Addressing Social Inequality in Migration, Urbanisation and Adaptation to Climate Impact in China

Understanding the role of social inequality is crucial if we are to unravel the climate impact, human adaption and migration nexus, but there is limited empirical evidence addressing it, especially in urban settings. In our study recently published in Population and Environment (Tan et al. 2015) as part of the Climate Change and Migration in China project funded by the Australian Research Council, we consider social inequality from three major dimensions: material inequality (the economic), social status inequality (the social) and power inequality (the political). Our consideration was based on the theories of socio-spatial inequality (Sheppard 2002) and social inequality (Goldthorpe 2010). Taking China’s Yangzi River Delta as a case study area, our study provides new evidence that suggests households with low socio-economic status (characterised as renting housing, working on low-skill-end jobs, holding low-level educational attainment, and having little social connection with their family and other people) exhibit a higher probability of experiencing more adverse climate impacts. All factors measuring social inequality exacerbate the adverse climate effects on already disadvantaged groups and impede their capacity to carry out in-situ adaptation or migration in response.

Inequality risk is not shared equally and is dependent on access to various social and economic assets (Crompton 2008). As such, rural-to-urban migrants are expected to face disproportionate inequality risk, exacerbating their capacity to move or integrate into urban centres. Particularly, inequality among migrants is likely to intensify in the era of urbanisation in China. The New-Style Urbanisation Plan (2014-2020) (State Council of China 2014), which is the first strategic plan guiding the healthy development of China’s urbanisation, seeks to divert migrants from mega-cities (with a population of over 5 million) to small and medium-scaled centres (less than 1 million population) because mega-cities are disproportionately experiencing climate impacts, severe resource scarcity (Liu 2012; Xu et al. 2014) and substantial age-pension deficits (Peng 2011). The projected rapid aging of China’s population and a shrinking workforce over the next 20 years have given the issue even greater significance.

To date there has been little research into how multiple inequalities in China influence migrants’ decisions over their future migration patterns in terms of level, form and destination of movements. Nor has there been any systematic research to measure inequality and spatial mobility experienced by migrant groups according to gender, age, economic condition, original household registration (hukou) status and residential place. Understanding and identifying the unique challenges that diverse migrant groups confront in the context of climate change and rapid urbanisation is fundamental for developing targeted and effective policy to reduce inequality, improve adaptive capacity, and promote reasonable migration that is beneficial to sustainable urbanisation. Hence further research is needed to extend the current literature in three key areas:

  1. Developing stronger theoretical foundations: It is important to bring socio-ecological and socio-spatial inequality theories together as a means of understanding the complexity of social inequality and its impact on climate adaptation and migration behaviour. For example, the social-ecological dimension improves our knowledge of how a range of dynamic and complex inequality risk factors are related to people’ migration behaviour (Stokols 1996). Mobility choice is viewed as a function of individual factors and socially constructed conditions – such as Chinese hukou status, segmentation of the labour market, and access to social protection schemes and social services – and as interacting with spatial, climatic and other environmental factors. The social-ecological perspective moves the focus in adaptation and migration research from the investigation of separate ‘proximate’ causes (e.g. wage differentials between rural and urban areas) and highlights the importance of broader ‘fundamental causes’ (e.g. socio-economic status, access to social protection) in the production of adaptation and migration.
  2. Focusing on migrant groups, not averages: Studies reveal that inequality is disproportionately concentrated across migrant groups – the new generation (born in 1980 and after) of migrant workers (Duan and Ma 2011), those with little education and training (Han et al. 2011), and those in high risk jobs (construction) (Xia et al. 2012). These groups, their social security/welfare conditions and subsequent impacts on adaptation/migration behaviour, are either absent or hidden in existing large data sets and analysis (China Census or national floating population surveys). Further study that refocuses at the disaggregated level will be particularly needed.
  3. Acknowledging context dependence: In different spatial, demographic and socio-economic settings, the same inequality issue can have different effects on migrants’ lives and wellbeing in cities and on their migration behaviour depending on the context (Rye 2006; World Bank 2014). Hence evidence from one urban setting or migrant group cannot simply be translated to another setting or migrant group. It is important to develop a focused understanding of the ways that social inequality acts to influence the adaptation and migration behaviour of migrant workers, particularly those most vulnerable.


Crompton R (2008) Class and stratification. Polity Press, Oxford

Duan C, Ma X (2011) A study on the new situation of the younger generation of farmer-turned migrant workers in China. Population & Economics 4:16-22

Goldthorpe JH (2010) Analysing social inequality: A critique of two recent contributions from economics and epidemiology. European Sociological Review 26:731-744

Han KQ, Huang CC, Han WJ (2011) Social mobility of migrant peasant workers in China. Sociology Mind 1:206

Liu H (2012) Comprehensive carrying capacity of the urban agglomeration in the Yangtze River delta, China. Habitat International 36:462-470

Peng X (2011) China’s demographic history and future challenges. Science 333:581-587

Rye JF (2006) Leaving the countryside: An analysis of rural-to-urban migration and long-term capital accumulation. Acta Sociologica 49:47-65

Sheppard E (2002) The spaces and times of globalization: Place, scale, networks, and positionality. Economic Geography 78:307-330

State Council of China (2014) National new-type urbanization plan 2014-2020. People’s Publishing House, Beijing

Stokols D (1996) Translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health promotion. American Journal of Health Promotion 10:282-298

Tan Y, Liu X, Hugo G (2014) Exploring relationship between social inequality and adaptation to climate change: Evidence from urban household surveys in the Yangtze River delta, China. Population and Environment doi:10.1007/s11111-014-0223-2

World Bank (2014) Urban China: Toward efficient, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization. World Bank, Washington, DC. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-0206-5

Xia Q, Jiang Y, Yin N, Hu J, Niu C (2012) Injury among migrant workers in Changning district, Shanghai, China. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion 19:81-85

Xu X, Tan Y, Chen S, Yang G (2014) Changing patterns and determinants of natural capital in the Yangtze River delta of China 2000–2010. Science of the Total Environment 466:326-337

This entry was posted in Environment, Inequality and Poverty, Migration by Yan Tan. Bookmark the permalink.
Yan Tan

About Yan Tan

Dr Yan Tan is an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II (ARC QEII) Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She is Chair (2014-15) of Steering Committee of the Population-Environment Research Network (PERN). Her research is on the environment-migration nexus; climate change, adaptation and population mobility; environment- and development-induced displacement and resettlement; social inequality and social security; and a causal understanding of the relationship between dramatic degradation of ecosystem services and rapid population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation. This work has focused particularly on China and Australia. Currently she is working on a major project: ‘Climate change and migration in China: theoretical, empirical and policy dimensions’, funded by the ARC (2011-2015). Other recent projects that she led or was heavily involved include studies into: internal migration and social security in China (funded by the Ford Foundation); climate change and migration in Asia and the Pacific (funded by the ADB); impact of climate change on disadvantaged groups (funded by Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility).

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