Fewer Migrant Workers as More Rural Chinese Opt for Jobs at Home


Growth in the number of migrant workers in China has dropped to anaemic levels in the first quarter of 2017, as an increasing number of rural citizens eschew life in the big city for jobs in the countryside.

A labour and employment survey of 500 villages conducted by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security indicates that as of the end of Q1 2017 the number of rural residents pursuing work elsewhere was approximately 279,000, for an increase of 2.1% compared to the same period last year.

Local employment prospects in these village communities posted a far more impressive improvement, however, rising by 7.1% to reach approximately 60,000 by the end of the previous quarter.

The figures point to a broader trend of rural Chinese remaining in or returning to their local communities to pursue work, in stark contrast to the long-prevailing trend of migration to the big cities for the pursuit of employment opportunities.

Chinese Migrant Worker Numbers Could Shrink in 2017 

According to Li Guoxiang, vice-chairman of the Macroeconomic Office of the Chinese Academy of Science’s agricultural department, the total number of rural Chinese migrating to the cities for employment could post a decline in 2017.

The development of China’s regional economies is providing a greater number of employment opportunities to rural citizens, and giving more of them the option of seeking livelihoods at home.

Should rural migration decline in 2017, it will mark a profound sea change in Chinese demographic trends, following decades of rapid urbanisation since the start of the reform and liberalisation period.

Growth in the number of Chinese rural migrant workers has steadily declined since the turn of the decade, from 5.2% in 2010 to just 0.3% in 2016.

According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics the total number of Chinese rural workers was 281.71 million in 2016, for an increase of 4.24 million compared to the preceding year, or growth of 1.5%.

The number of migrant rural workers pursuing work away from home posted barely anaemic growth during the same period, rising by 0.3% to reach 169.34 million people.

In sharp contrast the number of rural Chinese pursuing employment locally grew a healthy 3.4% to reach 112.37 million.

The number of locally employed rural Chinese also rose by 2.7% in 2015, which was the first year since 2011 that the figure saw an increase.

Potential Impacts on Urbanisation?

Should rural Chinese show an increasing preference for life in their local communities, it could toss a spanner in Beijing’s plans to accelerate nationwide urbanisation.

The 13th Five Year Plan envisages a permanent urban population rate of 60% by the end of the decade, as well as a registered urban population of 45%.

Satisfying these targets will still require considerable demographic change, with China’s permanent urban population rate standing at 57.35% in 2016, and its registered urban population at 41.2%.

These figures indicate growth of 1.25 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points respectively compared to 2015, which is sufficient to meet the latest Five Year Plan targets if sustained until 2020.

Growth rates could shrink considerably, however, should more rural Chinese decide to pursue local employment opportunities.

Why Are More Rural Chinese Remaining at Home?

A number of factors are believed to be behind the increasing number of rural Chinese pursuing livelihoods at home.

In addition to the increasing availability of local employment opportunities, Professor Guan Xinping of Nankai University said the difficulties of urban life for rural Chinese were prompting a greater number to leave eschew the cities.

China continues to implement a strict household registration system, which means that rural Chinese who move to urban areas find it difficult to access government-provided services or benefits.

The sky-high cost of housing in China’s bloated property market is another key factor that prevents rural citizens from relocating to major cities on a permanent basis.