Shanghai: A City of Migrants

“As one of the economic magnets of China’s current economic growth, Shanghai has regained its position as a city of migrants.”

Feng et al., 2002

Like any other city undergoing rapid urbanisation, Shanghai suffers from “big city disease”. For China, this can be further broken down into five main issues.

What is “big city disease”? Source: Baidu (x)

Specifically, the most pressing issue in Shanghai is her growing population. Since the 1980s, her population has increased sharply. Just like any other urban hotspot, this is set to grow. This year, Shanghai hit over 27 million residents, despite the policy to limit her population to 25 million.

Shanghai’s growing population is a concern. Source: World Population Review (x)

In the face of overcrowding and limited resources, Shanghai has turned to implementing population caps, limiting land for housing construction, and stricter crackdowns on illegal living arrangements. Supporting all this is the deeply discriminatory Hukou system. 

Hukou is a system that separates people into “urban” or “rural” status, based on their birth place or family lineage. This ‘citizenship’ further determines what social benefits one can enjoy at their place of origin, namely: housing, jobs, education, and healthcare (Li et al., 2010). Unfortunately, the inability to access such benefits has led to the systematic marginalisation and social exclusion of migrants in the city. This deeply-flawed system is even working in the favour of Shanghai in reducing its population on two fronts.

As Feng et al. (2002) points out, many migrants have no legal or permanent living space. Combine this with exorbitant (and ever increasing) housing prices, it is only natural to find many migrants crammed into illegal living spaces. This leaves them vulnerable to housing crackdowns and eviction from the city by the government.

Furthermore, the lack of access to healthcare and education is another concern for these migrant workers (Feng et al., 2002). In particular, children of these migrant workers are excluded from the public local education system, forcing them to turn to private migrant schools (Wang, 2019), if they are able to afford so. Even so, studies (Chen & Feng, 2012) have proven that these students perform significantly worse than their typical public school students. With terrible living conditions and social benefits, Shanghai’s migrants inevitably come to the conclusion that family life is not available to them. Hence, most migrant workers choose to leave their children behind when they travel to the city to work (Garcia, 2018), reducing the overall migrant population in Shanghai.

The government wields this Hukou system as a tool for population control. I contend that it gives them the dual ability to remove excess migrant workers through legal means whilst limiting the number of migrants by separating families. It is wholly unfair as one can argue that the migrant workers are essential in the urbanisation process of Shanghai. Investigating this phenomenon has uncovered an insidious impact – it has created a whole generation of ‘left-behind children’.

The ‘left-behind children’.

“Children without parents are different from those with parents at home.”

Jiajia, Wang Ying’s Mother

These ‘left-behind’ migrant children are left to raise themselves as their parents head to the city to work. In turn, their development has been impacted negatively, with ‘increased workloads, little study tutoring and supervision, and above all the unmet needs of parental affection’ (Ye & Pan, 2011). They grow up with a lot of social problems and in many of these villages, there are increased juvenile crime rates.

As Shanghai deals with their “big city disease” through curbing population growth, her migrant population and their families bear the resulting social cost. Through the Hukou system, families are separated and the development of these children are stunted. A further point to note is that with COVID-19, there are wider health implications with regards to this separation – the rapid spread of the disease was in part due to migrants returning to their families for the Lunar New Year before travel bans took place

Sadly, this unjust situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, especially with how necessary migrants are for Shanghai’s urban development. Instead, strict population control (and the current pandemic) will probably see continued family separation for migrant workers and negative development outcomes for their children. 


Chen, Y. & Feng, S., 2012. ‘Access to Public Schools and the Education of Migrant Children in China’, China Economic Review, vol. 26, no. 1. DOI: 10.1016/j.chieco.2013.04.007

Feng, W., Zuo, X. & Ruan, D., 2002. ‘Rural Migrants in Shanghai: Living under the Shadow of Socialism’, The International Migration Review, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 520-545. 

Garcia, D. L., 2018. Comparing Intra-urban Inequality in Shanghai and Mexico City. Available at: [Accessed 12 Nov 2020].

Li, L., Li, S., Chen, Y., 2010. ‘Better City, Better Life, but For Whom?: The Hukou and Resident Card System and the Consequential Citizenship Stratification in Shanghai’, City, Culture and Society, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 145-154.

Wang, T., 2019. ‘Education as a Population Control Mechanism in China: The Education and Policy for Migrant Children in Shanghai’, Aleph, UCLA Undergraduate Research Journal for the Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 16. 

Ye, J. & Pan, L., 2011. ‘Differentiated Childhoods: Impacts of Rural Labor Migration on Left-behind Children in China’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 355-377.

3 thoughts on “Shanghai: A City of Migrants

  1. A fascinating read! It was shocking to learn about a system like Hukou. It very much resembled the history of my chosen city, Chicago, in a way that many decades back the minority communities were also forced to settle in certain areas of the city. And to this day we can see the implications of that in a form of lack of access to medical care, good education etc. for the minority groups.


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