City Slickers to Country Bumpkins: Urban-rural Migration in China

Divisive political campaigns across the Western world in 2016 illustrated the split between “cosmopolitan” and “rural” citizens. Previous posts have addressed this urban rural divide regarding perceptions of environmental problems. This post examines how the environmental perceptions of rural and urban areas drive movement of people in China in a new direction–urban to rural migration.

Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, despite environmental pollution, have often been the destination for citizens seeking top-tier work and educational opportunities. My 2014 research found that Beijing residents were not concerned about pollution because they did not see it directly impacting their health or livelihoods. When the Beijing interviewees did acknowledge the air quality, they stated that they would rather be in a city where there are better job options, schools and government infrastructural resources. They would even risk their children’s health to access these urban benefits. It was better to be an urban dweller than a “country bumpkin.”

In China, an ongoing issue has been migration of workers from the countryside to the cities. Even if these cities create stresses on their health, finances, and social wellbeing, migrant workers still aim to stay in urban areas hoping that they and their families are better for it. When returning to the countryside for holidays, migrant workers can have the clout of urbanites.

Migrant workers in China, also referred to as the “floating population”

In recent years, there is a growing reverse flow of people in China—from cities to the rural areas, or at least second and third-tier cities. The population of urban areas rapidly increased in the early part of the century, but from 2015 this growth has slowed due to labor shortages. The Chinese central government has initiated some development plans for “cluster cities,” in contrast to metropolises like Beijing or Shanghai, to spread wealth and government resources so that rural residents do not feel the need to go to the major cities for stable income. Older plans such as the Western Development Program, which started in 1999, similarly have tried to improve the economies of poorer provinces. This redistribution of people and wealth may also reduce stress on urban natural resources and environments.

This reverse flow of people is also due to the depiction of rural areas as environmentally pristine escapes. In 2014, advertisements for apartments and houses in Hainan, a southern Chinese island province known for its tropical climate, sprouted up across Beijing, enticing wealthy Beijingers to seek fresh air by the sea. The ads include graphs showing the drastically better air quality and percentage of forest cover in Hainan compared to Beijing.

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A graph illustrating the low levels of PM 2.5 (an air pollutant) year-round in Hainan (green line) compared to Beijing (red line) [Personal photograph]
Side-by-side pie charts comparing low forest cover in Beijing (left) and large forest cover in Hainan (right) [Personal Photograph]
Middle class Chinese citizens are also increasingly partaking in tourism in Western China, an area still seen as unspoiled and lacking air pollution. Tourist areas in the Tibetan Plateau are often depicted as mystical and otherworldly. One town in Yunnan Province even changed its name to “Shangri la”, a fabled Himalayan paradise featured in Western literature. This picturesque environment is appealing to tourists seeking to escape the smog of cities. However, critics of ecotourism point out the problematic power dynamic—wealthy tourists ogling at poor natives for amusement. This dynamic can increase rural-urban inequality by perpetuating images of tourist areas as environmentally pure, wild, and lacking modernity. Additionally, increased transportation and tourist activity can create air pollution, rubbish accumulation, and cause desertification.

A BBC tourism report focused on “Spider Climbers” in Guizhou. Spider Climbers scale cliffs to gather herbs. In earlier years, these residents gained money simply from selling the herbs they collected; but now they can earn more money by performing these tasks for tourists. The Spider Climbers stated this type of tourism offered them a better life so they would not have migrate to cities to earn an income. This commentary resonates with the benefits proposed by proponents of ecotourism: rural residents can gain empowerment and money from traditional activities. Ecotourism, in this sense, can preserve the environment and traditional cultural activities, but these activities may also reinforce stereotypes of rural residents as primitive or uncivilized.

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Screen shot from BBC programme

Global mass urbanization and urban population growth, especially in developing countries, is a major concern for climate change mitigation policy. Encouraging de-urbanization and urban-rural migration could be a sustainable development strategy, whether through tourism or second-tier city investment. This rural-urban divide is not a new phenomenon, but it certainly seems to be gaining prominence in the global political climate. Reducing rural-urban inequalities in the future will be a difficult balance of encouraging sustainable economic growth, protecting traditional practices, and empowering citizens.

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