The Future of Free Movement in China and Europe

University of Leeds collaboration with Jinan University, Guangzhou explores parallels in contemporary labour migration and itizenship in China and Europe

The rapid urbanisation of China has created enormous policy and ethical dilemmas about the treatment of rural migrants: workers who live without full citizenship and welfare rights in immense new cities when they leave their registered homeland region of residence, on which their rights are normally based (the hukou system).  There are as many as 270 million such migrants living in the margins of booming Chinese cities. Dr. Heather Zhang (East Asian Studies, Leeds) and Prof. Chunchao Wang (Economics, Jinan University) saw this as an opportunity to expand research networks around a topic which, in fact, has significant parallels to Europe – both in the past and the present. It was in the late 19th century when countries in Western Europe experienced the kind of a mass internal migration, which ripped generations of workers out of the countryside and into cities. Today, immigration is at the centre of European populist politics, but in many ways labour migration within the EU (the free movement of workers) resembles Chinese internal migrations – except that EU workers benefit from European citizenship rights and (more contestedly) welfare benefits when they live and work in another member state.  In the UK, EU citizens may begin to resemble their precarious Chinese counterparts more if they lose such rights as a result of the Brexit vote.Around this theme, Jinan University hosted a three-day event in July 2016 entitled Rural-Urban Migration and Inclusionary Urbanisation in China which pulled together over 50 advanced researchers from the UK and China, across a broad disciplinary range of economics, development studies, policy studies, sociology and anthropology.  The conference was supported by a British Council (Newton Fund) – National Sciences Foundation of China collaborative research grant, enabling the University of Leeds to gather 15 outstanding UK based post-doctoral early career researchers to join in discussions with a similar number of Chinese counterparts in a hot, mid-summer’s Guangzhou in South China.

 Prof Adrian Favell, Chair in Sociology and Social Theory at Leeds, gave a keynote speech on theoretical and comparative perspectives in migration studies, bridging internal/international and European/Chinese migration trends. Four Leeds early career researchers working in multi- and inter-disciplinary fields of China studies and migration studies – Dr Sarah Dodd (EAS), Miss Huimin Wang (EAS/English), Dr Gabriella Alberti (LUBS), and Dr Albert Varela (SSP) – were invited to present their research. Dr Roxana Barbulescu (University of Southampton), who joins SSP as a new UAF fellow in Migration in September was also present. Altogether students and researchers from a wide range of leading institutions were involved, including the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Oxford, LSE, Kings College London, Edinburgh, Kent, Southampton, Essex, Edge Hill from the UK, and Jinan, Nankai, Shanghai Jiaotong, Peking, Tsinghua, Renmin, Sun Yat-Sen, Wuhan, Zhejiang, Southwestern Universities from China, as well as representatives of relevant stakeholders and science foundations.

 Dr Zhang and Prof Favell have agreed with their colleagues at Jinan to explore both a continuation of the conference, and the potential founding of a research project collaboration which might link Jinan University’s expertise in the economics of migration and regional integration with Leeds Migration Research Network’s specialism in formal and informal international labour markets.

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