2011. Vol.1, No.4, 206-211
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.14026
Social Mobility of Migrant Peasant Workers in China
Ke-Qing Han1, Chien-Chung Huang2, Wen-Jui Han3
1Renmin University of China, Beijing, China;
2Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA;
3New York University, New York, USA.
Received July 2nd, 2011; revised August 15th, 2011; accepted September 18th, 2011.
Using data from four cities in China (Shenzhen, Suzhou, Beijing, and Chengdu), this article examines the occu-
pational and social mobility among migrant peasant workers in urban areas. Through qualitative interviews with
109 peasant workers in 2005, we found that institutionalized social structures, such as the household-registration
system, constrain the occupational and social mobility of rural peasant workers who migrate to and reside in ur-
ban areas. Obtaining more education and s kills appear to be viable mechanisms for at least some migrant peasant
workers to achieve higher occupational or social status in the city. Nonetheless, after several years of working in
the urban areas, many rural workers plan to return to their rural hometowns, largely due to the social exclusion
they experienced in the cities.
Keywords: Migration, Occupation Mobility, Peasant Workers, Social Mobility, Status Attainment
China has undergone great changes in social structure and
class hierarchy since the economic reform of 1978, which
moved the country from a planned economy to a market econ-
omy (Chan & Zhang, 1999; Bai & Li, 2008; Lin, 2009). Since
then, the two-tiered class system consisting of laborers (nonag-
ricultural, usually urban workers) and peasants (agricultural
workers) that had served as the basic unit of China’s social
structure has gradually disintegrated (Bian, 2002; Wu & Tre-
iman, 2004, 2007). For example, Bian (2002) examined social
stratification and social mobility in China and found that the
economic reforms and ensuing rise of the market economy
since 1980 disintegrates many traditional divisions in Chinese
society, including the demarcations between urban and rural
areas, work-unit boundaries, the dichotomous classification of
party leaders and workers, and political barriers to the institu-
Despite these substantial changes, the stringent household
registration system (hukou) that was set up in 1955 still creates
notable divisions between the urban and rural populations. In
this system, everyone is assigned either an agricultural (rural)
or nonagricultural (urban) hukou at birth on the basis of the
mother’s registration status, and residents must be registered in
the locale where they resided (see Chan & Zhang, 1999, for a
historic review of the household-registration system in China).
The rural agricultural households are traditionally confined to
the countryside and entitled to very few of the social benefits
offered to residents born into urban areas by the government,
such as medical insurance, housing subsidies, pensions, and
educational opportunities for children. Before the 1978 eco-
nomic reform, migration between rural and urban regions was
prohibited. In the early 1980s there was a growing demand for
the labor market to become more compatible with the market
economy. In 1984 the government relaxed the traditional hukou
migration restrictions and allowed peasants to move into the
city, thus opening the door to large-scale rural-to-urban migra-
tion. This policy change, coupled with rural land reform and
speedy urban industrialization, large numbers of rural laborers
migrated into the urban areas (Chan & Zhang, 1999; Bian, 2002;
Zheng, 2006). This labor force is called migrant peasant work-
ers because they are registered as farmers or peasants in the
household-registration system but they migrate and engage in
nonagricultural industrial labor. Migrant peasant workers,
however, are not eligible for high-level positions within the
government in urban areas unless they have permanent urban
registration status. This is the case even if the migrant peasant
worker was born in a city but his or her mother holds a rural
household registration. The household-registration system still
serves as an important mechanism in distributing resources and
determining life chances in China today (Chan & Zhang, 1999;
Wu & Treiman 2004).
The number of migrant peasant workers has increased sub-
stantially over the past two decades and have become a huge
part of the urban labor force. Before 1990, the number of mi-
grant peasant workers was estimated at about 25 million. This
number increased substantially after 1990 and was estimated to
be 94 million in 1995 and 200 million in 2004 (State Council
Research Office, 2006; Li & Li, 2007). The number in 2004
represented 40% of the rural labor force. In 2004, the average
age of migrant peasant workers was 28, the majority had a jun-
ior-high-school education, and they mainly worked in the
manufacturing, construction, and service industries (State
Council Research Office, 2006).
The large-scale migration of peasant workers has become an
important social phenomenon with great implications for their
geographic, occupational, and class mobility. In particular,
peasant workers cross geographical boundaries and into more
developed regions, work in new industries, and earn higher
incomes. Research has shown that the first change experienced
by migrant peasant workers usually involves upward occupa-
tional mobility, changing from being an agricultural worker to
an industrial laborer (Li, 2004). After this initial upward move
from the rural to urban labor force, most migra nt peasant work-
ers are unable to move up to higher positions in urban indus-
tries, even when changing between jobs (Li, 2004). Migrant
peasant workers tend to earn lower wages than native-born
urban residents and frequently change jobs in an often futile
K.-Q. HAN ET AL. 207
effort to better their situation. In short, despite the institution-
alization of rural-to-urban migration (Chan & Zhang, 1999; Wu
& Treiman, 2004; Li & Li, 2007), migrant peasant workers ex-
perience numerous social disadvantages in urban areas and
continue to be a marginalized group in Chinese society.
Social Stratification and Mobility
Classical social-stratification theory states that an individ-
ual’s position in society is determined by a number of dimen-
sions such as class, status, and power (Weber, 1964; Lenski,
1984; Levine, 2006; Watson, 2010). Class refers to a person’s
economic position and status is a person’s prestige or social
honor in society. Power is a person’s ability to carry out his or
her will despite the resistance of others. Status essentially de-
termines an individual’s social network. Max Weber described
status groups as tending to draw a circle around themselves to
bound their social interactions, marriage, and other relation-
ships. The status group, thus, develops into a closed social class
(Weber, 1964; Kerbo, 1991; Levine, 2006). A person’s power
can be shown in the economic order through their class, in the
social order through their status, and in the political order
through their party. This multidimensional approach of social
stratification theory reflects the interplay among wealth, pres-
tige, and power in society (Weber, 1964; Lenski, 1984; Levine,
Using case interviews of 109 migrant peasant workers from
2005, this article qualitatively explores the status attainment
and contributing factors to social mobility among migrant
peasant workers in four cities (Shenzhen, Suzhou, Chengdu and
Beijing) in China between July and November of 2005. The
data came from the Social Protection of Migrant Peasant
Workers in China Survey. Using a convenient sampling strat-
egy, the survey collected data in main train stations of the four
cities. The survey was administered by professors from the
Renmin University of China and Hong Kong City University.
Narrative interviews were first transcribed word by word.
We read through each of the transcripts with the aim of finding
common as well as divergent themes. The authors analyzed all
109 interviews, and identified three major themes that were
common among most surveys: the status attainment of migrant
peasant workers, upward mobility, and returning home. For this
paper we selected surveys that represented these major themes.
We also collectively identified several survey responses that
diverged considerably from the major themes, and we present
excerpts from those to demonstrate the sample’s diversity.
Status Attainment of Migrant Peasant Work ers
As discussed above, the household-registration system is a
unique phenomenon in China. This registration system essen-
tially structures China’s society into urban and rural areas, with
urban and rural residents living in two different worlds and
forming two differential ways of life since 1955. Although
China’s entry into the market economy has loosened the geo-
graphical restrictions of the household-registration system,
other infrastructure arrangements that are attached to household
registration, such as the social-welfare system, have not been
reformed. Urban citizens and peasants in China’s society are
two different social classes. Although peasant workers live and
work in urban areas together with urban residents, clear so-
cial-class distinctions are apparent and have great implications
for the social exclusion experienced by migrant peasant work-
ers. This social exclusion has effectively prevented migrant
peasant workers from attaining urban status, which is consid-
ered to be higher than rural status in China’s household-regis-
tration system. A 30-year-old unmarried male peasant worker
with an elementary school education who moved to Chengdu in
1995 illustrates what his daily experiences were like living in
Q: Do you feel that urban citizens treat you equally?
A: Urban citizens see you as a peasant worker and as a
farmer. You are not on the same level as they are. A
peasant worker is always a peasant worker, and a farmer
is a farmer forever. Your social status is one level lower
than theirs; actually, it is lower than the lowest level.
Q: Do the supervisors and coworkers in your organization or
company all see you like this?
A: Oh, yeah.
Another migrant peasant worker, a 34-year-old married fe-
male with a high-school education who first moved into the city
in 1992, now works at a barber shop.
Q: Do you think rural people and city people are equal?
A: Equal? Ah. Urban people think you are a farmer; that
shows the discrimination right there. One of my hus-
band’s neighbors been found out that he did not have a
temporary residence permit and someone called the au-
thorities. He had been sent away in 1999. No one knows
if he is alive or dead.
The two cases above illustrate that geographical boundaries
associated with the household-registration system determine
which social group an individual belongs to, and regional iden-
tity is a deep-rooted cultural reality in Chinese society. In the
course of migration to urban areas, peasant workers face social
exclusion that results from geographic differences (rural vil-
lages versus cities) and from not being allowed to obtain an
urban household-registration status.
A 42-year-old married male migrant peasant worker with a
high-school degree who first moved to the city in 1997 works
as an industrial manager. One of his interview responses illus-
trates the extent to which geographic boundaries and the
household-registration system divide social groups, as well as
how languages are part of an individual’s identify and define
Q: You have moved between many places, such as Guang-
dong and Suzhou. Could you say more about the time
you spent with the residents who were native to those
A: My feeling is, the Cantonese [urban residents in Guang-
dong] have an exclusive psychology. Why do I say they
have xenophobia? Because many companies give priority
to people who can speak Cantonese when recruiting
workers, some even just hire workers who can only
speak Cantonese. The language preference excludes a lot
of peasant workers. I think that is a form of discrimina-
tion in Guangdong. It is true that the whole country is
being pushed to learn Mandarin, but the Cantonese do
not want to learn Mandarin; and actually, they want peo-
ple to adapt to their la n gu age and their local c ul t ure.
Another 30-year-old married male peasant worker with a
junior-high-school education who is a veteran and first moved
to Shanghai in 1998 discusses social exclusion as well.
K.-Q. HAN ET AL.
Q: Have you been to Shanghai?
A: Been there, just once—very exclusive. I was trying to
make a phone call back to my home. I did not have a
phone so I found a phone on the street. It looked like it
was a public telephone that could only make local calls.
But I didn’t know. I asked people who were passing by
the phone booth how to make a call. They did not even
bother to answer me—just gave me a look. Or, even if
they answered, I mean, you could kindly tell me that this
phone is for local calls, but their tone was really mean
and discriminatory, very exclusive.
The above two cases illustrate how the social exclusion of
migrant peasant workers in China is a continuation of the
long-standing urban-rural household-registration system and
the resulting geographical exclusion. Through our interviews,
we found that migrant workers respond strongly to exclusion in
various dimensions of social life and cultural identity.
Upward Mobility of Migrant Peasant Workers
It is true that most migrant peasants work at low-skilled,
low-paying jobs that urban workers do not want. Additionally,
most migrant peasant workers do not experience upward occu-
pational mobility as ti me goes by and as they change jobs over
the years. Still, it is equally true that some migrant peasant
workers make their way up the occupational ladder to obtain
high socioeconomic status after years of hard work. A 29-year-
old male with a high-school degree who moved to the city for
the first time in 1997 used his own experience to vividly ex-
plain how upward mobility is possible even for peasant work-
Q: Could you tell us about your promotion process since you
first moved to the city 8 years ago?
A: I started as a cleaning worker in a Japanese-run company
for 3 months. After that, I was transferred to the mold
manufacturing sector, and was responsible for the main-
tenance of six sets of tools. This job was recruited for in-
ternally but required that [the applicant] take and pass the
company’s written examination. I did not know about the
test, so I did not apply. On the day of the examination, I
saw many young men take their pens with them for the
examination. I felt that my opportunity was coming, so I
put down my work at hand, and followed the people to
take the examination. My score was ranked as the second
best, but the requirement for the written examination was
to have the top score. My supervisor had a very good im-
pression of me, so he gave me very high evaluation, and I
was selected for the job because of the examination and
Q: What happened after that?
A: The new job was very much like the one I had before.
Two men worked at this job before me, they both worked
for 2 years and they were still technicians without any
promotion, so they quit. I took on both of their responsi-
bilities, so the workload was double. The temperature of
the workshop was higher than 40 degrees (40˚C = 104˚F),
I was all sweaty when I did the work every day. I was
very tired. Despite the hardship, I learned about loading
and unloading the materials while I maintained the
equipment, I also learned to drive a forklift, and got a li-
cense for that. I worked very hard and got recognition
from my supervisor. He told the Japanese boss about my
performance. I was promoted to team leader a few
months later. I took on the team-leader position for one
Q: What was the biggest gain after you were promoted to
A: One of the biggest gains was the increase in salary, but
the responsibility increased as well. Also, I had more
opportunities to interact with my colleagues and superi-
ors, and thus more colleagues knew me and knew about
my strengths and weaknesses as well.
Q: You then changed positions again?
A: Yes, from 1999 to 2001, I was transferred to and worked
for a department that was responsible for ordering for-
eign products, for expediting product deliveries, and also
for team communication and quality inspection.
Q: At that time your job had changed from a laborer to a
manager, were you satisfied?
A: I felt very satisfied, but in my mind I still wanted to climb
higher (beaming smile).
Q: You succeeded, right?
A: Yes, on November 1, 2001, I joined the c ompany’s Hea d-
quarter Office, responsible for managing six depart
Q: You said so yourself: you don’t have a lot of education.
So, what are the reasons for your success?
A: I came from a rural area and did not have good education
or skills. The decor skill I learned was neither my spe-
cialty nor my interest. I made my mind up in the begin-
ning that I have to learn new skills, to revitalize myself,
and keep climbing up.
Q: What kind of things you have done to advance yourself?
Why did you challenge yourselves to learn new things
A: I now study safety management in engineering in college.
I will get the diploma in 2 years. I would like to move
higher, and this would be impossible if you do not have a
college education. With more and more college graduates
now, competition has been growing as well. Workers are
increasingly aware of work-related injuries, and compa-
nies need professionals to control and manage the risks. I
can get a better job if I earn my diploma. These classes
are on weekends. I go to work on weekdays and go to
school on weekends. Sometimes, I feel tired and ex-
hausted, but I always am trying to keep working towards
success. Two years is not a long time!
Q: We are toward the end of our interview what else would
you like to say?
A: I want to say that you must stick with your education, be
confident, and trust your own ability. Learning is an in-
vestment in your future. The disadvantage of migrant
peasant workers is caused by their family background,
and they must rely on their own effort to make up for it.
Migrant peasant workers are like the city people. We are
all the same. We are all human beings, just born with
different backgrounds. Sometimes, in the city, people do
not discriminate against you, but you did not take the
opportunity. A boy went to the factory with me in 1997.
He worked for 5 years, still at the lowest level, and fi-
nally left. The reason was that he did not work hard
enough and did not have a strong sense of responsibility.
So I think, migrant peasant workers in the cities need to
believe in themselves, need to work harder than others. If
so, they must be able to succeed.
This interviewee obviously has a proactive, hardworking,
and responsible personality. He experienced a great deal of
struggles in the beginning of his career, but all he could think of
was to learn new skills and work hard. As he understands and
K.-Q. HAN ET AL. 209
exemplifies, the purpose of learning skills is to continue mov-
ing up. He was promoted to the management position, and was
still thinking of climbing the ladder. Through his continuous
learning, he was gradually promoted to personnel director. His
experiences may be unique, but his path to success is shared by
many peasant workers. As he said, the disadvantages of migrant
peasant workers stem from their family background—the
household-registration system in this case—and that is it. To
move upward and to be freed from the constraints of the
household-registration system requires individual effort to ad-
vance one’s education and job skills.
Modernization theory argues that a traditional society usually
constitutes a rigid structure to confine people’s behaviors and
thus their status; the social mobility of individuals is severely
restricted (Kerbo, 1991). A modern society is an open society
without a rigid structure, and thus social mobility between
strata is not restricted. In a traditional society, the social status
of individuals was depended mainly on inheritance. In contrast,
people rely on education and skills to achieve high social status
in a modern society. Through the interviews, we found that
although China’s household-registration system presents itself
as a traditional society, the open economic market since 1987
has allowed migrant peasant workers to obtain better employ-
ment opportunities and thus a greater degree of upward mobil-
ity through education and skills training.
Going Back Home
Since the early 2000s, the number of migrant peasants who
work in urban areas is growing at a fast pace. The influx of new
peasant workers migrating to the cities every year is growing.
But this does not mean that no peasant workers are leaving the
cities. Indeed, the recent few years have seen a steady number
of migrating peasant workers moving back home in the rural
regions. Many reasons account for why peasant workers may
return home. Bai and He (2003) examined the contributing
factors to remigration and found that the primary reason was
the difficulty obtaining employment in the urban areas. Some
peasant workers returned to rural areas because of personal and
family reasons, and others wanted to return to their hometowns
for the purpose of investment. In our case interviews, many
migrant peasant workers reported that they did not want to stay
in the city their whole life and planned to work for a few more
years and then return to their hometown to farm or to own their
own business. Our conversation with a 20-year-old male with a
junior-high-school education who moved to the city in 2001
provides one such example.
Q: If possible, will you stay in the city forever?
A: I don’t want to.
A: Because it is not ideal in the city. If you are unemployed
in the city, there is no way to get by. In the rural area
back home, at least you have land—you can plant some-
thing to eat.
A: 38-year-old male who first migrated to the city in 1988
and who was a fruit-and-vegetable vendor gave a differ-
Q: Are you planning to stay in the city for the long term?
A: We have a saying in our hometown: a tree may be one
thousand feet above ground, but the leaves still trace
back to the roots. I will work for another 10 years or so,
then go back. The city, after all, is not my home.
Q: You have never thought about listing your household in
A: No. I may be able to register my household in the city if I
try, but I never did. The urban household registration does
not have much use for me now. My kids are all out of
school, and if I list my household here, they will take my
rural land away.
In the above cases, both the first-time migrant peasant
worker and the experienced peasant worker expressed that re-
turning to their hometown was a future plan. These cases cer-
tainly raise the question that if migrating to the city is done to
achieve upward social mobility, then why would some or many
peasant workers want to go home in the end? In our interviews
with the peasant workers, we find that going back home was
somewhat of a powerless choice. Although peasant workers
may consider moving from the rural to the urban area and from
agriculture to industrial employment as upward mobility, living
and working in the city seems to bring with it a reality check of
social exclusion and infrastructure barriers that seriously limit
their social status. Although peasant workers may take the first
step on the ladder of potential upward mobility by obtaining
industrial work in the city, they face many difficulties in blend-
ing into the city life. In the end, returning home may be a better
option for migrant peasant workers who wish to improve their
Discussion and Conclusion
The literature has argued that the social mobility of migrant
peasant workers is an advancement in the process of social
development in China, has a positive influence on the urbaniza-
tion process, and makes substantial contributions to the growth
and transformation of the country’s economic system (Bai &
He, 2003; Zheng, 2006; Li & Li, 2007). For example, the State
Council Research Office (2006) of the Chinese national gov-
ernment estimates that, in 2004, migrant peasant workers have
contributed 1 to 2 trillion yuan to the GDP with their urban
work activity and increased rural revenue by 500 to 600 billion
yuan. It is estimated that over 20% of the increase in the GDP
from 1978 to 1995 was attributable to migrant peasant workers;
this percentage is higher than that of improved institutional
factors, such as the shift from low-productivity sectors (agri-
culture) to high-productivity sectors (nonagricultural; Cai &
Wang, 2002 and 2010).
The phenomenon of migrant peasant workers, however,
highlights the contradiction of social structures in traditional
agricultural society and the modern industrial system. In our
qualitative study, we illustrate the difficulty experienced by
many peasant workers living in the city, including discrimina-
tion and social exclusion, and how such experiences have lim-
ited their status attainment in the city. We also show that there
are at least two directions taken by peasant workers in their
career paths. One is clearly to achieve upward occupational
mobility, and the other is to return home to farm. It seems that
many peasant workers choose to go back home to avoid giving
up the land that was passed down to them through the genera-
tions. Behind their words, they expressed concern that a job can
be very helpful for the time being, especially if it brings good
money and supports a decent living standard for the worker and
his or her family, but land is a permanent asset that is valuable
and can be passed onto many future generations. Although
peasant workers may choose to register their household in the
city to obtain a “higher” social status for their children and
future generations (a benefit that many peasant workers would
like to enjoy), having an urban household registration also re-
quires giving up land, which may result in a greater loss than
the worker can gain by switching household registrations.
K.-Q. HAN ET AL.
The qualitative findings from this study highlight a common
experience shared among migrant peasant workers: discrimina-
tion and social exclusion. Still, with diverse career paths, some
of the migrant peasant workers achieved upward occupational
mobility and others went back home to return to their old work
in farming. These findings emphasize the importance of future
research to understand the heterogeneous experiences and mo-
bility paths among peasant workers. Although many people,
including the peasant workers themselves, consider migrating
for work to be upward occupational mobility, we cannot over-
look the possibility that returning home can be a positive choice
for many migrants. Perhaps what this study highlights is that no
one experience should be considered better than others.
We conducted this study to attempt to better understand the
experiences of peasant workers from their own words and per-
spectives. What we learned from their interview responses was
that to promote the well-being of peasant workers and to im-
prove their social status and chances for upward mobility re-
quires active policy intervention. The findings of this study
may offer several implications for policy and future research
directions. The first has to do with the institutionalization of
social mobility for migrant peasant workers. The migration of
peasant workers historically began with a spontaneous flow
initiated by individual peasant workers crossing illegally into
urban areas. This migration gradually developed into a larger
migration network facilitated through friends, relatives, and
communities. Finally, rural-to-urban migration entered a phase
guided by government regulation. Up to today, many if not the
majority of peasant workers have been unprepared for the skills
demanded by the urban labor market, and their general lack of
education and training have seriously limited their upward mo-
bility. Our qualitative findings inform us that strengthening and
providing education opportunities and establishing vocational
training and job-placement systems for migrant peasant work-
ers are important initiatives to help them transition successfully
into the urban labor market and to facilitate their moving up the
occupational lad d e r.
Second, legalizing the status of migrant peasant workers is
vital to achieving social equality. The rights of migrant peasant
workers will not be protected if the household-registration sys-
tem still stigmatizes peasant workers. Without reforming the
household-registration system as a whole, social programs for
migrant peasant workers will ultimately be efforts of sympathy
and compassion rather than protections of their basic rights or
contributions to improved social status. The protection of em-
ployment and other fundamental rights of peasant workers will
be impossible if peasant workers are not allowed to live legally
in the cities.
One of the limitations of this study is that the data were col-
lected in 2005. Given the dramatic socioeconomic change in
China in recent years, more recent data need to be analyzed to
capture the most recent social trends. Still, the current analysis
is important because the 2005 data have yet to be analyzed in
the context of this paper’s research questions, and this analysis
establishes preliminary results for future studies. An additional
limitation is that this study is based on a small sample (n = 109)
of qualitative interviews. However, this approach provides
insightful details about social mobility of migrant peasant
workers in China and helps provide a framework for future
analyses of larger, quantitative datasets.
In discussing the future direction of social mobility and ur-
banization in China, Xiaotong Fei, a famous sociologist in
China, proposed in the 1980s a “small town” theory that advo-
cates the establishment and development of small township
enterprises so that peasants can obtain employment in their
hometown and do not need to migrate to urban regions. This
idea has been called “leave the land but not home.” Since the
birth of this theory, the reality is that the economic growth in
the middle and large cities has been substantial, whereas the
economic development has not begun for the small towns until
recent years. Regional inequality and urban stratification are the
objective realities of urbanization in China. The common deci-
sion of migrant peasant workers to return home provides an
indication that urbanization in China may not be dependent
upon only one path—investing in the large metropolitan cit-
ies—but may also need to undertake a broad range of develop-
ment, including in small towns. Policies are needed to provide
incentives to help individuals invest in small towns and provide
would-be migrant peasant workers with options to integrate
themselves into their home communities.
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