Managing Internal Migration in Modern China: Regional Interests, Accommodation, and Forced Removal.

AuthorWinter, Bryan
PositionArticle 4

For the last three decades, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has seen an incredible increase in rural-to-urban migration. Internal migrants and increased urbanization have been affiliated with recent economic growth and the emergence of a more open market system, something that was not possible before the economic reforms that began December, 1978. What makes China's post-reform internal migration so spectacular is the immense size of the migrant population, which has grown from about 7 million in 1982, (1) to over 250 million today. (2) The largest subgroup migrating is rural migrants, who are moving towards China's major metropolitan centers. Although China's citizens now have far greater freedom of movement than they did in the initial decades of the PRC, there are still policies hampering population mobility to the cities. In addition, municipal campaigns seek to remove unregistered migrants from cities.

Large cities near China's pacific coast, including Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, have normally been the intended destinations for those from the countryside wishing to find employment in the industrial sector and factory work. Beginning with the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the communist regime had to confront--on a very large scale--the rapid growth of both urban and rural populations, urban unemployment, and the rising level of rural-to-urban migration. All of which were obstructions for the PRC government's goals of meeting industrial quotas and reaching plan fulfillment in their regions.

This paper asks two primary questions surrounding internal migration in China. First, how have the PRC's tactics of prohibiting and managing internal migration towards the cities changed over time? By discussing and answering this first question, the paper takes a chronologically descriptive approach concerning the geographic and political history of the PRC's attempts at suppressing, controlling, and managing rural-to-urban migration as well as how those attempts have changed over a period of roughly seventy years. Early on, the PRC relied on forcefully repatriating migrants back to the countryside. Despite being much more flexible today, massive campaigns to expel migrants from the cities have persisted into the modern day. This brings into focus the paper's second primary question: How has the PRC undergone a shift from radically prohibiting internal mobility (especially towards the cities) to adopting a much more managerial stance towards controlling internal migration towards the cities? Additionally, this study showcases how rural-urban migration has fueled regional conflict between coastal and inland provinces largely beginning in the late 1980s. While providing a description of the implemented migration policies through time, this paper, using state-run media sources also provides a glimpse into how internal migration was interpreted through the eyes of PRC leadership since the 1950s. While not completely exhaustive, this paper allows the reader an overview of how internal migration policy has been conducted in the world's most populous country since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

A brief mention on the benefits and drawbacks of organizing a paper around state-run media sources is warranted. Using state-run media sources on internal migration, primarily the People's Daily (Renmin Ribao), the PRC's mouthpiece for all things political still to this day, provides a unique perspective through the eyes of PRC leadership, concerning mobility in the country. Of course, there are inherent weaknesses to focusing on such news articles. However, one of the few ways to showcase the political mindset on internal migration since 1949 in China is to investigate it through state-run media reports, thus, offering a unique way to understand migration policy in the PRC. Additionally, by thrusting state-run media into the discussion of internal migration a major drawback is unavoidably, bias. How do we know the numbers described in a media report on migration from 1953 are accurate? Can a newspaper article concerning migration in the country published during China's cultural revolution be trusted to be accurate in any way? In the end, these questions concerning bias and accuracy cannot adequately be answered. Nevertheless, among the research questions stated above, it is a primary objective of this paper to provide an objective and chronological account of migration policy in the PRC since 1949. By heavily relying on media accounts of migration and urbanization across China over a seven decade period, the position is held that these media reports offer a rare glimpse into the PRC's philosophy concerning migration, and how that philosophy changes over time --something media accounts from China's tumultuous modern history can help to describe here. The study also draws on certain published documents available online from the PRC central government, as well as the National Population and Family Planning Commission of the PRC, and the Chinese Statistical Bureau.

Despite the huge impact migrant labor from the countryside has had on the rise of the contemporary PRC and its incredible turn to capitalism since 1978, the historical and regional complexities of controlling such a huge movement of people, and the reaction given to it by urban authorities are still strongly rooted in the limited freedom of movement that was established during the Maoist era. These strictures to mobility are strongly engrained from the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) tradition of limiting migration for socio-political stability. Over time, the reasons for expelling migrants from the cities had changed, but the attempts at doing so remained constant. This article offers a description of how internal migration is at times aggressively dealt with, and how rural-urban migration is often a result of rapid economic change. Finally, after describing some the potential human rights issues that come with blocking and restricting internal movement in China, this paper concludes by conveying how instead of relying on ad hoc or revanchist campaigns for aggressively dealing with rural-urban migrants, the instability of the global economic system may instead push migrants away from cities as the strength of China's contemporary manufacturing sector waxes and wanes.

Internal migration in the PRC has not been investigated through a historical lens, and even less has been written on the forced expulsions of migrants from the PRC's largest cities --during both the pre- and post-reform eras. Investigating chronologically the PRC's goals of suppressing, limiting, and managing rural-to-urban migration via the hukou system, this paper begins to show how differences of opinion arose between provincial leaders as well as the motivations officials have for clearing them out of the city. While not an attempt to bash the PRC's policies of dealing with rural-to-urban migration, this work attempts to show that new approaches have been taken to deal with the migratory movements as well as the continuation of old methods.

Rural-Urban Migration in Contemporary China

After rural-urban migration quickly escalated in the mid-1980s, urbanites, along with state media, began to see a rise in the number of people from the countryside that were poorer, spoke different dialects, and lived in different communities from those originally from the city. Labeled the "floating population" for the first time by state media in August of 1985, these migrants were seen by urban authorities as being unstable, directionless, or even dangerous. (3) However, their perceived "floating" nature, or liudong in the Chinese language, was not due to their movements across the country or their low economic status alone, but was attached to their lack of attaining an urban household registration or hukou, which fixed an individual as being either urban or rural in official status. The latter of these statuses handed one a life of hardship in the countryside that revolved around farming small plots of land that did not belong to them, but to the state. However, with the commencement of economic reform in the late 1970s, rural migrants were granted the option for temporary residence in the cities, setting off the huge migratory process that has led urban governments to strictly deal with the urbanization process in several different ways.

In 1949, the year of the PRC's founding, more than 60 million people lived in China's cities. Six million lived in Shanghai; over 2 million lived in both Beijing and Tianjin, and over 1 million in Guangzhou. (4) In the beginning, the PRC leadership found itself greatly inexperienced in managing large cities. (5) Establishing and maintaining social order was the primary focus of the communist regime. The evolution and implementation of the PRC's hukou system--the population registration system that exists to this day--differentiated urban and rural residential groups to control population movement towards the cities and shape state industrial projects located in China's urban centers. In 1949, at the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central-Committee of the Communist Party of China, PRC Chairman Mao Zedong announced, "the center of gravity of the party's work has shifted from the village to the city," and, "we must do our utmost to learn how to administer and build the cities." (6) If China was to industrialize under the guidance of Mao Zedong, the PRC would need to confront the issue of rural-to-urban migration aggressively.

The idea of registering the population was not new to China. During China's long history, the registration system was primarily used for the gathering of rural and urban statistics, which were both crucial for tax collection as well as military conscription purposes in times of strife or unrest. The Xia Dynasty (twenty-first-sixteenth century B.C.) was the first to develop a population census and basic form of household...

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