China’s inter-provincial migration

Peasants load up their belongings and set off on an arduous journey through unfamiliar countryside to settle in a smoggy city where they will toil in squalid factories from dawn till dusk. This is not only a description of the birth of the Industrial Revolution; it is the back story to China’s phenomenal rise to the status of manufacturing powerhouse. Migrant workers are the foundation of China’s economic miracle. There are now almost 160 million rural Chinese working away from home, about 12% of the population. While the coastal regions of Guangdong and Shanghai continue to be the principal magnet for migrant workers from the interior, China is entering a new phase of its development. Factories are now being built in the interior and many workers are returning home. Others opt to stay close to home. This shift in migration patterns, though only in its beginnings, may reflect a rebalancing of China’s economy. Domestic demand – one of the factors that China hopes will mitigate a slowdown in growth – is increasing, so firms do not need to be near a port. As a result the disparity between the rich coast and the poor interior is narrowing. The hope for many migrant workers is that the gap keeps closing. Even the government recognizes that by investing in interior regions, it can help create a virtuous circle that will lead to more internal demand and benefit a segment of the population that has been growing increasingly restive of late.