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  • Mobility and Life Chances in Urbanization and Migration in China:Introduction*
  • Jing Song (bio), Huimin Du (bio), and Si-ming Li (bio)

China has witnessed an unprecedented urban revolution, manifested by rapid urbanization and massive migration that have driven the proportion of urban population above 50 percent.1 Along with the expansion of cities, millions of migrants move across the rural and urban boundaries, between different regions, and beyond the limits of the household registration status (戶口 hukou). From 1982 to 2010, the number of cities increased from 244 to 654, and the number of rural-hukou migrants in urban areas increased from 46.5 million to 205.6 million.2 The expansion of urban areas and population has been characterized not only by its scale and rapidity but also by the high degree of spatial variability. Under the market-oriented reforms, China's eastern coastal areas, or "early-developed" regions, were "opened up" first and have benefited from preferential policies.3 Some coastal and major metropolises like Beijing, [End Page 1]

Shanghai, and Guangzhou have become the "first-tier" cities that have attracted far more migrants than other "second-tier" or "third-tier" cities, which have marginalized so-called "late-developed" regions. In inland areas, given the lagging infrastructure and services, as well as the limited access to international markets,4 governments have made various efforts to reduce regional inequalities and help interior cities meet the criteria set by their eastern counterparts.5 Under the recent national strategy of Go West, the Rise of Central China Plan, and the One Belt One Road Initiative, urban sprawl and land development have been on the rise in inland areas. The New Urbanization Plan by the central government, which aims to confer 100 million new urban hukou by 2020, also opens up more room for urban development in small cities and towns.6 Local governments in inland and central China or less-developed areas desire to catch up in the modernization campaigns or build a "modern" city image, and the more-developed areas continue to witness urban development and restructuring to maintain their attractiveness to residents and migrants. As suggested in this special issue, urbanization and migration have greatly reshaped the regional and local development patterns in areas including Jiangsu (southeastern China), Anhui, Hubei (central China), Ningxia (northwestern China), and Inner Mongolia (northern China).

There have been mixed observations on how people have fared in urbanization and migration processes.7 On the one hand, urbanization and migration are accompanied by the unleashing achievement motivations and entrepreneurial dynamics from the previously rigid institutional barriers and urban-rural divides. On the other hand, structural inequalities have been reproduced and reinforced in urbanization and migration processes. Studies of both research traditions have long been plagued by the dichotomy between urban core versus rural periphery, which have been commonly phrased as "early-developed" and "late-developed" areas regarding urbanization, or "receiving" and "sending" places regarding migration. With its roots in the dependency theory in the 1960s and world system theory in the 1970s, this analytical framework suggests that economic power is unequally distributed between urban core and rural periphery and that the latter is trapped by its disadvantaged position and structurally dependent on the former.8 Such a dichotomous analytical framework underscores the unequal power relations underlying the broad picture of economic development and labor migration flows. However, this perspective has been criticized for its determinist view that sees rural periphery and migrants as passively suffering victims who could do little [End Page 2] to alter structural forces. The agency of individuals and collectives rooted in rural peripheries is largely overlooked. Over time, it has been increasingly recognized that rural and suburban areas also have their own development potential and economic prospects and that migrants also have their own agency and reflexivity. Moreover, the rigid forms of dichotomy have been challenged given the diverse forms of integration and segregation, the flexible boundaries, and the complicated motivations behind the decisions to leave, to stay, and to move back and forth. Urbanization and migration do not always enhance life chances of some and deprive those of others, but often have complicated implications for different groups of people who are...


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