China’s internal migrants housing and the tricks of urban integration

Keywords: China, internal migrants, urban housing, urban integration, small properties, de facto property

Pictures of Chinese railway stations overflowing with travellers along with the hustle and bustle during the Spring Festival have in recent years contributed to making internal migration flows in China known internationally. The Chunyun, which is the busiest time of the year for the Chinese transportation system, has been defined as the largest human migration in the world. This migration mainly concerns China’s floating population (流动人口 liudong renkou), a population of migrant workers returning to their place of origin for family reunions. This population increased from 6.6 million in 1982 to 288 million in 2018, and it includes any individual moving temporarily within China’s national borders, without obtaining a permanent residence permit in the city of arrival. These internal waves of migration have risen sharply since the start of China’s economic reforms in 1978. They concern mainly population movements from rural areas and small towns to large urban centres, which have helped sustain China’s frenetic growth during the last four decades. Indeed, a form of osmosis has occurred between the processes of economic and urban development on the one hand, and spatial and social mobility on the other. However, while this osmosis has raised living conditions of both urban and rural dwellers, it has not contributed to the disappearance of inequalities between urban and rural areas, but rather to their transfer within urban space.


Internal migrants at Wuchang (Wuhan) station returning to their place of origin for the Spring Festival (春节, chunjie), the Chinese New Year. © Cinzia Losavio, January 2016.

In this article, we present the issue of the floating population’s urban integration through the prism of housing and residential choices. We will illustrate the socio-political context of the last forty years explaining why internal migrants (used here as a synonym of floating population) associate urban integration with urban homeownership. Based on the case of a city in Guangdong province, Zhuhai, we will then present migrants’ informal channels to get to homeownership.

Internal migrants are de facto urban residents who mostly come from small towns, remote villages and townships. They only have access to basic social services in the place of their official residential registration. These services are linked to migrants’ agricultural status which is granted to them through the hukou, China’s household registration system. The transfer of hukou registration from the place of origin to the destination city constitutes official migration in China, and it is a very long and complex procedure which most migrants prefer not to undertake. There are several reasons for this. First, it is not possible to change hukou registration when it is difficult to predict the duration of stay in a new location, as one of the eligibility criteria is the proof of having a stable job and a fixed residence for several years in the city of arrival. Moreover, officially migrating to urban areas deprives rural people of their land use right in the countryside. This takes away not only their right to own property (the housing built on their rural construction land plot), but also a source of emergency income (their plot of arable land). Finally, although almost completely excluded from social benefit programs outside the place of official residence, migrants can now purchase essential goods and services on the market, so there is no longer any real obstacle to their permanence in cities.

Urban housing, however, remains a thorny issue for millions of internal migrants. Access to housing in urban areas has become a strong symbol within migrants of their integration into cities, yet it remains difficult for many individuals floating between rural and urban areas. They lack the means to buy commodity housing, and they are not eligible for social benefits nor for social housing in host cities. Internal migrants are thus part of the so-called sandwich group which refers to lower-middle income households facing accommodation problems.


Two migrants from Shandong contemplating the expensive commodity housing built after the demolition of part of an urban village in Guangzhou’s city centre, Guangdong Province. © Cinzia Losavio, December 2016

The transition from a planned economy to a market economy has led to the transition from China's “welfare-oriented publichousingdistribution system”, provided by the State to all urban citizens, to a different system which, by encouraging private investment, has transformed urban housing into a tradable commodity. The real estate reform launched by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980-90s first liberalised construction, then the purchase of housing in cities, transforming China’s urban society into a people of homeowners. Buying an urban housing has become for all households an important marker of upward social mobility and of material well-being, a guarantee of security and stability, as well as a preferred means of investing their savings. The rapid development of the real estate market has not only benefited private actors, but has above all contributed to supporting local public finances, via the accumulation and sale of land resources intended for construction (Lin and Yi 2013). Indeed, following tax reforms in 1994, local governments receive 47% of public revenues, but must provide 80% of total government expenditure. These profit-oriented dynamics have led to an increase in real estate values that has transformed urban housing into an engine of China’s economic growth (Aveline 2017). Acting as a developmental state (Knight 2014), China has pursued a productivist strategy, making the real estate sector as the guarantor of economic development and social stability. Following the Asian crisis of 1997, and the global financial crisis of 2007, the Chinese central government was forced to strengthen the role of housing and social housing consumption in China’s GDP, thus stimulating the construction sector. The price of urban real estate has thus increased dramatically (in more than 35 major Chinese cities, real estate prices rose at an annual rate of 17% between 2004 and 2013), leading to the bursting of a real estate bubble (Aveline 2020).

At the same time, home ownership has also become a key indicator of social and spatial inequalities in China. High real estate prices, China’s still underdeveloped rental market as well as the systematically underestimated housing needs of the most-deprived social categories (notably internal migrants), have contributed to transform housing from an essential good into a financially inaccessible one. This has led to a fragmentation of urban space, and has also made all households, including the most modest, even more obsessed with access to homeownership.


Three brothers (37, 31 and 23 years old) from a town in the province of Yunnan and working in an electronics factory in Zhuhai. They are still single because they do not have the means to buy a flat. Indeed, home ownership has become an absolute prerequisite for marriage for young Chinese. © Cinzia Losavio, July 2018.

Starting in 2008, the Chinese government launched an ambitious 400 billion Yuan plan to improve the supply of social housing for 7.5 million low-income households with housing difficulties (Li 2014). However, this program only concerned urban households, neglecting the 136 million migrants identified in urban areas in 2007. It was not until the financial crisis of 2008 that the central government has realised the potential value of integrating internal migrants into China’s urban middle class. This would make it possible to consolidate the country’s new growth model, relying on domestic consumption. This project was formalised with the launch of the first national urbanisation plan for 2014-2020, which set the goal of granting the urban hukou to 100 million migrants in small and medium-sized cities. Then, in 2010, the government admitted for the first time that some highly skilled migrants may be eligible for public rental housing, a new social rental scheme with government-controlled rents.

In China, the bond between internal migration and urban dynamics remains indissoluble, yet it has undeniably evolved over the past 40 years. The floating population is no longer seen as a blind flow (盲流 mangliu) threatening public order in cities, as was the case in the 1980s. It is no longer equated with low-skilled peasant workers (农民工 nongmingong) whose cheap labour fed urban growth during the 1990s. Recently, the new urban aspirations geared to qualitative and innovative development, together with the need to provide for an increasingly aging society have contributed to redefining positively the role of migrants in cities, opening up new possibilities of urban integration.

The case of Zhuhai, a prefecture-level city in Guangdong province, at the forefront of economic and real estate reforms, provides a good illustration of these new ways of integrating migrants. Zhuhai, which is located in the Pearl River Delta, opposite Hong Kong and Macau, has some of the most expensive housing prices in China and its floating population accounts for one third of its total inhabitants. Zhuhai is smaller in demographic terms than the megalopolises of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, but its GDP per capita is higher than some of them (127,227 Yuan in 2015, compared to 109,603 Yuan in Beijing and 106,009 Yuan in Shanghai). Although Zhuhai is almost certainly not representative of Chinese cities, it is a showcase of China’s current socio-spatial transformations affecting small and medium-sized cities, set to grow more quickly than the megalopolises.


The location of the prefecture-level city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province. Compiled by © Cinzia Losavio.

Over the past decade, a new and more inclusive urban agenda aimed at integrating internal migrant populations, has been implemented in Zhuhai. First of all, the introduction in 2011 of a new system for granting local hukou permit on the basis of quotas and the allocation of points (Losavio 2019) suggests that a more important place is being created for migrants living in cities without social rights. Second, the social housing regimes in force in Zhuhai have opened up to certain migratory categories since 2014, including: migrants who have obtained a local hukou permit for at least 5 years and who are admitted to the affordable housing program (social access to home ownership); off-site personnel who are highly qualified and who can now participate in public rental housing programme; and talented persons who are now eligible for housing dedicated to qualified personnel (rental-oriented or ownership-oriented) or shared property rights housing (access to partial ownership). This, apparently more-inclusive agenda aims to integrate only the youngest, the most qualified and the most efficient migrants, who are a better resource for high-end urban development.


The map illustrates Tangjiawan Town, in the northern part of Zhuhai. Above the map, the image of ashared property rights housingcomplex (共有产权住房gongyou chanquan zhufang) and below, a social rental housing complex dedicated to talents (人才房 rencaifang).
Map source: Zhuhai Urban Planning Bureau. Photos © Cinzia Losavio, May 2017.

In an urban context with the supply of social housing limited to urban dwellers or talented migrants, and in which the housing market is not accessible to the most deprived households, it may be asked whether there is a less conventional path for migrants who do not have sufficient capital – economic or in terms of expertise – to have access to urban property as a guarantee of integration.

Previous studies on the residential choices of internal migrants in China have focused on the private rental stock in urban villages (rural villages that have, as a result of the dramatic urbanization process of the last decades, been encircled by urban settlements and skyscrapers) (Losavio 2020), which remains the most widespread housing option for migrants. Yet, homeownership in these grey areas is poorly documented. There are in fact two types of de facto property without legal recognition, but which appear as informal channels of the integration for migrants. Both types are located in urban villages and both target low and middle-income migrant households. The first concerns “small property rights” (小产权房xiochanquanfang), which designates housing built at the expense of indigenous villagers on their rural land, and which are then sold to buyers outside the village community, especially migrants (Losavio 2020). The informality of these dwellings is due to several reasons: first, the ownership rights of housing built in the village cannot be transferred out of the village community; second, these housing are built on agricultural land not intended for construction or on rural construction land limited to personal use; and finally, the purchase of such housing does not provide formal title deeds (the red booklet), but an informal equivalent (the green booklet) (Qiao 2017).


A “small properties” complex in an urban village of Zhuhai. © Cinzia Losavio, March 2017.

The second type, the “de facto property” (事实上产权 shishishang Chanquan) concerns buildings whose construction is funded entirely by a migrant household on rural land made available by indigenous villagers. Once the building is completed, the two households involved share its ownership. Given the lack of any title deeds, ownership by the migrant household is exclusively de facto, and rests on a strong trusting relationship with the villagers. According to the migrants interviewed, in the eventuality that the village is redeveloped, this strong relationship would guarantee them a compensation. Given the relatively low costs of these informal settlements compared to the formal market, small properties and de facto properties contribute to providing affordable urban housing to approximately 80 million migrant households. As these informal markets have reached epic proportions (they account for at least 30% of urban villages housing), the government is no longer in a position to eradicate them, at the risk of jeopardizing the country’s social stability. Informal home ownership is not only a guarantee of urban integration for many internal migrants, it also relieves the State of its role of provider of essential goods.

The way in which the Chinese State manages the populations that migrate within the country to contribute to urban development, generates urban interstices of informality. It also reinforces a spatially and socially hierarchical mode of urbanization, which transforms territorial disparities instead of adjusting them.

Cinzia Losavio

Cinzia Losavio is a contractual PhD candidate (LabEx Dynamite) at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, affiliated to the UMR 8504 Géographie-cités (CRIA). She graduated in Chinese Language and Civilization at La Sapienza University in Rome, and then she joined the Comparative political sociology Master Programme at the Sciences Po doctoral school. During her PhD, she participated as a young researcher in the European project MEDIUM, “New pathways for sustainable urban development in China’s medium-sized cities” (2016-2018). Her doctoral research focuses on the integration of internal migrants in urban China through housing, especially by analysing the dynamics producing residential space at the urban scale. Her study is based on a two-year ethnographic fieldwork among Chinese internal migrants and actors of the residential sector in Zhuhai, a prefecture-level city in Guangdong province (China).


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© Cinzia Losavio, Janvier 2016.
July 2020
Cinzia Losavio
Doctorante contractuelle (LabEx Dynamite) à l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, rattachée à l’UMR 8504 Géographie-cités (CRIA)