of people internally. China has witnessed immense migration of people from the rural to the urban areas, which Mallee and Pieke describe as the “phenomenon of the 20th century”. Additionally, these migration marks the biggest labor flow out of agriculture in the history of mankind. The massive movement of the Chinese from the rural to the urban areas has resulted in political, economic, and social consequences for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The goal of this paper is to explore why Chinese migrated from rural to urban areas. First, historical trends of internal migration is provided, after which the paper will argue that the rural-urban migration in China can be attributed to government policies that resulted in the surplus demand and supply of labor and economic inequalities. 

Historical Trends of Rural-Urban Migration in China

After the founding of the PRC in 1949, internal migration trends have occurred in four different waves. The first wave occurred between 1951 and 1960, which concurred with the First Five Year Plan of 1953-1957 and the 1958 Great Leap Forward. Mao Zedong, after ascending to and solidifying his power, opted to make huge investments in the heavy industry. Consequently, peasants migrated to the urban centers in order to fill the gap in the labor demands created by the booming industries. Also, this rural-urban migration was partly motivated by the laissez-fair migration policies adopted during the time. As a result, about 20% of China’s population were living in cities as of 1960. Overall, it is evident that internal migration during this phase can be attributed to the policies adopted by the government.


The second wave internal migration in China occurred from 1961 to 1965, which was attributed to the acknowledgement that the agricultural sector in China was incapable of surviving with the urbanization rate witnessed during the prior era. The urban population of China in 1960 was estimated to be 160 million, which led to the government issuing grain rations in all key cities. As a means of reducing the population in urban centers, the government compulsorily repatriated 24 million workers to rural areas. 

The third phase of the internal migration in China occurred during the 1966-1977 period, which coincided with the Cultural Revolution. During this period, there was a backlash against the millions of intellectuals, professionals, and party leaders who were opposed to the idea of Mao; consequently, they were sent to rural areas. Additionally, the government stopped all rural-urban migration flows. During this period, the urban population in China stagnated at about 17% of the country’s total population. Again, it is evident that internal migration in the country hinged upon the policies adopted by the government.

The fourth and the last wave of migration started in 1978 and continues to the present, and coincided with an unprecedented increase in urbanization and rural-urban migration across the globe. Reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping reduced the strictness of the migration policies in the country and halted the Mao’s CR. Deng eliminated the utilization of grain rationing coupons and advocated for the use of free market economic policies. The move towards the free market economy played an integral role in increasing employment opportunities and altering the industrial environment in urban centers.

Following the economic reforms adopted in 1978, rural markets were introduced in China. Additionally, people were provided with more freedom with respect to the means of production as well as how labor was allocated. The emerging labor demand in rural businesses and the urban service industry attracted individuals who were surplus in the agricultural industry and those who sought to diversify their sources of income. Regardless of the prior restrictions imposed on migrating to the urban centers, the government begun losing its capability in controlling and restricting the movement of people. However, the government was still in a position of using the household registration system referred to as the hukou system to separate those from the rural areas and ensuring that only the official urban population was getting the social benefits. The hukou system was developed during the 1950s with the main aim of recording and controlling internal migration. However, by the mid-1980s, this system was becoming ineffective because of the market demands. Moreover, a significant proportion of rural citizens were desiring to look for better economic opportunities in urban centers. Simultaneously, the open economic policies and reforms adopted in China were beginning to take shape, which resulted in considerable economic growth in China. Besides, the income levels in China started increasing following the increase in foreign investments in the manufacturing sector, especially in the eastern parts of China. 

Knight, Deng and Li outlines a number of factors that pushed a considerable surplus rural labor to the urban areas, which included the heightened demand for cheap labor by the emerging manufacturing sector, the slow growth of income for families in the rural areas, and thriving economic development that led to the encroachment of the rural lands. Whereas the government still restricted migration using the hukou system, which required the registration of rural citizens by their respective governments. Under this system, citizens were classified based on their place of birth instead of their place of residence. The government relaxed this policy by maintaining that rural citizens can reside in urban centers provided that that they are able to support themselves. The outcome was a massive movement of people into the booming cities in China; as a result, about 44% of the China’s population now live in the urban centers. During all the waves of migration, it is evident that the policies adopted by the government served as a catalyst.

Reasons for Rural-urban Migration in China

Surplus Demand and Supply of Labor in China

The surplus of labor in rural areas is usually perceived as the primary push factor contributing to the increase in rural-urban migration in China. A key tenet of this proposition is that surplus supply of labor in rural areas offers the labor force required for steering industrial growth in the urban centers. The extra supply of labor in China was caused by the Household responsibility system (HRS) that was developed as a component of the economic reforms in China. The HRS disbanded the communes and provided rural families with individual contracts for farming in agricultural lands. This resulted in a more efficient utilization of resources such as land and labor, which increased income and agricultural input following the thriving of markets for agricultural products. The household developed to be the unit of production. Also, the household was provided with more freedom in terms of migration decisions and allocation of labor. Therefore, land cultivation requirements, household structure and household size were crucial factors that resulted in the surplus supply of household labor. Moreover, in urban areas, the creation of special economic industries and zones in urban areas increased the demand for labor. Therefore, an agreement among scholars is that the excess supply of labor in rural areas is the primary pus factor while the increase in the demand for labor in urban areas is the main push factor for the rural-urban migration in China. 

The neoclassical migration theory holds that nations of regions having an excess demand and a scanty supply of labor is likely to pull migrants from regions having an excess supply of labor. In China, the intensified labor demand in urban centers is attributed to the increased manufacturing investment in developed regions and an urban population that is aging coupled with low rates of fertility. Economic growth in China is mainly concentrated in the eastern coastal regions. This is because these regions received preference during the adoption of economic reforms. For instance, in the first phase of the economic reforms (1978-1984), Hainan province, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, and Shantou were selected as special economic zones (SEZs); thus, they received a larger proportion of the foreign investment entering the country.  The result is an increase in demand for labor in these cities. With respect to the aging population in China, the country has witnessed a decline in the fertility rates during the first 10 years of the 21st century, currently at 1.8 children/woman. Moreover, those aged over 60 years constitute 13% of the country population, which is an increase from 10.4% documented in 2011. Thus, the increase in labor shortages in urban centers acts as a catalyst for rural urban migration since more workers will be required to steer China’s growing economy. 

Income Gap

Another outcome of the government policies that stimulates rural-urban migration is the differences in wages between rural and urban areas, which has been described as a pull factor in China. The important role played by the differences in income levels between rural and urban areas has been affirmed by various authors. Hu, Xu and Chen points out that increasing the ratio of rural income relative to the national income levels will help lower migration in China. In addition to the gap in rural-urban income, gaps in regional income also contribute to an increase in urban migration. It is worth mentioning that majority of internal migrants move from the western regions having lower income levels to eastern regions characterized by higher levels of income.


From the discussion, it is evident that rural-urban migration in China can be explained using the policies adopted by the government that resulted in the surplus demand and supply of labor and economic inequalities. In all the fours waves of internal migration in China, it is evident that policies adopted by the government had a hand in stimulating rural-urban migration. For instance, during the 1951-1960, the decision by Mao to focus on the heavy industry resulted in peasants rushing to urban areas to provide labor. This led to a substantial increase in the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas. The economic reforms created lax migration policies, which acted as an incentive for rural-urban migration. Moreover, these reforms were instrumental in creating economic inequalities between rural and urban areas; hence, people migrated to urban centers because of the increasing demand for labor and to make use of the economic opportunities in the urban areas.


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