UCLA Faculty Research on China: Professor C. Cindy Fan

UCLA Faculty Research on China:  Professor C. Cindy Fan

Professor Fan (Department of Geography) explores internal migration in China

Professor C. Cindy Fan, Professor in the Geography Department, as a population geographer knows that migration is key to unlocking the past as well as understanding the present. Her first projects on China did not involve migration, but uneven regional development. In working on those projects, she increasingly realized that migration has been central to changes in China’s demographics in the last two or three decades. The relationship between migration, economic development, and social change is clear, as is the magnitude of the change: migrants are not only fueling population growth in cities but also spearheading sweeping changes in the composition of Chinese families. Thus, almost anything one can talk about regarding China is in some degree related to migration.

Her projects have involved all aspects of population geography, and although she takes an intrinsically geographic perspective on internal migration in China, she also looks at political economy and how it has influenced migration patterns, processes, and experiences. In addressing what is happening within rural households, Professor Fan has been examining issues in intrahousehold relations, including gendered and generational changes. One of her recently advanced arguments is that migrants are not just passively responding to hukou (China’s residency permit system) or development issues but are taking active advantage of the increased flexibility in terms of regional identification and membership that a split household can afford. Although most of these migrants are denied legal residence in the cities, Professor Fan believes their bases in the countryside afford them a certain amount of social and economic security. This optimistic view is in direct contrast to the more common pessimistic one which cites exploitation and hukou constraints as the reason why families retain a rural base.

Professor Fan points out that a multifaceted view is more accurate when looking at China since things there are changing so quickly that a conclusion today may not be viable tomorrow. The core of her more optimistic view looks at the agency of strategy that rural-to-urban migrants use to advance their wellbeing. Migrant strategies are dynamic and case-specific. In the 1990s, most population models of the household division of labor in China placed the husband as the migrant worker, leaving rural areas for a better opportunity in the city. Now, in the last eight to ten years, more single and married women are leaving to look for urban work. The single women will most often come back to marry, but this will not keep them from going out and looking for migrant work again in the future when their children are grown. Farming and agriculture, once the backbone of rural family subsistence, is despised now and the division of labor is more intergenerational. Many married migrant women are taking their children with them as they search for urban work, creating problems in multiple areas, especially schooling and childcare. However, the fact that these migrants are changing their strategies over time shows they are not passive, but are carving their own path.
Professor Fan’s research strategies, like the migrants’ strategies for getting ahead, are varied. Using a combination of census data (1990 and 2000), plus her own surveys, plus surveys by collaborators in China, she has amassed a significant amount of quantitative and qualitative data. Integrating the numbers with the stories and narratives of migrants allows for a fuller picture of the migrant experience with qualitative material providing balance to quantitative data.

What are Professor Fan’s conclusions? There is no question that migration will continue to increase in China. In the countryside, finding urban work is widely perceived as the only way out. Surprisingly, there is still surplus labor in the rural areas while at the same time there are labor shortages in some cities. This is due to migrant choices -- with awareness of better jobs and opportunities, migrants continue to move, employing their own agency to better their situation. In the future, Professor Fan believes, there will be more migrants who can remain in the city for a longer time even without an urban hukou. Policymakers need to seriously work out how to integrate them into society and the economy. The situation in the countryside is worrisome because young adults are leaving but not returning. Furthermore, the “New Socialist Countryside” called for in the 11th Five-Year Plan cannot be implemented without the requisite capital. The future of the countryside is thus unsure.

The following figure is from Professor Fan’s new book China on the Move: Migration, the State, and the Household (Routledge, 2008).


Professor Fan’s other recent work deals with, among other issues, uneven regional development in China. A forthcoming article in Eurasian Geography and Economics, co-authored with one of her graduate students, addresses regional inequality. It is accepted now that the gap between the rich and poor regions increased in the 1990s. The government has paid close attention to this change and has tried to deal through the with the so-called Great Western Development program (xibudakaifa). According to Professor Fan’s findings, there has in fact been a slowing down in the increase in regional inequality between 2004 and 2006. She questions whether this is an aberration or the beginning of a new trend, and to what extent this decline has been be due to government programs. The 11th Five-Year Plan focuses on developing a “harmonious society” (gongtongfuyu), but what role, if any, this has played is unclear. What is clear, Professor Fan argues, is that the movement of manufacturing, due to rising costs, to places of lower cost has played a crucial role.

In the future, Professor Fan plans to revisit a survey of 300 Sichuan and Anhui households conducted in 1995. Initiated by a collaborator in the 1990s, this project, which Professor Fan joined later the project, produced a treasure-trove of important data. Professor Fan is eager to uncover the changes that have occurred since 1995. For example, today more migrant workers expect to bring along their children when they move to the city and they anticipate better urban education for their children. Also, attaining a university degree, once an unreachable goal for rural-to-urban migrants, has become more realistic. Once, rural farm workers saved solely for the cost of housing and food; now they save for their children’s education. Professor Fan has compiled preliminary information, and next will undertake a more systematic comparison between the two surveys, including investigating such questions “Have the hukou reforms had any impact?” and “What happens to the children who remain in rural areas?”

Published: Friday, February 01, 2008