The Children of China’s Great Migration

Rachel Murphy (2020) The Children of China’s Great Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Listen to a podcast and watch a video where Rachel speaks about this book.

The Children of China’s Great Migration addresses the phenomenon of children in rural China being separated from their parents because of labour migration. In the 2010s the number of rural Chinese children with at least one parent who had migrated without them exceeded 61 million, equivalent to the population of Great Britain. Nearly half these children had two migrant parents, while the proportions with a migrant father and a migrant mother were approximately one third and 17 per cent respectively. Although the separation of rural families because of labour migration is portrayed in China’s public official and media discourse as a side-effect of development and urbanization, such family separation is integral to rather than incidental to its national strategy of rapid capital accumulation: urban employers and municipal governments fail to pay migrants a family wage or to provide them and their families with access to public services. Instead, most migrants’ children are fed, housed, educated and cared for in the countryside, which depresses employers’ and municipalities’ costs in competitive globalising markets. This book documents how successive generations of individuals with rural origins become trapped in a daily struggle for survival and unreachable dreams, obscuring the inequalities that compel them to ceaseless toil and sacrifice. It especially reveals that children bear the emotional toll.

Drawing on my interviews with 109 children (with a median age of 12 years) from rural schools in two of China’s eastern interior provinces and matching interviews with their caregivers, the book brings children’s voices into the conversation about national strategies for capital accumulation. It focuses on the children’s experiences of the daily routines of care in their families and their daily routines in and around schools when their parents have migrated without them, these being the routines through which family and national strategies for capital accumulation cohere. Through these routines, children are subjected to their families’ and schools’ efforts to inculcate in them a sense of an intergenerational debt that they need to repay through diligence in study and good behaviour. The book chronicles different children’s experiences of these efforts by their age (primary school age or teenage years), gender, academic performance, and place of residence, by their families’ socio-economic circumstances and by who in their family has migrated – both parents, only the father, or only the mother. It also offers a longitudinal perspective on a subset of these children’s experiences, following twenty-five of them and their families over five years (2010-2015), revealing the strains of both parent-child separation and study pressures on the evolution of parent-child relationships and the children’s sentiments and aspirations. 

The stories of these children and their families show how in the early to mid-2010s, imperatives to work, sacrifice, and take responsibility for one’s own success or failure in life were harnessed and animated by and though multi-scalar social, economic and political processes. Specifically, economic production regimes and families’ social reproduction arrangements blended imperceptibly with individuals’ understandings of cherished values around family, gender, motherhood, fatherhood, filial piety, and morality. Pathways to recognition for individuals both within and beyond their families melded such that failure at school, in the labour market or in the marriage market was not just a personal failure but failure as a child, parent or spouse. An emphasis on children’s voices and experiences contributes to a wider social scientific enterprise of rendering visible the mundane material and social practices and power relations through which people order their lives. It reveals the institutionalised inequalities that compel people of all ages to relentless toil and sacrifice, while imperilling children’s access to the material and affective security so essential for their flourishing.

The book invokes a conceptual framework of ‘multi-local family striving teams’, which combines and extends theoretical insights derived from global literatures on (1) co-resident families’ positioning of children as ‘sites of capital accumulation’ and concomitant efforts to invest in their education; (2) the gendered and intergenerational reconfigurations of families through their migration strategies; and (3) the problematization of children’s agency including its relational and contradictory dimensions. The children learned through the aspirations, discipline, permissions, affection and reproach of adults that other people’s happiness depended on their actions, giving substance to their agency.  Simultaneously gendered and intergenerational norms affected the children’s expectations of and relationships with their mothers, fathers and grandparents. For instance, even as a parent-child work-study bargain gave primary school children a way to deal with the daily pain of missing their parents, if their grades had fallen by the time they reached the junior high stage of their education, their resentment against their migrant parents could be intense.  Meanwhile, resentment against migrant mothers could be the most pronounced because mothers were culturally expected to co-reside with their children.

The book additionally examines left behind children’s experiences of cities, showing that boundaries between ‘left behind children’ and ‘migrant children’ are often blurred. Many rural children who visited their migrant parents in the cities during the two-month summer holidays found themselves locked in a small room for hours at a time with a television and homework while their parents worked. The children seldom saw much of the cities. The implications of migrant parents’ deprived circumstances for their children’s summer visits can be extrapolated from findings in Western countries, namely, that school holidays exacerbate class-based educational inequalities because children whose parents have few resources miss out on the enrichment activities and interactions that middle-class children enjoy. The experiences of the children of migrants in China highlight a need for: dedicated holiday activities, greater flexibility in migrants’ employment conditions such that parents can spend time with their children, and approaches to development that enable families to meet their children’s needs for both the material and affective dimensions of care that are so essential for human flourishing.

The research findings draw attention to a need to incorporate children’s voices into policymaking both in China and globally. Children’s voices highlight the harms of processes that separate social reproduction from production and underpin widening socio-economic inequalities. Their voices also illuminate the failings of an education system that is instrumentally oriented towards equipping children to demonstrate their worth in competition rather than nurturing their potential and love of learning. Indeed, the education system – with its lack of plural viable routes for learning – is such that millions of rural children become alienated, written off and destroyed. These voices of children, with their intuitive emphasis on play, human interdependency and affection, if heard, could offer inspiration for alternative values on which to order society.

Listen to a podcast and watch a video where Rachel speaks about this book.

Author Bio:

Rachel Murphy is Professor of Chinese Development and Society at the University of Oxford. She obtained her PhD in Sociology from the University of Cambridge in 1999. The book project reported here was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Award. Rachel’s recent publications appear in China Quarterly, Population Space and Place, Development and Change, and Population and Development Review and an article on education and repertoires of care in migrant families in rural China is forthcoming in Comparative Education Review. She is President of the British Association for Chinese Studies.

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