As is the case with much that colors contemporary China, the country’s floating population, its nongmingong, has its origins in the advent of “reform and opening.” Prior to the beginning of economic liberalization in 1978, domestic population movement was restricted by the hukou, or household registration system. The hukou was established by the Chinese government during the mid-1950s, during a period in which urban organization and rural collectivization were occurring in mass and a meticulously calculated population distribution was the key to optimizing the utility of government allocated resources. One’s hukou was, in effect, a residency permit, delineating one’s primary domicile as well as whether or not that domicile was in an “agricultural” (rural) or “non-agricultural” (urban) region. Transferring one’s hukou was possible, but extremely rare, virtually restricted to all except those being sought out by large state-owned enterprises for their technical and/or managerial skills.
In mid-twentieth century China, the state monopolized the distribution of important goods, including staple food products. Thus, limiting the individual’s right to enjoy the basic goods and services provided by the government to the geographic confines of one’s officially designated residence cut off nearly all rural to urban migration. Indeed, the sparse existence of markets where such goods and services could be procured at an affordable price created a situation in which citizens of the PRC found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to live anywhere outside of the area designated by his or her hukou.
Since reform and opening, however, China’s once rigid system of population control has slowly deteriorated. Beginning in the early 1980s, booming urban economies as well as the flood of foreign direct investment into China, especially into the Special Economic Zones, created a market for low-wage labor, or as one report noted, “low-paid jobs that were unlikely to tempt urban people but that provided opportunities for poor farmers.” Although these poor farmers and their rural colleagues would lose the rights and privileges granted by their hukou by migrating to the city, free markets offered, for the first time, the opportunity to purchase staple goods and services at reasonably affordable prices. Thus, with few prospects for individual economic betterment at home and the dream of profiting off the advancement of Chinese cities looming large, millions of laborers began to abandon the countryside in favor of rapidly developing urban municipalities. Termed “the floating population” due to the fact that they were residing outside their hukou location, these rural migrants have dramatically changed the face of Chinese cities.
Generating accurate statistical measures of China’s floating population is difficult. After all, these individuals are residing outside their hukou, a system established in part in order to ease the census process and make it possible to keep track of population growth and movement. Further, many members of the floating population attempt to avoid being counted. Their reasons vary from not having the proper paperwork to reside in the city to having more than one child (in violation of Chinese law). C. Cindy Fan, a scholar who has devoted much of her career to examining the floating population, compiled estimates calculated by several notable specialists in the field, ultimately asserting that there were 30 million individuals living outside of their hukou in the early 1980s, 70-80 million in the early to mid-1990s, 100-140 million in the late 1990s, and approximately 150 million as of 2005. The Chinese government, for their part, has published numerous conflicting reports, some indicating that the floating population is 130 million strong with others proclaiming that it has exceed 200 million. Regardless of its current size, it will almost certainly continue growing as long as interregional inequality remains vast.