Urbanization Process Models, Internal Rural-Urban Migration, and the Role of Institutions in China Three Essays on Urbanization and Migration

TitleUrbanization Process Models, Internal Rural-Urban Migration, and the Role of Institutions in China Three Essays on Urbanization and Migration
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsLiyan Xu
Academic DepartmentDepartment of Urban Studies and Planning
UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology
CityCambridge, MA

        This dissertation is a collection of three essays on urbanization and migration. The first essay is a treatment on the urbanization theory. I discuss the ambiguity in the urban concept, and through an examination on the urban definitions and urbanization statistics in the United Nation’s World Urbanization Prospect (the 2011 revision), I show the five
dimensions of a comprehensive urban concept: the demographic, physical, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. Next, noticing that a country’s preference over specific urban definition methods is related to its overall urbanization and socio-economic condition, I develop two discrete choice models, the first showing such relationships for specific urban
definition methods, and the second showing one between a country’s overall urbandefinition complexity and its socio-economic condition, where the middle-income developing countries have the most complex urban definitions. Based on the results I propose the Kuznets Curve for urban definition complexity, and the Hypothesis of the Unbalanced Urbanization Process, which states that as a country urbanizes, progress in different dimensions of urban characteristics may not advance in parallel; rather, they first diverge in the beginning stage, and finally converge in the finishing stage of urbanization. To test the hypothesis, I design a six-dimensional measurement system for urbanization condition, which is consistent over time and comparable across countries, and implement the new system in five countries: the United States, Mexico, China, India, and Ethiopia as a case study to demonstrate their comprehensive urbanization conditions. The results, in testifying the hypothesis, also suggest the existence of different paths of urbanization in
which different countries prioritize the development of different dimensions of the urbanism in different ways. Finally, with these findings I call for a paradigm shift in the study of the urbanization process, which constitutes the general framing of the dissertation.
        The next two essays concern the application of the framework in a specific country – China, and relevant studies on the country’s internal migration. In the second essay, I study the life-cycle migration behavior of China’s so-called floating population – the active internal migrants who have a permanent registered residency in rural places but would migrate to cities for a job, and discuss its implication on the country’s macroscopic unbalanced urbanism. I first conduct statistical analysis on the general demographics as well as individual-level migration-related behavioral patterns of the floating population based on a 2014-2015 first-hand dataset on the migrants’ living conditions, which is gained from a large-sample field survey (n=2097). Results show that the floating population have a mixed lifestyle that consists of both urban and rural characteristics. On the one hand, they have relatively stable jobs, long-term city stays, infrequent rural-urban travels, and little remittance, all of which imply a rather urbanized lifestyle. On the other hand, nevertheless, most of them opt to return to home villages in a certain point of life, thus forming a circular life routine between rural and urban places. To rigorously testify the circular life routine of the floating population, I then reconstruct the life history of them through survival analyses
on the people’s migrating and return migrating behaviors, and develop two Cox proportional hazard models respective to the two survival processes to examine the determinants of such behaviors. Results show that the floating population do typically follow a circular life routine that couples with their life cycle, and that education and capital accumulation constitute two major factors that determine the further directions of the people’s life routines. Specifically, the routine includes a series of life-path bifurcating points, at each of which a small portion of the migrants whose endowment of the two
factors satisfies a certain criteria would be “filtered out” toward a permanent urban settlement, while the rest move forward with the mainstream until a final return migration to the home village. Overall, the process features an overlapping generational, iterative pattern of the internal migrants’ migration behavior with a filtration mechanism, which I
call “the Circle of Life” model. Lastly, I show how such a behavioral pattern has given rise to China’s unbalanced macroscopic urbanism.
        Finally, in the third essay, I examine two theories, the Institutional Suppression Explanation, and the Free Choice Explanation regarding the role the institutional factors have played in the formation of China’s internal rural-urban migrants’ low urban settlement intentions which cause the emergence of the floating population as well as their circular
migration behavior. I show that both explanations are flawed in that they are built on outdated and incomplete information concerning China’s institutional environment, especially the Hukou (household registration) system and the land ownership policy. To remedy the situation, I conduct a thorough documentation on the evolution, and especially the recent development of the institutions, and show that the dual social structure that the Hukou system creates has shifted from one between urban and rural places to one between only a few first-tier cities and everywhere else, such that except for the first-tier cities, the Hukou system no longer constitutes a major suppression on the migrants’ urban settlement. I also show that at the same time, the land ownership policy plays in favor of the rural residents’ interests, and has been playing an empowering role. Furthermore, I develop two groups of discrete choice models to examine the formation of the migrants’ urban settlement intentions, using first-hand data drawn from two nation-wide, large-sample surveys on the migrants and rural households’ living conditions in 2008-2009 (n=2398) and 2014-2015 (n=2097). The first model is a discrete choice model on the determinants of the migrants’ urban settlement intentions, which shows the dominant role of the endogenous factors in determining such intentions, as well as a self-sorting mechanism in the formation of such intentions that testifies the remnant restrictive function of the Hukou system. The second group of discrete choice models is on the rural residents’ willingness to trade their farmland tenure for urban Hukou-equivalent benefits, which shows a clear whole-household-oriented decision-making mechanism in the rural households’ choice of Hukou status, as well as the social security-equivalent function of the rural farmland tenure rights. Overall, I conclude that China’s current institutions function like a “social security” mechanism for the rural residents, thus giving rise to an institution-bound rational choice behavior concerning migration and settlement. Lastly, I briefly discuss the policy implications of the findings, and suggest an incremental approach for future reforms.