Migrant workers in Shenzhen and Hong-Kong

By Rihab Hammami August 2, 2017 Discover Trobak, give value to your waste project

Chinese population is a well-known immigrating population. There are Chinese immigrants all around the world, from Europe to North America and more recently to Africa where China is taking the sweet spot of main partner from Europe. However, they do not only emigrate outside their country, au contraire, most of the population flows are happening within the country itself. The Chinese government has quickly taken the situation seriously in order to keep the big cities from overpopulation and rural areas from massive exodus with the establishment of the Hukou. This residential booklet, which can be considered as an internal passport, has been adopted by the Chinese parliament in February 1958. What impact did the Hukou have on the population flows in China? What about the situation in Hong-Kong? Do the latter face the same problems? Based on our observations in Hong-Kong and Shenzhen and our lectures, we are going to briefly try to answer these questions.


Shenzhen, as we know it today, is a very young city. Back in 1980, its population barely reached 30’000 souls, today there are officially 10.5 millions people living in the city. The Chinese government took advantage of the strategic location of the city to turn it into a “test-area” regarding the opening to foreign capitals. The city knows an outstanding average economic growth of 25% since 1980. In order to answer the city’s need the government allowed people from all over China to immigrate into the city, so they suspended the Hukou’s related requirements in order to populate the city.

Of course not all the jobs positions were into the service sector, so a lot of uneducated people occupied low positions. As the one we met during our PCB factory visit. A few men working under the beating the sun crushing rocks right next to the factory. Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to talk to them but they represent pretty well that fringe of the population that is often forgotten when people talk about Shenzhen. People with low skills doing the “dirty job” in the shadow of this fast developing city.

Also we cannot talk about this city without mentioning the fact that foreign workers occupy a lot of companies’ high positions, which obviously directly impacts the possibilities of access to the Chinese workers.


If we now consider the Hong Kong migrants’ situation, we can go back to the 70’s where people from Mainland China were immigrating in Hong-Kong aiming for a better life, running away from the Chinese Communism. Most of them were illegal but were tolerated by the government since they were helping the local economy by offering low-cost task forces when the government needed it most. It also helped Hong-Kong keeping its competitiveness against Shenzhen’s factories.

We quickly realized that some of these Chinese migrants were trying to get, or getting, the status of asylum seeker. Usually these where people who had problem with the Chinese government; Journalists, writers or even artists, trying to run away the repression of their government and looking for safety. These migrants were legal so there is not much to say about them, except the fact that they were also helping Hong-Kong’s economy growth.

This immigration wave stopped in the early 80’s, because of the rising prices, and the Hong-Kong unable to handle the competitiveness of Mainland China.


But the immigration did not go in one way only; a lot of Hong-Kong citizen took the path the other way and joined Mainland China.

By the end of the last century, while Shenzhen was subject to an incredible growth, the workers that left China to Hong-Kong in the previous decades started coming back home, followed by some Hong-Kong citizens. They were running away from the prices increase and especially the high real estate prices. Doing so, we assisted to the phenomenon of cross-borders families.

Unfortunately for those families, due to the highly restrictive Chinese migration policy, members of these families had to wait sometimes up to ten years to obtain a one-way permission, a right to settle in China, and most usually for one of the family member only.

Anyway, because of these restrictions, the raising quality of life and economy in Shenzhen, all of these growing faster than the southern rival’s, families had no more reason to leave China.


Finally we observed an interesting phenomenon that was drastically different in both cities, the situation of foreign migrants. In this case we are talking about immigrants from neither China nor Hong-Kong. If it was usual to see workers from countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia or even others from Africa in Hong-Kong, we did not observed the same thing happening in Shenzhen where the population was way more “homogeneous” than Hong-Kong. This is of course due to the immigration laws, way more restrictive in China, but the contrast was worth highlighting.


In conclusion we can say that the situation of migrants in both cities is quite different and the reasons even though obvious, political and socio-economical, are interesting to develop. Of course the goal of this article was not to provide a profound social analysis of the situations in both countries, but to highlight some of these points and compare them to the observations we made during these two weeks in the two cities. Unfortunately our incapacity to speak the Cantonese or Mandarin had led us to difficult situations when we needed to talk with the workers themselves. And it goes without saying that in a country like China immigrants are probably not eager to talk about their situation or complaining to strangers like us. Anyway, this work made us focus on a problematic for two weeks and it pushed us to observe people and situation we wouldn’t have be aware of otherwise. Again, it would have been interesting to get the opportunity to gather some testimonials from the migrants themselves but it was not the point of this work and to be honest this is above our capabilities, and would have been a whole lot more time demanding.


Rémi (Livelo) and Rihab