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China’s Internal Migrants


Ever since China first instituted major economic reforms three decades ago, it has undergone unprecedented social transformations. Economic development and rapid urbanization have spurred massive internal migration, largely from the countryside to towns and cities, by individuals in search of jobs and higher wages. Official statistics place the number of internal migrants in China at over one-tenth of China's 1.3 billion people. Yet whenmigrants leave their homesteads, they are confronted with discrimination and a long string of inequities, many of which are perpetuated by China's longstanding household registration system. Despite reforms, the system still limits migrant access to public services guaranteed to urban residents. Because of their transitory existence in China's economy, these internal migrants have become known as the liudong renkou, or "floating population."

The Great Internal Migration

China's economic boom has drawn rural Chinese to cities in search of higher incomes. The rural migrant worker population has expanded significantly, increasing from roughly 30 million in 1989 to more than 140 million in 2008, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics (Boxun). The massive influx of rural residents into cities was initially facilitated by important reforms in the 1980s. Li Shi, a professor at Beijing Normal University, observes that when China relaxed its restrictive policies on labor migration, the large surplus labor force created by agricultural decollectivization was finally able to find work away from home. Throughout the early 1990s, a stream of peasants left their farmland and took up non-agricultural vocations, sending remittances home to family members remaining in the village. During the late 1990s, local government concerns about social instability stemming from high rates of urban unemployment led many cities to set restrictions on jobs available to rural migrants. Most migrants could only find employment in dirty or dangerous sectors shunned...

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