Volume 38 - Article 26 | Pages 691–726

Not a zero-sum game: Migration and child well-being in contemporary China

By Duoduo Xu, Xiaogang Wu, Zhuoni Zhang, Jaap Dronkers

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Date received:01 Jul 2017
Date published:22 Feb 2018
Word count:7701
Keywords:child well-being, children left behind, migrant children, migration


Background: The complex impact of migration on children's development has received extensive attention in both developed and developing countries. In China, more than 100 million children are directly affected by the massive internal migration.

Objective: This study investigates the impact of different migration processes (parental migration, child migration, and hukou conversion) on Chinese children's developmental outcomes, measured by their cognitive abilities, school engagement, school attachment, physical and mental health, educational aspirations, and confidence about the future.

Methods: We analyze the data from a nationally representative, school-based survey covering approximately 20,000 children aged 12 to 16 in both rural and urban areas. We employ the propensity score matching method to ensure different groups of children are intrinsically comparable to each other.

Results: Migration both brings benefits and imposes costs on children. Bringing rural children to cities significantly improves their school performance and physical health but also reduces their educational aspirations and increases their anxiety toward the future. Leaving children behind in the countryside, while sparing them from potential social exclusion in cities, results in a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Gaining local urban hukou status improves rural-origin children’s academic achievements but has no effect on the other well-being indicators.

Conclusions: These results reveal that the current migration processes and China's hukou system have generated both opportunities and challenges for the children involved.

Contribution: The conceptual framework set out in this paper enables researchers to obtain a more comprehensive picture of migration's impact on children’s well-being rather than looking at small fragments of the larger story.

Author's Affiliation

Duoduo Xu - Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong [Email]
Xiaogang Wu - Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong [Email]
Zhuoni Zhang - City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong [Email]
Jaap Dronkers - Maastricht University, Netherlands [Email]

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