Rural-urban migration in China has long been recognized as circular migration. However, few studies have systematically reviewed when rural workers migrate, what factors affect the length of migration, when they return, if they migrate again, how often they circulate over their life cycle, or how circularity has changed in the past 30 years. This dissertation investigates these questions using a longitudinal dataset from two counties in Anhui province.
The empirical analysis shows that over the past 30 years, more and more rural workers have participated in rural-urban migration. Although migrants have circulated less often since 2000, circular migration has long been and continues to be a major form of rural-urban migration in China. Age, gender, generation, education level and marital status all affect the frequency of circularity and the direction of migration. Frequency of circularity at first increases by age, then decreases. Male workers are less likely to circulate and they tend to spend more time away from their home towns (“outside”) than female workers. Mid and new-generation rural workers are more likely to move and spend more time outside, and they circulate less often than the old-generation rural workers. The location of family members affects men and women differently. Although having more children in the home town (“inside”) reduces the probability of moving outside for both men and women, women are affected more than men. Once a man has moved outside, the more children he has inside, the less likely he will return. However, having more children inside encourages a female migrant to return. Having parents inside reduces the frequency of circulation and encourages migrants to stay outside longer. It also increases the probability that women will initiate migration.
Regression models show that having a high quality house encourages migrants to return, and this effect exists across generations, despite the fact that younger generations of migrants now spend more time in cities than in the countryside. I use a case study of a village (“Y1”) to understand why rural houses are important to migrant workers and their families, and thus to further interpret the relationship between migration, circularity, and settlement. I find that demographic changes caused by migration and the state birth planning policy have contributed to migrant workers’ enthusiasm for building large houses in the countryside. Although new-generation migrant workers do not have agricultural work experience and are not interested in agriculture, rural areas are still important to this generation because these areas provide affordable housing, family support, and future development opportunities. As a result, circular migration can be expected to continue in China.
In the context of China’s rural-urban geography and socioeconomic structure, circulation allows migrant workers to take advantage of different opportunities and resources in both cities and the countryside. Thus, for rural-urban migrants, permanent migration to a city may not be optimal or inevitable. These findings have implications for policy makers, especially policy makers concerned with hukou reforms.