Low-Wage Migrants in North-Western Beijing: The Precarious Tenancy and Floating Life

College of Resource Environment and Tourism, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China



This chapter covers the housing survey of the low-wage migrant tenants, who have been viewed as hikers or sojourners in the urbanization and growth process. It begins with a review of the hukou policy, explaining how the hukou system has functioned as a selective entry mechanism for migrant workers into the host cities. A housing survey was conducted from February to April 2011 in Beijing’s Great Zhongguancun Area, which reflects the effects of a new wave of city-branding movements (including plans for a world-class IT centre) and tightening of residency controls since the late 2000s. The survey examines the migrants’ housing and re-housing experiences in north-western Beijing and their adaptive response to the demolition of illegal rented housing. Results have indicated that the low-wage migrant tenants, who are ‘transient residents’ with few rights or protections, can be easily forced out of areas identified as prime sites for city-branding projects.

I need to thank the Wiley Publishing for granting permission to adopt materials in this chapter from the following source: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., for tables, figures and related text in Ran Liu, Tai-Chee Wong and Shenghe Liu (2013) Low-wage migrants in northwestern Beijing, China: The hikers in the urbanisation and growth process. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 54(3), pp. 352–371.

5.1 Introduction

Since the 1980s, Chinese cities have accepted migrant labour as a contributing factor supporting city-centred growth, but have retained residency control through the hukou system. As cities modernize and expand, increasing numbers of migrant workers flood to the city to assume the dirty, difficult, and low-paid jobs that local urban residents refuse to do. Given their low wages and lack of access to subsidized public housing, a specific kind of low-cost informal rental housing sector has surfaced in order to support the large demand among these migrants (Fan 2011; Zheng et al. 2009). Such a narrow ‘illegal’ rental market tends to be specific in location and supply, as the access of migrant workers is not only restricted in terms of affordability, but also on grounds of legality, as they do not possess a local hukou residency permit (Liu et al. 2012; Liu and Liang 1997), thus transforming them into a peripheral and marginalized group (Wu 2004; Solinger 2006; Zhang 2011; Song et al. 2008; Webster and Zhao 2010).

Having gradually transformed its economy to match the global market-driven system, China’s large cities have, bit by bit, caught up with international housing standards and have strived towards achieving modern norms of habitat which exclude or implicitly discourage the existence of ‘slum-like’ dwellings and low land exchange values. Indeed, the limited supply of low-rental housing and rising rent have pushed low-income workers in big cities into a dilemma: whether to bear the inflated rent, or to move further outwards to a cheaper but more remote site, or even out of the host city. The harsh residency control and rapid demolition of illegal construction have created conflicts of interest and tension between low-wage migrants and the Beijing government, as more ‘illegal’ rental areas have been ‘cleared up’ for redevelopment. Following the implementation of a series of stringent control measures, since the late 2000s, the city’s floating population has been on a hasty decline (decreasing by 0.6 million from 2010 to 2011 alone). The forced clearance has aroused an intense debate about the legitimacy of residency controls on migrants. Arguments have focused on whether it is justifiable in terms of the improvement of the quality of living space, from the perspective of the public authorities, or whether it is, in fact, a form of social injustice and discrimination (News.qq 2011; View.news.qq 2010). Though there is a rich body of research addressing the hukou-based exclusion of migrants in terms of access to jobs, housing and children’s educational opportunities in the host cities (for example, see Huang and Jiang 2009; Logan et al. 2009), few have focused on the growth of ‘urban villages’ in order to house migrant workers, or analysed the impact of low rental housing removal on low-wage migrant tenants (Wu 2009; Chung 2010; Wu et al. 2013).

In examining the relationship of the hukou system and the resultant residential mobility of migrant workers in Beijing, this chapter will address two key issues:

  • How does the hukou system function as an ‘invisible wall’ barring low-wage migrants from settling in large cities? and

  • How have migrant workers responded to low rental housing offer, and what are the characteristics of their residential mobility?

The two research questions are logically linked by a system of ‘cause and consequence’, with the hukou system being the ‘cause’ and the mode of mobility the ‘consequence’. The study is supported by a survey conducted in the north-western Beijing villages’ housing sector, a main reception area for low-wage migrants, which facilitates the analysis of the pattern of residential mobility. The survey provides a solid empirical basis demonstrating the non-hukou migrants’ mobility formation as a consequence of the existence of a ‘little right’ to both the ‘city’ and Chengzhongcun (urban villages) in Beijing. The capital city of Beijing is chosen, being the most characteristic of change, as well as a magnet to migrants, in addition to its role as the political and economic centre of transitional China. Here, the actions of the migrants and reactions of the public authorities could be interpreted as being most symbolic and representative of the ‘power centre’-led policy change and its implications.

5.2 The Hukou System: An Invisible Wall Depriving Migrants of Their ‘Rights’ to the City?

5.2.1 The Stratified and Exclusionary Hukou Pyramid

The hukou system and residency controls that define the welfare entitlement are the key regulatory mechanism that separates big cities (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) from less developed regions. Before the mid-1980s, the hukou system was used to prohibit unauthorized rural-urban migration and to support the central planning system. Since the rural reforms and ease of registration controls (hukou) of the late 1970s, two to three hundred million rural surplus labourers have been mobilized, within a relatively short time, to participate in the thriving market economy in metropolitan and coastal areas. Since the market-led reforms, the hukou-conferred benefits and services have been commercialized, but the importance of the hukou system has not declined in big cities and provincial capitals. Generally, the larger the city, the more difficult it is for migrants to attain local urban hukou status; and urban residency controls are unlikely to be abolished in the near future (Wang 2005). Thus, the residency controls of the hukou system constitute an ‘invisible wall’ depriving migrant workers of their ‘Right to the City’.

In general, local governments in China make practical decisions as a rational economic actor (see Lin 2010). The hukou-based social exclusion is embedded in both local developmental interests and the tax-revenue system, which sustains rapid GDP growth but discourages high public expenditure (see Li and Sheffrin 2008; Nitikin et al. 2012). The conferment of hukou status on migrants implies more fiscal expenditure on social housing, education, and anti-poverty assistance. Obviously, therefore, as shown in Table 3.​3 and Fig. 3.​5, investors and imported talents receive most of the benefits and profit from a lesser degree of restriction. Caught in an entanglement with land politics and the tax-revenue system, low-end migrants are put in a difficult position (Solinger 1999; Fan 2007). The Hukou system functions as a regulatory tool in conflict resolutions between the city-branding versus rent-intensification manoeuvre, at the expense of migrants at the bottom layer of the hukou pyramid, whose residential mobility is at the mercy of supply of low rental housing. In this sense, Harvey (2008, 2012) observes the inevitable emergence of social discontent arising from this socio-spatial process due to the ‘Accumulation by Displacement’. With few rights or protections against eviction, this means migrants have been forced into the low-end captive rental market at the city fringe.

Among the migrant workers, skilled and professional migrants holding regular residency cards gain relatively easy access to subsidized public housing, such as public rented housing and Economic Housing. A high proportion of the eight million migrants in Shanghai and 6.5 million in Beijing, who are unskilled and lowly paid, receive little protection against rental inflation and redevelopment-induced eviction. With limited funds, local governments would preferably invest in infrastructure and real estate developments, in order to attract investors providing higher and longer-term returns, rather than in public housing and related services that low-income groups badly need (Huang 2012; Lin 2010; Nitikin et al. 2012). Indeed, in 2009, land leases paid by developers contributed one-third, one-fourth and one-fifth of the annual incomes of Shanghai, Beijing and China respectively (China Index Academy 2009).

Arguably, the hukou reforms have kept the prospective opening narrow even for skilled migrants. In recent years, the annual move-in quota of Beijing hukou holders has seen a substantial reduction as more stringent regulations have been introduced. Hukou is awarded largely to investors, commercial housing buyers of earlier periods and the talented, who account for much less than 10 % of Beijing and Shanghai’s total migrants. The majority of migrant workers are either holders of ‘temporary residency permits’ or unregistered, receiving few benefits from their host cities. In sum, the stratified hukou system is virtually a place-specific welfare mechanism that:

  • Controls the increase in public expenditure on unskilled and ‘low-end’ migrant; and

  • Only selectively opens the ‘narrow gate’ to the much needed professional classes and investors.

In this way, apart from the fear of new slum formation in redeveloped Chinese cities (see Wong et al. 2005; Gilbert 1996), the urbanization cost could also be cut down substantially, so as to enhance China’s urban-based and export-led global competitive edge.

5.2.2 Housing Difficulties of Low-Wage Migrants in the Host Cities

The previous section has briefly introduced how the stratified and exclusionary hukou system and the hike in living expenses have placed low-wage migrants at the bottom layer of the pyramid. Being excluded from subsidized housing assistance, the urban informalities become the main reception areas for the migrants. The proportion of migrants who received access to subsidized housing was reported to be far below that of the hukou population. As shown in a 1 % Population Sample Survey of Chaoyang District in Beijing, conducted in 2005, 19.1 % of local residents lived in public rented housing (including danwei housing) and 3.8 % in Economic Housing, whilst only 7.3 % of migrants were granted access to public rented housing and 0.8 % to Economic Housing (see Fig. 5.1). As an alternative, the low-wage migrant workers have chosen to congregate in the informal rented housing sectors of suburban villages. In the major southern metropolitan region of Guangdong province, for example, village housing makes up more than 20 % of Guangzhou’s and 60 % of Shenzhen’s planned areas, sheltering 80 % of migrant workers who have flocked to these two cities since the 1980s (Hsing 2010: 123). Almost one third of the total population in Shenzhen lived in urban villages in 2005 (Hao 2012).


Fig. 5.1
Housing tenure of local residents and migrants in Chaoyang District, Beijing, 2005 (Source: Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics 2006)

There is no official report of the exact number of migrant tenants living in Beijing’s suburban villages, but the figure is colossal, owing to the blossoming of such villages in these regions, despite their recent clearance (Song et al. 2008; Zheng et al. 2009). Figure 5.2 shows the spatial distribution of Beijing’s urban villages within the city’s urban zone (chengshi zhongxinqu) in 2006. Located at the peripheral zones and near traffic nodal points for easy commuting and access to jobs, urban villages, which are commonly characterized by their substandard housing, informal businesses, highly competitive petty services and insanitary amenities, are doomed to demolition as the city expands, and their removal is well justifiable on the grounds of ‘informality’ and ‘illegality’ (Liu and Liang 1997; Liu et al. 2012). Earlier in 2005, there were 346 urban villages in Beijing. During the period 2005–2010, 240 urban villages were demolished; in 2010 and 2011, another 50 large urban villages were cleared and over one million migrant tenants were dislocated (House.focus 2011), driving millions of low-income migrants or ‘transient residents’ into a state of flux and uncertainty. After several years of large-scale clearing-up, low-wage migrant tenants have been increasingly dislocated to outer-suburban areas, several kilometres beyond Beijing’s 5th Ring Road.


Fig. 5.2
Beijing’s urban villages within the urban zone in 2006 (Source: Beijing Municipal Bureau of Land and Resources 2006)

One must distinguish the ‘Right to the City’ in the urbanization process on two levels:

  • At the level of chengzhongcun (villages within city), peasants’ rights are simply converted from rural hukou to urban hukou, after their farms are appropriated for urban transformation. Their problems centre around lack of compensation and their adaptation to a new city life (Liu et al. 2012)

  • For migrant workers, urban reforms have given them a right to work in the city but few legal residency rights attached to local welfare and inclusive benefits. This specific process, of a Chinese character, could be analyzed as a market-driven economic process, leading to a convenient spatial and social outcome forced upon peripheral groups (see Fainstein 1996). Migrant workers in this process and their spatial formation are likened to ethnic minority concentrations in French suburban towns or the inner-city areas of many American major cities, characterized by the low skills of the inhabitants and the low rental cost and low quality of housing (Merrifield and Swyngedouw 1996).

5.3 Survey Methodology

5.3.1 Sampling Area

The housing survey in chengzhongcun areas examines the migrants’ housing and re-housing experiences in north-western Beijing where they have resettled adaptively after earlier residential areas were ‘cleared up’ in the second half of the 2000s. Demolition of low-cost rental flats, resulting in the dislocation of migrant tenants, has been repeatedly reported in the past several years. The survey shows the pattern, causes and history of their intra-city mobility experiences. While the survey may not present a comprehensive view of all migrants’ residency status in Beijing, it generally demonstrates their presence at the bottom layer of both the hukou pyramid and the housing hierarchy, reflective of a new wave of demolition without any corresponding public resettlement measures since the late 2000s (House.focus 2011). The situation of the ‘cornered’ low-wage migrant tenants is indicative of their lack of the ‘Right to the City’, as a collective deprived group (see Lefebvre 1996, 1991).

The survey site in north-western Beijing as shown in Fig. 1.​7 is next to the world-class IT centre, Zhongguancun and Shangdi Industrial Zones. It is selected as an optimal site for examining hukou-residency-right relations, for demonstrating the effect of low-wage migrants’ contribution to the metropolitan economy, since the 1980s. Earlier literature reviews and preliminary tests have convincingly demonstrated that north-western villages had witnessed a migration shift from the inner-suburban areas (such as Haidian District which is Beijing’s second largest migrant reception area) towards the outer-suburban areas (such as Changping District that is the third most popular destination for migrants), about 10 km further north (see Shu 2010; Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics 2011).

Some earlier studies have investigated the relations between redevelopment and dislocation of local residents who were resettled according to municipal plans, for example, see Fang and Zhang (2003), Shin (2009), He and Wu (2009). Few studies, however, have focused on dislocated migrants, presumably because they were not eligible to receive resettlement benefits. Since 2008, amidst the clearing-up of some two-million urban villagers between the 4th and 5th Ring Road including Tangjialing Village, once Beijing’s largest and most developed low-cost housing area (Shu 2010; Lian 2010), it is opportune to address this issue at a greater depth. This study works on the hypothesis that non-hukou migrants’ residential mobility and spatial shifts are a natural response and a spontaneous choice of actions, as a result of the rigid residency control policy by a strong state. This hypothesis is supported by investigations on the causes of the shifts, the directions and the intensity of mobilities and other parameters shown in the survey results.

5.3.2 Sampling Methods

Details of sampling methods and sampling areas are given in Sect. 1.​4.​3 of Chap. 1, illustrated by Fig. 1.​7 and Table 1.​3.

5.4 Survey Findings

5.4.1 Characteristics of Migrant Tenants Arranged by Village Cluster

Table 5.1 lists the key basic information of the investigated migrants. ‘Regular workers’ refer to those who were employed through formal contracts, as opposed to ‘irregular workers’ who were largely casual workers, self-employed street vendors, or shopkeepers receiving neither insurance nor labour protection. Almost 40 % of surveyed migrants were irregular workers, attached to precarious and informal economies.

Table 5.1
Characteristics of migrant tenants

Total %

Urban villages %

Outer-suburban villages %

Regular workers %

Irregular workers %








Age group (years)

























Above 50






Motive for migrant

Job search






Others (study, family)






Education level

University and post-graduate






Senior high/vocational school






Junior high school






Elementary school






Employer type

Public sector












Foreign capital/joint venture






Urban private enterprise






Urban village sector






Job rank

Managers or cadres












Secretarial workers






Technicians/skilled workers






Semi-skilled/unskilled workers






Services (sales, catering etc.)






Monthly income (yuan)

Below 2,000
























Above 8,000






Remittance back home







Number of migrants






Source: Fieldwork in Beijing, Feb–Apr 2011

Note: In March 2011, 1 US dollar was equivalent to 6.56 Chinese yuan

Sex ratio was reported as being 3.5 males to one female. Both irregular and regular workers were concentrated in the 21–40 age group (81.8 %). Over two-thirds of migrants were of rural origin with agricultural hukou status. Job search was the most important motive for migrating to Beijing. Over one-third of those surveyed were main bread-earners who sent money home regularly. Most of the surveyed attained a junior or senior high school or vocational school education, and were employed in the private sector in Beijing. Half were semi-skilled or unskilled workers, with 22.6 % working in the low-end services. It is estimated that 86 % of the migrants earned below Beijing’s average monthly salary of 4,000 yuan in 2010.

5.4.2 Mobility: Causes, Tenancy Duration and Moves

As mentioned, migrants typically work in metropolises for wages higher than those in their rural origin, whilst host cities nevertheless set barriers to their settlement. Migrants commonly choose to live in peripheral villages to escape high rent costs and forced eviction. Since the late 2000s, migrants have no longer been free to purchase commercial housing, unless they have lived in the host city for over 5 years and have paid income tax and social security contributions. However, heavy demand and the small supply of rented housing have made life difficult for low-wage migrants.

Apart from general data collection, 23 migrants were chosen for more in-depth face to face interviews about their experiences in renting homes, moving-in and -out, and re-housing, as well as how some had succeeded in attaining public housing subsidies from the local government. The area of survey details is presented in Table 5.2. Parts A, B and C of the questionnaire investigate basic personal issues, including commuting time and distance, travel mode and expenses. Part D is aimed at gaining a better understanding of their perception concerning their life experience in working and finding a shelter in Beijing. Their life history should offer useful clues towards a better grasp of the causes and consequences of Beijing’s hukou management mechanism in recent years.

Table 5.2
In-depth interviews of 23 respondents

(A) Housing history

Tenancy duration and site

Reasons for moving in

Housing type/condition

Rent ‘level’ (ratio of rent to income)

Reasons for moving out

(B) Job situation of each tenancy

Workplace location

Home-work commuting: travel mode, time, expenses

(C) Personal information

Similar to Table 5.3

(D) Personal perception and mobility

Housing and job search experience

Experience of the rental rise and demolition

Rented housing market situation

Accessibility of social securitiesa and local public services

Household arrangement for children’s education

Housing choice and public transport services

Feelings towards the residency control policies

Housing and career plan for the next five years

Source: Fieldwork in Beijing, Feb–Apr 2011

Note: aIn Beijing, 28 % of migrants’ salary is placed into the Municipality’s social security retirement scheme, of which the employer pays 20 % and the worker 8 %

Table 5.3
Background and mobility experience of 23 interviewees surveyed

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Interviewee no.

Survey site

Number of shifts since arrival after 1980

Demolition as cause of mobility?

Rental rise as cause of mobility?

Monthly income (unit: yuan) and occupation







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