Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

China and the Americas: Common Roots of Internal Migration

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Internal migration is a common trend around the globe, and China is no exception. It has one of the highest levels of migration, mostly from rural areas to urban centers. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 271 million people did not live in their registered residence for more than six months last year. Some estimates project that number will hit 350 million by 2050.

Rural-to-urban migration in particular continues to stimulate China’s economic development. The largest human migration in the world takes place during the Chinese New Year season, when millions of people travel from major cities to their hometowns to reunite with loved ones. There are many reports, books and documentaries that tell vivid stories of the incredible personal sacrifice migrants and their families make in pursuit of a better life. Those sacrifices can even become so unbearable that families ultimately go back to searching for work or business opportunities closer to home. After the holiday break this year, China experienced a shortage of workers as some failed to return to work.

Not everyone, however, is eager to return home to the countryside. Dominated by the agricultural industry, the rural, Hunan province town in which I reside is home to residents who go to bed far earlier than urbanites and who perform demanding labor that reaps little financial wealth. Many young people in particular have no desire to perpetuate the status quo. It is pretty uncommon to see residents in the 20-plus and 30-plus age demographics.

The Chinese government has started to offer certain incentives to make rural living more appealing (such as subsidies and machinery) and has even considered paying premiums for insurance against bad weather. The combination of such incentives with increasing rural development and family demands has been successful in drawing some residents back. But youth in particular still tend to prefer more urban lifestyles. 

This is not too different from the Americas. In fact, similar underlying factors drive internal migration in both regions.

Environmental Reasons

As climate change is projected to yield more extreme weather in the coming years, environmental migration will only accelerate. It will also disproportionately affect low-income and vulnerable communities. In southwest China, drought and low rainfall has plagued Yunnan province for three consecutive years and dried up 273 rivers and 413 small reservoirs. The growth of megacities also has accelerated drought as government projects transfer water from rivers in the south to the north.

Latin American countries are also experiencing severe drought conditions. Fourteen forest fires raged in Colombia within a short span of two weeks in January. The World Bank recently loaned Mexico $300 million to combat climate change and address the more frequent incidences of drought that are contributing to internal migration flows.

Employment Reasons

People in search of better employment are key drivers of internal migration. Their numbers are growing at an exponential rate and contributing to urbanization. Those who migrate from rural to urban areas in both China and Latin America tend to dominate jobs in the informal sector or in the service industry and factories, which usually generate low incomes and, thus, have little positive impact on intergenerational wealth. However, although the challenges of internal migration are evident in countries such as Bolivia, people still consider the urban opportunities to be greater than what they would encounter living in the countryside.

According to the Financial Times, over 76 percent of China will be urbanized in the next 50 years. One of the major barriers migrants face when integrating into city life is their hukou status—a household registration system that categorizes people as rural or urban residents. It was first introduced in the 1950s to stem population flows and binds social services strictly to areas where people are registered. A change in hukou is difficult to obtain and, in addition to not being able to claim government benefits, the lack of urban registration can jeopardize educational prospects for migrant children as well as the ability of migrants to seek protection from labor exploitation.

Recently, the Chinese government pledged to provide equal access to public services for urban residents without proper residential permits. Moreover, in China’s Twelfth “Five-Year Plan,” one of the policy initiatives of the government is to promote social equity. Key elements of this effort include reforming the hukou registration system, raising the minimum wage and expanding government-funded social welfare. In some cities, the government is providing employment assistance and occupational training, but more efforts still are needed.

Educational Reasons

Employment opportunities are not the only catalyst for Chinese migrants to make the rural to urban transition. Most are fortunate if they have schools in their rural towns that rival the educational resources and instruction quality available at schools in larger cities. The transition from high school to college in particular triggers a large-scale exodus. The young people that move from rural areas to larger cities to complete their university education are more likely to stay near there or settle down in similar urban areas. This can contribute to a “brain drain” in rural areas, similar to the “brain drain” trend seen in parts of the rural United States.

China is gradually increasing efforts to boost rural development. Many small cities and towns will benefit from heightened investments in manufacturing, commerce, trade and tourism. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent the rural educational sectors will benefit.

The Chinese national legislature opened its 2012 session in early March. As the national government seeks to expand growth in western China through preferential policies such as land credit, lower taxes and manufacturer subsidies, it will also have to continue to address these and other roots of its internal migration dynamics. In China, as well as the Americas, this dynamic shows no sign of slowing down.

*Nnenna Ozobia is a guest blogger to AQ Online who is currently completing a postgraduate teaching fellowship in rural Hunan province, China, as the recipient of the CJ Huang Fellowship from Stanford University. She has previously worked in various countries throughout the Americas on diverse research and international development projects.


Tags: Bolivia, China, Migration
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