The lure of the lights of China's big cities

Internal Migration in Contemporary China
November 9, 2001

The massive volume of recent research and publications on this topic makes it understandable that Delia Davin, as she relates in her introduction, hesitated over a book-length treatment of it. Any attempt to generalise for the whole of China will be met with a chorus of "it's not like that in my area" from the authors of micro-studies, and there is inevitably a risk of the findings being overtaken by new trends before publication.

But there is undoubtedly a need for such a book. The movement of tens of millions of people from (mostly) rural or less-developed areas to the major cities is probably the single most striking social phenomenon generated by the post-Mao reforms, and it is one that touches virtually all areas of life in China. Yet many otherwise respectable surveys of the reform era lack even an index entry for migration and migrants. There are exceptions, notably in the field of labour studies, but even here the emphasis tends to be on how urban officialdom, employers and the established urban workforce react to and compete with rural migrants in the nascent labour market, with much less attention to the experiences of migrants in their own right.

Davin's book is to be commended as the first attempt to offer an overview of this complex phenomenon, and in particular for the attention it pays to the sending areas and the effect of so many of their better-educated young people departing for the big cities and booming southeast. It is a sympathetic account, not only in its attitude towards the migrants themselves (who are often reviled in the Chinese press in terms familiar to a British audience), but also in its discussion of policy formation and Chinese academic research on migration issues. Here the typical attitudes of the urban elite, sometimes influenced by the traumatic experiences of those sent to the countryside during the cultural revolution, still predominate. But Davin identifies a more recent "liberal discourse" that promotes the rights and interests of migrants and seems to be gaining ground slowly, with the increasing acceptance that migration and urbanisation are unavoidable concomitants of market reform.

This book will be extremely valuable to the obvious academic audiences in such fields as geography, economics, sociology and social policy, and in particular to anyone with an interest in women, gender, marriage and the family in contemporary China. Davin's previous work in the latter area is reflected in the chapters on female migrants and migration for marriage. Here, in particular, it is possible to get a sense of the experiences of real people that lie behind the bald statistics of who moves where and for what purpose.

The book is accessibly written and highly readable, making it suitable for undergraduate use. It also weaves in enough explanation of China's peculiarities to be useful to non-China specialists seeking comparative perspectives on migration issues.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.

Internal Migration in Contemporary China

Author - Delia Davin
ISBN - 0 333 71731 7
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £50.00
Pages - 177

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