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Internal Migration in China: New Perspectives on Family Life



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Over the past half-century, China has witnessed the largest internal migration in history, with millions of predominantly rural workers moving to become part of the urban workforce. The hukou household registration system means that migrant workers experience various forms of disadvantage relative to those born in cities, in terms of access to housing and other social amenities; in addition, families are often separated for protracted periods by migration. In this thesis I analyse the effects of migration from three novel and under-researched perspectives.

The first is about rural children’s experiences of boarding school. The mental health of children left behind by migration has generated a huge literature, but the role played by boarding schools has received little attention; existing evidence is mixed and does not take into account parental migration. Using data from the first wave of the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS 2010), I investigate the relationship between boarding school and a range of child outcomes, controlling for both household and community characteristics. I find that boarding school is associated with poorer mental health for children; in addition, although boarding school is predominantly a rural rather than a "left-behind" phenomenon, left-behind status slightly modifies the influence of boarding on children’s academic performance and academic satisfaction.

Secondly, I explore the emotional health of older people whose children have migrated for work. A small literature has documented negative effects on elders’ mental health, but it does not investigate the mechanisms that underpin this relationship. Using data from CFPS 2010, I introduce three new dimensions. I consider temporal factors, finding that elders’ mental health decreases the longer their children are away, but recovers after a certain length of time. I also distinguish between left-behind parents based on whether all or some of their adult children have migrated, finding that rural elders suffer less adverse impacts, and recover twice as quickly from the absence, when only some of their children have migrated. Finally, I investigate moderating effects, showing that providing (grand)childcare and receiving economic support from migrant children mitigate negative effects on mental health.

Thirdly, I examine the extent to which migrant households have access to financial services provided by banks, insurance companies and other institutions, using data from the China Household Financial Studies (2013). Multilevel estimates reveal substantial differences in financial inclusion by hukou status, with significant modifying effects of city development. The findings shed light on the potential for market failures that deny access to financial services to groups of people, and suggest how policymakers could regulate the financial services market for better consumer protection, financial inclusion, and rural-urban integration.

Results from all three empirical chapters suggest that internal migration and economic reform in China have not benefited rural citizens as intended. Rural children suffer significantly poorer mental health in boarding schools; elderly parents’ mental health is strongly impacted by their adult children’s migration, and migrants in urban areas – even those who have successfully converted to an urban hukou - experience impediments when attempting to integrate into urban life. Evidence from multiple perspectives of family life suggests a need for institutional changes leading to fairer and more equal outcomes for rural migrants and their families.





Iacovou, Maria


Internal migration, Hukou, Rural-to-urban migration, Social inclusion, Left-behind population, Boarding school, Child outcomes, Left-behind rural parents, Migration duration, Wellbeing, Financial inclusion


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge