China’s Changing Migration Patterns

This week’s Economist includes a map of interprovincial migration in China between 1990 and 2005. Central China—particularly Henan, Hunan, Anhui and Sichuan—saw millions leave for the coastal regions, with Zhejiang, Shanghai and especially Guangdong the most popular destinations.

Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington has compiled statistics which show that from 1990 to 2005—the most recent period for which reliable statistics are available—there was an overall gross migration across provinces of about 80m migrants (see map). An increasing number also migrate within their own province. All told, some 230m Chinese spend most of the year away from their home town or village. This is almost a third of all people globally estimated by the UN to be migrating within the borders of their own country. Most migrants move in search of work. The number of rural Chinese working away from home is now almost 160m, or 12% of the country’s population.

The effects of this migration include divided families and history’s biggest travel rush every Spring Festival. But factors including rising wages on the coast are now driving many jobs inland, particularly up the navigable Yangtze, offering many the chance to find work closer to home. Also from The Economist:

Jintang county … once enjoyed the dubious honour of being the biggest labour-exporting county in Sichuan province. Poor, deep inland and badly connected with overseas markets, Sichuan had little choice but to encourage its huge, underemployed rural population to find work elsewhere. Officials from counties like Jintang used to tour factory towns near the coast touting the merits of their surplus labour— and trading on the stereotype of the tough and determined Sichuanese ….

A big change is now coming. Jintang is administered by Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, which like other inland cities is beginning to boom, thanks to a flood of government investment in recent years and the transfer of some manufacturing away from the coast in search of cheaper land and labour. In Fuxing walls and lampposts are plastered with job advertisements, not for work in distant coastal factories but for positions in and around Chengdu. Some of them offer jobs with Foxconn, a huge Taiwanese firm which makes Apple’s iPads and other computer products at a plant near the city (for pay of more than 2,000 yuan—$320—a month, says one pink poster). Foxconn’s largest factory is in Guangdong, but it opened a huge, modern operation in Chengdu in October 2010, and has talked of expanding to an astonishing 500,000 staff within five years. Chengdu officials have been scrambling to make sure that as many jobs as possible go to locals (who appear undeterred by a number of unexplained suicides at Foxconn’s huge plants in China).

See also Tricia Wang’s account of the challenges faced by migrants to China’s cities, via CDT.