Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Thomas Janoski


Chinese migrant workers are workers who (1) migrate from the countryside, where they have the rights to contract farm land, work in agricultural production, and build houses on allotted residential site, and (2) work in non-agricultural sectors of cities and towns, where they don’t receive the same urban welfare benefits as local urban residents. Chinese migrant workers are characterized by their dagong lifestyle, which means “leaving their home in rural villages, going into cities, and working for others, in order to make money.” Though this group of people emerges in the rural-urban migration process associated with the rapid industrialization and urbanization in contemporary China, they are neither complete migrants, nor typical farmers, nor standard workers, as they live between the countryside and cities. The emergence and existence of Chinese migrant workers have contributed to the rapid economic growth of China in the past decades. The future of Chinese migrant workers is not only relevant to their life conditions, but also to the future of China as a whole. While radical scholars see Chinese migrant workers will resist against the present social institutions, conservative researchers argue that Chinese migrant workers will peacefully become urban citizens with economic restructuring and institutional transitions. This study finds that Chinese migrant workers have constituted a new working class in contemporary China, which means that they are a group of workers, who (1) exists in a large number, (2) possesses a stable proportion in the population structure, (3) has a distinctive lifestyle, and (4) stably exists for a relatively long period of time. In other words, they are not a transitional group that will go away soon. Rather, they make up a stable social stratum in the social structure of contemporary China. This structuration process is supported by both macro-institutional arrangements and micro-subjective experiences.

At the macro-level, the interaction between the state and market in the process of institutional transition has created several innovative institutional arrangements, which have contributed to the structuration of Chinese migrant workers. These institutional arrangements include (1) the development of household autonomy system in rural villages, (2) the encouragement and regulation of informal employment relationship in cities, (3) the maintenance of differential citizenship with migrant workers receiving less in the cities, and (4) the strengthening of identity-based market ideology. All of these institutional arrangements have affected the emergence and existence of Chinese migrant workers, through framing their identities and conditioning their working and living conditions. Specifically, related to the land tenure system in rural villages, the household autonomy is directly related to their identity as family members. The regulated informal economy shapes their identity as guests in cities. In the background of differential citizenship between rural and urban residents, their semi-citizenship in cities leads to their identity as rural residents. Their Hukou-based market ideology causes their identity as lower-level workers with less human capital.

At the micro-level, all migrant workers have their motivations to dagong and tend to accept the dagong lifestyle. Though their motivations are stratified in different maners, four ultimate motivations are personal honor at home, personal future in cities, household needs at home, and family development in cities. While personal honor and personal future are individualistic motivations, household needs and family development are societal motivations. While personal honor and household needs are geographically rural-oriented, personal future and family development are urban-oriented. Treating dagong as a means, Chinese migrant workers’ attitudes to this dagong lifestyle depend on whether it can meet their ends. Therefore, their attitudes are shaped by comparing the dagong lifestyle with its alternatives (education, agricultural production, and businesses and so on). The comparison may make them more optimistic or depressed about the dagong lifestyle. Four types of Chinese migrant workers are identified according to their motivations and attitudes: (1) Adventurous migrant workers want to settle in cities but do not accept the dagong lifestyle; (2) Optimistic migrant workers want to settle in cities and accept the dagong lifestyle; (3) Instrumental migrant workers do not want to settle in cities and treat dagong as a means to meet family needs; and (4) Retreating migrant workers do not want to settle in cities or accept the dagong lifestyle.

Furthermore, their motivations and attitudes are changing with their working and living conditions during their migration process. These changes may be radical or conservative. Senior migrant workers, who have earned better working and living conditions in cities, will develop a strong desire to settle in cities, which is called radicalization. By contrast, family burdens might reduce the desire to settle in cities and make them focus on family needs, which is called conservatization. As to their attitudes, when they fail to find alternatives, they tend to form a high degree of acceptance of the dagong lifestyle, which is called justification (becoming optimistic). By contrast, when they feel depressed for the dagong lifestyle and find alternatives, they tend to became negative toward the lifestyle, which is called depression (becoming pessimistic). Out of the four processes, the processes of conservatization and justification become the two main micro-level dynamics of the emergence and existence of Chinese migrant workers.

To conclude, this research argues that Chinese migrant workers have constituted a new working class with a distinctive lifestyle in China. As the emergence and existence of Chinese migrant workers involve many aspects of the contemporary Chinese society, this research also has theoretical and empirical implications for studying urbanization, informal employment, migration, social stratification, labor movement, and citizenship.