China and its Migrants: Fragile Progress

Interview of Chloé Froissart, Director of the Sino-French Centre,  July 26 2018 on iD4D blog, blog coordinated by the Agence Française de Développement – Copyright ID4D.

China CFC EN

China counts almost 300 million migrants workers living in often precarious conditions. Chloé Froissart, Director of the Sino-French Research Centre in Social Sciences at Tsinghua University (Beijing) anlayses their social and legal situations.


There continue to be huge internal migration flows in China, which stretch across the entire country, from the center and West towards the East coast. What is the estimated number of migrant workers today?

According to the report of the National Bureau of Statistics released in April 2018, there were 286.52 million migrant workers in China in 2017. Their number is continuing to rise (+4.81 million compared to 2016, i.e. an increase of 1.7%). Furthermore, the statistics only account for a part of the population of these migrants, as many are not registered and are therefore not counted. Taking a city like Shanghai as an example: the total population is officially 24 million, but it can sometimes reach 30 million, with an average of 28 million.

These migrant workers for a long time flocked to the large manufacturing centers in southern China. Is this still the case?

An increasing number of Chinese migrants now choose to stay near their homes. The development gap is gradually narrowing between the more rural interior areas – where they traditionally come from – and the richer and more industrialized coastal areas which were their destination. In 2017, migrants in coastal regions earned 13% more than migrants in the center and west regions. But there has been a slowdown in the growth of salaries in these most prosperous regions to 6.4% in 2017, against 21% in 2011, while the increase in salaries in inland China has reached a peak at 7.5%.

Many migrants also choose to move to cities close to their homes for personal reasons. Indeed, many are only children and want to have easy access to their families, as described in a recent article of the magazine Caixin. All these changes are reflected in the proportion of migrants who have left their province of residence to work, compared to those who migrate within their home province. In 2008, 53.3% of migrants were working in another region. This figure fell to 44.7% in 2017.

The “hukou” is this Chinese domestic passport introduced at the time of Mao and is equivalent to a residence permit, which divides China’s population between rural households and non-rural households. What impact has it today on internal migration in China?

Strictly speaking, this system no longer prevents migrations, but it discourages them in the large cities through discriminatory policies. Indeed, the “hukou” continues to be a planning instrument. The first national urbanization plan, published by the State Council in 2014, aims to grant an urban “hukou” to 100 million people by 2020. This will further ease the restrictions of the “hukou” in cities and small cities, while exercising more control over migrations in large Chinese cities.

In these large cities, this domestic passport allows the authorities to implement selective immigration policies: attract rich and highly qualified people who will contribute to the economic development of cities. It does not concern workers who have come from rural areas, but often urban migrants or migrants returning from abroad. However, this policy does not stop migrants from continuing to head for the most economically dynamic centers. So the “hukou” continues to be a powerful factor of discrimination in large Chinese cities.

How has the legal and social (access to healthcare) situation of migrants changed?

Despite the central authorities’ will to universalize access to social rights, this policy comes up against the fact that it is the municipalities which must bear all the costs related to this integration into a system where there is no equalization. Municipalities are therefore encouraged to select candidates for integration. Furthermore, China’s social security is a social insurance system financed by the contributions of employers and employees.

This system is only intended for a part of the migrants who are already well integrated in cities and have a stable job. It leaves aside all those who are too poor, too mobile, who often change employers or who are self-employed workers. Yet paying social security contributions is often considered as a condition of access to other rights in cities, particularly education, in other words, as a duty more than a right. In a context whereby access to social protection is in reality extremely poor in cities, migrants often return to rural areas to get treatment. Finally, when migrants return home, they can only recover their own contributions but lose those of their employers, which remain in the social protection system in cities.

How have the working conditions of this “cheap” manpower improved?

Starting in 2008, a series of laws – the first being the labor law – were published and have considerably strengthened the codification of rights for all workers, including migrants. There has generally been progress in the protection of rights. But it is not done through the institutionalized dispute resolution channels (arbitration, mediation, ruling), which only provide a very poor response to workers’ expectations. It is done under pressure from mobilizations, with a constantly increasing number of strikes. Various forms of collective bargaining have been introduced, mainly focusing on salaries. Independent collective bargaining led by workers with help from NGOs developed between 2011 and 2015 in Guangdong (southern China). It allowed a variety of disputes to be settled, in particular related to relocations. But due to fear of an excessive empowerment of the labor movement, it was stopped in December 2015, with a string of arrests of activists and the closure of several NGOs. Official trade unions are also trying to set up their own model for collective bargaining, particularly on salaries, in order to avoid strikes.

Is education provided for the children of these migrants?

According to the New Citizen Annual Report (2017), approximately 60% of Chinese migrants’ children are unable to follow their parents to the city due to a lack of access to education in urban areas and therefore go to school in rural areas, where educational conditions are not as good. Among those who are able to follow their parents to the city, only 32% go to public schools and benefit from the same educational conditions as non-migrant children. But this requires parents to provide a number of documents, in particular certifying that they have a fixed job and abode and that they pay social security contributions. In other words, public education remains out of reach for children whose parents are poor or work in the informal economy. Finally, approximately 8% of these children are in private schools where tuition fees are high, whereas education is free in public schools.

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

Find this article on the iD4D blog, a blog coordinated by the Agence Française de Developpement 

New European Research on Contemporary China Conference (3rd Edition, Beijing, July 4-6, 2016)

This conference aims to bring together doctoral candidates, post-doctoral researchers and recent PhDs based in China, either European nationals or affiliated with European research institutions, in order to produce an overview of the emerging problematics in Chinese studies. The focus of the conference is on contemporary China, in a multi-disciplinary social science perspective.


French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC)

Sino-French Research Center (CFC, Tsinghua University)

EURAXESS Links China

Supported by:

Delegation of the European Union to China

Heinrich-Böll Foundation

Institut Français (to be confirmed)

GIS Asie

Scientific Committee
Séverine Arsène (CEFC Hong Kong)
Jean-Pierre Cabestan (Hong Kong Baptist University, Department of Government and International Studies)
Sébastien Colin (CEFC Hong Kong)
Sabine Dabringhaus (University of Freiburg, Southeast Asian Studies at Freiburg)
Nicolas Douay (CEFC Hong Kong)
Eric Florence (CEFC Hong Kong)
Chloé Froissart (CFC Beijing)
Hu Yong (Peking University, Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication)
Jack Qiu (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, School of Journalism and Communication)
Bu Maoliang (Nanjing University, School of Business)
David O’Brien (University of Nottingham-Ningbo, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies)
Frank Pieke (Leiden University, Modern China Studies)*
Pun Ngai (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Department of Applied Social Sciences)*
Christoph Steinhardt (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Centre for China Studies)
Xie Tao (Beijing Foreign Studies University, American Studies Center, School of English and International Studies)
Xiong Yihan (Fudan University, School of International Relations and Public Affairs)
Yu Xiaomin (Beijing Normal University, Department of sociology)
Zhao Kejin (the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center)

*Keynote speaker

The reforms launched in the late 1970s have deeply transformed Chinese society, but also research on China: the theoretical and methodological challenges raised by reform-era China have opened up a vast laboratory for researchers in humanities and social sciences. Along with the growing exchanges between China and Europe, the number of European doctoral candidates and recent PhDs in humanities and social sciences doing research in and studying contemporary China has increased; many young Chinese scholars also choose to bring their expertise on contemporary China to European academic institutions. They all represent the future of European research on contemporary China.

The main purpose of the third edition of this Conference is to provide a forum for these young researchers at the European level and in China to engage with each other’s work and foster a better understanding of economic and socio-political processes at work in contemporary China as well as at an international level as China is becoming an increasingly important global actor.

The Conference will be an occasion to facilitate exchanges on common research subjects, compare perspectives and methodologies, and promote interdisciplinary dialogue. By providing a space for debate and reflection, the Conference intends to contribute to the emergence of more diverse theoretical approaches of contemporary China, both in its domestic and international dimensions. It will enable the participants not only to expand their network and broaden their horizon, but also to take part in the construction of research networks and promote China-Europe dialogue.

The participants will present their research during thematic panels. Each speaker will deliver a paper in English, followed by a discussion with invited scholars and specialists. Among the different topics: contributions may focus on, but are not limited to, the hereafter topics :

Topic 1: Economic, institutional and politico-legal configurations in post-Mao China (contributions may focus on, but are not limited to, the following topics : dynamics of the political and legal systems, disaggregating the Party-state, defining the current political regime, the political economies of post-Mao China, etc.)
Topic 2: Economic growth and sustainable development (including topics such as: from the design of public policies to their implementation, environmental protection, industrial development, enterprises, innovation policies, etc.)
Topic 3: China as a regional and global actor(including topics such as: international relations, EU-China relations, global governance, Chinese outward investment, geopolitics of energy, etc.)
Topic 4: Territorial and social reconfigurations (contributions may focus on, but are not limited to, the following topics : centre-local relations, demography, urban and rural development, social policies, social stratification and social groups, migration, inequalities).
Topic 5: Civil society and social movements (including: what theoretical and empirical tools for the study of state-society relations?Social mobilization and the digital sphere, the dynamics of the public sphere, rights consciousness/rules consciousness, etc.)
Topic 6 : Communities, institutions and the self in post-Mao China (including topics such as: social values, moral economies, religious communities, consumption, etc.)
Topic 6: Intellectual debates and cultural production: literature and arts, cinema and television (contributions may focus on, but are not limited to : literature and arts, cinema and television).

Who can apply?

The Conference is designed for doctoral candidates and recent PhDs in humanities and social sciences currently in China or planning to be in China in the summer of 2016, either European nationals or affiliated with a European university or research institute, regardless of nationality. Among the different disciplines that will be considered: anthropology, law, economics, geography, history, literature, international relations, political sciences and sociology.

Practical arrangements:

The conference will sponsor part of the domestic travel within China and /or accommodation in Beijing for selected participants (this will be confirmed to the participants once their proposals are accepted by the scientific committee; however, no funding is available for international travel.

Registration details and schedule

(1) A paper title and abstract (up to 20 lines) in English is to be sent by 15 February 2016 to Mr. Henry Wu: cefc@cefc.com.hk.
(2) The selected participants will be notified by 15 April 2016
(3) The final papers (up to 8000 words) should be sent by 31 May 2016
(4) Selected papers may be published in the journal China Perspectives/ Perspectives chinoises.