The Dark Side of Urbanization: An Overview of Rural-to-Urban Migration and Forced Relocations


New Chinese city under construction © Clay Gilliland / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

More than half of today’s world population lives in a city. Urbanization is now perceived as an irreversible trend, bound to grow year by year. Urban development brings with it a set of benefits: high level of employment, economic growth, job and educational opportunities. However, it also inevitably carries downsides, such as social marginalization, inequalities, higher living cost, and pollution, to name few.


Since the late 70s, China has undergone a process of rapid urbanization, which represented an essential condition for its development. This trend increased after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party in 2012 and made it possible for China to become one of the brightest examples of urban living. In fact, according to the World Bank’s data (2021), the percentage of the Chinese population living in urban areas almost doubled between 2000 and 2020, and the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ predictions estimate that, by 2030, 70% of the Chinese population – amounting to approximately 1 billion people – will be an urban resident (World Urbanization Prospects, 2018). Guan, Wei, Lu, Dai, and Su (2018) claim that the Chinese process of urbanization perhaps represents “the greatest human-resettlement experiment in the world history, unprecedentedly transforming the Chinese society in a very short period of time”. The high level of speed, along with other features, makes the People’s Republic of China's (PRC) kind of urbanization an absolutely unique phenomenon, which contributed to lifting 500 million people out of poverty. Many scholars have studied the urbanization phenomenon in China and its peculiar characteristics. Looney and Rithmire (2016) state that “urbanization in China has proceeded this far in spite of serious institutional barriers”, with those same barriers creating “significant problems, including urban sprawl, conflict over land rights, […] and inequality”. Okamoto (2019) stresses that, differently from other countries, urbanization in China is not merely spatial, defined as “the concentration of population in certain areas”, it is also institutional, “in which the institutional barrier has remained in situ to prevent migrants from becoming urban citizens and to suspend true urbanisation”.


In view of the above, two salient dynamics resulting from this wide-ranging urbanizing process in China are the migration of workers from rural areas to urban ones, and the forced relocations.


Migrant workers, 民工 míngōng in Chinese, shall be defined as citizens working away from their native county. They are a very sensitive category, often subjected to inadequate healthcare, poor education for their children, and insufficient welfare protection overall (Zhu, 2016). They undergo social inequalities, marginalized in little communities with very limited social relationships and networks. Besides, due to the Chinese unique hukou户口regulation, they also face legal inequalities (Zhan, 2011). The hukou is the household Chinese system classifying every individual according to a set of parameters and “has been inherently associated with China’s economic development since the 1950s” (Chan, 2014). To put it simply, benefits such as pension, healthcare aid, and various other subsidies are issued according to where – for both urban or rural areas – the citizen’s household is registered. Migrant workers normally hold a rural household registration but live in an urban area. Their income is considerably lower when compared with the wage perceived by urban workers and this salary is almost totally deployed to cover welfare expenditures, which for them, unlike for urban residents, are not ensured. Since the late 1990s some efforts have been made in order to ease the hukou system, but it actually still plays a major role in regulating people’s life: “urban and rural hukou is still associated with welfare or property benefits in the urban and rural areas, respectively” (Li and Liu, 2019).


While the urbanization trend is enlarging, another issue is becoming increasingly common: forced relocations. This phenomenon refers to the land expropriation by the authority and represents an issue encompassing both property rights and human rights. The problem is highly controversial because of the particular structure of Chinese Property Law. In fact, in China there is no such thing as private land property, with most lands being either government properties or collectives: the urban land is granted by the state solely for a certain number of years and this prevents forced evictions from being fully condemned. Moreover, as will be explained later, scholars’ perspectives on the matter vary consistently.


As stressed by Sumesh (2020), “labour unrest has been the major source of political and social instability in China since the 1990s”. For instance, in the early 2000s, suicide was used as a common form of protest by several migrant workers (Chan and Ngai, 2010), causing serious concerns among local and central government as much as in the international context. Their objective was to get fairer wages, and better working and living conditions. Likewise, the practice of forced evictions and relocations represents a triggering element for social protests. On several occasions, citizens gathered in large-scale protests, trying to recur to legal channels to express their discontent. Civil unrest appears to be more challenging to manage in urban areas, especially when it comes to unrest and riotous episodes: in the city context, it is easier for people to rally and gain major media visibility. Moreover, “as China continues to urbanize, villagers’ expectations are likely to rise, presenting new policy challenges for the state.” (Ratigan, 2020). In order to face these challenges, in recent years Chinese authorities have designed a series of laws and regulations to make sure that urbanization is a process that benefits all citizens. During the years, laws such as the low-income housing policy and the low-rent housing policy have been introduced to provide low-rent public housing to middle and low-income families. Nevertheless, some of these policies for disadvantaged citizens are at odds with other existing regulations and are not available to those rural-to-urban migrant workers without a local urban hukou.


For this reason, in 2014, the National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020), “国家新型城镇化规划” in Chinese, was launched to provide a more efficient model of urbanization. The aim of this plan, which “remains an important guide for urbanization in China” (Chu, 2020), is to reduce wage inequalities and ensure decent working and living conditions for the mingong category: among the official targets there is the objective to promote the conversion of rural migrants into urban residents and to support urban-rural integration. The Government is planning to attain these objectives with the contributions of national companies and governmental agencies. Good news in this matter regards Jiangxi province regulations. In late February this year, on the official website of the People’s Government of Jiangxi Province, it was announced that rural citizens will be allowed to get an urban hukou without any kind of restrictions: this makes Jiangxi the first Chinese province – hopefully the first of many – to adopt a measure of this kind (People’s Government of Jiangxi Province, 2021). Moreover, the latest Five-Years Plan “pledges new reforms that would effectively lift most hukou requirements for rural migrant workers in cities with populations under 5 million” (Han and Freymann, 2021).

Turning to the evictions and relocations’ phenomenon, as stressed by Pils (2016), “the existing system for expropriation and evictions is set to remain deeply contested, challenged, and fragile”. Many scholars have blamed and moved criticisms towards this practice. On the other hand, “other studies have demonstrated real improvements in the relocatees’ […] living conditions after relocation” (Li et al., 2019). Li, van Ham, and Kleinhans (2019), in an attempt to review the existing literature on this topic, stress the necessity to see this trend as a dynamic process, rather than a static one. Forced relocations can last for long periods of time, in which institutional, psychological, and social features undergo change. The results of their research show that “the experiences of relocatees are multifaceted and not necessarily unilaterally negative”. Moreover, relocatees seem to be more and more able to “cope with the process, mobilize resources and appeal to their rights” (Li et al. 2019).


Unfortunately, as highlighted in an article published by China Daily, “the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a major drawback in this incomplete urbanization” and already-existing problems run the risk of becoming very difficult to overcome (China Daily, 2021). In the pandemic framework, the process bringing to the fulfilment of the goals set by Chinese Plan and projects saw a significant slowdown. Migrant workers and evicted people – as much as other disadvantaged categories all over the world – represent the big losers. As stressed in a report published by the National Bureau of Statistics of China in January 2021, “the number of rural migrant workers reached 285.60 million, 5.17 million less than that of last year [2020] or down by 1.8 percent” (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2021). The economic slowdown pushed many of them to leave the city as unemployed and to head back to the countryside. Likewise, evictions and relocations still represent a reality for many Chinese people. However, some good news might come with the first Chinese civil code, which came into force at the beginning of 2021. “The law is a wide-ranging legislative package that includes 1,260 articles in seven parts: general provisions, property, contracts, personality rights, marriage and family, inheritance and tort liability.” (Global Times, 2021). The code provides clarity about the interpretation of public interest and it might help to manage differently the expropriation of lands.


By way of conclusion, it can be argued that the objective of the promotion of a people-oriented governance, in managing the urbanization process, is twofold. On the one hand, the aim is to give more rights to migrants and evicted people and, thus, provide a better and more inclusive urbanization process; on the other hand, the goal is to contain civil unrest that might jeopardize national stability. As claimed by Bai, Shi, and Liu, “integrating migrating workers into urban life […] has costs, but is essential to achieving the state’s policy goals and maintaining social stability” (Bai et al., 2014).



Maria Elena Sassaroli is a 24-year-old Italian student. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Double Degree in International Science and China Studies at University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chinese language and culture at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She spent some time in China, as an exchange student at Suzhou University and Chengdu’s Sichuan University. She is passionate about China-India relations, China-EU relations, and China’s domestic policy. You can find her on Instagram as @mariaelenastone or on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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