‘Integration of family and business’: An urbanization model of rural migrants

By AO YAXUAN and CHEN QI / 04-25-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Consumers shop at a bustling early morning market in Chaoyang District, Beijing, on April 19. Photo: Fang Ke/CSST

In the context of urbanization, how rural migrant populations integrate into cities and achieve identity transformation is a focal issue. According to the 2014 survey report on Chinese migrant workers, 21% of the group migrated with their entire families. Empirical studies indicate that the employment opportunities which meet the needs of relocated families are mostly informal and are based on self-employment in urban areas. Later, this self-employment model goes on to facilitate urban mobility for their children. The concept of “integrated family and business” refers to rural migrant populations obtaining stable livelihoods in cities through informal employment methods. They reside in “urban villages” or established hyper-local communities and run small shops, work as street vendors, and perform other informal economic activities, thereby achieving the goal of family cohabitation and income development in the city. 

Professional development

From 2020 to 2022, our research team used a qualitative approach to study a small migrant community within a larger metropolitan area. The research team interviewed a total of 44 households including street vendors, snack shop vendors, and recycling site owners. The families selected for this case study were working couples living together. Researchers also focused on the development of the next generation, namely, how their children achieved urbanization. There were several different examples of family urbanization: The first category included offspring who obtained residency or “citizenship” in the new city or met the requirements for resettlement, which might mean their parents invested in property within city-limits or that they completed vocational education or higher. There were a total of 22 cases in this category. The second category included those whose parents had not officially resettled, but the children had local school registrations in the city and were receiving an education there. These “in progress” urbanization cases totaled 9 families. The remaining 13 cases had not yet achieved local urbanization. Among them, 8 cases did not meet the requirements for settlement, and 5 cases still had children receiving education in their hometowns.

The livelihood strategies of these small-scale family businesses varied, but they shared the common traits of flexible management and joint operation primarily led by couples, embodying the typical feature of an “integrated family and business.” The integration of family labor and flexible division of labor within a family unit formed the basis of their professional operations. The residential environment and its surroundings provided spatial conditions conducive for carrying out their business activities, while the family relationship network offered flexible channels for members starting or leaving their original businesses.

First, operating a stall generally requires coordination between at least two laborers. When livelihood development is closely linked to a family’s financial needs, cooperation between spouses is the most convenient labor model. Second, researchers witnessed the common use of auxiliary family labor, including middle-aged and elderly individuals, women affected by childbirth, and occasionally laborers with physical disabilities. Operating a stall allows small-business owners to integrate and utilize these nontraditional family labor forces, resulting in higher income. Finally, there’s the continuous extension of operating hours and the intensification of labor input. Stall operations typically take place in the evening and late at night, after regular work hours and when traditional laborers are resting.

The spatial environment of migrant workers’ homes has not been previously studied. In the traditional agricultural era, the integration of homes and businesses spatially facilitated mutual advancement. Studies show that situating the home (usually rented accommodation) near the workplace contributes to stable livelihoods. The integration of spatial boundaries between “work” and “home” can reduce costs in the city. In the meantime, being close to the home also helps vendors expand social relationships, thus adapting to the frequently fluctuating business environment in the locality. We have also observed that using the “home” as an extended working community space enables vendors to evade urban management regulations.

Due to fierce competition and the frequent regulatory constraints street vendors face in cities, their operations are often in a state of instability. Street vendors’ coping mechanisms involve many flexible transitions within their business activities while retaining a steady street vending livelihood model. A familial relationship network plays a crucial role in adjustments to this process. 

Rural migrant populations leverage family relationships to obtain street vending opportunities and even establish local roots for their families. Before venturing into street vending, many dabble a variety of occupations. From starting their small businesses to establishing a community, most people rely on family connections. When the business environment changes, vendors also rely on kinship relationships to transition their livelihoods, typically by borrowing money from relatives, learning new professional skills, or exchanging information to ease working transitions.

Family development

Different elements of the family contribute to the establishment of business, while the establishment and practice of business also affect the process of family development. Vendors prioritize their children’s urbanization and future prospects as the family’s central task. The key to progress lies in how the three stages of child-rearing align with their livelihood practices. During the newborn phase, the older generation is often absorbed into the family as labor, while young parents undergo an identity transformation and establish new forms of economic cooperation. As their children grow, pursuit of an education in the city (rather than in their hometowns) becomes the core demand of the family. When their children reach adulthood, labor divisions within the family are again transformed and the “integrated family and business” model may disintegrate or undergo an upgrade. At this time, the settlement of adult children in the city becomes the ultimate family goal.

According to interviews, the period from a new baby’s birth to his or her pre-school years is a challenging time for family development, as raising children requires intensive care and significant expenses. To meet these needs, young people working in the service industry or in factories often choose to transition to street vending, closely integrating “family” and “business.” Street vending provides a relatively stable income and allows families to concentrate spending on matters related to their children. Also, street vending can smoothly integrate family labor, with the flexibility to allocate labor and bring family members together, which is also conducive to life with newborns.

Children’s growth stage generally refers to the period of compulsory education, and in some cases, it may extend to the high school phase. During this stage, how to utilize family livelihood resources to support children’s education becomes the most crucial task for family development. Unlike the typical situation for migrant workers, where they cannot live with their children due to constraints of tough living conditions and work environments, the family cooperation model based on spousal collaboration can simultaneously manage children’s education-related tasks, such as transportation and homework assistance, alongside livelihood activities. The flexibility of an “integrated family and business” approach allows for spatial transitions, thereby maintaining stability in their children’s access to urban educational resources. Migrant workers can adjust their livelihood locations and business models according to the stage-specific needs of their children’s education by easily changing rental locations. 

The stage when children reach adulthood generally coincides with their enrollment in college or entry into the workforce. At this phase, street vendor families face the new task of assisting their children in starting their own families and settling the next generation into the city. Most children of the surveyed street vendor families have entered adulthood in recent years. Looking back at the developmental history of these families, street vending has been a temporary survival strategy for the older generation, with little evidence of intergenerational business succession. Many of these vendors’ children have completed vocational high school, college, or higher education, obtained urban household registration, or met the requirements for settlement, providing them with more choices for livelihoods and possibilities for integration into the city where they now live. 

When street vendor families accumulate a certain amount of wealth and urban relationship networks, these resources become an important foundation for their children to draw upon as they settle in the city. The family livelihood undergoes an intergenerational transformation, where the new generation can leverage the foundation built by the older generation to secure more stable jobs in the city. However, the goal of providing better conditions for the next generation persists in the family. The older generation would only “retire” if the next generation has clearly established themselves in the city. 


The “integrated family and business” model is a product of the comprehensive interaction between China’s urban-rural systems and family culture. This urbanization model has both resilience and limitations. First, the “integrated family and business” model, due to its autonomy and flexibility, can circumvent the difficulties which exist in factory systems, enabling profits to be directly used for family development. Second, the shared space of “business” and “family” fosters a sense of belonging in urban families and shapes unique ethical practices, facilitating the planning and arrangement of the next generation’s settlement in the city. Finally, the “integrated family and business” model firmly embeds mobile populations in urban communities, laying the foundation for their urban integration.

Most livelihoods pursued by mobile populations are low-end, with weak competitiveness, making them susceptible to displacement and elimination by high-end consumer sectors shaped by large-scale capital or chain operations. Small-scale service industries, retail businesses, and family-operated models fall under the purview of informal economic sectors within the community. If any of these links are disrupted, the entire community’s ecosystem may collapse, and the overall spatial environment and relational resources on which the “integrated family business” relies may become unsustainable. 

Any changes to urban spatial environments or regulatory measures affecting urban spaces will also impact the spatial foundation of the “business.” In recent years, with the improvement of urban regulations and the rise of various initiatives aimed at improving cities and urban sanitation, local governments have implemented a series of strategies to strengthen spatial governance rights, posing challenges to informal economic sectors and migrant workers reliant on spatial occupations.

By following the logic of migrant workers’ actions, we see that their ultimate aspiration is achieving urbanization through family development. This aligns with the China’s population movement’s mainstream trend shifting from individual migration to family relocation. The “integrated family and business” model precisely identifies the social mechanisms behind this population movement trend. This study shows that the intergenerational relay model and ethical family labor practices may be a simple way for Chinese farmers to urbanize, offering an alternative to previously studied methods of acquiring citizenship or the recent focus on absorbing migrant workers through local urbanization to bridge family separation gaps. It sheds light on the informal resources that rural communities rely on, rather than formal rights and resources in urban areas. In this sense, the “integrated family and business” model is of practical significance in various Chinese cities and urban-rural contexts.

Ao Yaxuan and Chen Qi (associate professor) are from the School of Sociology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

Edited by YANG XUE