Freedom to Move, No Freedom to Settle: The Labor Migrancy Dilemma in Contemporary China’s Urbanization

Freedom to Move, No Freedom to Settle: The Labor Migrancy Dilemma in Contemporary China’s Urbanization

Article by LI QI.

Abstract: Until 2018, the number of domestic migrant workers in mainland China exceeded 280 million people, occupying 20% of the overall population. They endured unequal citizenship due to the urban-rural divide. Although they worked and lived in cities, they rarely had access to urban welfare. This article tries to explore the emergence of this contemporary inequality through various dimensions: the establishment of the market economy, the urban-rural dual system of land property, and the state surveillance on labor mobility. Drawing upon the subaltern studies approach by various Indian scholars, we will find a shared dilemma on developing issues in China. China’s government has continuously renewed governmental techniques of controlling the population. To what extent can we imagine citizenship that involves the subjectivity of migrant workers?

Keywords: China, Migrant Worker, Urbanization, Rural Collective, Urban Village

Header image taken by the author.

Facing an old man whose age was the same as my grandfather, I felt that the questionnaire I had carefully designed was too simplistic.[1] He was sitting in front of an office table, responding to my questions with a casual air.

“Would you mind letting me know how many people you needed to share a toilet with in the dormitory when you first came to Guangzhou?” This question was aimed at understanding the residential condition of migrant workers when they first came to a megacity. In general, the usual number the respondents gave would be more than one. Most migrant workers lived in crowded dormitories without any personal space. However, some of them lived with their families.

“More than one hundred people, I guess.”

“Was it a public toilet?” As far as I knew, some dormitories were in terrible condition and did not have toilets. In such cases, tenants were forced to use public toilets on the street. However, not all public toilets were open for 24 hours, which made the situation worse.

“When we first arrived here, we lived in a temporary shed. At that time, there were no public toilets. We solved the problem using a nearby fish pond!” He laughed loudly.

“So you came here in the very early days?”

“Of course. When I arrived here, this place had not been developed yet.”

We were in a development zone in the outer suburbs of Guangzhou City. In the 1990s, as part of the earliest development zones that the Guangzhou government set for direct foreign investment, this area was specially designed for investments from Taiwan. I met this old man in a local non-governmental organization of the labor service. He experienced the whole developing process of this zone, and what he told me was another face of urban construction.

“I came here from Guizhou (a province in southwestern China) with my brother. We could not find any jobs. We hung out every day, sometimes we went fishing. One day, we were playing on a little bridge nearby, and were stopped by an officer of the city council. He asked if we want to work with him. Then we followed him. Our jobs varied. We laid the water pipes when the development zone office built houses. We drew the setback line on the land when they sold it to factories. If we were free, we assisted in planting some trees on the street.”

“So you were almost the physical founder of this development zone!” It sounded incredible to me. As early as twenty years ago, the annual economic output of this development zone was already over 20 billion US dollars, but he told me just now that last year he made no more than 8,000 US dollars.

“Did you sign any work contracts and insurance with the development zone office? After all, you were working for the government.”


When the whole infrastructure project of the development zone finished, he lost the job. After that, he has been working in a private steel-tube processing factory till now.

Urban-Rural Borders in Contemporary China

The term “migrant workers” in mainland China mostly refers to domestic peasant-workers. They work and live in cities, but they retain agricultural citizenship. The internal borders of national citizenship prevent them from getting urban welfare, including access to free compulsory education, public housing protection, medical treatment, and a retirement pension.

Strict management on population mobility was adopted in mainland China since the socialist institution was established. The residential system (Hukou system) classified by administrative region, controls free movements and settlements between rural and urban areas. The regulations on mobility were firstly loosened when the central government decided to conduct the top-down Open and Reform Policy by the late 1970s. To extract enough labor power for urban industrialization, the central government changed the agricultural economic system. Peasants did not work in the collectives anymore. The collective production units were separated into independent family production units. Peasants were allowed to directly make a land contract with the state. Every family had its land usage right, while the land property still belonged to the rural collective.

The shift from a planned economy to a market economy required a free labor market. Before the reform in the early 1980s, all workers were considered state workers, and their working conditions followed socialist principles, like the “eight-hour workday” and the wage grade system (State Council of PRC, 1952). The first labor law that was based on the market economy system was not issued until 1994. When people from rural areas finally overcame the restriction of free mobility, they were exposed to a zero-protection working environment. The old man I met in Guangzhou was one of them. He left his rural hometown and devoted his first job to urban infrastructure. Although he was working for the government, what he got was an orally-agreed payment instead of a legal working contract and insurance.

Until 2018, the number of domestic migrant workers in mainland China exceeded 280 million people, occupying 20% of the overall population (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). Migrant workers were needed as laborers and not acknowledged as citizens. Cities in China set strict selection procedures for choosing new “citizens.”

The urban-rural tension always existed. Capital required the elimination of restraints on labor flow and land turnover, while governments would not give up the management of the population and the supervision of the border. Although mainland China witnessed privatization of the economic and social domains, the government still kept the Hukou system as well as the rural collective economic system. Unlike the dispossessed peasant problem in the Western industrialization process, domestic migrant workers in mainland China still hold land usage rights in their hometown, including rural collective land and family housing land. The land usage right was protected by constitutional law, which legally avoided displacement. However, the proportion of agriculture in the national economic structure declined over the years, resulting in a large number of surplus rural labor. Besides the shortage of employment opportunities, the welfare system in rural areas was inferior to the urban welfare system so peasants were pushed to leave for cities.

Why Can’t Migrant Workers Speak?

Statistics-based research on developing Asian countries indicated that the majority of the developing world’s poor have lived in urban areas. The growing rate of urbanization was also linked to expanding inequalities in cities. In Asia’s cities, nearly one-third of the population lived in slums. This number was projected to get bigger as rapid urbanization continues in Asia (Amitabh Kundu, Debolina Kundu, 2010). This is the consequence of unequal spatial development. The surplus populations transferred from agriculture to industry gathered in cities. They gathered in slums, where there exists hundreds of thousands of informal houses as well as informal markets and underground economies. Thus, local officials target slums as places that need governance and public security.

According to the analysis of Indian modernization, Kalyan Sanyal explained the emergence of these surplus populations as the surplus labor power that existed outside of capital:

Marx says in the Grundrisse that primitive accumulation is the becoming of capital. In other words, I am going from the capital’s present to its past, to precapital. When capital becomes self-subsistent, the becoming remains suspended in the being. But if there is this surplus labor power,⋯⋯ Now, this outside consisting of the redundant surplus population that is separated from the old formation but cannot find a place in the new—it remains outside the capital (Partha Chatterjee, Kalyan Sanyal, 2016).

Partha Chatterjee developed the study of surplus labor power in his work “The Political Society”. The modern state governance regarded these people as populations rather than citizens. He wrote:

The emergence of mass democracies in the advanced industrial countries of the West in the twentieth century produced an entirely new distinction—one between citizens and populations. …Unlike the concept of citizen, which carries the ethical connotation of participation in the sovereignty of the state, the concept of the population makes available to government functionaries a set of rationally manipulable instruments… Indeed, as Michel Foucault has pointed out, a major characteristic of the contemporary regime of power is a certain “governmentalization of the state.” This regime secures legitimacy not by the participation of citizens in matters of state but by claiming to provide for the well-being of the population. Its mode of reasoning is not deliberative openness but rather an instrumental notion of costs and benefits. Its apparatus is not the republican assembly but an elaborate network of surveillance through which information is collected on every aspect of the life of the population that is to be looked after.

It is not surprising that in the course of the twentieth century, ideas of participatory citizenship …have fast retreated before the governmental technologies that have promised to deliver more well-being to more people at less cost (Partha Chatterjee, 2004).

Chatterjee’s work explained how political society negotiated with the local government and fought for their political rights under the category of “the governed population.” He followed Michel Foucault’s idea on the modern “governmentalization of the state,” which is based on his observation of India as a post-colonial society. In the negotiation stage, people in slums took advantage of a messy democracy and pushed the government to concede for the sake of political elections. Although the approach of post-colonialism and its effect on a mass democratic society may not be applied directly to the analysis of contemporary mainland China, the two countries have a shared dilemma on developing issues.

The rapid urbanization in China left numerous urban villages, where the property and administration related to land were still controlled by the rural collectives. These were undeveloped spaces in the city, where the land price was lower than surrounding areas. Villagers built houses and apartments and rented them to migrant workers at a lower rent. Migrant workers were the main residents living in urban villages. The buildings were seen by the city government as illegal housing since the owners usually violated the urban zoning plan and lacked construction certifications. The housing market in urban villages went beyond urban management. If the government deals with the illegal housing in urban villages and adopts an urban renewal plan in these areas, they would encounter great pressure from the rural collectives and villagers. When the negotiation of illegal housing problems began, migrant workers left their village and quickly found another residence. They were always excluded in the negotiation between villagers, city governments, and estate companies, although they were the direct victims of the urban renewal plan. Compared with “the political society” in Calcutta of which Chatterjee did his research, Chinese migrant workers in urban villages rarely had self-organization or demanded a collective right. Why can’t migrant workers speak? It results from the updated governmental techniques that China’s government used.

The image was taken by the author.

Updated Governmental Techniques and Possibility of A New Citizenship

The urban-rural dual system in mainland China works in parallel. On the one hand, the central government regulates the overall plan of urbanization, and city governments follow the guidance. On the other hand, due to the limit of the intergovernmental finance transfer payment system, the state’s development requires mobilization of labor, while the cities often refuse to front the cost of transforming peasants into urban citizens. Consequently, migrant workers have the freedom of movement, but they lack the freedom of settlement.

The state’s overall plan tends to promote labor mobilization in a more balanced flow. Megacity governments are required to restrict the expansion of space and population. On the problem of space expansion, city governments should avoid the over-exploitation of land which might lead to local financial supply-demand imbalance. In the urbanization process, the city has swallowed up nearby villages, transforming rural collective land property into state property. The cost of land might bring the city government financial debt. This kind of urbanization has left the complicated administrative problems of urban villages, too, which has been discussed above. On the issue of population expansion, megacities took tightened measures on the population growth from migration. For example, the Beijing and Shanghai government adopted compulsory policies of population control. Governments closed the restaurants and shops in urban villages and conducted stricter house renting regulations. These policies caused a higher living cost in megacities, so those migrant workers were left with no other options but to leave. Governments used violent acts as well, as the case of Beijing’s expelling of “the low-end population”, which had raised a lot of public controversies. [2]

Migrant workers that had been expelled were supposed to move to other smaller cities, as the central government had designed. According to the national urbanization plan that was unveiled in 2014, the state council tried to solve the urban-rural inequality and the spatial imbalance of resources (The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the State Council, 2014). China’s urbanization plan in 2014-2020 was designed as a cooperating system within city groups. The plan intended to promote a population shift from megacities to surrounding smaller cities, for the sake of relieving the population pressure of megacities as well as complementing the lack of labor in factories and service industries in smaller cities. Thus, under the overall plan of national urbanization, the expelled migrant workers could still get employed in other cities. It seemed that they would have the chance to get citizenship and improve their lives.

Following what the propaganda claimed, it would appear that an active centralized state can solve the dilemma of peasants. If migrant workers follow the national policy, they would not be trapped in absolute poverty. However, can they demand more?

The specific demands for citizenship expressed through migratory movements had been put forward, as Sandro Mezzadra argued. There are two faces of citizenship: the first being citizenship in the formal institutional sense, and the second associated with social practices, that is, with a combination of political and practical forces that challenge the formal institutions of citizenship. The latter raises the question of subjectivity, which is the struggle to free oneself. For the migrants, the decision to migrate involves a search for liberty or emancipation, which allows a move away from stereotypical narratives (Sandro Mezzadra, 2003). The flow of migration calls for a new definition of citizenship.

Scholars have given a new assumption of citizenship based on the legalization project of illegal housing in urban villages. In Shenzhen, half of the population lives in urban villages. The government has adopted a policy that involves the participation of the owners of illegal housings. In this case, the government would ignore whether redeveloped buildings were legal or illegal as long as the project can supply 20% of its land to the government for free and develop another 12% of land for public roads and other public facilities (Qiao, 2017). The owners of illegal housing had the choice to accept the compensation of the land and buildings from the government or not. Shenzhen government partly gave up the compulsory measures on demolishing illegal houses in urban villages. Similarly, in Hangzhou, the government planned to reconstruct several urban villages into temporary public houses for accommodating migrant workers (Bureau of Housing of Hangzhou, 2018). Yet these policies only covered a small number of people. There is still a long road ahead to improve migrant workers’ living conditions in cities. A new understanding of citizenship is growing in China—citizenship that takes city-outsiders into considerations. It should have a citizenship that is open to future citizens.

It is hard to evaluate the governmental techniques that China’s government used for the citizenship of migrant workers in the urbanization plan. Within the limit of public participation, is it possible to search for “an autonomous space of subjective action that can force significant institutional transformation”? (Sandro Mezzadra, 2003) At the end of the fieldwork, we found out that most of the migrant workers we interviewed are planning to leave the cities and retire in their rural hometown. They still owned membership in the rural welfare programs, including pension and health care, which was weaker than the urban welfare program. For now, they do not have better choices.

“If the government can provide you with a public house, do you have any expectations of the living condition?” I asked the old man. The question sounds like a daydream.

“I hope it has good Feng Shui.” He replied. “Feng Shui” is an ancient Chinese practice of arranging houses to have good fortune and balance with the living environment. This is his humor in the face of an absurd reality.


[1] This field research was supported by New Urban Migrants’ Housing Security Research Project (2017-2018), organized by Professor Pun Ngai and carried out by Ms. Chen Pinyu, Department of Sociology, Hong Kong University.

[2] For more information on the crisis of “the low-end population” in Beijing in autumn 2017, please refer to media reports.



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