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Chinese cities in transformation: regional society to migrant society

ZHOU DAMING | 2018-06-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Pictured here is a glimpse of the Qibao Old Street in Shanghai. With a history spanning over one thousand years, Qibao Ancient Town where the street locates is dubbed as a living fossil of ancient Chinese conurbation and urban planning. (669PIC)


The foundation of Chinese culture is agricultural civilization, but now the urban population has surpassed rural population in our country, ushering in a transition from an agricultural society to an urban society. C. K. Yang, a Chinese-born American sociologist, said that great changes have taken place in Chinese cities since the start of the modern age. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, urbanization occurred in Chinese towns that frequently conducted trade with foreign enterprises. Then, from the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the end of the 20th century, China experienced both rapid urbanization and reverse urbanization. Accordingly, the urban organizational system has also undergone changes, facing challenges and problems such as organizational effectiveness and efficiency.

In this light, we observe that contemporary Chinese cities are in a transitional period, moving from the regional cities to cities of migrants.


Regional society
We want to use the concept of “regional society” to describe and summarize traditional Chinese society, as it refers to a society formed on the basis of certain regional cultures. The formation of a regional society is mainly associated with the following factors: socioeconomic operation pattern, administrative system, market system and conservative migration policy. Therefore, regional society, generally speaking, has a relatively stable structure and due to the influence of ethnic culture, geography, history, especially the historical process of migration, each region appears to have its own cultural customs.

Regional cities that formed on the basis of a regional society thus also show distinct characteristics. First, the residents of towns often migrated there from the surrounding countryside. Second, as people around the city flowed in, regional cities were mainly dominated by a certain dialect. Third, the regional city was more often than not the administrative center, which also has something to do with our history. China has always regarded the city as a military and political center. Fourth, under the strict household registration system, urban residents form a relatively stable and separate group from other places, spawning a strong regional urban identity.


Migration era
The transformation of urban communities coincides with the arrival of an age of migration. With the process of industrialization and urbanization speeding up in recent years, the domestic population flow is quite astonishing. According to the data in 2012, one out of every six people in cities is a recent migrant. At the beginning, the population flow is a one-way street, with people moving from the west to the east, to the southeast coast, and to the larger cities.

The migrant population currently accounts for a large proportion of the overall population. When broken down by region, the proportion of the migrant population is the largest in the east, with the exception in Northeast China, where migrants are relatively scarce due to a lack of economic opportunity and a large number of laid-off workers. In contrast to the less than 10 percent migrants in Northeast China, 20 percent of the population in the west is migrants and 28 percent in central regions. It is thus safe to conclude that China’s population mobility by no means occurs on a regional scale, rather it affects society as a whole.

As the number of migrants increases, Chinese cities also gradually transform from a relatively closed regional society to a pluralistic migrant society. This evolution could be observed from the perspective of population structure.

With any Chinese city, the proportion of urban population from a single region is getting smaller and smaller. In the 1980s, Guangzhou had 3 million urban residents. It is now home to more than 10 million residents and most of them are migrants. Therefore, we argue that such cities in coastal areas have entered a migrant society rather than a regional society. The main criterion is that its demographic is no longer composed of rural resident from surrounding areas. Though, with the expansion of a city, the rural population will be incorporated into the city and become the urban population.

However, in reality, policy migrants, as we usually call them, are not a large proportion of the coastal urban population. Today the origins and composition of urban migrants is more diverse. In the old times, the Han nationality accounted for the bulk of the urban population, while today cosmopolitan areas like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are home to 55 ethnic minorities. Traditionally, we would say Yunnan Province has the largest number of ethnic minorities, which is now somewhat debatable because after all, there are only 25 some ethnic minorities in Yunnan but 55 ethnic minorities in Guangzhou. It can be seen that the source and composition of urban population have largely diversified.


Problems arise
The pluralistic migrant society has encountered many problems in the process of transformation, which urgently requires a corresponding cultural adjustment. To be specific, it raises the issue of equal access to public resources. For example, now we are discussing how to achieve equal access to resources in a city, given that disparities in treatment in the same city is quite common in today’s China. Though people may inhabit the same city, the treatment is different in all aspects due to different status, especially medical treatment, education, pension and social security.

In addition to the changes at the policy and institutional levels, anthropologists are more concerned with the cultural transformation in the process of urbanization. We do not put emphasis on the cultural differences among different regions, but as the population structure becomes increasingly complex, people from different places bring their own cultures into the city. As a result, diversity of culture is a very important feature of a migrant society. At the same time, as the city moves from a regional culture to a multicultural grouping, many social problems surface.

Second, similar incidents related to cultural conflicts may occur within the family. In the past, people from the same place tended to share a common culture, identity and values, which in turn make the risk of conflict less likely in families, as we can see from the divorce rate. Some 20 years ago, we conducted a survey in a remote village and found that the divorce rate there was zero. In traditional rural society, the family was extremely stable.

However, the divorce rate in Chinese society is extremely high today and one of the important reasons is that the marriage circle is expanding, and people from different cultures get married more often than before.

Third, there may be some cultural inadaptability during the transition period such as regional discrimination, referring to people’s stereotyped perspective toward people from a certain place. Research suggests that this may result from the existence of group identification, or to say the establishment self-identity and exclusiveness that ensues.

In addition, the weakening of traditional moral ethics also causes inadaptability. In the past, China’s traditional regional culture was an acquaintance society, based on a system of clans, kinship and geographical proximity. When we entered a migrant society, these ties were broken and the basic resources available have changed drastically.

Fourth, relationships in migrant societies are more complex. In fact, we are faced with more outsiders, so the tasks of establishing a trust mechanism and building a harmonious society are becoming increasingly complicated. Traditional Chinese culture considered ethics to be even more important than the law. As of today, these practices have been severely challenged.

China is in a period of transition and developing at a breakneck speed. However, the corresponding laws and policies are lagging behind—and so are related academic studies. A lot of ethnology and anthropology research still focus on remote rural societies, rather than the city. If we could apply anthropological research perspectives and methods to the urban setting, urban studies may look at a breakthrough.

Urban anthropology’s first achievement may just be about the urban population and urban ethnic relations, which receive less attention from the government at this point, given that the construction of multicultural city and multi-ethnical city are rarely the slogan.  

Similarly, when we measure social development, we do not incorporate ethnic relations and ethnic relations as indicators, which also needs to change over time. Besides, the weakening of ethics and morality, the change of family and kinship system, international immigration and transnational marriage and many other issues are too worthy of further discussion.


Zhou Daming is from the Center for History and Anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University.

(edited by YANG XUE)