In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Migration Under Economic Reform

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Statistics
  • Interview and Survey Studies
  • Family and Society
  • Women’s Issues
  • Geography
  • Minorities
  • Involuntary Migration
  • Comparative Studies

Chinese Studies Migration Under Economic Reform
Thomas R. Gottschang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0035


China’s market-based economic reforms that began in December 1978 caused a great increase in migration, both domestic and international. Migration is an integral element of economic growth and development, as labor shifts in response to the creation of new jobs; it has been magnified and complicated in China by the effects of the household registration system, or hukou (戶口), which was introduced during China’s centrally planned years before the reform era. The hukou system effectively prevented most unauthorized migration and resulted in a huge excess in the labor force in rural areas. Because the reform policies brought about rising demand for urban labor, and the growth of the market rendered the hukou less restrictive, waves of migrants moved from the countryside into the cities, a phenomenon that is unparalleled in size and that has continued to the present. At the same time, the policy of opening China to international markets and social and cultural exchanges has brought about new opportunities for young Chinese to seek higher education abroad, while official and private foreign ventures have taken large numbers of Chinese workers to other countries. Immigration into China has also been spurred by economic growth, which has drawn in unprecedented numbers of foreign businesspeople, many of whom have remained for extended periods. Because most migration is caused by changing economic conditions and brings about significant changes in family structure, lifestyle, educational opportunities, health, and culture, it has been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, geography, and medicine. It has also drawn the attention of scholars specializing in gender studies and human rights.

General Overviews

An excellent introduction to domestic migration is Davin 1999, as is Fan 2008. Also see Solinger 1999 (cited in Household Registration (hukou) and Migrants’ Legal Rights) for a good overview emphasizing the contradictory role of government policy. Day and Ma 1994 provides a sampling of studies by leading scholars in the field. Another useful collection is Scharping 1997, which includes articles by Chinese researchers and important sections on women’s issues. The subject of international emigration from China is nicely summarized and placed in its historical context in Skeldon 1996. Pieke and Mallee 1999 includes research reports on both domestic and international migration.

  • Davin, Delia. Internal Migration in Contemporary China. London: Macmillan, 1999.

    This is an insightful introduction to the major topics in the field, by a leading scholar. It describes the major migration flows within China since the beginning of the reform period and includes information from the author’s own fieldwork, including two significant chapters on women’s issues.

  • Day, Lincoln H., and Ma Xia, eds. Migration and Urbanization in China. Studies in Chinese Environment and Development. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1994.

    This collection consists of ten studies by leading scholars in the field, on the basis of the 1986 survey of urban migration carried out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the best aggregate source of data at the time. Major characteristics and causes of the migration are introduced and analyzed.

  • Fan, C. Cindy. China on the Move: Migration, the State, and the Household. Routledge Studies in Human Geography 21. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    A very good overview of rural–urban migration, focusing particularly on the role of the household registration (hukou) system and household strategies. It makes use of the extensive literature and also includes new work on the hukou system, urban experiences of migrants, and marriage migration.

  • Pieke, Frank N., and Hein Mallee, eds. Internal and International Migration: Chinese Perspectives. Chinese Worlds. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.

    An excellent collection of articles describing recent research on both domestic and international migration issues, by leading and innovative scholars.

  • Scharping, Thomas, ed. Floating Population and Migration in China: The Impact of Economic Reforms. Papers from an international conference on migration and floating population in China, held in Cologne, May 1996. Mitteilungen des Instituts für Asienkunde Hamburg 284. Hamburg, Germany: Institut für Asienkunde, 1997.

    This international conference collection presents insightful works on key aspects of migration within China and its policy implications. Included are valuable sections on women’s issues and articles by Chinese scholars.

  • Skeldon, Ronald. “Migration from China.” Journal of International Affairs 49.2 (Winter 1996): 434–456.

    Places recent emigration from China within the historical context of major past migratory flows and their destinations.

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