The Floating Population: China’s Great Social and Developmental Challenge

Since China’s market reforms of the late 1970s, Chinese society has seen the growth of a new phenomenon — an outpouring of rural migrants towards urban areas. The “floating population,” as it has come to be called, makes reference to the sizable and growing population of temporary migrants that lack local registration or hukou status.1)

Historically, the Chinese government has controlled rural-to-urban migration through the Household Registration (hukou) system, which ties one’s residence to access to employment and social services such as healthcare, education, and housing. However, since the reforms of the late 1970s, labor demand has drastically increased in urban areas as agricultural efficiency and productivity has improved, increasing the rural labor supply to meet this new urban demand. At the same time, established migrant networks in destination regions ensure a steady flow of temporary migrants. The Chinese government’s ability to control rural-to-urban migration via the hukou system in turn has been compromised.2)

Estimates of the magnitude of this floating population — which lacks local hukou status and thus access to crucial social necessities — vary greatly, but even by moderate estimates, the size of China’s floating population has grown significantly as of the 2000 Census. According to Liang and Ma (2004), “By 2000, the size of China’s floating population has grown to nearly 79 million, if that category is defined as migrants who moved between provinces or counties and resided at their destinations for six months or more.”3)

In fact, a number of factors point to a larger floating population. With a shorter time reference, the number of temporary migrants would surely be higher. Using a broader definition that includes “interprovincial, intraprovincial (cross-county/city), and intracounty migrants…the floating population in the 2000 census totals about 144 million.”4) Aside from the actual numbers, it is clear that the floating population has significantly grown in recent years. According to Liang (2001), by conservative estimates, there were approximately 68 million temporary migrants in China in 1996, as compared to 79 million in 2000.5) Without the limitations of Census questions, it is likely that the real magnitude of the floating population in China is far larger yet.

Clearly, the phenomenon of the floating population has had a significant effect on China’s demography. There is an increasing concentration of the floating population in the coastal regions — especially in Shanghai, Guangdong, and Beijing, whose proportion of temporary migrants to the rest of the population were 27 percent, 25 percent, and 19 percent, respectively.6) However, there has been significant growth in the temporary migrant population in regions such as Yunnan province, which saw a 230 percent increase in the floating population between 1990 and 2000.7)

Floating populations exist in every province, and though the problem is somewhat concentrated in the coastal regions statistically, the floating population is drawn to urban rather than coastal areas. As Daniel Wright notes, “China is not a country simply tilted east with all its labor sliding toward the coast. Rather, urban centers across the land — small, medium, and large — are like raised magnetic points, attracting China’s estimated 200 million redundant farmers from fields and mountains as if they were fine metal filings.”8) Chinese society is faced with a rapidly growing agricultural labor surplus population, and in turn, a significant floating population that faces severe social and economic divisions with the rest of society.

This article addresses two main issues regarding the floating population as it relates to China’s economic and societal development. First, it addresses its causes, showing that the growing significance of the floating population in China since the 1980s to be a consequence largely of the rapid transition to a market economy and the resulting effect of rapid growth of urban labor demand. Over the same time, agricultural efficiency and productivity have improved significantly, creating a rural labor surplus that has continued to fuel rural-to-urban migration. The state’s policies of extracting agricultural surplus for urban development and its inability to enforce the hukou system or to reform the system to accommodate labor demands is also largely responsible for the rapid growth of the floating population. This article shows that these factors have prompted in turn a secondary cause of the growing floating population in the growth of cyclical migration networks between places of origin and destination.

Second, this article seeks to define the social implications of the floating population for Chinese society. These floating migrants, lacking local hukou status, face institutional barriers to full benefits of citizenship — such as pension, healthcare, public education, adequate housing, and employment opportunities. The growth of the floating population has also created a rigid social hierarchy where temporary migrants comprise the bottom rung of society. This has served to make socioeconomic inequality in China more visible in recent years and has raised prospects for social unrest. There exist positive implications of the floating population as well, however, reflected in the creation of an informal sector that eases government burdens, urban labor demands, and the surplus rural labor force while simultaneously creating opportunities for development in origin regions via remittances and acquired skills of temporary migrants.

Causes of China’s floating population

China’s uneven development patterns serve as a reflection of the floating population’s roots in the country’s rapid market transition. As Liang and Ma (2004) point out, the size of the floating populations in well-developed regions such as Guangdong and Beijing are much greater than the size of respective permanent migrant populations. In Guangdong, for instance, the floating population outnumbers the permanent migrant population 18 million to 1 million. By contrast, less developed regions have floating and permanent migrant populations that are relatively similar in size.9) The permanent migration population — which is a stable population as relatively few citizens are able to afford or qualify for permanent migrant status — serves as a control as floating populations have soared in regions of urban economic development in the reform era.

According to Liang (2001), China since the 1978 reforms has been characterized by substantial rural-to-urban migration largely due to the transformation to the household production responsibility system, which “greatly increased agricultural productivity, thus decreasing the need for rural laborers.”10) At the same time, the market transition has brought about the “mushrooming of joint-venture enterprises and other privately owned businesses [which] has created a great demand for migrant workers.”11) Such private businesses can offer migrants temporary urban resident cards, fueling the pull force for rural temporary laborers to the cities, and as a result, this form of migration, which is inherently temporary in nature, has come to characterize the motivation for much of the temporary rural-to-urban migration in China since transition to a market economy. The pull for a growing urban labor force has become apparent with post-market reform urbanization, creating many new jobs for temporary migrants in emerging urban enterprises and in the informal service sector.

As Fan (2002) indicates, the push for urban migration from rural regions had previously existed, as the pre-reform hukou and tongguo tongxiao (or “unified purchase and marketing”) systems anchored peasants to the countryside while pricing agricultural products low and industrial goods high, respectively — extracting value from the countryside to promote development in urban areas over rural areas. Thus even before the market reforms of the late 1970s, the push for rural labor from the cities existed. However, Fan (2002) points out that this push “has been further exacerbated by the increasing magnitude of surplus agricultural labor due to improvements in agricultural productivity.”12) China’s market transition therefore has not only resulted in a significant new pull for temporary urban labor but a new push of rural labor surpluses to the cities, indicating significant motives for temporary urban migration that has brought about China’s massive floating population.

It is clear however that shifts in the labor market alone are not responsible for the occurrence of the floating population. Similar to the tonguo tongxiao system noted earlier — which made agricultural products cheap and industrial goods expensive — government policies have long been biased towards urban development at the expense of rural welfare. As Yang (1999) notes, the Chinese government’s pre-market reform strategy prescribed a system that favored the development of urban-based heavy industry and the extraction of agricultural surpluses from the countryside for urban-biased subsidies and capital accumulation for urban development. The government has historically enforced this system through “state control of agricultural production and procurement, the suppression of food-staple prices, and restrictions on rural-to-urban migration via a household registration system.”13) The hukou system prior to market reforms served to keep the rural population for the most part from migrating to cities because local hukou status determined access to food rations and subsidies.

However, economic development under free market conditions has made enforcement of the hukou system impossible. Private companies provide urban labor demand for temporary migrants and are able to provide an important incentive — temporary urban registration status — to rural migrants, which has become increasingly common in the case of new urban enterprises. Temporary urban hukou, once expired, does not necessarily encourage temporary migrants to return home as these individuals can often find new employment to maintain temporary residence status.14)

Despite the hukou system’s intended control over basic needs — social services, housing, and employment—the free market has adjusted to accommodate the basic necessities of temporary migrants, such as employment and food, which prior to market reforms were not freely available on the market. As Chan and Zhang (1999) point out, “Under economic reforms, job openings and the distribution of daily necessity control are no longer monopolized by the state. There are many jobs in the non-state sector, and almost all daily necessities are amply available on the market.”15) Thus, the government since the market reforms of the late 1970s has been unable to enforce the hukou system. Opting to tolerate the growth of the floating population, the Chinese government has facilitated the growth of the floating population by failing to reform the hukou system to accommodate this new demographic phenomenon, leaving massive populations of temporary migrants and their families to survive without basic services — access to pension, healthcare, public education, housing and safe and desirable employment.

The primary causes of rural-to-urban migration that came with China’s market transition — increased urban labor demand and rural labor supply and the government’s policy of de facto toleration / negation of the floating population — have in turn seen the development of a new cause of urban migration in recent decades: established migration networks between rural origins and urban destinations. As Liang and Ma (2004) point out, social relationships between employers and migrants have been established, leading to the exchange of information between migrants’ places of origin and their urban destinations. Once these networks have been put into place, regular migration is likely to occur regardless of the urban destination’s economic climate.16)

This continuous flow of temporary migrants from the same origin region has created what Liang (2001) refers to as “ethnic enclaves” in certain labor markets.17) These migration networks ensure the continued flow of migrants from particular regions. If temporary migrants are unable to obtain local hukou status, they can often find a job through these ethnic migration networks, encouraging the flow of temporary migrants and inhibiting the government’s ability to enforce the hukou system, thus facilitating the growth of China’s floating population.

Social implications of the floating population

The predominance of the floating population has given rise to several negative implications. Perhaps the most alarming is the fact that hundreds of millions of floating migrants lack access to the full benefits of citizenship — namely social services such as pension, healthcare, public education for their children, housing, and access to many tracks of employment.18) Most of these services are altogether unavailable to floating migrants, so they must depend on informal employment and accommodations for their survival.

The wellbeing of the floating population thus dictates major policy concerns for Chinese society, one of which is access to healthcare. Liang and Ma (2004) point out that the lack of access to adequate healthcare for floating migrants presents major challenges to public health — particularly regarding reproductive healthcare for migrant women and the need to address the risk of infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.19) June Dreyer points out that as a result of the one child policy and a crackdown since 1991 by the Chinese state on child-bearing by migrants, many migrant women have been deprived of healthcare. This is reflected, for example, in the more than three quarters of maternal deaths in Guangzhou in 2000 who were migrant women.20)

Members of the floating population face other daunting institutional barriers to integration in urban areas. Children of floating migrants, for example, are often unable to attend local schools or institutes of higher learning because their parents lack local hukou. Dreyer notes that when children of floating migrants are able to attend school, they are most often taught in crude and temporary classrooms by unlicensed teachers. Those children that are able to attend regular public schools often complain of being shunned by their classmates.21)

Even after notable reductions in the benefits of urban hukou status in the late 1990s, there still exist many significant benefits of local urban registration status and thus disadvantages for temporary migrants. Chan and Zhang (1999) note that in addition to exclusion from most work-unit or job-based benefits such as housing and healthcare, job opportunities for only those with local hukou, and local schools and institutes of higher learning, non-local hukou residents are also generally barred from city-wide social welfare services, an assortment of prestigious job types, and from acquiring property even at market prices.22) Thus, the floating population faces institutional barriers in almost every social capacity, making socioeconomic divisions in China between rural migrants and urbanites more apparent than ever.

The increasing socioeconomic division between those who possess local hukou and the floating population has served to create a rigid new stratification of Chinese society. Daniel Wright sheds light on the floating population’s creation of a new and pervasive social hierarchy in cities: “In the eyes of most urban residents, rural folk are just, well, filthy…Most rural people I have spoken with seem to have internalized this bigotry. A pervasive inferiority complex expresses itself in frequent diminishment, like the rookie porter who said I would lower my status if we had out photograph taken together.”23)

China’s new urbanization has created many informal sector jobs at the bottom of the occupational stratum which urbanites did not want — jobs in construction, repair work, and factories and as restaurant servers and nannies.24) Relegated to low-paying and often dirty or dangerous positions that urbanites are often unwilling to perform, floating migrants are seen by their urban counterparts as the bottom rung of society. To add to this conception, the floating population is frequently blamed by urban residents for the rise of violence and crime as well as other societal ills because of their marginal status in society. China’s new prosperous urban class, with its rather conspicuous consumption, has also served to create resentment among less fortunate groups.25) With the growing significance of the floating population in cities relative to the rest of the population, socioeconomic classes are becoming quite distinct and inequality is becoming far more visible than decades ago.

As Chan and Zhang (1999) note, social inequalities rooted in the hukou divide have visibly been exported to cities. Unregistered floating migrants comprise the lowest class of society, preceded by formal temporary migrants and regular residents. “As these different groups are now mixed up in cities or working side-by-side, the hukou-based disparities have become more visible and concrete. This is prone to arouse greater discontent among the disenfranchised.”26) Since China’s market transition opened up the cities to peasants, the urban-rural divide has become increasingly pronounced as rural migrants are pushed to the bottom of society. As the floating population continues to grow and as China’s increasingly unequal classes continue to intermingle in urban areas, the prospect for social unrest has become increasingly real.

The continued growth of the floating population and the resulting prospect for social discontent is a serious future developmental challenge for China. As Shen (1996) notes, the labor supply will drastically increase in coming years. China must continue to sustain rapid economic growth as to ensure a low unemployment rate. If not, it faces the possibility of an unstable society.27) China’s surplus agricultural labor force, estimated to be around 100 million in the mid-1990s, was estimated to have reached 150-200 million by the early 2000s.28) The growth of the floating population will inevitably continue to grow rapidly at this rate, potentially adding to the growing impetus for social unrest in Chinese cities.

The floating population, though its existence has brought several negative social implications, has brought social benefits as well. As Yang (1993) points out, temporary migration has served valuable for cities to deal with fluctuating labor demand. Helping to create the informal service sector, temporary migration patterns have served to ease government burdens in cities and have helped to address both urban labor demand and agricultural labor surplus.29) Large-scale rural-to-urban migration has thus created many opportunities for temporary migrants and their communities. Barry Naughton indicates that migrants have an opportunity to not only improve their own income and to help develop the urban centers that they migrate to, but also to aid in the development of their home villages through remittances and acquired skills.30) Thus, although the literature regarding China’s floating population tends to focus on the potential problems it poses for Chinese society, it is clear that the large-scale rural-to-urban migration that accompanies the floating population can bring benefits to society as well.


This article uses several existing historical analyses of China’s floating population and rural-to-urban migration to determine the causes of the floating population as well as its social implications, both positive and negative.

It argues that the floating population is largely caused by the Chinese market transition’s resulting push-and-pull factors which have drastically increased rural-to-urban migration, but also by the Chinese state’s historical legacy of extracting agricultural surplus from the countryside for urban development. The market transition’s opening of the cities to rural migrants has fuelled rural-to-urban migration as the state has been unable to enforce the hukou system. The state’s failure to reform the hukou system has inhibited the integration of its new, rapidly growing migrant populations into urban society by failing to provide millions of migrants’ access to the full benefits of citizenship. Regardless of economic conditions at migrant destinations, however, migrant networks — often ethnic in nature — ensure the continuous flow of temporary labor to cities, adding to the ever larger floating population in China.

The floating population presents major challenges to Chinese society. Floating migrants, lacking local hukou status, face severe institutional barriers to social and economic necessities — pension, healthcare, public education for their children, stable and adequate housing, and many tracks of employment. Accordingly, the floating population presents major social challenges for Chinese development, such as the public health concerns of reproductive healthcare for migrant women and the increased risk of the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases without adequate healthcare provisions for floating migrants. The massive growth of the floating population and the continuing growth of the agricultural labor surplus have also created a visibly rigid social stratification in urban areas, making the increasing socioeconomic inequality in Chinese society more prone to result in social discontent and unrest.

Though increased rural-to-urban migration following China’s market transition have brought certain benefits — the easing of government burdens and urban labor demands and new opportunities for both the improvement of individual migrants’ incomes and for the development of origin regions through remittances and acquired skills — the floating population indicates significant problems for Chinese society. Without radical reform of the hukou system in China to mitigate social and economic differences between urban residents and floating rural migrants, the floating population is likely to grow and continue to present significant social and developmental challenges to Chinese society.

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Zai Liang, “The Age of Migration in China,” Population and Development Review 27.3 (2001): 510.
Liang and Ma, 483.
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Daniel Wright, “Hey Coolie! Local Migrant Labor,” China: Adapting the Past, Confronting the Future. Ed. Thomas Buoye, Kirk Denton, Bruce Dickson, Barry Naughton, Martin K. Whyte. (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, 2004) 294.
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10) , 11)
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C. Cindy Fan, “The Elite, the Natives, and the Outsiders: Migration and Labor Market Segmentation in Urban China,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92.1 (2002): 106-107.
Dennis Tao Yang, “Urban-Biased Policies and Rising Income Inequality in China,” The American Economic Review 89.2 (1999): 308.
14) , 17)
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Bruce Dickson, “Introduction,” China: Adapting the Past, Confronting the Future. Ed. Thomas Buoye, Kirk Denton, Bruce Dickson, Barry Naughton, Martin K. Whyte. (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, 2004) 555.
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