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The urban residential anchoring of Chinese internal migrants: evidence from Zhuhai

L’ancrage résidentiel des migrants chinois de l’intérieur en ville : le cas de Zhuhai
Cinzia Losavio


Cet article vise à repenser la question de l’incorporation des migrants internes dans les villes chinoises au prisme des questions résidentielles.
Mon approche se distingue des travaux existants sur trois plans : il « déorientalise » la littérature sur les migrants en Chine, qui a surtout interrogé la pertinence de la théorie de la citoyenneté libérale occidentale dans le cas chinois ; il « démigrantise » les travaux sur les, centrés dans leur écrasante majorité sur une conception des migrants en tant que groupe social homogène et en compétition avec les urbains ; il « déhùkǒu-ise » la question de l’incorporation à la ville, en l’abordant sous un angle non seulement juridique et administratif.
En portant le regard sur les façons « d’habiter la ville » des migrants, mon étude n’écarte pas les effets du statut juridique, mais met également l’accent sur d’autres facteurs que les migrants considèrent comme cruciaux pour leur ancrage en ville.
Les résultats mettent en évidence des mécanismes d’intégration « par le haut » fortement sélectifs à l’égard des migrants mais qui contribuent à la création d’interstices urbains d’informalité. Ces interstices, qui s’encastrent entre les logiques de « blanchiment » et les pratiques de « noircissement » des gouvernements urbains, constituent les espaces où les migrants élaborent leurs propres stratégies résidentielles et d’ancrage à plus long termes en ville.

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The urban residential anchoring of Chinese internal migrants: evidence from Zhuhai

  • 1 Doumen is one of the three districts of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. The other two districts are Xia (...)
  • 2 All informants’ names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

“Until we have the strength to work, we’ll remain in Zhuhai. [...] What happens next? Well, then we’ll return home (老家 lǎojiā). But it also hinges on our daughters. In a few years, they may be able to purchase an apartment in Zhuhai with their husbands. Perhaps later, we’ll move to Doumen1 with them. Currently, Doumen boasts the city’s most affordable property prices. If you’re considering buying an apartment in Zhuhai, Doumen is the district with the most competitive prices. [...] We can only assert ourselves as Zhuhai locals by buying a home!” (Mrs Gu C.2, an in-migrant to Zhuhai, originally hails from Chongqing municipality, 21/5/2018)

  • 3 The term “urban integration” (城市融入/融合chéngshì ròngru/rónghé) as employed in this article pertains t (...)

1Chinese internal migrants’ urban integration3 and affordable housing in urban areas have been two main challenges for the central government in post-Maoist China. However, while both these issues have been highly scrutinized subjects in the realm of social sciences since the 1980s, the highly contradictory link between them remains a relatively unexplored research avenue. When asking to internal migrants living and working in Zhuhai, a prefecture-level city located in Guangdong province and one of the first four Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the country, if they felt “incorporated” into the city, answers like that of Mrs Gu, interviewed with her sister, were very common. During my two-year fieldwork (2016-2018) in this large city located in the west side of the Pearl River Delta (PRD), I interviewed 128 internal migrants, men and women mainly working in the local industry and the tertiary sector. 89% of them equate urban incorporation with access to urban housing. When asked “What is the most important or problematic factor in the process of urban incorporation for you?” 64% of migrants gave a response related to urban housing. Common responses included: “Incorporated into the city? No, we don’t have the money to buy an apartment in Zhuhai!”; “How can we incorporate? The housing prices are getting higher and higher here!”; or “We rent an apartment. We don’t own property here in Zhuhai! My brother bought a house here...”; “To get incorporated, you need to buy a home! We don’t have enough money yet.” Conversely, 25% of respondents initially mentioned owning a home in their place of origin, mostly in rural areas: “Incorporated into the city? You know, I have a house in the countryside and a piece of land. Recently, we expanded the house. I won’t stay in Zhuhai for my whole life; soon, I’ll return to my village. The house belongs to me there; here, I rent a room”; “I live on the construction site in Zhuhai; my home is back in the village. Even though I lived in Shenzhen for several years, then in Dongguan, I haven’t incorporated into the city. If I’m here, it’s just to work and earn money; my home is in the village...”. In this type of response, the question of urban housing is indirectly addressed. As the concept of incorporation implies a sense of stability, the surveyed migrants associate it with the housing they got in their place of origin. Only 11% of respondents mentioned the issue of institutional membership, particularly through the points-based hùkǒu system (积分入户 jīfēnrùhù), a new policy, initiated in Zhuhai in 2011, granting urban hùkǒu in exchange for qualifications evaluated through a set of indicators and points (Losavio, 2019; 2022, pp. 241-269).

2Without claiming to generalize the results of my research to the 376 million Chinese migrants reckoned in 2020 (NBSC, 2021), it is evident that access to urban housing has emerged as a significant symbol of migrants’ incorporation into cities. Nevertheless, the scope of research on migrants’ housing in urban areas remains limited (Li, 2023).

  • 4 State Council, 2014.

3This article aims to rethink the issue of the incorporation (Glick-Schiller et Çağlar, 2009) of internal migrants into Chinese cities through the lens of residential issues. What can the housing supply and migrants’ residential choices, reveal about their incorporation into the city? This question gains particular significance within the framework of the first urbanization plan (2014-2020) 4, which sets the goal of “building inclusive cities” (建设包容性城市 jiànshè bāoróngxìng chéngshì) with respect to migrants, while promoting “qualitative” urban growth based on innovation and domestic consumption. With the aim of tackling socio-economic and socio-spatial inequalities in the country, the plan advocated for the formal integration of 100 million internal migrants, particularly in small and medium-sized cities. One of the plan’s focal points included improving housing access for this population, which has been excluded from social policies for over three decades and lacks the means to navigate the increasingly unaffordable property market. This new phase of urbanization seeks to balance economic development with a commitment to social inclusion. What insights can be gained regarding the urban incorporation of internal migrants by exploring their residential practices within this evolving stage of urbanization?

  • 5 The terms “whitening” and “blackening” have been employed by Professor Oren Yiftachel (Ben-Gurion U (...)

4Tackling these questions entails examining how migrants “inhabit the city”, as migrants perceive access to urban housing as crucial for their anchoring (Debarbieux, 2014) within the urban environment. The aim is to reassess the perspective on migrants’ incorporation into the city, almost exclusively approached from the standpoint of legal status, with the intention to “deorientalize” it, “demigrantize” it, and “dehùkǒu-ize” it. In an era where housing has become a significant marker of upward social mobility and material well-being, as well as a guarantee of security and stability for every Chinese household, exploring the housing conditions of internal migrants as a distinct research focus becomes crucial. Studying their “housing quality” (Lawrence, 1995 ; 2012) in urban settings requires adopting a comprehensive perspective that encompasses three approaches: a “top-down” approach, focusing on the formal housing supply for migrants; a “meso” approach scrutinizing the processes of residential “whitening” and “blackening5 (Yiftachel, 2009) of these populations within the city; a “bottom-up” approach delving into migrants’ residential anchoring practices in urban interstices. This analysis aims to clarify the delicate balance shaping the housing landscape in Chinese cities while providing nuanced insights into how different groups of actors perceive migrants’ incorporation into the urban environment. This article, stemming from my doctoral research, takes the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong as a case study. Despite asserting its inclusivity towards migrants, Zhuhai exhibits significant tensions between its real estate market and housing affordability, making it a compelling research field. Informed by a two-year ethnographic investigation (2016-2018), the methodology relies on participant observation, semi-structured interviews as well as in-depth analysis of public policies. More than 140 individuals were interviewed, including 128 migrants, a dozen local government officials, parastatal organizations, public developers, and small local property owners.

“Deorientalize”, “demigrantize”, and “dehùkǒu-ize” the study of migrants’ urban incorporation

5Over the last four decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has witnessed a notable increase in internal migration. The surge of migrants into Chinese megacities and the ensuing challenges have been closely examined in the field of social sciences since the 1980s.

  • 6 The hùkǒu system, introduced in the 1950s, serves as an institutional tool for household census and (...)

6The dominant paradigms in research on internal migrants revolve around two set of themes: on the one hand, institutional inequalities and issues of social justice, centred on the household registration system, known as the hùkǒu (户口)6; on the other hand, urban integration, focused on questions of citizenship and the right to the city. Researchers explore the emerging social category resulting from spontaneous migratory patterns — those not involving a transfer of the hùkǒu booklet — specifically, “peasant-workers” (农民工 nóngmingōng) or more broadly, the “floating population” (流动人口 liúdòng rénkǒu). The latter term was introduced throughout the 1980s as a statistical category to reckon individuals who have left their official place of residence, for a minimum of six months, to move beyond their home district. Although the intensity of internal migration is challenging to estimate rigorously, the floating population ballooned from 6.6 million in 1982 to 21.6 million in 1990, reaching 144 million in 2000, which represented 12% of the national population (Yang, 2004, p. 14). According to the last census data, the floating population reached 376 million people, accounting for 26.6% of the Chinese population (NBSC, 2021).

7The growing presence of internal migrants into urban areas has spurred social science research to thoroughly investigate their living and working conditions, as well as how they are treated and perceived by authorities, the media, and urban residents (Xiang et Shen 2005; Florence 2008). These studies specifically emphasize the social challenges encountered by migrants and the impediments to their integration into the urban environment. Throughout the 1990s, the hùkǒu system, gradually asserts itself as a crucial focus in studying rural-to-urban migration flows. Researchers and analysts denounce the unjust and ineffective nature of the hùkǒu system, which has persisted despite the transition to a market economy becoming the main obstacle to the incorporation of rural populations in urban areas (Chan & Zhang, 1999, p. 846; Liu Z., 2005).

  • 7 According to Marshall (1950), citizenship results from the gradual arrangement of three dimensions (...)
  • 8 Turner (1993) posits that citizenship encompasses both a social dimension (being part of a communit (...)

8The publication of the Dorothy Solinger’s book titled “Contesting Citizenship in Urban China”, was pivotal in introducing a new perspective in analysing rural migrants’ presence in urban China. This perspective is centred on the relationships between the state, the market, and citizenship (Solinger, 1999). The hùkǒu system remains central to the analysis but is framed within a new interpretive framework, that of citizenship discussed through the definition of the sociologists Thomas H. Marshall (1950)7 and Bryan S. Turner (1993)8. The analysis put forth by Solinger significantly influences the literature, as it introduces a novel approach to studying internal migrants, later characterized as “politico-identity” (身份—政治‘分析叙事模式shēnfen – zhèngzhì’ fēnxi xùshì móshì) (Wang X., 2009, p. 124). Researchers, both international and Chinese, largely relied on the principle of universal citizenship and equality of rights to delve upon the unequal treatments reserved to migrants in urban areas (Ren, 2010; Liu A., 2012; Wu J., 2010; Froissart, 2013). Some researchers mainly focus on the social dimensions of Marshall’s citizenship intended uniquely in terms of access to social rights completely denied to internal migrants (Ren, 2010). However, reforming or abolishing the hùkǒu system to open the access for migrants to welfare and social services in the cities would not be sufficient to empower migrants to truly integrate into the city. They would rather need to improve their level of education and professional training (Liu A., 2012). Other studies have indeed emphasized the strong connection between the juridical and identity dimensions of citizenship (Chen Y., 2005). While recognizing peasant-workers as a “third social category” (第三种身份 dìsānzhǒng shēnfen) after the urban and the rural populations, the Chinese state did not intend to recognize and consolidate “their rights and interests” (Ibidem, 130). Other researchers attempt to demonstrate that the process, deemed universal by Marshall, of the gradual development of citizenship based on three dimensions of rights (civil, political, and social rights) has not, therefore, emerged in China, where the “social membership of urban residents is reduced to social rights without citizenship” (Wu J., 2010; Froissart, 2013).

9While the emphasis on citizenship and the hùkǒu had a profound political impact, compelling authorities to contemplate the idea of integrating migrants into the city (Thireau et Hua, 2004; Xiang et Shen, 2005), the politico-identity approach centred around the Marshallian concept of citizenship reaches a saturation point and has several limitations.

10First, this approach can be characterized as orientalist as intended by Edward Said (1978). The formulation of a liberal citizenship as an epistemological and normative reference places China in a position of alterity in relation to the “West”, believed to hold an “epistemologically dominant position” (Villard, 2018, p. 5). Being marked by a simplistic and binary view of the world dominated by the logic of “the west and the rest” (Ferguson, 2011), the politico-identity approach tends to understand China as in constant lag, and in opposition to the liberal, democratic, and advanced “West.” To move beyond this approach centred around the normative figure of Western modernity, while avoiding any essentialist interpretation of China as an “autonomous and singular reality” (Leys, 1985, p. 96), I propose to “deorientalize” the study of internal migrants by adopting a constructivist perspective. This perspective aims to account for the complexity of the phenomena under study and to “unlearn the inherent dominative mode” (Said, 1978, p. 28).

  • 9 The term “right to the city” as used here does not directly relate to the concept initially articul (...)

11A second limitation of the citizenship-centred approach lies in its static conception of power relations. It tends to emphasize binary oppositions, such as the repressive state versus civil society and the dichotomy between rural/migrant populations and “native urbanites.” While some of the studies mentioned above have brought attention to the growing contradictions between the central and local states (Wu J., 2010, pp. 129-130), delving into the complexities of the State in China—an inherently challenging task—is not a commonly pursued endeavour. Furthermore, the effort to highlight the injustices faced by migrants has, paradoxically, played a role in creating a misleadingly homogeneous image of this group. They are often portrayed as an antithetical category to local urban dwellers in terms of rights and benefits, fostering a perception of a competitive relationship between the two (Thireau et Hua, 2004, p. 286; Froissart, 2013, p. 171). Despite sporadic efforts to recognize diverse migrant groups (Li P., 1996; Roulleau-Berger, 2010; Wu J., 2010; Li Q., 2004), a majority of studies fail to conceptualize urban migrant populations beyond the identity conferred by the hùkǒu system. Likewise, native urbanites, primarily characterized as “rights-holding residents” holding urban hùkǒu, do not form a socially and economically uniform social group. Construing urban society solely through institutional statuses implies a dichotomy of a dominant group and a marginalized group, with relationships assumed to be inherently antagonistic. This aspect represents another notable flaw in citizenship-focused approaches. The normalization of migrants’ presence in urban areas over the last decades requires moving beyond the Manichean vision of urban society solely conceived through the hùkǒu system and citizenship rights. By “demigrantizing” the perspective on migrants, I intend to demonstrate that upon their arrival in the city, internal migrants, despite institutional constraints, become urban inhabitants on an equal footing with original urbanities. They contribute to reshape social and power dynamics within cities, establishing new relationships that are not preordained by institutional identities. Hence, the proposal here is to shift from the right to the city9 perspective to an approach centred on inhabiting the city. This perspective allows for conceiving migrant populations living in urban areas not merely as a term of a binary opposition defined solely by legal status. Instead, it views them as participants in a myriad of intricate relationships that interconnect city inhabitants, regardless of whether they are legal citizens or not.

12The third limitation of the politico-identity approach lies in its conceptualization of the urban incorporation of internal migrants as primarily an institutional process, heavily dependent on the acquisition of the urban hùkǒu status. As this process remains incomplete for most internal migrants, emphasis is placed on their “semi-” or “incomplete urbanization” (Ji, 2011; Liao & Liao, 2012; Yong, 2012). The hùkǒu system, by transforming internal migrants into a socially “uprooted” urban category (Ma, 2001), directs research attention toward their legal marginalization (边缘化biānyuánhuà) and social exclusion (Solinger, 1999; Hu, 2007; Froissart, 2013, p. 249). However, by focusing on marginalization through legal means, this approach portrays migrants as individuals who are subject to urban forces without actively contributing to urban transformation. Furthermore, it neglects to explore the question of belonging and urban integration of migrants in their everyday lives. By “dehùkǒu-izing” the study of migrants’ incorporation into the city, I argue that urban incorporation is indeed a gradual and multi-layered process that once analysed from the perspective of migrants themselves, appears, as shown earlier, to be primarily revolving around their access to urban housing.

The “housing quality” of internal migrants in urban areas

13The issue of housing inequalities in urban settings in China is not a recent problem (Lee, 1990; Logan & Bian, 1993). However, previous research on this matter in the economic reform era has primarily focused on the residential conditions of native urban populations and the housing reforms initiated in cities since the 1980s to address inadequate housing conditions and housing shortages (Chen X. & Gao, 1993a; 1993b; Wang & Murie, 2000; Li S., 2000; Huang, 2004). Until recently, these studies have largely overlooked the housing situation of internal migrants, despite their increasing presence in Chinese cities since the early 1980s, when hùkǒu restrictions began to loosen. The only studies addressing the residential conditions of urban migrants, starting from the 1990s, document the emergence of migrant enclaves on the outskirts of megacities (Xiang, 1995; Ma & Xiang, 1998). These erstwhile villages, progressively absorbed into the urban fabric due to the rapid urban sprawl of recent decades, have transformed into “residential colonies inhabited by rural migrants” (Liu & Liang, 1997, p. 98). These interstitial areas, commonly known as “urban villages” (城中村 chéngzhōngcūn), although morphologically integrated into the urban fabric, remain subject to rural social management and collective land policies. Within this framework, local villagers, who have lost access to farmland due to urban expansion, are compelled to seek alternative sources of income. Consequently, they have begun renting out portions of their homes to internal migrants and expanding them by adding extra rooms, despite land management regulations stating that villagers’ homes are intended for personal use only. The emergence of these transformations is marked as a distinctive urban disease (城市病chéngshìbìng) in the country.

  • 10 According to Lawrence (2012) “Housing quality includes quantifiable and qualitative dimensions of t (...)

14Aside from studies attempting to highlight the positive role played by urban villages in the “assimilation” of migrants into the city, and concurrently criticizing the renovation projects targeting these villages (Wu F. et al., 2013; Wang M. et al., 2013; Lin Y. et al., 2011; Wong et al., 2018), the urban habitat of internal migrants remains a poorly studied subject. Research on both visible and invisible enclaves of migrants in urban settings is predominantly confined to megacities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen (Hao et al., 2013; Li J. et al., 2014; Wu F. et al., 2014; Huang & Yi, 2015). Internal migrants in urban settings have the most restricted living space (Huang, 2003). They face significant challenges in accessing the real estate market. However, until recently they have been excluded from affordable housing and subsidies designed to assist urban households struggling with housing issues (Wang & Murie, 2000; Li, 2023). Despite that, access to urban housing for migrants is often treated as one problem among many. Even after the 2008 subprime crisis, when the role of the housing market in China, particularly affordable housing, evolved to meet increasingly conflicting economic and social objectives, namely to revitalise the domestic real estate market to reclaim its pivotal role in national economic growth, while simultaneously moderating property prices, research merely criticizes the continued exclusion of internal migrants from the urban affordable housing system at the national level, overlooking the nuanced aspects of their local and everyday residential situations (Stephens, 2010; Huang, 2012; Chen et al., 2013). With only a handful of nuanced studies (Song et al., 2008; Lin & Zhu, 2008; Logan et al., 2009), the research field on migrant housing, with its inherent complexity, remains largely unexplored by specialists in migration studies. Moreover, the residential issues of migrants in urban areas are often treated as disconnected from the broader question of urban housing, except for a few notable exceptions (Wu W., 2001; 2002; 2004). In essence, the scientific literature has yet to thoroughly explore internal migrants’ access to urban housing as a distinct and comprehensive subject of study. Housing supply, residential strategies, housing characteristics, and especially property ownership status are powerful indicators of migrants’ incorporation into the city. In this study, these dimensions are grouped under the concept of “housing quality” (Lawrence, 1995 ; 2012 ; Zlatar Gamberožić, 2015)10. This integrated perspective on housing relies on three different approaches:

  • a “top-down” approach, focusing on migrant populations’ management and residential supply for migrants;

  • a “bottom-up” approach, exploring migrants’ residential anchoring practices; and

  • a “meso” approach looking at the ongoing negotiations between the various urban stakeholders involved in residential production for migrants.

15This holistic and multi-dimensional perspective illuminates the connection between the official provision of social housing and the alternative availability of affordable housing. It is therefore crucial for grasping the dynamics underlying the delicate balance governing the housing landscape in Chinese cities. In the following sections, we will explore these three dimensions in more detail by focusing on the case of Zhuhai.

From “small” to “large” housing guarantee: attracting talents in pursuit of innovation

  • 11 Official data do not account for migrants who do not register in the city to which they migrate. Am (...)
  • 12 Zhuhai Municipal People’s Government, 2015.

16Zhuhai, a fast-growing city in the Pearl River Delta, has been attracting migrants from the Guangdong province and across China since its designation as a SEZ in 1980. The floating population in Zhuhai experienced a significant surge, growing from 138,245 people in 1990 to 681,260 in 2017 (ZMSB, 2018). This population further increased to 1.2 million people by 2020, constituting half of Zhuhai’s total population, which stands at 2.44 million (ZMSB, 2021). In other words, only 48.7% of Zhuhai’s total population held a local hùkǒu in 2020, compared to 64% in 2017. This represents a contradictory development, particularly in light of Zhuhai’s claim to be inclusive toward migrants. Over the past fifteen years, Zhuhai’s five-year plans have consistently advocated for increasing its permanent population and reducing the floating population by granting local hùkǒu. However, the statistics, albeit only partially reliable11, indicate a reversed trend regarding the de jure integration of migrants. Moreover, when examining the housing landscape of Zhuhai, it becomes evident that the city grapples with the challenge of aligning its real estate market with housing affordability. In 2013, Zhuhai ranked as the 13th most expensive city in China in terms of housing prices, and by 2015, it had risen to the 10th position— position it has maintained until today (see Table 1). Real estate prices have been on a continuous ascent in Zhuhai, with an even more pronounced surge following the opening of the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge in 2018. The average real estate price surpassed 25,000 RMB/m2 for the same year, confirming Zhuhai as the third most expensive city in housing prices in Guangdong province, following Shenzhen and Guangzhou (see map 1). Although 93.1% of Zhuhai’s population with a hùkǒu owned at least one property by the end of 201312, the floating population remained entirely excluded from affordable housing options until recently.

Table 1. The top twenty most expensive cities in China in terms of housing prices for the years 2013, 2015, and 2021.

Table 1. The top twenty most expensive cities in China in terms of housing prices for the years 2013, 2015, and 2021.

* The term “variation” denotes a comparison with the previous year.
**Anjuke website ceased to include Shanghai in the list since 2020, with the reasons for this decision remaining unknown. However, from 2013 to 2019, Shanghai consistently held either the 2nd or 3rd position in the rankings, indicating that its position on the list must still be high.

Source: 2013, 2015, 2021

  • 13 State Council, 1994.

17The concept of social housing is relatively recent in China and dates back to the introduction of the first affordable housing policies in the 1990s. These measures were designed to establish a guaranteed housing system (保障性质住房 bǎozhàng xìngzhì zhùfáng)13 to counter the escalating housing prices triggered by the initiation of the real estate market in urban areas (Li M., 2014). Consequently, the notion of “guarantee” (保障 bǎozhàng), which has become a pivotal idea in social housing policies, signifies the government’s dedication to maintaining housing prices below those prevailing in the real estate market. Nevertheless, the commitment to “guarantee” affordable housing has only applied to urban households, overlooking internal migrants living in urban areas (Huang, 2012). This is noteworthy, given that the challenge of “housing affordability” has consistently been at the forefront of public concerns since the early 2000s (Wu G., 2009).

Figure 1. Average housing prices (RMB/m2) across major cities in the Guangdong province (2018).

Figure 1. Average housing prices (RMB/m2) across major cities in the Guangdong province (2018).

Source: Designed by the author. Realized by S. Haule using data from (2018)

  • 14 The associated four-character slogan describing the new urbanization model is “以人为本 yǐrénwéiběn,” w (...)
  • 15 State Council, 2010.

18With the ascent of the new administration Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang in 2013, the vision of a “qualitative” urban development model centred on the needs of the population14 was embraced by launching the first urbanization plan in 2014. This model advocates for equitable access to social resources and aims to improve the living conditions of migrants while mitigating the fiscal strain on megacities. Expanding access to social housing for migrants and improving residential options for these populations stand as key objectives within the national urbanization plan. The plan calls for an adjustment of policies overseeing the construction of affordable housing compared to commercial housing. Moreover, the emphasis on housing guarantee is reaffirmed, laying the groundwork for a new social housing system focused on restricting affordable homeownership in favour of “public rental housing.”15 These measures align with a broader national strategy aimed at reducing the disproportionate reliance of local authorities on land sales revenues while expanding the reach of affordable housing to address demographic growth and promote inclusivity, particularly in smaller cities (with populations below 5 million).

  • 16 This mode of urban development is officially defined by the term “土地城镇化 (tǔdì chéngzhènhuà)”, which (...)
  • 17 Between 1998 and 2007, the national average housing price doubled, rising from 1,854 RMB/m² to 3,64 (...)

19Indeed, the rapid urbanization model that defined China over the last 30 years has primarily relied on unequal access to basic public services in cities to keep costs low. This model also hinged on the sale of land by local authorities to real estate developers for constructing housing and urban infrastructure, with the profits helping to bridge the gap between local expenditures and revenues. This gap emerged following the fiscal reforms of 1994, which significantly reduced fiscal revenues of the local authorities in favour of the central state. Through the so called “fiscal regime based on land development” (土地财政 tǔdì cáizhèng)16 (Wu F., 2011, p. 240) local government land revenues surged exponentially, promoting a productivist mode of urban development (Hsing, 2010; Wu F., 2015). However, it is now evident that this strategy is no longer sustainable. This productivist approach to urban development has subjected the country to real estate cycles and their detrimental consequences, including escalating housing prices17 and the promotion of speculative attitudes fuelling residential vacancy (Aveline-Dubach, 2017, p. 21). To temper the surge in real estate prices, which exacerbates social inequalities, particularly within major coastal cities and provincial-level municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), the new “qualitative” urbanization model launched in 2014 would be the catalyst for achieving economic, territorial, demographic, and social rebalancing within the national urban system.

  • 18 Zhuhai Municipal Statistics Bureau (ZMSB) 2016.
  • 19 Zhuhai Municipal Development and Reform Bureau 2016.
  • 20 At the end of 2020, the city reached 2.44 million people (ZMSB 2021).

20Within this urban hierarchy, Zhuhai occupied an intermediate position, hosting a total population of 1.6 million in 201318, with over a third consisting of internal migrants. This configuration led local authorities to consider an increase in its overall population while formally integrating segments of the floating population. Given the exceedingly high real estate prices, the increase in population must be coupled with an expansion of housing supply to ensure an even greater housing guarantee while enhancing the residential conditions of Zhuhai’s inhabitants. The 13th plan for the demographic development of the city19 forecasts an increase in the total population to 2.7 million by the end of 202020. Simultaneously, the special housing plan for Zhuhai estimated that the demand for guaranteed housing during the same period would encompass at least 37.5% of this population, equivalent to 1 million people or 322,500 housing units (Table 2).

Table 2. Estimation of guaranteed housing needs for the period 2014-2020.

Table 2. Estimation of guaranteed housing needs for the period 2014-2020.

Source: Zhuhai Municipal Bureau for Housing, Construction and Urban-Rural Planning (ZMBHCP), Special Plan for Housing Guarantee in Zhuhai (2014-2020)

21The new housing guarantee system “with Zhuhai characteristics” introduced in 2013 is indeed designed for a wider population target, including internal migrants. Public rental housing is no longer exclusive to local Zhuhai’s households facing housing difficulties. It now includes three additional categories that do not hold the prefecture-level city’s hùkǒu:

  1. The newly recruited employees of Zhuhai (新就业职工 xīnjiùyè zhígōng), referring to individuals who have earned a university degree within the past five years and have been employed by a local company for at least one year.

  2. The professional talents (专业人才 zhuānyè réncái), individuals from elsewhere holding one of the certificates for the evaluation of qualified talents.

    • 21 It is noteworthy how migrants included in the off-site personnel category may be eligible for diffe (...)

    The off-site personnel (异地务工 yìdì wùgōngrényuán), referring to migrant workers who can benefit from dormitories directly provided by the company. If they hold at least a secondary vocational education diploma, they may qualify for larger subsidies and can apply for housing dedicated to qualified personnel21.

22According to a representative from the ZMBHCP:

  • 22 It refers to local hùkǒu holders facing housing challenges.
  • 23 Interview with municipal level official, Department for Housing Reform, ZMBHCP, 21/6/2018.

“While in the past, we use to talk about ‘small guarantee’ (小保障 xiǎo bǎozhàng) focusing on people at the bottom of the social ladder22, now we propose the concept of ‘large guarantee’ (大保障dà bǎozhàng) which also includes talents from elsewhere [...] in other words, guaranteed housing now targets either talents or residents facing housing difficulties.” 23

23Recent changes in the definition and the target group of guaranteed housing suggest that the supply of social housing is indeed expanding, becoming more inclusive, even towards internal migrant populations. However, it is still not accessible to all categories of migrants:

  • 24 A city adjacent to Zhuhai.
  • 25 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

“After all, it’s impossible for us to guarantee [housing] for everyone. For instance, if someone’s hùkǒu is registered in Zhongshan24 rather than Zhuhai, the housing must be guaranteed by Zhongshan authorities. To avoid redundant guarantees, the demand is estimated based on the population with Zhuhai hùkǒu.”25

24While this logic may appear sound for a vast country like China, the authorities’ discourse is, yet, ambiguous, especially when it involves highly qualified individuals. The affordable housing strategy is:

  • 26 For the Chinese people, living close to the workplace is a legacy from the Maoist era.
  • 27 Interview with municipal level official, Department for Guaranteed Housing, ZMBHCP, 22/3/2018.

“[...]one of the key tools for attracting and retaining talents. While there are other approaches, housing stands out as a crucial factor, particularly for the Chinese population. Access to housing where we work is fundamental and natural for us26. Moreover, in a context where real estate prices continue to rise, it is normal for the government and companies to support what is called the quintessence of talents (人才精英 réncái jīngyīng), by reducing this heavy burden [represented by housing].” 27

25And again:

  • 28 Interview with District level official, Zhuhai Hight-Tech Zone (ZHTZ), 26/6/2018.

“Public rental housing is the preferred scheme for municipal and district authorities, aiming not only to accommodate the workforce of companies but also to attract talents from elsewhere who play a crucial role in economic development and innovation.” 28

26The demand for a highly skilled workforce to sustain the new “qualitative” growth model centred on the high-tech industry has prompted local authorities to channel the provision of guaranteed housing toward talented migrants. Simultaneously, directing the bulk of social housing towards this category and encouraging private enterprises to construct dormitories for their off-site personnel enables authorities to uphold their economic urbanization model based on land revenue while stimulating the real estate market. The interaction of economic interests and political instruments produces what Oren Yiftachel (2009, pp. 89-92) terms a process of “whitening” when analyzing the tools and technologies employed in planning contemporary cities in the Israeli/Palestinian urban region and in managing their deeply unequal urban societies. This process designates the tendency of public authorities to “legalize or legitimize from above” grey areas, understood as “potential zones of societal transformation”, based on “powerful or advantageous interests.”

27In essence, the inclusion of specific migrant categories in the affordable housing target groups holds considerable significance. This must be interpreted against the backdrop of housing policies driven by a productivist model (Holliday, 2000; Li M. & Driant, 2014), coupled with the overarching aspirations for innovation and modernization. These aspirations form the foundation of the qualitative urban development initiative spearheaded by the Xi-Li administration.

Not only “whitening”, but also “blackening” processes: the will to un-knowledge migrants

28The affordable housing supply in Zhuhai and the corresponding social policies have become increasingly inclusive towards internal migrants over the past decade. Nevertheless, these populations are subject to a growing structural stratification, resulting in a new social ladder of internal migrants (Losavio, 2021). Migrants failing to meet the excellence criteria set by the new urban development model, as defined by the central government, and tailored locally, are excluded from initiatives intended to formally integrate them into the city. These individuals, commonly addressed as “peasant workers”, typically hail from rural areas and small towns to “sell their labour” (打工dǎgōng) in urban areas, without registering with local authorities. These migrants “coming from elsewhere” (外来的 wàiláirén) constitute an essential workforce in the secondary and tertiary sectors. In the official discourse of local authorities, a genuine taxonomy of internal migratory categories has been established to differentiate these migrants from “talents”:

  • 29 Interview with municipal level official, ZMBHCP, 28/9/2017.

“It’s not possible to generalize; there are migrant workers with high incomes and others with low incomes. Zhuhai, to attract high-level talents with advanced technological skills, has implemented preferential policies encouraging them to settle here. If people whose hùkǒu is registered elsewhere survive in Zhuhai without working, how do they manage to survive without any income? That’s why the government only provides housing allowances or guaranteed housing to individuals with local hùkǒu who have particularly low incomes and are unemployed. As for people from elsewhere (wàiláirén), they wouldn’t come unless they had a secured job.” 29


  • 30 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

“Everyone tends to seek benefits and avoid drawbacks. Currently, many rural migrant workers aspire to return to their hometowns in the countryside. However, in reality, not everyone who wishes to go back and live on their residential land (宅基地 zháijīdì) does so. This is because living in the city has become more convenient, thanks to improved national policies, increased financial resources for everyone, and significantly enhanced social protection. This is what is called urban dependence (城市依赖症 chéngshì yīlài zhèng)!’”30

30The discourse of decision-makers establishes clear distinctions within the floating population itself to differentiate between migrants... and migrants, thereby justifying their policy of inclusion and exclusion. When it comes to the presence of peasant-workers in the city and their access to housing, political discourses become contradictory, designed to deflect any responsibility for their urban condition onto the migrants themselves and their resistance to be “whitened” (Yiftachel, 2009, p. 92).

  • 31 Interview with ZHTZ State Owned enterprises, 24/8/2018.

“Providing housing for peasant workers who come to work in Zhuhai is a responsibility that state-owned enterprises cannot evade. [...] it is crucial to provide living quarters for them, especially around construction sites, for instance. As for whether peasant workers will be included in the housing management system in the future, it depends on their willingness to get integrated (加入 jiārù) in Zhuhai, a city that welcomes all types of workforce.” 31

31As noted by Yiftachel and Yacobi (2003, p. 678) “Urban processes and spatial dynamics do not occur in a vacuum; rather, they are the tangible reality shaped by, and in turn shaping, the wider political discourses”. Political discourses not only dictate what is formal and coveted, “the city’s ‘white” (Yiftachel, 2009, p. 93), but also define the associated shadow areas, the “blackness” as defined by Yiftachel (Ibidem, p. 89). It is noteworthy that local authorities engage with peasant workers – migrants who do not fit the sought-after profile of talents – by addressing them as presumed temporary urban residents (“it is crucial to provide them with living quarters, especially around construction sites, rather than permanent accommodations). Consequently, as they do not benefit from affordable housing policies, it falls on them to secure housing independently.

  • 32 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

“Peasant workers who meet the eligibility criteria will benefit from guaranteed housing; those who don’t, will seek accommodation in the private rental market. […] The issue of assisting peasant-workers with settlement is a social concern. If peasant workers come to Zhuhai to earn money, they must be hired by a local company. Most workplaces now offer labour contracts as there is currently a high demand for labour. For instance, in the construction sector, each worker typically belongs to a team, where meals and accommodation are provided collectively. The team leader will assist them in solving any issues through various means.” 32

32Decision-makers are aware that peasant-workers live and work within “grey” urban spaces. Nevertheless, in the political realm, they invoke “the will to un-knowledge” migrants (Bénit-Gbaffou, 2018, p. 2142) or, as theorized by Yiftachel (2009, p. 92), In most cases grey space will not be eliminated, but maintained by a ‘politics of un-recognition’ accompanied by marginalizing indifference […] by political denial and a persistent discourse of ‘othering.’”:

  • 33 Interview with municipal level official, ZMBHCP, 28/9/2017.

“Those [migrants] who work in regular factories all have labour contracts; perhaps not everyone working in small shops or workshops does, but construction site workers certainly have both labour contracts and insurance. Nowadays, regulations are much stricter, and their incomes have increased.” 33

33The statements of decision-makers indicate that local authorities play a decisive role in determining the distinction between what is formal and informal. They, however, do not acknowledge responsibility for the presence of these informal pockets within the city. Migrants’ grey spaces which, according to local state representatives, are considered as part of an unregulated system, beyond their field of vision, actually stem from a “deregulated” system (Roy 2009, p. 83) “that supports the power of those defined as legitimate and formal modes of urban life” (Porter et al., 2011, p. 116).

  • 34 They have never had a labour contract.
  • 35 The chief labour contractor plays a pivotal role in the recruitment chain for the construction work (...)

34The case of the Gu sisters, introduced at the outset of this article and echoing the experiences of other migrants met in Zhuhai, highlights that the link between public action and urban informality in Zhuhai is not as disconnected as decision-makers imply. When we first met in May 2018, the Gu sisters, aged 48 and 56, were engaged in completing and decorating the interiors a guaranteed housing residence for talents in the northern area of Zhuhai. Hailing from a rural village under the jurisdiction of Chongqing municipality, the Gu sisters have been working in the “informal”34 interior design sector in Zhuhai for 17 years. They specialize in wallpapering, painting, and wall waterproofing, while their husbands work as a plumber/electrician and a tiler, respectively. They collaborate with a team of around fifteen other people from the municipality of Chongqing. These task-specific workers collaborate through a chief labour contractor (包工头 bāogōngtóu)35 from their hometown, with a local outsourcing company. This arrangement ensures them convenient access to job opportunities. Their current daily wage is 250 RMB, providing them with a monthly income of 7,000 – 8,000 RMB per person and approximately 15,000 RMB per household. Although they have been settled in Zhuhai for many years, the Gu sisters are itinerant inhabitants. They live in temporary shelters close to the construction sites where they work on a short-term basis. Once their assignment accomplished, they move to a new construction site, taking along the few belongings that make up their “material home” on a daily basis (Kochan 2016, p. 28), including some clothes, dishes, buckets, small appliances (kettle and fan), and mosquito nets. As Mrs Gu M. explains:

“Yes, we live here [on the ground floor of one of the buildings within the guaranteed housing compound]. We don’t pay rent, we don’t have a commute, and we can eat and rest here during breaks, which is convenient. For 17 years, we’ve worked in the three districts of Zhuhai, establishing contact with many people. We know the city much better than the locals do!” (Mrs Gu M., an in-migrant to Zhuhai, originally hails from Chongqing municipality, 21/5/2018)

  • 36 The “pressure-based system” designates the “target-based performance evaluation system” (目标考核责任制 (...)

35Their mobility and flexibility have been embraced as the best way to inhabit the city, even though they plan to live there as long as they can work. Indeed, due to their daily interactions with the rest of the city, they develop an increasingly strong sense of belonging to the place where they reside. Moreover, actively contributing to the construction of Zhuhai’s new real estate further fuels their desire for incorporation. Nevertheless, the “urban dependence” migrants might develop, as previously highlighted by the official from the Housing Guarantee Service Centre, is closely intertwined with formal urban production. The phenomenon of “urban dependence” primarily arises from the demand for flexible and low-cost labour essential to meet the objectives outlined in national, provincial, and local development plans spanning twenty-year, five-year, and annual periods. The Gu sisters live and work in Zhuhai to fulfil the housing targets set by the authorities and subjected to the so-called “pressure-based system” (压力型体制yālìxíng tǐzhì)36 ensuring their timely completion. They work to finalize guaranteed housing projects designed to attract and retain talented migrants. However, they will not have access to these projects, despite being de facto urban inhabitants (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Gu sisters’ temporary shelter.

Figure 2. Gu sisters’ temporary shelter.

Source: The author. Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 21/5/2018

36The example of the Gu sisters helps elucidate the link between informality, urban production, and public action and it sheds light on informality as the “idiom of urbanization” (Roy & AlSayyad 2004; Roy 2009). According to these authors, informality is produced, utilized, and intentionally retained by the state to govern the city, to facilitate “territorial flexibility” in its most local intervention (Roy 2005, p. 149, p. 155). Roy notes that in urban settings, “informality is the state of exception determined by the sovereign power of the planning apparatus”, which uses it “strategically to frame policy” (Roy 2005, p. 153). The “arrangements” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 1991) among state-owned companies responsible for building guaranteed housing, labour outsourcing firms, chief labour contractors, and teams of peasant-workers illustrate the continuity between formal and informal in the daily production processes of the urban. Urban informality does not represent a form of anarchy opposed to formal social interactions but rather emerges as a product thereof. It takes shape through “grey spaces [that] contain a multitude of groups, bodies, housing, lands, economies and discourses, lying literally ‘in the shadow’ of the formal […]” (Yiftachel, 2009, p. 89).

Migrants’ everyday urban residential anchoring: shaping grey spaces

37The “grey spaces” emerging from this analysis result from a stratification process governed “from above” and squeezed between the logics of “whiteness” and the practices of “blackness” (Yiftachel, 2009) perpetrated by urban governments. These interstices represent the spaces where migrants develop their own residential anchoring strategies within the city. “Anchoring” involves a purposeful process of dropping anchor, selecting a specific spatial position, accessing local resources, and interacting with those who also occupy the same space. This underscores the intentional and voluntary aspects of identifying a location for anchoring, rather than merely undergoing its influence or rejection (Debarbieux, 2014, p. 76). Anchoring also entails recognizing that migrants establish multiple points of anchorage, being “moored, successively or simultaneously, to several pre-existing places (Ibidem, p. 71) —including their place of origin, previous cities of migration, their current place of residence, and the districts, neighbourhoods, and urban villages they inhabit. This multiple connection underscores the “accumulation of identity” experienced by migrants, turning them into “geographically plural” individuals (Stock 2006, p. 148). This perspective avoids oversimplifying the opposition between the mobility of migrants and the often-fictitious steadiness of the locals. This calls for a reconsideration of the relationship to place within the context of an increased attention to mobility practices. Finally, residential anchoring, unlike “rooting”, also emphasizes the fluctuating dimension of their residential situation in an urban environment, suggesting the possibility of changes, twists, or even a return to previous living spaces or a move to a new location. In other words, “the term anchoring allows us to move beyond the opposition between mobility and sedentariness by encompassing both the connection to a place and the potential mobility of the boat between archipelago islets” (Duchêne-Lacroix et al., 2013, p. 64).

38While the absence of formal affordable housing options frequently steers migrants towards grey areas at the rural-urban nexus, commonly referred to as “urban villages”, migrants do not merely undertake urban realities passively. Their flexibility, adaptability, motivation—especially when they find a city that meets their expectations —and the enlargement of their interpersonal network (关系 guānxi) are pivotal factors that assist them in settling in urban environments and in transforming the city from the interstices to which they are relegated.

39The residential attraction of urban villages primarily arises from an alternative supply of affordable housing generated by lucrative real estate ventures initiated by local villagers. These endeavours have been prompted by the rapid urban expansion that China has witnessed over the past four decades, encroaching upon rural areas. While agricultural lands have been expropriated and converted into developable urban plots, the villages evolved into rural enclaves within the urban fabric. In response to the loss of their agricultural land, the villagers have reinvented themselves as small-scale real estate developers. They add floors to their original homes to rent to migrants, or, increasingly, demolish their houses to construct multi-story buildings, forming veritable “concrete forests” (水泥森林 shuǐní sēnlín) (Qi, 2017, p. 23). Despite being legally prohibited for non-villagers under the land management law, the rental of these accommodations has become an increasingly lucrative source of income for villagers, emerging as a prominent economic strategy for them.

  • 37 Lingnan architecture refers to the characteristic architectural style of the Lingnan region, spanni (...)

40My field investigation highlighted that in Zhuhai, as well as in other Chinese large cities and megacities, the private rental market in urban villages is the predominant residential choice for internal migrants employed in the industry and service sectors (He et al., 2010; Wu F. et al., 2014). Among the surveyed migrants, 89 individuals (70%) opted for rental accommodations in urban, peri-urban, and extra-urban villages within the prefecture-level city. Depending on their economic resources, social networks, family composition, and the duration of their stay, migrants’ residential preferences in villages vary. Circular migrants or those working in Zhuhai without a strong interpersonal network often opt for small hotels (住宿 zhùsù) in urban villages for short durations. First-generation migrant households who arrived in the 1990s from rural backgrounds typically lean towards spacious historical dwellings —Lingnan-style37 homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Guangdong province, and occasionally ancestral temples for family use (祠堂 cítáng). The newer generation of migrants or those with higher economic capital tends to gravitate towards condominiums (公寓 gōngyù), representing more recently constructed buildings that offer modern, albeit smaller and more expensive apartments (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Two rental options in Zhuhai’s urban villages.

Figure 3. Two rental options in Zhuhai’s urban villages.

a. A sign indicating “brand new” apartments (全新套房quánxīn tàofáng) for rent; b. an old Lingnan-style housing, rented to four migrant households by a sub-lessor.

Source: The author. Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 7/2018

  • 38 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, 1998, n.8 art. 43 et 63.
  • 39 Interview with District level official, ZHTZ, 26/6/2018.
  • 40 Zhuhai’s average housing price in 2019 was 21,000 RMB/m2. This price refers to both new and second- (...)
  • 41 The SPR housing provides a lower degree of protection in the event of village rehabilitation. Inter (...)

41The historical dwellings and the condominiums, persistently emerging in the urban villages of Zhuhai, play a crucial role in expanding alternative affordable housing options for migrants. Concurrently, they offer migrants long-term residential anchoring opportunities in urban areas. Urban villages’ land and housing, remain restricted from transfer or sale to non-villagers. Despite these constraints, such transactions not only take place but also contribute to lucrative real estate markets, benefiting both the local villagers and internal migrants. In the PRC, only properties built on urban land (state-owned land under the control of local governments) can be legally bought and sold. In rural areas, including urban villages, where land ownership remains collective, property rights for homes are inalienable, and land and property sales to individuals outside the village are illegal38. As these transactions cannot be registered with the local housing bureau, the buyer cannot obtain a legal property title. The sale, documented through an informal private agreement (私下协议 sīxià xiéyì), only grants a “small property right (SPR)” (小产权 xiǎochǎnquán) compared to homes purchased on the traditional urban market. Consequently, housing sold in this alternative market are commonly referred to by the vernacular term “SPR housing” (小产权房 xiǎochǎnquánfáng) (Tsao, 2012; Losavio, 2024). While these transactions may include older dwellings (often reconstructed or renovated by the buyers) within urban villages, the small property market primarily involves the sale of apartments in multi-story buildings (gōngyù). In this scenario, buyers receive one or more informal sales agreements, which, however, do not replace the full-fledged property certificates (He et al., 2019, p. 430). Villagers specifically possess a land ownership certificate (土地证 tǔdìzhèng) without holding a real estate ownership certificate (房产证 fángchǎnzhèng).39 Given the absence of land transfer fees and other taxes, the resulting cost is significantly lower than purchasing an apartment in the urban market. According to migrants, decision-makers, and developers interviewed in Zhuhai, the prices of SPR housing in the city range between 40% and 50% of the prices in the formal market40. Much more accessible than the traditional urban real estate market, small property ownership is considered by the acquiring migrants as a genuine symbol of urban incorporation, despite the insecure property status of these investments, which is deemed “highly risky” by local authorities41.

42Alongside SPR ownership, urban villages also provide other opportunities for migrants’ residential anchoring. Migrant households are not merely passive clients in this informal small property market; some actively participate in creating and expanding this grey market by collaborating with the local villagers. Among migrants who have resided in Zhuhai’s urban villages for decades, there are individuals who have forged not only neighbourly connections but also economic ties with the villagers. In the 1990s, when local urban villagers, realized the gains of constructing additional buildings on their residential land, they all became involved in this activity. However, not all villagers had sufficient means to finance the expansion of their homes or the construction of new buildings. They were thus compelled to seek investors:

  • 42 Between 1988 and 1992, all collectively managed agricultural land within Zhuhai’s jurisdiction unde (...)

“After the overall agricultural land expropriation in 199242, all villagers in Zhuhai started renting cheap accommodations to migrants; it was a matter of survival! For us, it was practical and inexpensive [...]. Gradually, villagers also began constructing additional buildings on their land. The Tu family, with whom we lived, also wanted to build a gōngyù but truly couldn’t afford it. So, my father suggested doing it at his own expense.” (Yimin, an in-migrant to Zhuhai, originally hails from Sichuan province, 26/7/2018)

  • 43 The term “de facto property rights” (事实上产权 shìshíshang chǎngquán) housing is not a vernacular term (...)

43Among the migrants surveyed, those who financed the construction of buildings in urban villages settled in Zhuhai in the 1990s and 2000s. Typically, villagers provide their land, while the construction is entirely financed by migrant households. Those with construction experience actively participate in building with other family members, thus saving on labour costs. Once the building is completed, the households of both villagers and migrants share the property’s floors equitably. In essence, migrants fully fund the construction of the building in exchange for a de facto ownership of half of the building. In contrast to small property ownership, de facto property rights (DFPR) housing43 does not involve any financial transaction between the households of villagers and migrants. No certificates are issued to the migrant household, and there is not necessarily a signed agreement between the two parties; sometimes, the contract is sealed only by an oral agreement (口头协议 kǒutóu xiéyì). Property acquisition for migrants is exclusively based on a mutual trust relationship between the two parties. They both benefit from the income generated by renting out apartments or extra rooms in the additional floors. Moreover, migrants who have become DFPR owners in the city anchor themselves more permanently in Zhuhai while keeping a piece of land and a foothold in the village. This is the case with Yimin’s family, settled in Zhuhai for three generations, but still visiting home and keeping the hùkǒu registered in their Sichuan village. Furthermore, thanks to the residential stability they have been enjoying since the building’s construction, Yimin’s family has initiated family and village migration, gaining a pivotal role in the interpersonal networks of their community (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A de facto property rights (DFPR) housing.

Figure 4. A de facto property rights (DFPR) housing.

a. The building constructed by Yimin’s family and the Tu family; b. One of the studios on the ground floor rented out to young migrants from Sichuan.

Source: The author, Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 26/7/2018

44Left out of the formal affordable housing sector, some migrant households who have improved their economic status but still lack the means to purchase a home in the formal market of the third most expensive city in Guangdong, devise alternative strategies for long-term residential anchoring in the city. While acknowledging property ownership as one of the most significant factors in their urban incorporation, they explore alternative housing markets while also contributing to their perpetuation.


45In the era of the new-type urbanization plan (2014-2020), the role of internal migrants within the urban growth model has evolved. To facilitate a transition towards a more qualitative urbanization model driven by internal growth and innovation, the central government advocates for inclusivity in smaller cities. This approach is manifested through policies aimed at enhancing the urban integration of the floating population, such as the point-based hùkǒu system (Losavio, 2019) or a renewed affordable housing system. In Zhuhai, a city at the core of the PRD, the shift from a “small” housing guarantee (restricted to local hùkǒu holders) to a “large” housing guarantee that targets various categories of internal migrants indeed demonstrates an expansion of affordable housing options. However, it also unveils the implementation of highly selective mechanisms of incorporation. The objective of this new affordable housing system extends beyond merely guaranteeing affordable housing prices; it primarily aims to invigorate real estate production and stimulate domestic consumption to support innovation-driven economic growth. Attracting or retaining talents and qualified migrants beneficial to local industries proves essential in achieving these objectives. Hence, it stirred the idea of creating a tailored supply of affordable residential options for them. In essence, local authorities use “whitening” processes to selectively filter and retain talented migrants coveted to foster the new aspiration for innovative growth, while simultaneously relegating others to a state of “permanent temporariness” (Yiftachel, 2009, p. 90). This results in the normalization of “separating incorporation processes” (Ibidem, p. 93), effectively dividing the floating population into distinct categories. The practices of “blackening” (Ibidem, p. 92) simultaneously employed by local governments entail rendering migrants who do not meet the desired criteria of excellence invisible, despite their essential role in achieving growth objectives. The prolonged, albeit itinerant, presence of migrant households within the urban space, exemplified by cases like the Gu sisters, underscores the extent to which “the will to un-knowledge”, driven by specific interests, underlies urban informality (Bénit-Gbaffou, 2018, p. 2140). The choice of ignorance is a means of state intervention. The legitimization of interstices of informality stems from the planning modalities and “the abdication of responsibility through the refusal to recognize specific marginalized groups” (Ibidem, p. 2146; Roy, p. 2009). Caught between the logics of whiteness and the practices of blackness from which they emerge, migrants navigate the grey areas to which they are relegated, formulating their own strategies for residential anchoring in the city.

46Enticed primarily by housing affordability in urban villages, migrants frequently navigate among various rental options. These choices hinge primarily on factors such as their economic and social capital, family structure, and their determination to “drop anchor” in a specific city. Beyond merely enduring the rules and restrictions imposed “from above”, migrants, upon becoming urban inhabitants, actively contribute “from below” to the transformation of social and urban dynamics within cities. Urban villages forge new social connections that transcend legal status, leading specific segments of internal migrants to participate in the co-production of urban space alongside local residents. Alternative residential market, such as the SPR housing and DFPR housing, which arise from the intricate interactions among inhabitants of the same space, illustrate two distinct long-term anchoring strategies elaborated by migrants in the city.

47In conclusion, three key points emerge from this article.

48First, the residential anchoring strategies of migrants in the city and their access, albeit informal, to homeownership underscore the centrality of housing in the incorporation process of migrants in the urban setting. It is overly simplistic to consider this process solely through a legal lens imbued with Western liberal citizenship and centred on granting hùkǒu. Therefore, it’s crucial to de-orientalize and de- hùkǒuize the study on internal migrants in China.

49Second, the identification of stratification and hierarchization mechanisms within the floating population confirms the necessity of moving beyond a dichotomous view of society within cities, which merely juxtaposes urban residents and migrants as homogeneous groups.

50By “demigrantizing” the scrutiny of internal migrants in cities and adopting a more nuanced perspective on how they are treated and evolve within urban settings, we can redirect our attention to the Chinese “post-migrant city” (Wiest, p. 2020), a new perspective of a urban society structured by the experience of migration. This approach could open-up new venues for understanding demographic and social changes at the urban scale, as well as in terms of urban planning, housing, and socio-spatial reconfigurations.

51Finally, the innovative perspective to studying the mechanisms of incorporation and urban residential anchoring of internal migrants, combining the “top-down”, the “bottom-up” and the “meso” approaches, provides a nuanced understanding of the link between migrant management, residential production, and urban growth strategies. This threefold perspective, employing an inductive method while engaging with similar processes theorized elsewhere, contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the black box of urban production in PRC.

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1 Doumen is one of the three districts of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. The other two districts are Xiangzhou and Jinwan.

2 All informants’ names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

3 The term “urban integration” (城市融入/融合chéngshì ròngru/rónghé) as employed in this article pertains to the manner in which Chinese authorities envision the assimilation process of internal migrants. I prefer utilising the term “incorporation” (Glick-Schiller & Çağlar, 2009), which is less susceptible to political rhetoric. It is intended here as a multi-dimensional and gradual process.

4 State Council, 2014.

5 The terms “whitening” and “blackening” have been employed by Professor Oren Yiftachel (Ben-Gurion University, Israel) to examine the political geography of what he refers to as “grey spaces” - the unregulated urbanization of people who are neither integrated into nor eliminated from society, located on the fringes and grey areas of legality and subject to the whims of metropolitan politics. Yiftachel provides examples of marginalized Bedouin communities affected by Israeli metropolitan planning. They are neither fully integrated into society nor eliminated, instead forming semi-permanent margins within today’s urban regions. These partially incorporated people, communities, and activities are described as between the lightness (or “whiteness”) of legality, approval, and safety, and the darkness (or “blackness”) of eviction, destruction, and death. Yiftachel argues that wild capitalism and the growth of socio-political urbanization are exacerbating this “creeping urban apartheid” and fostering growing urban informalities in many metropolitan regions around the world.

6 The hùkǒu system, introduced in the 1950s, serves as an institutional tool for household census and control in the era of planned economy. Its primary objectives include restricting rural-to-urban migration, and enhancing control over the urban population, and the resources allocated to it. In its early years, the PRC underwent a transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation, following the Soviet model. To accelerate industrialization, the government prioritized heavy industry, financed by overpricing industrial goods while underpricing agricultural products. This unequal exchange led to the creation of a system to regulate resource flow, notably labor, between urban and rural areas. With the implementation of the hùkǒu system, individuals were classified as either urban or rural residents, mandated by the state to remain in their respective locations for residence and work. Similar to an internal passport, the hùkǒu relates all the social benefits to which an individual is entitled to his official place of residence. Since the initiation of market reforms in 1978, the hùkǒu system has undergone periodic reforms to align its structure with the evolving economic strategies of the country. However, the system remains in place, allowing the transfer of rural-to-urban labor force while limiting internal migrants' access to basic public services in cities to minimize costs.

7 According to Marshall (1950), citizenship results from the gradual arrangement of three dimensions of rights: civil, political, and social.

8 Turner (1993) posits that citizenship encompasses both a social dimension (being part of a community) and a dimension of social justice, with a focus on the equitable distribution of resources.

9 The term “right to the city” as used here does not directly relate to the concept initially articulated by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, nor does it encompass the broader debate surrounding it. Rather, in this context, it pertains to discussions concerning universal citizenship and its extension to China, primarily by equating it with the legal status granted through the hùkǒu system.

10 According to Lawrence (2012) “Housing quality includes quantifiable and qualitative dimensions of the housing unit and its immediate surrounding […] “housing accessibility and affordability […]”; “household and family bonding, neighbor relations […]”.

11 Official data do not account for migrants who do not register in the city to which they migrate. Among the migrants I surveyed, 90 out of 128 individuals had not registered in Zhuhai upon arrival.

12 Zhuhai Municipal People’s Government, 2015.

13 State Council, 1994.

14 The associated four-character slogan describing the new urbanization model is “以人为本 yǐrénwéiběn,” which translates to “people-centred”.

15 State Council, 2010.

16 This mode of urban development is officially defined by the term “土地城镇化 (tǔdì chéngzhènhuà)”, which translates to “land-centred urbanization” (State Council, 2014).

17 Between 1998 and 2007, the national average housing price doubled, rising from 1,854 RMB/m² to 3,645 RMB/m² (NBSC 2019). In major coastal cities and provincial-level municipalities housing price increase was even more significant.

18 Zhuhai Municipal Statistics Bureau (ZMSB) 2016.

19 Zhuhai Municipal Development and Reform Bureau 2016.

20 At the end of 2020, the city reached 2.44 million people (ZMSB 2021).

21 It is noteworthy how migrants included in the off-site personnel category may be eligible for different types of housing based on their level of education and professional qualifications (Interview with municipal level official, Department for Guaranteed Housing, ZMBHCP, 22/3/2018; Zhuhai Municipal People’s Government 2013).

22 It refers to local hùkǒu holders facing housing challenges.

23 Interview with municipal level official, Department for Housing Reform, ZMBHCP, 21/6/2018.

24 A city adjacent to Zhuhai.

25 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

26 For the Chinese people, living close to the workplace is a legacy from the Maoist era.

27 Interview with municipal level official, Department for Guaranteed Housing, ZMBHCP, 22/3/2018.

28 Interview with District level official, Zhuhai Hight-Tech Zone (ZHTZ), 26/6/2018.

29 Interview with municipal level official, ZMBHCP, 28/9/2017.

30 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

31 Interview with ZHTZ State Owned enterprises, 24/8/2018.

32 Interview with municipal level official, Housing Guarantee Service Center, 7/3/2018.

33 Interview with municipal level official, ZMBHCP, 28/9/2017.

34 They have never had a labour contract.

35 The chief labour contractor plays a pivotal role in the recruitment chain for the construction workforce in the PRC. He is responsible for organizing and assembling work teams. Usually hailing from the same village as the migrant workers, he leverages a robust network of connections to form worker teams whenever approached directly by construction companies or labour outsourcing firms (Shen Y., 2008, pp. 117-119; Pun & Xu, 2011).

36 The “pressure-based system” designates the “target-based performance evaluation system” (目标考核责任制 mùbiāo kǎohé zérènzhì) has been gradually introduced in PRC throughout the 1990s. This system evaluates executives and officials at various administrative levels by assessing their ability to achieve specific and concrete objectives set by higher authorities, aligning with the directives of the central government. Affordable housing, which became a priority in national policies from 2008 onwards, was included the following year among the indicators of the pressure-based system (Wang D., 2011; 2013; Losavio, 2022, pp. 9-19).

37 Lingnan architecture refers to the characteristic architectural style of the Lingnan region, spanning the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. It reflects a unique blend of local vernacular styles, including influences from the Nanyue, Hakka, Teochew, and Han communities, interwoven with elements from Southeast Asia (Singapore, Indonesia, etc.). It features sumptuous engravings, reliefs, and brightly coloured decorative motifs alongside practical adaptations to the subtropical climate, utilizing materials such as perforated bricks and mold-resistant stones.

38 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, 1998, n.8 art. 43 et 63.

39 Interview with District level official, ZHTZ, 26/6/2018.

40 Zhuhai’s average housing price in 2019 was 21,000 RMB/m2. This price refers to both new and second-hand housing (

41 The SPR housing provides a lower degree of protection in the event of village rehabilitation. Interview with municipal level official, Department for Guaranteed Housing, ZMBHCP, 22/3/2018.

42 Between 1988 and 1992, all collectively managed agricultural land within Zhuhai’s jurisdiction underwent expropriation or pre-expropriation (预征 yùzhēng).

43 The term “de facto property rights” (事实上产权 shìshíshang chǎngquán) housing is not a vernacular term but an expression I used during the last months of the investigation to distinguish this type of property from SPR when I realized that the two types of informal property ownership were distinct. Authorities refer to both types of property under the term SPR housing.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. The top twenty most expensive cities in China in terms of housing prices for the years 2013, 2015, and 2021.
Légende * The term “variation” denotes a comparison with the previous year.**Anjuke website ceased to include Shanghai in the list since 2020, with the reasons for this decision remaining unknown. However, from 2013 to 2019, Shanghai consistently held either the 2nd or 3rd position in the rankings, indicating that its position on the list must still be high.
Crédits Source: 2013, 2015, 2021
Fichier image/jpeg, 324k
Titre Figure 1. Average housing prices (RMB/m2) across major cities in the Guangdong province (2018).
Crédits Source: Designed by the author. Realized by S. Haule using data from (2018)
Fichier image/png, 12M
Titre Table 2. Estimation of guaranteed housing needs for the period 2014-2020.
Crédits Source: Zhuhai Municipal Bureau for Housing, Construction and Urban-Rural Planning (ZMBHCP), Special Plan for Housing Guarantee in Zhuhai (2014-2020)
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 2. Gu sisters’ temporary shelter.
Crédits Source: The author. Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 21/5/2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Titre Figure 3. Two rental options in Zhuhai’s urban villages.
Légende a. A sign indicating “brand new” apartments (全新套房quánxīn tàofáng) for rent; b. an old Lingnan-style housing, rented to four migrant households by a sub-lessor.
Crédits Source: The author. Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 7/2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre Figure 4. A de facto property rights (DFPR) housing.
Légende a. The building constructed by Yimin’s family and the Tu family; b. One of the studios on the ground floor rented out to young migrants from Sichuan.
Crédits Source: The author, Zhuhai, ZHTZ, 26/7/2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
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Cinzia Losavio, « The urban residential anchoring of Chinese internal migrants: evidence from Zhuhai »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cinzia Losavio

Ph.D Geography & Planning, Post-doctoral Fellow, Université Gustave Eiffel, Labex Futurs Urbains; Research Fellow, Université Paris 1 - UMR 8504 Géographie-cités, Institut Convergences Migrations (ICM)
ORCID 0009-0002-8969-1436

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