Rural migrants are denied rights in Chinese cities. Can Xi fix the problem?

Andy Wong/AP/File
A migrant worker walks up to a pedestrian bridge in Beijing, Dec. 6, 2020. Over the last four decades, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have migrated to cities for work, but most don't have legal residency rights in those cities.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Ever since China began disbanding rural communes in the 1980s, migrants have poured into cities to find work. But as rural transplants don’t qualify for urban residency, they can’t easily access public education and social security. 

Previous efforts to change the rules on urban residency have largely fallen flat. Now China is trying again by loosening restrictions on household registration in small and medium-sized cities, in a bid to close the gap between rural and urban citizens and boost economic efficiency. This is in line with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s goal to build a secure middle class that can power a consumer-led economy. 

Why We Wrote This

China’s household registration system acts as a block on the rights of rural migrants in cities. Moves to relax the rules are framed as a step toward greater shared prosperity.

Rural migrants have long struggled with the dilemma of how to educate their children who don’t automatically qualify for public education in cities. Some send children back home to live with grandparents. Others scrimp and save to pay for private schools. But frustration runs deep for many. 

“There is increasing recognition that this system is basically unfair,” said Martin Whyte, a sociologist at Harvard. “You don’t want to run a modern society by having people categorized at birth in a lower status position and denied opportunities that you would allow the rest of the population.”

Tan Chunmiao left his rural hometown in the mountains in 2011 for a factory job in the booming Pearl River megacity of Guangzhou.

Ten years later, Mr. Tan is still there, now putting in long hours as a chef in a Japanese restaurant to support his wife and two young children. But as a rural migrant – one of more than 280 million who have put their shoulder to the wheel of China’s economy – he’s denied the same rights and social services afforded to city residents, including free education for his kids.

“I just have to depend on myself. It’s like I don’t have a Guangzhou ‘green card,’” he says with a laugh, comparing his second-class status with that of a temporary immigrant in the United States.

Why We Wrote This

China’s household registration system acts as a block on the rights of rural migrants in cities. Moves to relax the rules are framed as a step toward greater shared prosperity.

Under China’s 1950s household registration, or hukou, system, citizens are categorized at birth as rural or urban, based on where their parents are registered. Communist leader Mao Zedong sought to bind peasants to the soil for collective agriculture. After rural communes were dismantled in the 1980s, migrants flooded into cities and became a vast underclass that businesses could exploit.

But today, the economic and social costs of a segregated system are seen as a roadblock to China’s overarching goal of building an urbanized, advanced, consumer economy that is less reliant on exports. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign seeks to expand the middle class and reduce income inequality, which is nearly as high in China as in the United States, by some measures.

Studies show the insecurity of migrant life dampens consumption, reduces economic efficiency, and discourages families from having more children, while those children born to migrants struggle to get ahead, given the disadvantages they face.  

“It must be soberly recognized that the problem of unbalanced and inadequate development in China is still prominent, with a large gap between urban and rural regional development and income distribution,” Mr. Xi said in a speech last August to China’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission.

Past efforts to loosen residency restrictions in smaller cities are widely seen as producing marginal gains, since few benefits flowed to migrants. In response, Beijing is pushing new, top-down measures to eliminate hukou restrictions in most cities by 2025: Its current development strategy calls for abolishing hukou restrictions in cities of less than 3 million people, and loosening them in cities with populations of 3 million to 5 million people.

“We will accelerate the urbanization of the rural migrant population,” Wu Xiao, director of the rural economic department of the National Development and Reform Commission told a press conference in December.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Migrant workers pack their belongings onto a truck as they leave from the outskirts of Beijing, Nov. 27, 2017. China's household registration system differentiates between rural and urban residents.

“Not a lot of rain”         

Still, experts question whether such plans will make migrants like Mr. Tan full citizens in China’s most dynamic cities, given the cities’ resistance to reforms that would add to their fiscal burden, such as free schooling for migrant kids and social security checks.

“There is a lot of thunder but really not a lot of rain,” says Kam Wing Chan, a professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert on China’s hukou system.

He points to the easing of hukou restrictions since 2014 in many small and medium-sized cities that largely lack the jobs and social services to attract rural migrants. “It’s just in name. There is no benefit,” Professor Chan says. “I call it a fake hukou.”

Just like the latest proposals, the previous program excluded big cities like Shanghai and Beijing that have long been magnets for bootstrapping migrants. And the problem keeps growing: China’s 2020 census showed that the proportion of urban residents who don’t have an urban hukou has increased to 18.5%, up from 17.2% in 2012.

“Most agricultural workers … still face an ‘invisible wall,’ that is, they cannot get adequate social security and public services,” said Cai Fang, former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in a keynote speech last July. “Only by turning them into urban residents can they become middle-income groups in the true sense, otherwise they will be very unstable.”

Indeed, the disenfranchisement of such a large group risks creating not only dislocated lives but also the seeds of political instability in China where polls have shown the hukou system to be unpopular with both urban and rural residents.

“There is increasing recognition that this system is basically unfair,” Martin Whyte, a China expert and professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard, told a recent seminar at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “You don’t want to run a modern society by having people categorized at birth in a lower status position and denied opportunities that you would allow the rest of the population.”

Jason Lee/Reuters/File
A teacher reads to students in class at Pengying School on the outskirts of Beijing, Nov. 11, 2013. China's household registration system prevents most migrant children from attending public schools in cities, so some families pay for private schools.

A disrupted education

The impact is especially harmful for the children of rural migrants. Many are forced to live apart from their parents since most urban public schools won’t enroll those children and many migrant families can’t afford fees at private schools.

One young woman in Guangzhou recalled that as an elementary student she had to switch private schools seven or eight times as her parents were migrant farmers who grew vegetables on other people’s suburban land. “My education was very troublesome,” says Ms. Lu, using a pseudonym to protect her privacy. Her parents couldn’t afford the private middle schools open to migrant children, so they sent her back to her home village to study and live with her grandfather. Later she found work at a soy sauce factory in Guangzhou.

Mr. Tan faces similar problems, worrying about how to educate his two children, who live with his wife in another town.

Millions of “left behind” children with poor educational opportunities are contributing to China’s shortage of human capital – a key determinant of whether a country can join the ranks of advanced economies, says Dr. Whyte. The percentage of China’s labor force with some high school education is lower than that of Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil, he says.

Land as security 

For many Chinese rural migrants, the uphill battle to obtain the benefits that come with a city hukou has made them reconsider the value of holding onto land back home as a source of security.

Mr. Fuo – a pseudonym – has worked for more than 20 years at a variety of jobs in Foshan, a satellite city of Guangzhou, supporting his mother on their 1.6-acre farm in his hometown. Unable to find a wife, he lives alone in a rented room 300 meters from the bra factory where he now works six days a week. “Living in the city isn’t easy,” he says, “so if the conditions are not very good, and the income is not high, I can consider going home and taking care of my mother,” he says.

As for Mr. Tan, he has no plans to give up his family’s land – half an acre of rice and beans farmed by his father and a few acres of mountain land where they grow trees.

“Above me there are old people, below me young people,” he says, quoting a Chinese saying about a sandwich generation caring for both parents and children.

Instead, he plans to work for another 15 years until his children are grown and self-supporting, and then retire to his village and hope for gradually better social welfare there. “Then I can go back home and have a different life – maybe be a tourist,” he says, “but now, I can’t.”         

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Rural migrants are denied rights in Chinese cities. Can Xi fix the problem?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today