China Beat Archive



Tom Bannister

Date of this Version


Document Type



2011 in The China Beat


Copyright 2011. Used by permission.


There are many migrant workers in China. Look from any urban window and you will doubtless see several hundred constructing the next high-rise apartment block in that city’s endless stream of development. The migrant worker is one of the most remarkable features of the reform era; with numbers in the range of 200 million, they represent around 3% of the world’s population and would form the world’s fifth most populous country. Together they have created the phenomenon of China’s ‘floating population’ (Liudong renkou, 流动人口), the largest peacetime movement of people in history. However, this is not the ordinary trend of urbanisation that can be seen in other developing countries. Chinese government policies, implemented in the pre-reform period, mean that the majority of this migration is temporary, in name if not in practice. The major barrier that prevents permanent recognition of migration is the hukou (户口) system, introduced in 1958 to control rural-urban movement. During the Mao era, one’s hukou defined eligibility for food rations, housing allotment, and access to education; someone holding a rural hukou would face considerable difficulty in seeking to obtain an urban one. Since the early 1980s, the system has been gradually changed but remains only partially reformed. Rural hukou-holding migrants are still largely denied access to the public services available to the officially recognised urbanites living around them. They no longer plough their fields but they retain their rural hukou status, straddling rural and urban spheres with the aspirations associated with the latter but lacking the means to achieve them.