Rural Landholdings and the Geographic and Social Mobility of China’s Rural Migrants

Project: Research project

Project Details


For generations, China’s farmers have worked the land to harvest a living. Land was essential, and for the great majority, it was the only means to thrive. Today, the farmers’ offspring have uprooted themselves from the land for urban jobs. Nevertheless, most still retain the rural land and float between the urban and rural realms. Farmers can lease their land, but they are not permitted to sell it, except to the government. Despite these incomplete rural property rights, landholders tend to maximize the utility of their land to realize its potential value. As investment capital frenetically acquires rural land for development and centralized agricultural production, the value of rural land has significantly increased. In many places and for many rural households, rural landholdings have changed from being the means of livelihood into being a fixed asset whose value varies according to the type, quantity and location of the landholdings. Revenues generated from rural land often instantaneously alter the mobility choices and life outcomes of rural citizens.

These new developments are almost completely absent from studies of China’s migration and social changes, where emphasis is on the role of urban employment in driving rural citizens to move across the country and up the social ladder. This research, however, will shed new light on how the countryside may also be driving the geographic and social mobility of rural citizens, thereby shaping regional social patterns. Through juxtaposing and relating rural migrants’ resources and life outcomes from both urban and rural angles, empirical analysis using two complementary approaches will unravel the effect of rural landholdings. Statistical modeling of survey data will be used to examine the causal relationships of rural landholdings, migration and life outcomes. A multi-sited ethnography approach will be used to investigate how rural landholdings influence the splitting of the family and the lives of migrants in the city and family members in the countryside. The mixed-methods investigation will be conducted in a hierarchy of urban destinations in Jiangsu and in multiple rural origins within and outside the province. In these analyses, urban livelihood and rural assets will be treated as integral components of the complex process of transregional class formation and reproduction. Scrutinizing such processes at the household level will help explain how rural land, distributed (in principle) to rural households on an egalitarian basis, may have become a source of inequality, sorting rural citizens into various localities and social classes
Effective start/end date1/01/1930/06/23


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