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China: The largest migration in history | The Economist

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Published on Mar 1, 2012

An animated infographic about China's migrant workers. Migration from inland villages to coastal cities has transformed China. Now that is changing, as regional cities inland become the new focus of migration patterns.

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Since 1978 China has experienced the largest internal migration in human history. Nearly 160 million people - that's almost 12% of today's population - have left rural areas to seek work in the cities.

The motivation to move was obvious. In 1978 everyone was poor, and rural incomes were less than 40% of urban ones. Suddenly Communist China threw open its doors and factories appeared in coastal towns, where farmers could make more money in a month than in a year growing rice.

Migrants moved from the poorest inland provinces such as Guizhou, Sichuan and Anhui. In 1980 farmers here lived on less than $2 a day. According to Kam Wing Chan at the University of Washington, more than 10 million workers migrated out of their home province between 1990 and 1995. Another 32 million migrated from 1995 to 2000 and yet another 38 million over the next five years.

By 2011 nearly 160 million rural Chinese were working far from home. Between 2001 and 2010 migration contributed nearly 20 percent of China's economic growth but it has all come at a personal cost - many migrants spend years away from their family.

Industrialization has also caused a terrible pollution problem but many feel the huge personal and national economic impact have made it worthwhile.

In the 1990s the wealth gap between rural and urban China opened wide- though the gap has closed a little, this is still a huge social issue with tens of thousands of cases of rural unrest each year.

The city of Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong, is a classic example of the speed at which Chinese cities have grown. Shenzhen has sprawled from a town of a few thousand in 1978 to a city of 12 million people in 2010 and it's set to keep on growing. The EIU forecasts that the population will hit 15 million by 2020. In just over 30 years the GDP of coastal provinces such as Guangdong, where Shenzhen is located, has shot up. Two other coastal provinces Zhejiang and Jiangsu in 2010 had the same GDP as Austria and Switzerland respectively. Now though, as the cost of labor and land near the coast has risen, Manufacturing is moving inland and fewer migrants are travelling to the coastal cities. As more jobs are created in inland cities and provinces more wealth is trickling down to rural areas too.

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