In January, The University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute published a case study of rural migration in China based on two impoverished rural areas of North Shaanxi province. The study evaluated migration trends in this area and compared them to previously published data for China’s rural migration. The authors found that “the existing literature provides an important insight in understanding the actual situation of migration in China, but there is no study that provides a clear analysis of the various patterns of migration at the village level, using national census data,” i.e. how and why people migrate has been largely unexplored. Using data from the Second National Agriculture Survey, the paper assesses the causation of migratory behavior with a broader look at China’s migration as a whole.
Almost 40% of the rural population has migrated permanently or temporarily, which is a staggering number. In China, migration has long been seen as a problem with children left behind while their parents work in the cities and cities plagued (in the minds of many inhabitants) with thousands if not millions of waidi ren or outsiders. The hukou registration system makes it difficult to impossible for migrants and their children to receive adequate health benefits and schooling outside of their region, however the promise of a better life often leads rural villagers to seek work outside of their regions. As the paper posits, this is not a completely accurate picture of rural migration.
To get a more correct view of migration, one must realize that not all migration is rural-urban. A considerable percentage of migrants are rural-rural, meaning people move to more prosperous rural villages where there are more opportunities. Second, migration falls into two broad categories: household migration, in which an entire family migrates and labor migration, in which members of a family relocate specifically to find new job opportunities (often sending money home).
A number of factors influence migration as the paper emphasizes, “rural migration is not merely a consequence of individual behavior or household preference, but a result of many complex factors and conditions.” First, migrants are not flooding out of all rural villages at an equal pace. In fact, poorer villages have a high rate of household migration due in large part to poor road access, inadequate education, and limited resources. Families migrate to offer their children better education and to raise their standard of living. In villages with better access and education, labor migration remains higher than household migration.
There is a general trend that shows migration shifting from labor to household migration, which could have a significant impact on the economics of rural areas. Additionally, changes in weather patterns and a diminished focus on agriculture at the national level have affect productivity and output, driving more people to industrial and urban centers.
The study found one surprising pattern. The long held view that increased education leads to a higher rate of migration is, at least in the villages surveyed, only partially accurate. The researchers found that “there is a clear reverse relationship between the level of education and the tendency of outward migration at the village level.” Labor migration is linked to education in that the more educated labor has a higher likelihood of migration. However, “the effect of education on household migration is opposite to that on labor migration,” meaning that where villagers are more educated, there is less household migration.
There are a number of negative effects tied to mass migration. The article explains that it has “accelerated ageing in the local labor force, abandonment of farmland, a decline in the school-age population, and hence closures of primary schools.” There is a “’brain-drain’ effect” leaving those in the village concerned about the future of agriculture if the younger generation continues to leave in search of better opportunities. This in turn could have a devastating effect on the country’s ability to produce food. There is also an imbalance in the sexes, which prevents growth and can drive villagers of a marriageable age to other locations.
But there are also positive aspects of migration. Household incomes have the potential to increase resulting in better living conditions. Overused farmland can be restored and be more productive and land transfers which “exploit economies of scale in agricultural production” are more easily transacted.
Although this slice of data is specific to the extremely poor regions of North Shaanxi, in many ways, it must indicate similar trends in the migration of rural people across China. Consequently, what may seem like small migration trends in one region have massive consequences when the entire rural population is taken into account. For the government as well as NGOs working with the rural and migrant populations, recognizing the issues at hand can lead to better education and infrastructure that can reduce the poverty and encourage rural development. More accurate data that takes into account the rural-rural migration as well as the rural-urban migration and the factors that influence individual and household migration will also be helpful in assessing solutions to assisting this group of individuals.