China is the world’s 3rd largest country in terms of land area. It has the largest population. Until 2012, the majority of that population lived in remote rural areas. Many of these remote areas have mountainous terrain and infertile land. Life in rural China is difficult for many reasons. With China’s relatively recent rise to economic power, rural Chinese have begun to move to cities in an accelerating trend of rural-urban migration. The effects of this internal immigration are surprising, though.

A System of Exclusion

China’s internal passport system, Hukou, classifies every household as either rural or urban. With the classification, you’re designated part of a regional government. This government is responsible for providing rights outlined in China’s constitution, such as compensatory education, healthcare and social security. If a person leaves his own region, he essentially forfeits his rights to these benefits.

The Hukou system has been effective is slowing the rate or rural-urban migration since it’s inception, and, as a result, China doesn’t have the large slums surrounding it’s major cities like you see in India or South America.

The tide is turning, though, as more workers are “pushed” from their rural homes for a variety of reasons.

Causes for Rural-Urban Migration

The forces behind rural-urban migration are often described in terms of push and pull. “Pull” forces attract workers to the urban centers, while “push” factors force workers from their rural homes. Rural Chinese that once shunned the “pull” effect of major cities are now being “pushed” there. There are several reasons for the internal immigration, including a surplus labor supply, extreme poverty and increasingly difficult agrarian lifestyle.

1. Labor Surplus in RuralĀ China

The Hukou system has been so effective at stemming migration, a surplus of workers has built up. With very few jobs besides farming available, workers look to the large cities.

2. Extreme Poverty

About 362 million Chinese live on less than $2/day. With most of these poor living in rural areas, the need for income drives them to areas with a promise of new income.

3. Agrarian Culture

Rural Chinese live a mainly agrarian lifestyle, farming the land and raising livestock. With access to clean water limited, lack of modern equipment and the constant threat of extreme drought, each generation becomes less entrenched in this lifestyle. They look to find work that seems more productive.

The Floating Population

As these factors now “push” rural Chinese from their homes, they’re commonly referred to as members of a floating population. This means they are living in an urban area without household registration status through the Hukou system. They trade the opportunity to work in an urban area for their government-provided benefits of healthcare, education and retirement. In many cases, not having urban registration also excludes migrant workers from many urban jobs. In 2011, there were an estimated 253 million migrant workers (over 4% increase from 2010).

Since these workers are largely undocumented and don’t officially count towards the city statistics. This is how China appears to thrive even with a growing population struggling in poverty.

Difficult Living Conditions

Because many migrant workers lack the skills and education or their urban counterparts, their job opportunities come in the construction and manufacturing industries. They’ll commonly live in makeshift dormitories in buildings eventually scheduled for demolition.

Families That Move to Urban Areas Together

Some families make the move together, uprooting children from school and in many cases, leaving grandparents behind. While the family stays together, it’s a struggle… especially for the children. Children of migrants workers lose their access to education and healthcare. They don’t belong to the city or a village. While families do their best to pool resources and even hire private teachers, they’re often forced to relocate and live without access to vast amount of resources available in the city.

Migration Splits Families


While some families move to the city together, are forced to separate (like Mr. Yan facedĀ in the video above). Usually the husband will leave in search of work. He’ll visit once or twice a year, if possible, and bring money back to support the family. Even when this works out as planned, it’s leaves the women and grandparents to farm and take care of the children. In many cases, both parents leave and are unable to return. The creates a generation of children left behind.

These are the families and villages Project Partner exists to support. Rural-urban migration is just one of the factors contributing to the poverty in rural China.

Together we can end the Poverty Crisis.

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