The Inconvenient Generation
Migrant Youth Coming of Age on Shanghai's Edge
Minhua Ling



Coming of Age in an Urban Growth Dilemma

WITH OVER TWENTY-FOUR MILLION residents, Shanghai has become one of the world’s most populated cities. Discussions of how to curb its population growth and prevent overcrowding and social disorder feature prominently in official documents and the media. At the core of these discussions is the question of how to keep the migrants, who come from different parts of China and account for over a third of the city’s total population, under control. Since Shanghai’s natural population growth rate among its native residents has been negative over two decades,1 most of the city’s population growth has been driven by internal migration. Migrants also outnumbered native residents in the fertile age groups of seventeen to forty-three by 2010,2 which means that they will contribute more to the city’s population growth by birth in the long run. Migrants are hence seen by city officials and native residents as both an indispensable resource and a burdensome threat. This has been evident now for years in everyday life, even amid many an average school day, as I have witnessed as a participant observer.

In early January 2007, approximately two thousand students and teachers were preparing for the day’s lesson at Jianying Hope School, a privately run elementary school for migrant children in northern Shanghai. Suddenly, more than a hundred police officers and security agents cordoned off the school’s courtyard. By noon that day, the school had been shut down, and by the following week, the students had supposedly been reallocated to a public school. A spokeswoman for the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission offered almost no explanation for the school’s closure, only saying, “We are not kicking them out of Shanghai.”3

The ambivalence of the spokeswoman’s response reflects an urban growth dilemma that is by no means unique to Shanghai. In pursuit of economic growth and urban expansion, the need for human capital often comes with a fear of overpopulation and overstretched social services. On the one hand, cities need a continuous supply of labor to operate factories, run restaurants, build and maintain infrastructure, and care for children and the elderly. On the other hand, city governments and urban elites feel burdened with the cost of labor reproduction—laborers demand housing, schooling, medical care, and social security. The mutually contradictory incentives pulling in and pushing out migrant workers produce such an urban growth dilemma under capitalist urbanization around the world (E. Friedman 2018).

The socialist hukou (household registration) system, instituted by the government led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the 1950s, imposes highly particular conditions and contours to Shanghai’s urban growth dilemma. As an “internal passport” system, the hukou registers and controls population within national borders. It divides Chinese citizens into two household categories (huji leibei): “agricultural [nongye]”/rural, and “nonagricultural [feinongye]”/urban. The hukou system also assigns each household a place of registration (huji suozaidi), tying one’s legal status and entitlement to welfare to the specific locale. In the Mao era, the hukou system served the socialist planned economy by institutionalizing geographic segregation, preventing population movement, and redistributing social wealth based on state plans (F.-L. Wang 2005; Whyte 1995, 2010). In the post-Mao era, the state has loosened its control over the citizens’ physical movement to stimulate export-oriented economic development, which demands constant flows of cheap labor comprised mostly of rural-to-urban migrants (K. W. Chan 2010; K. W. Chan and Buckingham 2008; K. W. Chan and Zhang 1999). The largest population movement in human history has thus been unfolding within China’s national boundaries since the 1980s. By 2010, over 220 million Chinese were reported to have worked and lived outside of their registered hukou place (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2012).4 The hukou system nevertheless remains largely intact and continues to tie individuals’ access to public services with their hukou places instead of residential places, making migrant workers de facto second-class citizens suffering from discrimination and maltreatment in their adopted cities (Pun 1999; Solinger 1999).

As now one in three children living in Shanghai are nonnative and do not hold Shanghai hukou, it is almost impossible and certainly impractical for the municipal government to “kick out” all migrant children, as the official spokeswoman admitted. Coming from all over China, the parents of these children have been working and living in the city for years, if not decades, and have become indispensable to Shanghai’s manufacturing and service industries. Meanwhile, as the city faces a rapidly aging local population due to three decades of the “one-child policy,” the need for young, skilled labor becomes more urgent than ever. This second generation of migrant youth will be a key source for Shanghai’s labor pool, so how these migrant children learn and socialize carries significant implications for Shanghai’s socioeconomic transformation.

In addition, for the Shanghai municipal government, escalating conflicts resulting from international migration in developed countries in the West have become cautionary tales about the risks brought on by marginalized migrant youth in cities. In 2008 when the Shanghai municipal government announced plans to close all unqualified migrant schools by 2010 and use its public schools to absorb those migrant students, policy makers referenced the November 2007 Villiers-le-Bel riots in Paris, sparked by the death of two teenagers after they collided with a police car: “The 2007 Paris Riot is an alarm for us. We need to take lessons from those events: we need to care for migrant children. We need to respect them through real and tangible actions, facilitating them to develop a sense of belonging to the city” (Shanghai Municipal Education Commission 2008, 4).

The sudden closure of Jianyin Hope School described above represents the state’s harsh response to facilitating urban inclusion of migrant children. By 2010, the Shanghai municipal government closed over 120 migrant schools that had fallen below official standards set by its education bureau. It had reportedly invested 150 million RMB (about $21 million) in 2008 and 2009 to subsidize public elementary and middle schools to accommodate migrant students at no cost, to improve the facilities and management of all remaining migrant schools, and to open public vocational schools to migrant graduates. However, implementation was often volatile and would bring unintended and uneven consequences. How did the city government and its apparatus balance the competing imperatives of inclusion and exclusion in governing the migrants? More importantly, how did migrant children navigate the institutions and discourses that still privilege the native population? And what do their experiences and subjectivities say about the nature of citizenship under the joint forces of the late-socialist state and the global capitalist economy?

Drawing on ethnographic data collected from multisited field research between 2007 and 2017, this book traces the journeys of dozens of migrant students from middle school to the labor market in the years after the Shanghai municipal government partially opened its public school system to them. It offers the first longitudinal account of second-generation migrant youth growing up in Shanghai as the city wrestles with the mandate to “care for migrant children.” Through the trajectories of these migrant youth, this research explores the urban growth dilemma and its everyday ramifications. It reveals the contested process of segmented inclusion, during which institutions, discourses, and practices relating to land ownership, family planning, educational eligibility, residential status, and employment structure accommodate migrant youth just enough to guide them through the schooling system toward manual labor but fail to give them the same opportunities enjoyed by their local peers.

This is a story of an inconvenient generation of migrant children coming of age through channels that designate them second-class citizens in a reemergent global Shanghai. Necessary yet burdensome, migrant youth are inconvenient subjects to the local government that must struggle with contradictory imperatives of developing a prosperous and orderly city. Local states readily combine their administrative apparatus with market mechanisms and sociocultural criteria to selectively include or exclude subgroups and to achieve a desired urban population and metropolitan image.

The case of Shanghai exemplifies the intensification, rather than reduction, of inequality against the backdrop of economic growth and urban development. Migrant youth in both international and intranational contexts face bureaucratic and legal restrictions and experience linguistic and cultural discontinuities. Examining these experiences through the lens of Shanghai reveals the everyday politics of citizenship as an ongoing process of inclusion and exclusion in the era of urbanization and globalization.


The urban growth dilemma in Shanghai manifests itself in the naming practices of its migrants. Yimin, the Chinese equivalent for “migrant,” is almost never used in official documents and daily conversations. For almost two decades, Chinese rural-to-urban migrants have been referred to as “floating populations” (liudong renkou). This term presumes a temporality to China’s internal migration: migrants are believed to migrate seasonally to towns and cities and will, it is presumed, ultimately return to the countryside. Coupled with the more derogatory term mangliu (literally “blind flow”), “floating population” also suggests the perceived danger associated with the migrants’ transience and aimlessness, which potentially threaten the established social order (Dutton 1999; Solinger 1999; L. Zhang 2001a).

Nevertheless, China’s internal migration patterns have been changing from seasonal migration to urban settlement. A 2010 survey conducted in China’s five major metropolises, including Shanghai, finds that nearly 20 percent of migrant adults stayed in their adopted cities for more than a decade (China Family Planning Committee 2010). Many first-generation migrants have also managed to bring their spouses and children to live with them as they have grown increasingly financially secure. As urban settlement and family unification became more common among rural migrants, the term “floating population” gradually lost its currency in the early 2000s.5 In its place, “peasant worker” (nongmingong, or mingong for short) has become the most common way to refer to migrant workers in both state discourse and everyday conversations. The official term for migrant workers’ children consequently has changed from “floating children” (liudong ertong) to “peasant workers’ children” (mingong zinü).6

In March 2006, the state council issued its “Opinions on Solving Peasant Workers’ Problems.” For the first time, the Chinese state set forth its official definition of “peasant workers”: “peasants who are registered with an agricultural hukou but engage mainly in non-agricultural work (especially during off-farm seasons) in urban areas or in township-level enterprises” (State Council 2006, 1). The state council specified two reasons for adopting the term “peasant worker” to define migrant workers: first, the term had already been used in the media; and second and more importantly, the term is an “accurate” way of categorizing this social group. By confirming the official term, the official opinion reifies the binary categorization of the citizenry through the hukou system. It refuses to admit, still less to problematize, the arbitrary and artificial nature of a rural-urban divide in face of massive migration and urban settlement. Instead, the state council goes as far as acknowledging that the rural-urban binary is simplistic and arguing for the necessity for space in between. It claims that this social category of “peasant worker” “exists and will remain long-term as China continues to industrialize and urbanize” (State Council 2006, 1). This statement naturalizes the unilineal trajectory of development from an agricultural, rural society to an industrial, urban one (Fabian 1983). The definition readily identifies the group “peasant workers” as symbiotic with the nation’s industrialization and urbanization and impresses upon people that such a transitional category caught between the binaries is and should be accepted as a social fact.

However, the official explanation hides the crucial effects of institutional discrimination against the rural population, which has fundamentally shaped China’s internal migration, its patterns, and the migrants’ livelihood. In the era of Mao’s planned economy, the party-state heavily subsidized city-oriented industrialization and provided urban residents a so-called iron rice bowl that came with long-term employment, as well as access to public housing, schooling, and medical care through the danwei (work unit) system. In contrast, state investments in irrigation, basic infrastructure, and medical care in the countryside were disproportionally low (Davis and Wang 2009; Whyte 2010). Agricultural households suffered tremendously during the famines of the early 1960s partly because of disastrous policies that collectivized land, prohibited sideline production, and extracted agricultural surplus to subsidize industrialization. Though incrementally improved, the livelihoods of rural people remained meager and strained in most parts of Mao’s China.

Although market-oriented economic reforms have opened new ways for “agricultural” people to break out of rural poverty by working and trading in towns and cities, the socialist hukou system and its segmented governing logic remain largely intact. Since the late 1990s, even though a series of policy adjustments were introduced to loosen hukou restrictions on migrants’ physical mobility (K. W. Chan 2012; K. W. Chan and Buckingham 2008; C. Chen and Fan 2016), it remains difficult for rural-to-urban migrants to change their huji category or registered huji place. Rural-to-urban migrant workers have been subject to widespread discrimination despite their tremendous contribution to the urban economy (K. W. Chan and Zhang 1999; Goldman and Perry 2002; Guang 2010; B. Shi 2005; Solinger 1995, 1999; F.-L. Wang 2005; Whyte 2010; H. Yan 2003; L. Zhang 2002b). Their nonlocal status has prevented them from accessing public provisions, including basic social and medical insurance, in their adopted cities. More importantly, hukou status is hereditary. Migrant children who were raised or even born in Shanghai still hold “agricultural” status and are registered as residents of their parents’ hukou place. Under the label “peasant workers’ children,” these children continued to be denied urban local residential status and to face numerous obstacles to attending urban public schools.

The “Opinions on Solving Peasant Workers’ Problems” interprets the foreseeable continuation of rural-to-urban migration by way of the conventional push-and-pull economic model. Yet it is overt discrimination against the “peasants” that has facilitated China’s export-oriented economic growth. China has become the “world’s factory” partly by dampening the price of migrant labor and shirking state responsibility to provide them social welfare (E. Friedman 2014; Pun 2005a, 2005b; Pun and Chan 2012; Pun and Lu 2010; Swider 2015). In naturalizing migrants’ in-between status as “peasant workers” in the name of developmental necessity, the Chinese state has ignored the institutional injustice embedded in the hukou system. The state’s definition of “peasant workers” thus reveals its unwillingness to address systematic discrimination against those rural-to-urban migrants. Whether the transitional social category of “peasant workers” will and should exist for long remains more a question of the state’s intentions than one of the natural consequences of urbanization.


The state council’s argument for the necessity of the category “peasant workers” signals the state’s intention to maintain the territorialized citizenship regime that has been built upon the hukou system. As more and more migrants work and reside longer in cities, the rural-urban divide that has been emphasized by extant studies of the predicaments facing Chinese migrant workers actually becomes less relevant in their everyday lives. It is the inside-outside distinction that intertwines with the local-nonlocal binary in the hukou system to continue to differentiate groups and distribute public services and symbolic resources.

The schooling barriers facing migrant children exemplify how China’s territorialized citizenship regime renders migrants second-class citizens and even noncitizens once they are on the move. Although China’s constitution and its compulsory education laws mandate that every Chinese citizen has the right and obligation to receive nine years’ basic education, the legal framework requires local governments to enroll and fund local students whose hukous are registered in their vicinity through its public school system. Consequently, migrant children whose hukou registrations remain tied to their parents’ native places cannot attend public school in their adopted cities for free. They either pay exorbitant fees to buy their seats in urban public schools or attend substandard private migrant schools at a lower cost (Y. P. Chen and Liang 2007; Han 2004; Kwong 2004; Z. Liang and Chen 2007; Yuan 2010; Zhu 2001). Many more are left behind in home villages without parental supervision in order to receive free basic education (C. Liu 2008; Z. Liu 2009; Lü 2007; Y. Lu 2012; K. Wang 2007; Ye 2010; Ye and Pan 2008).7

There is a complex relationship between spatial hierarchy and subject formation (L. Zhang 2001c, 2002a). The place of origin listed in the hukou register determines one’s position in the spatial hierarchy and, to a large extent, shapes one’s life chances because public resources highly correlate with the spatial hierarchy of China’s political economic structure.8 Shanghai, as one of China’s four municipal cities (zhixiashi),9 enjoys greater administrative autonomy, fiscal power, and resources (educational and more) than other locales. Provincial capital cities and major cities along the east coast are on the next rung of this hierarchy, followed by small cities and counties. Towns and villages in the southwest and northwest hinterlands are at the bottom.10 Native residents in Shanghai are better positioned by birth, in terms of life chances, than their fellows in remote areas and small towns and villages. Moreover, big cities like Shanghai boast developed consumer markets, entertainment venues, and symbols of modernity. The spatial differentiation applies to cultural and symbolic resources for constructing identities and drawing boundaries.

In everyday conversations, migrants are often referred to as waidiren (outsiders) as well. This term waidiren carries a particularly derogatory connotation in Shanghai. Because of the city’s history of being China’s biggest and most prosperous metropolis since the late nineteenth century, being a native Shanghainese often confers on its local residents a sense of superiority over their fellow countrymen, especially those coming from the rural regions. In Shanghai dialect, waidiren is often used interchangeably with xiangxiaren (people from the countryside, country bumpkins). People from rural China are often considered not only different from but also inferior to local Shanghai residents. Visible socioeconomic deprivation among low-income migrants—partly resulting from hukou policies that deny migrants equal access to land use, labor protection, medical insurance, school access, and other rights—reifies the negative connotation of waidiren as the poor and uncivil.

Place-based prejudice and identity politics have long been common in Shanghai’s modern history. “To be a Shanghairen [Shanghai people] was to be urbane and sophisticated like the Jiangnan elite, in contradistinction to the crude, backward natives of Subei,” observed Emily Honig (1992, 131) in her study of the social construction of the “Subei people” in Shanghai since the mid-nineteenth century. Even though no place called Subei actually existed, the social category of Subei people was created to give a label to poverty-stricken migrants, mostly from northern Jiangsu, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The construction of such an inferior Subei people has been instrumental for the Shanghai elites, many of whom were actually migrants from southern Jiangsu, to define themselves and claim their sense of sociocultural superiority in semicolonized Shanghai, a treaty port where “foreigners shaped the city’s political and social life in profound ways” and “portrayed all Chinese as uncivilized and backward” (Honig 1992, 131). Identity based on one’s native place hence functions similarly to the way racial and ethnic labels do in forming the basis of prejudice and discrimination.

Since the 1950s, the hukou system and its place-specific welfare provision schemes have reinforced such spatial-social differentiations and place-based prejudices. In Shanghai, since residents originating from both southern and northern Jiangsu were officially categorized as Shanghai hukou holders, the spatially less specific labels of waidiren and xiangxiaren11 have been used to index the Others when local residents make dismissive comments about rustic manners or social problems that are believed to be associated with new rural-to-urban migrants. The evocation of waidiren maintains an increasingly porous inside-outside boundary amid China’s rapid urbanization process and supports state agendas to control population size and protect nativist interests.


1. In 2010, Shanghai’s natural population growth rate of native residents (i.e., population increase or decrease caused by birth and death instead of immigration and emigration) was 0.6 percent, which means the number of deaths was bigger than the number of births in that year. The city’s natural population growth rate of native residents has been negative since 1993. “Outlander Population Grew Close to Local Hukou Population,” Xinmin Evening, September 22, 2011, accessed May 6, 2012,

2. Ibid.

3. See also Howard W. French, “Shanghai Moves to Close Private Schools for Migrants,” New York Times, January 24, 2007, accessed July 12, 2007,

4. The 2010 National Census, the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

5. The term “floating population” is nevertheless still in use occasionally, which shows the resilience of the binary sedentary-versus-mobile framework in the hukou system. Two Chinese academic conferences held in December 2008 in Shanghai and in June 2009 in Beijing used liudong renkou and renkou liudong frequently without much reflection on the term itself.

6. There are several Chinese variations in use. For instance, nongmingong tongzhu zinü (children living together with peasant workers) and wailai renkou suiqian zinü (children who move with the outsider population) are also used in news reports and official documents.

7. The so-called left-behind children (liushou ertong)—22 million migrant workers’ children—were estimated to have stayed in villages under the supervision of grandparents, relatives, or boarding schools. See “As China Booms, Millions of Children Are Left Behind,” Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2007, accessed March 3, 2019,

8. China’s administrative hierarchy contains central level (zhongyang), provincial level (shengji), city level (shiji), region level (diji), county level (xianji), district level (quji), and basic levels (jiceng), including rural county (xiang) and town (zhen) levels, plus grassroots administrative units, villages (cun), and neighborhoods (shequ).

9. These municipal cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing, enjoy the administrative rank of provincial-level governments and report directly to the central government.

10. The geo-administrative hierarchy in the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) parallels the tiered marketing system proposed by G. William Skinner, which seeks to map out the interconnections between villages, towns, cities, and regions to explain how Chinese society remained integrated and unified to various extents in spite of vast regional variations and poor communication and transportation technologies in late imperial times (Skinner 1964, 1965a, 1965b). However, scholars argue that the rural-urban divide and articulated hierarchies favoring cities have been largely constructed in the twentieth century, especially through the hukou system in the PRC era (Brown 2014; Siu 1990; Whyte 2010).

11. There are more specific native-place identities based on provincial or regional names, such as Henan ren (people from Henan Province), Anhui ren (people from Anhui Province), and Liu’an ren (people from Liu’an County in Anhui Province) that suggest certain geographic, linguistic, occupational, or cultural characteristics and stereotypes. However, such references of native-place identities are more used among migrant groups. It is not easy for most local Shanghai residents to tell such differences, especially when referring to second-generation migrant youth, the majority of whom are Han Chinese, have grown up in Shanghai, speak Mandarin, and sport urban styles that defy regional distinctions.