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Social mobility reconfigures rural demographic behavior

ZHOU SHUAI | 2017-04-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Line up the road

Cartoon by Liu Zhiyong; Poem by Long Yuan



Ancient villages liked to dig moats,
By the water, villages found their roots.
As society underwent transformation,
People began to settle along roads.
At rural fairs and markets, people trade information and goods,
School district housing is also an important driving force.
“Separation of three rights” promotes land circulation,
Small towns point out the direction.
On a well-connected urban-rural transportation network,
People are free to travel back and forth.


Note: The Chinese government is promoting a new round of land reform in rural areas, the core of which is the “three rights separation system,” which refers to the separation of village collective ownership, contractual rights and operation rights.


Since Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin put forward the concept of social mobility in 1927, it has become an important topic in sociology. In this respect, China is a latecomer.
In ancient China, ruling dynasties registered households throughout the country and applied collective punishment to prohibit people from leaving their place of birth. The rigid feudal hierarchy also created an impermeable boundary that reinforced class stratification. Thus, social mobility was practically nonexistent for a prolonged period of time.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government adopted a binary urban-rural system to prioritize urban and industrial development, which to a degree, weakened social mobility.

In the late 1970s, after the reform and opening up, disparities between the countryside and the cities as well as regional inequalities set off a wave of population migration and also prompted the study of social mobility in China.

However, a majority of previous studies focused on the urban-rural mobility and vice versa, whereas internal migration within cities and villages has often been neglected. An old Chinese saying characterizes the nation’s social ladder thusly: “Those in villages will move to towns if they can and those in towns will surely want to live in cities if circumstances are right.” Though this form of mobility seems to be the norm, the internal migration in vast rural regions has a distinctive pattern and significance that, by all means, should not be overlooked.


Due to limitations in production and lifestyle, the development of ancient civilizations was inextricably linked with water. Traditionally, the establishment of villages followed the paths of rivers and creeks to provide water for daily needs and irrigation. In addition, some time-honored villages were often surrounded by moats for protection.

As industrial civilization progressed, the effects of such restrictions on the means of production have gradually weakened, while efficiency logic has become dominant and the modern transportation system has been extended. Even in rural China, small settlement locations are connected through roads. In addition to government-led construction, some isolated villages have spontaneously raised funds and paved the way to link their settlements with rural roads.

According to German-English geographer and cartographer Ernst Ravenstein’s laws of migration, migration commonly takes place because of the push factor of fewer socioeconomic opportunities and also because of pull factors that exist in more-developed areas where social distance contributes to mobility. Thus, small towns and convenient areas easily attract residents from remote areas.

In this light, the old-fashioned tendency to live by the water has been replaced by a new trend of settling down along roads. Apartment buildings line the main roads in rural China and form a new belt-like settlement pattern mostly occupied by migrant workers and affluent farmers. In general, these new settlements do not have official names. Rather, they are a living community consisting of farmers from more remote areas who are not in villages.


Rural markets
When American anthropologist George Skinner analyzed rural society in China, he created a model for the behavior of the rural Chinese market. He argued that within a given distance, there would be a market town for surrounding villages. In theory, a standard market town will cover villages situated in a hexagon-shaped area around it. In practice, the radiation will vary on a geographic basis. Such a model is of vital importance to study rural China.

In reality, though the radiation and size of rural markets are not comparable to large-scale markets in cities and industrial towns, rural markets contain an enormous centrifugal force to attract villagers to settle around them.

Such “market-oriented” social mobility mainly coincides with the targeted population’s need for information, including both commodities and lifestyles. People come to the markets not only to buy or sell agricultural products but also at times to find a spouse.

A series of new settlements around the market towns provide evidence that rural households from remote areas are drawn to markets and information.


Education is another important factor of social mobility. Despite the prevailing prejudice that education is not of much use in rural China, parents still put great emphasis on school because of the restrictions their children might face in daily lives and job opportunities when they try to find work in cities. As for the high dropout rates in villages, one needs to look for answers in social structure rather than personal will.

Under the current educational system, rural schools are affected by a lack of funds and teachers. In the meantime, starting in 2001—under the pretext that China has fewer and fewer rural children—the government launched a reform campaign in rural elementary and middle schools nationwide, which basically entailed shutting down village schools and relocating students to county or township schools.

As a result, migration toward schools begins to aggregate in remote villages, and the popularity of school district housing is no longer confined to cities. As allocated rural money and capital accumulate, sales of units in new apartment buildings near rural elementary and middle schools are hitting records. Needless to say, educational resources are a strong driving force that facilitates social mobility in rural areas.

What’s more, the life cycle of a family will also impact internal rural migration at a particular time, such as when a rural household divides up family property and lives apart or when the younger generation starts their own family and moves out. However, on the whole, this plays a quite limited role in driving social mobility and reproduction in rural China, as compared to the aforementioned three factors.


Problems, opportunities
Unlike urban-rural social mobility, which shapes the macro social structure, rural internal social mobility primarily alters the production and lifestyle of individual or household farmers.

This transformation sometimes takes on a destructive form. For example, the extra household income earned through working in cities spawns demand for new housing while current homesteads—previously allotted by the government to build houses—fall short of such a growing need, so farmers look elsewhere. Thus, on occasions, arable land is taken illegally to build houses, causing severe damage to farmland.

However, opportunities do come with challenges. If we look at it from a different perspective, internal rural migration creates a window for land reform and small town construction.

To start with, farmers who are not in villages are drawn to market towns due to transportation, markets and education. They are not as attached to the land as their fathers and grandparents did physically and psychologically. Such a migration changes the old sedentary lifestyle of rural China. This group of farmers is no longer entirely dependent on land for survival. Instead, they take their chances in the market.

At present, the government advocates the separation of village collective ownership, contractual rights, and operation rights to promote land circulation. Farmers who are not in villages are good candidates to be the first target group for such reforms.

By guiding them to engage in part-time jobs or increase non-agricultural income, the government could encourage the group to transfer their land to other farmers, agricultural cooperatives or companies, to improve the degree of land collection and utilization efficiency.

In addition, the internal population flow of rural areas also presents a good opportunity to promote the construction of small towns. It can be said that the sluggish construction of small towns is related to the dispersion and weak link of the rural settlements.

Government guidance and the “invisible” market function could work together to advance small town construction so that it would house a proportion of rural population and reduce the pressure of metropolises.


Zhou Shuai is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China.