How to Better Support China’s Migrant Population

In the following memo, Xinping Guan, an economist who is now Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Nankai University, uses a unique seven-city survey to dive deeply into the plight of China’s non-registered population, generally referred to as the “floating population” (or “liudong renkou” in Chinese). This is a term meant to specifically designate those who work and live in a particular place but without the legally required local residency permit, or “hukou.” Currently, there are about 253 million such non-registered people in China, or roughly 20 percent of the total population.

Initially, rural migrants made up the majority of China’s floating population. These people moved from their home villages to work and live in major cities, and these rural migrant workers overlapped substantially with the overall Chinese floating population. But after 30 years of development, the profile and character of China’s floating population have changed substantially. For one thing, young people now make up a large portion of this group. According to Guan’s seven-city survey on the floating population conducted in 2013, the current floating population is largely comprised of millennials, with people under the age of 35 accounting for around two-thirds of that population. Second, the educational attainment of this cohort is also much higher than it was in China thirty years ago. According to the same survey, 19.3 percent of respondents are college graduates or above, significantly above the national average of 5 percent for the 15 to 59 age group. Indeed even among those with rural hukou, 10.7 percent are college graduates. And the employment status among this group has become much more diverse. Except for a few employment categories, such as public servants and university professors that require local hukou, most industries and occupations in China today count migrants among their employees.

But this is not all that has changed: income levels among China’s floating population have also improved, reflecting growing diversity among this cohort. Chinese migrant workers are no longer confined to the low-end segment of the labor market. In fact, argues Guan, the role of government regulation is less important in determining a migrant’s compensation than are human capital, social connections, and business skills.

Guan’s central point is that the fundamental problem facing this population—lack of local residency and entitlement to certain services—is not the result of migrants’ own unwillingness to obtain them but rather of local governments’ unwillingness to provide them. To put this a bit differently, local governments, rather than the floating population themselves, are the main culprits responsible for the challenges the non-registered population in China now confronts.

Guan’s memo uses data from his seven-city survey to explore the underlying character of China’s migrant population today. He then examines flaws in China’s current administrative system for residency permits. A concluding section offers several modest policy prescriptions to better support and enfranchise this important but fragile non-registered population.

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